The Gods have yet to make a man who lacks the patience for absolute power, Your Grace.
Otto Hightower, Hand of the King
So. I’ve read all of the ASOIAF books, and I watched all of GOT. About a decade ago, I went to see George R. R. Martin in Seattle, where he read a chapter of the as-yet-unpublished sequel, Winds of Winter. I don’t remember much about it, except that this show isn’t that.
But it is a new television series set in Westeros, so…let’s hope it’s better than Season 8, eh?
And it’s a prequel because everything’s a prequel these days. There’s even a prequel telling the life story of Batman’s butler. I’m just saying that…maybe not everything needs a prequel.
But maybe this does. Time will tell.
We begin with the kind of lazy “tell don’t show” voiceover and textover telling us exactly where we are in time and how we’ve gotten to this point. I’d have preferred to learn this information organically within the episode itself, but that’s not the choice they made. Ok. It’s not the gravest sin, it’s just lazy. Yes, yes, Star Wars did it, and so did a lot of other things, but again – maybe this didn’t need to do that. And this initial scene is actually a prequel to the prequel, showing the events that would lead to the events of this show, which in turn would lead to the events of Game of Thrones – namely, the choice of King Jaehaerys (these name spellings are going to kill me) and his nobles to name his eldest male descendant, Viserys, as his heir over his eldest descendant, who happened to be a woman.
And so we begin. We’re nearly 200 years before Daenerys decided to roast all of King’s Landing out of spite and bad writing, and we’re following the story of her platinum-blond forebears.
We fly into King’s Landing on dragonback, with the GOT theme swelling in the background. It’s a good scene, dramatic, very much a “welcome back to this show you once loved, remember that? Before we ruined it?” kind of scene.
Riding the dragon is Princess Rhaenyra, daughter of King Viserys. Part of the purpose of this scene is to show the Targaryen clan’s mastery of dragons, as the handlers deftly cow the huge beast back into its cave.
The princess marches amiably into the keep to see her very pregnant mother (Aemma Arryn). The mother chides the princess over the danger of riding dragons while her mother is “in this condition.” This leads into an important scene establishing the iron grip of the patriarchy – the women’s battlefield is the womb, and their duty is to bear heirs.
Cut to the King’s small council in which a potential rebellion by something called the Triarchy is mentioned once and then never again in the episode. Hmm. I understand that part of this scene is meant to introduce the king’s small council, which it doesn’t do, and the other purpose is to demonstrate that Viserys’s grip on power might be weaker than he thinks. But the real purpose of this scene is to introduce the chaotic antagonist of the series (one assumes), Daemon Targaryen, played by Matt Smith, channeling the darker parts of his 11th Doctor persona and adding a layer of dark, brutal viciousness.
And there Daemon is, sitting on the Iron Throne, a treasonous act that should see him exiled or killed or worse. But instead, we get a pretty cool conlang conversation in High Valyrian between Daemon and Rhaenyra. Their conversation is convincing as an actual language, which makes me wonder whether the language has been as fleshed out as, say, Klingon. Daemon gives Rhaenyra a necklace, creepily, and…that’s the end of that scene.
And now we get a scene between Rhaenyra and her friend Alicent Hightower, daughter of the Hand of the King. This scene establishes Rhaenyra as quick-witted and snarky when her friend is trying to help her study but then shows that she actually knows her stuff. It’s a good establishing character scene for Rhaenyra.
Hmm, the King has a nasty wound that the show did not need to show me in that amount of detail, a theme that will continue, as if the show is trying to one-up GOT’s graphic brutality at every opportunity.
A tender scene between a bathing Aemma and Viserys draped lovingly over her, establishing that she’s had several failed pregnancies, and she wants this one to be her last…leads into a brutal and horrific scene of Daemon leading the City Watch into a massacre, brutalizing anyone who might have committed a crime. Limbs are hacked off, including a way, way too graphic scene involving dismembered testicles. Ok, look, I’m not overly sensitive to violence in movies, but come on! Did I really need to see that?
Again, this show seems to be saying “hey, you liked the brutality and violence of Game of Thrones, right? Here’s more of that, and we’ve turned it up to eleven.” I get it, show. Have a good story, and the violence can be justified by it.
Ok, let’s talk more about Matt Smith in this role. Do we buy him as this character? “Time will tell.” I, myself, am not convinced.
Next, Daemon can’t get off with a hooker for some reason, and there’s Matt Smith’s ass. I’m not mad at that, to be honest. There’s some suggestion that Daemon might be into incest, when the hooker offers to find him another hooker with platinum blond hair, so that’s interesting – maybe Jaime and Cercei weren’t the first Targaryens to bump incestuous uglies. Does Daemon have a thing for Princess Rhaenyra?
Anyway, the king is having a tournament to celebrate the imminent birth of what he’s convinced will be a male heir, and the show gives us a brutal and effective jousting scene. Did you notice the rhythm of the drummers? Are they drumming the GOT theme’s rhythm? Kind of?
Here’s where the show really demonstrates what it’s capable of. The scene cuts between the brutality of what is, essentially, a battlefield – the jousting tournament, where knights who have never seen battle are brutalizing each other – and the other battlefield – Aemma Arryn’s battlefield, as she struggles to birth a baby who is breached in the womb. The cruelty and horror of the jousting battlefield are mirrored by the horror of the choice King Viserys has to make: to save his heir by literally murdering Aemma with a Medieval C-Section. It’s a hard scene to watch, as the horror of what’s about to happen dawns on Aemma, and she screams and begs for her life, as Viserys and the maesters restrain her, as the baby is cut out of her, as she screams and thrashes…it’s just horrific. I don’t even know if I think it’s a good scene, because it’s so hard to separate the raw emotion of it from any sort of critique of the show.
In the end, Aemma is dead, and the King has a son.
And Daemon loses his joust, and then sword fight, against a mysterious young Dornish stud, and limps off sulking.
And because this is Game of Thrones and not the happy funtime hour, of course, the baby dies too.
Later, he rents a brothel for his City Watch brutes, and there’s another Eyes Wide Shut style orgy scene before Daemon starts running his mouth – a mouth that is about to get him into a lot of trouble.
A Targaryen funeral for mother and babe, set on a pyre lit by dragon’s breath, commanded by Rhaenyra. She wonders whether, during the few hours her brother lived, her father found happiness. She knows she’ll never be his son, and now the king won’t get another chance at a male heir.
In the Small Council, there’s a difficult conversation about the king’s succession. Daemon is the heir by “law and by precedent,” but there’s a general feeling that Daemon would be a bad bad dude as a king. The King isn’t convinced, after all, Daemon is his brother. The suggestion is made that Daemon might scheme Viserys’s demise, but the King isn’t having that.
No queen has ever sat on the Iron Throne, but there’s a heated discussion about the potential to name Princess Rhaenyra as heir. The King’s had enough though, and storms off after reminding his council that his wife and son are dead, and he will not “suffer crows to feast on their corpses.”
So. The King has a choice to make. And that choice is made a hell of a lot easier when, during his Eyes Wide Shut orgy, Daemon calls the dead babe “the heir for a day.”
That earns him a dramatic and angry lecture by his King, sitting on the Iron Throne, who exiles Daemon from King’s Landing.
And the choice is made. Princess Rhaenyra is named heir, and all the nobles come to the Iron Throne to pledge their fealty – reluctantly or not.
The button on the episode is a scene in which the King tells the Princess a secret: The Song of Ice and Fire – a legend passed down through the ages about a brutal winter and “darkness” that will follow and destroy the land of the living. And about Viserys’s certainty that a Targaryen must be on the throne to unite the realm against the darkness.
That…isn’t what happened in Season 8. The legend should be about a dragon who watched a guy murder his master after she burned a city for reasons, and then the dragon dramatically melted a chair, and then there was a half-assed council meeting that followed and made this one character King that nobody would have suspected, and who should have had a much, much more interesting character arc. And that the one Targaryen left alive (Jon Snow) was once again exiled to the Wall for…reasons.
I’m not bitter.
WHEW. Ok, so that episode was a lot. But was it good? Does it live up to the legacy of most of Game of Thrones?
In a word, maybe. One episode is not enough to say for sure, but this episode certainly starts things off with a bang. I’m looking forward to once again saying “holy shit” and wincing at graphic violence every few minutes.
7/10. I think this episode spends a little too much time trying to one-up GOT and not enough time on character development. Still, there’s potential here.