‘House of the Dragon’ Recap: Series Premiere Pits Targaryen Against Targaryen

Once again, the line of succession is questioned in Westeros

Spoiler Alert: This article recaps “House of the Dragon” Season 1, Episode 1 – the series premiere

Three years after the conclusion of “Game of Thrones,” we’re back in Westeros and back in time during the reign of the Targaryen family.

The show opens with a voice-over telling us a king – Jaehaerys Targaryen – is in ill health; his sons have died, so he calls a council at Harrenhal to choose an heir so the realm doesn’t fall into chaos when he dies. It comes down to just two options – Jaehaerys’ daughter Rhaenys (Eve Best) and his nephew Viserys (Paddie Considine) – but unsurprisingly, the council picks the male.

After a quick reminder of the dragon-headed Targaryen symbol, we jump ahead to the ninth year of Viserys’ reign, which is precisely 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who will one day go on a rampage and torch King’s Landing for reasons that still doesn’t fully make sense.

But with that reminder of Dany, filmmakers throw to their new, young, female white-haired Targaryen on dragonback – Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) – as she touches down in King’s Landing. There, we get our first introduction to Kingsguard Ser Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish from “Outlander”), who seems to be assigned to protect her, and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), a companion, who rides with Rhaenyra in the horse-drawn carriage into King’s Landing.

Rhaenyra pops by to see her heavily pregnant mother, Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke), who lectures her about riding dragons and how her role in this world is to have babies, which, obviously, does not sit well with Rhaenyra, who is not content with the role of women in this society.

Leaving the ladies for a bit, things move to a meeting of the Small Council, giving us a proper introduction to King Viserys, his Hand of the King (and Alicent’s dad), Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), and a few other folks, including Rhaenys’ husband, Lord Corlys Velaryon, aka The Sea Snake. Corlys drops some intel that there’s a Free Cities alliance growing called the Triarchy, and their leader could present problems, especially to shipping lanes. Let’s put a pin in that.

Rhaenyra joins the scene serving as cupbearer (remember when Arya Stark did that), allowing her to overhear the men discuss (complain about) her uncle, Prince Daemon, who one guy thinks needs to stop by and give them an update on the City Watch, which he commands. 

The meeting quickly turns to the next subject (corporate meeting leaders, take note of how fast things can be tackled) – the upcoming tournament to celebrate the impending birth of what Viserys just knows will be his male heir (the camera spends a little extra time on Rhaenyra’s face at that moment).

Once she’s free from having to hear about the boy who will be king, Ser Westerling brings Rhaenyra to the Throne Room, where Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) is sitting on the Iron Throne, because clearly, Daemon is a boundary-pushing kind of guy. Uncle and niece chat in High Valyrian – they’re both dragon riders, and share this special language connection as well – and in a kind of creepy moment, he has her turn around as he puts a necklace on her made of Valyrian steel, giving them another special connection. “Now, you and I both own a small piece of our ancestry,” Daemon says. 

Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen and Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" Episode 1 (HBO)
Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen and Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in “House of the Dragon” Episode 1 (HBO)

Back to King Viserys: With his shirt pulled up, Viserys’ back is now being looked over by some maesters, who are tending to a disgusting, pus-filled wound (it kind of looks like the gooey flesh underneath calcified greyscale). It’s not responding to treatment – something Hightower tells the main maester to keep quiet – and plans are made to cauterize it at some point. 

Health check over, Viserys goes to do a personal check on his heavily pregnant wife who is pruning in a tepid bath. They’re 100% having a boy, he tells her. He had a dream about it! She is ready for this baby to come out, but this will be the last one. After losing five babies in 10 years, she can’t go through another pregnancy, she tells him.

As evening sets in, we check in with Prince Daemon in a testosterone-fueled situation – soldiers beating their chests in unison as he walks past them and looks them over. After a pep talk about how macho they are, they’re released to go out and terrorize King’s Landing, dispensing justice like cutting off an accused thief’s hands, an accused rapist’s junk, and the head of someone Daemon condemns to death. 

It’s no surprise that in the morning, at the Small Council meeting, Hightower is in an uproar over Daemon’s unchecked power, though the prince, still bearing blood stains from last night’s activities, defends himself. Viserys tries to pacify his Hand and his brother, while Corlys says criminals should fear the City Watch, revealing he supports Daemon’s decisions, which we’re assuming could be important later. 

Before Viserys tells his brother to enforce the laws, but not go on a rampage again, Otto and Daemon get into it with Hightower bringing up Daemon’s wife, whom he ignores, and who is in the Vale. Daemon pokes the bear by mentioning Hightower was recently widowed.

Daemon tries to console himself after the meeting by having sex with pleasure house woman Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), but the sizzle dies, despite her reminding him he is powerful and the rider of that wild, unpredictable dragon Caraxes.

The next day it’s finally time for the big action of the episode – the tournament to celebrate the hasn’t-happened-yet birth of the presumed next heir to the Iron Throne. 

Baratheons joust, we hear the mention of some Tarly squire (as in Samwell Tarly’s family), and Baratheons joust again and get knocked down by a nobody (the common-born son of Lord Dondarrion Stewart) named Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). Princess Rhaenyra takes notice of the young man.

For the second round of jousting, Prince Daemon comes in with his dragon-winged fancy helmet peacocking and chooses which rider he wants to joust first. Since we know he’s a button-pushing kind of guy, he picks Otto Hightower’s eldest son. Alicent, we learn, bites or tears off her cuticles when she gets anxious, and she does this before Daemon knocks her brother clear off the horse (much to Otto’s dismay), forcing him to need medical attention.

Paddy Considine as King Viserys and Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower in "House of the Dragon" Episode 1 (HBO)
Paddy Considine as King Viserys and Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower in “House of the Dragon” Episode 1 (HBO)

Inside the Red Keep, Aemma is in labor and the king is pulled from the tourney to attend to her. Things, though, are not going well with the birth. The baby, he’s told, is in breach.

As the show cuts back and forth between Daemon knocking off more and more jousters in an attempt to be No. 1, Viserys is told by the maester that both mother and baby will likely die, but there is another option — the might be able to save the child.

While Viserys ponders the impossible, Ser Criston faces off with Daemon. There’s lots of slow-motion shots of the two men and their horses, while the king tells Aemma he loves her. His words frighten her, and with good reason, because they are about to perform a caesarian without anesthesia and without the ability to save her.

The show then cuts back and forth between the jousting and the procedure to bring out the baby. 

Daemon stands in front of the crowd after seemingly defeating Ser Criston, thinking he’s won, and just as Viserys’ baby is brought from the dying Aemma’s womb (this is a particularly brutal and bloody scene) – the baby that will move ahead of Daemon in the line of succession. But then, back at the joust, Criston takes Daemon out and forces him to yield. We then learn that the king’s newborn is indeed a son so Daemon is not the heir anymore, so a parallel to the joust with Criston. Viserys names the baby Baelon Targaryen.

Sadly, though, the next scene is a cliffside funeral, with Aemma’s body atop a funeral pyre and a smaller body – the baby’s – next to her. In a moment where he comes across as concerned, Daemon tells his niece Rhaenyra they are waiting for her to give her dragon the command to light the fire. She talks to him in Old Valyrian, wondering if her father finally found happiness in the brief time her baby brother was alive. Daemon reminds her that her father needs her, but she responds by saying she’ll never be a son. After that, she says “dracarys,” and the funeral happens.

While the king’s in mourning, Hightower brings up the line of succession to the Small Council and notes how powerful Daemon is, and how that’s not actually a good thing. So, the king’s firstborn child – as in Prince Rhaenyra – is suggested to move into the position of his rightful heir.

Emily Carey as Alicent Hightower and Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower in "House of the Dragon" Episode 1 (HBO)
Emily Carey as Alicent Hightower and Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower in “House of the Dragon” Episode 1 (HBO)

As we wait for what we know will be the King’s decision, Hightower sends his daughter Alicent – in one of her mother’s gowns – to visit and “comfort” the king. She brings Viserys a book and wins brownie points by saying she is sorry for his wife’s death. Nothing appears to happen other than a simple bond being formed between the king and his daughter’s closest friend, but clearly there’s more to come, especially with her father Otto pushing things.

Daemon spends his own evening in a pleasure house, drinking and sulking, something Hightower brings up to the Small Council the next day. But, the Hand of the King also has intel on something shocking Daemon said when toasting his late nephew in the pleasure house. He called him “the heir for a day.”

That comment outrages Viserys who demands his brother report before him in the Throne room. Viserys calls his brother out for the comment (Daemon replies, “We all mourn in our own way”) and the two have a heated argument. Daemon’s mad his brother never made him Hand of the King, he thinks Hightower doesn’t protect his brother, and the council preys on Viserys because the king is weak. Viserys responds by saying he’s naming a new heir, and sending Daemon back to the Vale and his wife. 

And now we’ve reached the moment where Viserys is about to tell Rhaenyra she is going to be named his rightful heir. They have a discussion about how control of the dragons, which gives the Targaryens their power, is an illusion before he reveals he has a secret that is passed down to everyone who becomes king. King Aegon, from long ago, foresaw the end of the world of men, he says. It will begin with a terrible winter gusting out of the North, and when winter comes, all of Westeros must stand against it and a Targaryen must be on the throne to unite the world against it. He says this as we see members of the various houses — Baratheon, Stark, etc. — pledge fealty to Rhaenyra.

Oh, Viserys adds, Aegon called his dream about that “The Song of Ice and Fire.”