‘House of the Dragon’ Sharpens One Mother’s Anguish at the Expense of Another’s

Theo Whitman / HBO
Theo Whitman / HBO

“I want Aemond Targaryen.”

Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) speaks just one line in the House of the Dragon Season 2 premiere, though the shattering force of it reverberates through the rest of the episode. The would-be Queen has just returned from scouring Storm’s End for the remains of her young son, killed by his uncle Aemond (Ewan Mitchell). The brutality of the murder—Lucerys (Elliot Grihault), on dragonback, is chomped into pieces mid-air by his uncle’s much larger, fiercer dragon—means that Rhaenyra could not have hoped to recover a body. On the shores of Storm’s End, all that’s washed up are fragments of dragon wing and Luke’s cloak. The camera lingers on her sobs as she kneels on the sand, clutching it close.

When Rhaenyra returns, her grief is writ large over her disheveled hair, soot-streaked face and her vacant stare. Presented with strategies for the impending civil war, her focus is clearly elsewhere: She wants Aemond Targaryen.

A photo including Olivia Cooke, Ewan Mitchell in the series House of the Dragon on HBO

Alicent (left) and Aemond.

Theo Whitman / HBO

Her dialogue is a significant departure from not only the source material—George R. R. Martin’s Fire and Blood, in which it’s Rhaenyra’s husband Daemon (Matt Smith) who cooks up a murderous revenge plot—but also her characterisation in the Season 1 finale in which she’s presented as prioritizing public duty over personal hurt. Faced with the theft of her birthright and insulting terms of surrender, her first instinct isn’t to go scorched Earth; it’s to consider whether years of war and bloodshed could be spared if she agrees. That it’s she who now demands Aemond’s head, a son for a son, speaks to the hardened anguish of a mother replacing the pragmatism of a queen.

The Greens have specifically and repeatedly attacked motherhood as an aspect of Rhaenyra’s identity. Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) summons her moments after she's given birth, a long and bloody journey that necessitates she climb the castle stairs in pain, Aemond has called her sons bastards, and the news that Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) has usurped her throne precipitates a prolonged and painful delivery that results in a stillbirth. Now, they must pay with fire and blood. The pointed intentionality of Rhaenyra’s statement is in stark contrast to the show’s other diversions from the source material, in which big moments—like Alicent deciding the throne belongs to her son or Aemond killing Lucerys—are framed as the result of misunderstandings and accidents.

It’s not Aemond who ends up dead at the end of the episode, however, but his young nephew. This occurs over a series of events that also play out differently from the book, and much less effectively so.

In Fire and Blood, Aemond isn’t Daemon’s target, though the phrase (and episode title) “a son for a son” is derived from a letter he sends the Black Council. Instead, through an intermediary he relies on “to set a terrible vengeance into motion,” he hires two mercenaries identified only as Blood and Cheese to murder one of Aegon’s children. If Rhaenyra, heir to the Iron Throne, has lost her successor, so must the usurper King Aegon.

‘House of the Dragon’ Kicks Off Season 2 With a Gruesome Kill

Shock is the end result of Martin’s telling of the incident, though he first packs it with sickening detail, stretching time to build tension as the would-be killers slip into the castle and wait for Aemond’s wife Helaena (Phia Saban) and their children, six-year-old twins Jaeherys and Jaehaera and two-year-old Maelor, to arrive. They tie up Alicent. They strangle her bedmaid. The most horrific detail, however—an act of cruelty calculated to leave lasting psychological scars, and one missing from the show—is that they force Helaena to choose which of her sons must die. If she can’t pick one, Blood will rape her daughter, and then kill them all.

This is how Martin describes the scene in Fire and Blood: “On her knees, weeping, Helaena named her youngest, Maelor. Perhaps she thought the boy was too young to understand, or perhaps it was because the older boy, Jaehaerys, was King Aegon’s firstborn son and heir, next in line to the Iron Throne.”

Once Helaena tearfully complies, however, Blood and Cheese cap off their psychological torment of her with a horrific twist—they kill the child she chose to save. The book’s depiction is disturbing in its twisting of the psychological knife: “‘You hear that, little boy?’ Cheese whispered to Maelor. ‘Your momma wants you dead.’ Then he gave Blood a grin, and the hulking swordsman slew Prince Jaehaerys, striking off the boy’s head with a single blow. Helaena began to scream.”

The scene’s setup is dually evocative. Helaena has to watch her young child being slain in front of her, knowing Maelor will grow up with the knowledge that she was ready to sacrifice him in favor of his brother. This represents not only an immediate torment of a mother forced into an impossible choice but also the lasting guilt that will follow her forever. It’s the kind of emotional violence the TV adaptation lacks.

A photo including Phia Saban in the series House of the Dragon on HBO


Theo Whitman / HBO

Maelor doesn’t exist in House of the Dragon, leaving just the twins Jaehaerys and Jaehaera. The prelude to the killing is full of tension: To get to the royal quarters, Blood and Cheese must walk past the king instead of passing through the castle unobtrusively, their nervousness palpable. They come to blows over their roles in the scheme, friction threatening to unravel the whole plot. A shot of a lit torch rolling away implies that all this might just go up in flames. Set to Ramin Djawadi’s haunting, ominous score, the dread intensifies.

When the men find Helaena and the twins instead of their intended target, however, is when the scene begins to falter. Since they can’t identify which of the twins is a boy, they ask her to point him out. Saban initially plays Helaena as shut down by shock and trauma. She shuts her eyes, offers up a valuable necklace in exchange for her children’s lives in a flat monotone. But it takes only a few seconds before she mutely points out Jaehaerys. Her reaction is so odd that even Blood and Cheese first suspect that she’s lying to protect the heir, though they soon realize she isn’t. House of the Dragon spares viewers from the visual brutality of the killing by having only the harrowing sounds of a child’s squeals and the oscillating squeak of a saw fill the air the camera tracks Helaena’s escape, but it also robs audiences of the source material’s acute emotional agony. Even Helaena’s description of the night’s events to Alicent—“They killed the boy”—is distant and impersonal.

Carrying Jaehaera, Helaena flees down the same castle steps Alicent once had Rhaenyra make the excruciating climb with her newborn. With this shot, House of the Dragon draws parallels between the two mothers, but its writing only serves the pain of one.

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