Entertainment

Season 1, Episode 4, “King Of The Narrow Sea”


Matt Smith

Matt Smith
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Beware of Daemons bearing gifts. That’s the takeaway of “King Of The Narrow Sea,” in which the prodigal son returns to King’s Landing in triumph, ready to make peace—and then sow twice as much chaos.

Last week, the prince refused his brother’s offer for help fighting a losing war in the Stepstones against invaders from the Free Cities. Instead, Daemon used himself as bait to draw out his enemies; and while he and Lord Corlys’ forces went on the offensive, the prince cleaved the Crabfeeder in half.

Now, he’s back in King’s Landing with a fresh title and an even fresher haircut (which, by the way, looks so much better on Matt Smith than that terrible Legolas wig). He’s been named King of the Narrow Sea, an honorific that would seem to be as ephemeral as his driftwood crown. But given the fact that the Velaryons’ naval power could make or break the Seven Kingdoms, having one’s name writ in water might be worth more than it first appears.

And first appearances are exactly what Daemon is counting on. With trademark theatricality, he saunters into a throne room, drops his battle ax like it’s a hot mic (“Add it to the chair”), and bends the knee to King Viserys in front of the entire court. Trusting as ever, the king embraces his brother, and the room erupts in applause—Rhaenyra among them.

The princess has just returned from a tour of the realm to meet prospective suitors, all of whom totally sucked. She says as much to her bestie-turned-stepmother Alicent: For Rhaenyra, marriage is a one-way ticket to being “imprisoned in a castle and made to squeeze out heirs”—which is exactly what Alicent has been doing ever since she tied the knot with Viserys.

Meanwhile, the princess is beyond psyched to see her uncle again. Over wine and apps in the Godswood, Daemon advises her on the subject of the wedding she doesn’t want to have. According to him, it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t actually like her future husband; marriage is purely a “political arrangement” that frees you up for other pursuits. “For men, marriage might be a political arrangement,” she replies. “For women, it is a death sentence.”

Written by Ira Parker and directed by Claire Kilner, both newcomers to the Thrones-verse, “King Of The Narrow Sea” has a narrative and emotional drive that House Of The Dragon has been sorely lacking. It’s tense, sexy, smart, and even, dare I say it, fun. It’s like a match to wildfire whenever Smith and Milly Alcock’s characters get together, and this episode banks on viewers’ enjoyment of their dynamic to play a brilliantly nasty little trick on us.

That night, Rhaenyra finds her very own playing-hooky kit in her chambers: peasant boy’s clothes and a map to a secret backdoor of the Red Keep. Daemon is waiting, ready to take her on a tour of King’s Landing at street level. Just a cool uncle and his cool niece hanging out!

Kilner’s camera takes us on a dizzying, sensuous tour of the city. In stark contrast to the echoing halls of the castle, the streets and alleys are brimming with life: fireworks displays, tightrope walkers, fortune tellers, and fornicators. The disguised royals take in a mummer’s farce about—what else?—their own bullshit. “And now we come to the matter of the great iron chair, and whose bum it might bear,” an actor recites, while fake Rhaenyra lets out a loud fart on the Iron Throne, fake Alicent births fake Aegon, and fake Daemon whips out a rope effigy of a penis.

It’s Daemon’s way of showing her that even though they live in an absolute monarchy, the opinion of the smallfolk matters more than she might think—and it’s stunningly apparent how little they want a woman to be in charge. It’s a lesson Rhaenyra fails to learn, but one that her descendent Daenerys will take to heart—and use to her advantage.

Next, the prince leads his freedom-drunk (and just plain drunk) niece to his favorite brothel, removing both their disguises like the calculating maniac he is. The sheltered princess is by turns fascinated and overwhelmed, and Daemon watches her reactions like a hawk.

Then the episode takes us to the place where it was always headed: two Targaryens doing incest together. Game Of Thrones viewers have already been primed to enjoy seeing this particular taboo on display while also being disturbed by their enjoyment, and “King of the Narrow Sea” walks that line expertly.

Emily Carey and Milly Alcock

Emily Carey and Milly Alcock
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Kilner juxtaposes Rhaenyra taking obvious (if unsettling) pleasure in Daemon with Alicent staring dead-eyed at the ceiling while Viserys has his way with her, his bare back covered in throne-inflicted wounds. The sequence draws a sharp line between their experiences—one of a woman as the subject of her own sexual desire, and another of a woman as the object of someone else’s.

It’s the kind of scene you almost never would have seen on Thrones, which mostly used sex as a device to spice up expository scenes or enact brutality; in almost all cases, women were objects for men’s lust, subjugation, or both. That trend likely had a lot to do with the series’ lack of women in creative roles. Over the course of its eight seasons, Thrones had only one female director and two female writers. It remains to be seen whether House Of The Dragon will follow suit.

Though he’s ultimately using her for his own machinations, Daemon gives Rhaenyra a valuable piece of wisdom before he ditches her: “Fucking is a pleasure, you see, for the woman, as it is the man.” The princess takes his words to heart, orchestrating her own seduction of Ser Criston Cole back at the palace. It’s a scene that’s both tender and unnerving; the pair are both clearly into each other, but Criston’s initial reluctance highlights the very real power imbalance between them.

The night’s debauchery blows up in everyone’s faces in the light of day. A boy who spotted Rhaenyra and Daemon in very public flagrante gives Otto the gossip—and he immediately turns around and tells Viserys while Alicent eavesdrops. (They really need to stop putting so many curtains and secret doors in the Red Keep if they want to keep the intrigue at bay.)

When the queen confronts Rhaenyra with Otto’s accusation, she goes into crisis management mode. Yes, she and Daemon pulled a Princess Jasmine last night, but she swears on her mother’s memory that nothing passed between them but too much booze. As Rhaenyra tests the boundaries of her power, she’s also dabbling in perjury at the expense of Alicent and Aemma, the two people she used to care about most.

Then it’s time for Viserys to figure out what the hell to do with this mess—one caused by him being overly permissive as a brother, a father, and a king. He starts with Daemon, lying face-down and drunk in front of the Iron Throne. A righteously angry Viserys lays into him for defiling his daughter and betraying his trust, and Daemon plays his hand: In the bigamist, incestuous tradition of the Targaryen family, he wants to take his niece as his second wife, which the king can grant him as a boon for turning over the Stepstones. But he miscalculated: Viserys is too decent a man to ever agree to this proposition, and he orders Daemon to go back to his wife in the Vale and never darken his doorstep again.

Next comes Rhaenyra. She denies that she slept with her uncle, but the king says the truth doesn’t matter—only what is perceived. The princess points out that if she were a male heir, she could father a million bastards and no one would bat an eyelash. She’s right, of course, but it’s a bad sign that she hasn’t already figured out that being reasonable about equality will get her nowhere in this faux-medieval world. Viserys tells Rhaenyra that her slo-mo husband search is over; she’s going to marry Corlys’ son Laenor so that the crown can rebuild their alliance with House Velaryon.

Rhaenyra agrees, but with her own stipulation: Viserys has gotta ditch Otto, whom she believes is trying to undermine her claim to the throne in favor of his own grandson, Aegon. The king confronts his Hand, having only just realized what everyone else has probably already figured out—that Otto pushed Alicent toward him so that a little Hightower scion could eventually become king. Otto claims that he was only ever working in the crown’s best interest, but for once in his life, Viserys doesn’t back down. He strips his longtime advisor of his Hand badge, and the moment clearly costs both men. It remains to be seen how much it will cost the realm.

And if Rhaenyra still thought she had any say in her life, Grand Maester Mellos arrives with a vial of tea Viserys has sent to rid her of “any unwanted consequences.” Her body, the king’s choice.

Stray observations

  • Rhaenyra’s audience with her suitors plays like a Parks And Recreation city council meeting, only with swords. By the time a preteen suitor from House Blackwood challenges a heckler on the sidelines to a duel, the princess is beyond done.
  • The way Daemon’s dragon casually divebombs the mast of Rhaenyra’s ship, both a challenge and a flirtation, neatly encapsulates what’s about to happen between them.
  • The princess has graduated from cupbearer at Viserys’ Small Council meetings—she now has a literal seat at the table.
  • Ramin Djawadi’s score on this episode, all discordant strings and primal drumbeats, is a study in how to heighten tension.
  • It’s worth noting that while Game Of Thrones didn’t have an intimacy coordinator, House Of The Dragon does—and it shows. (Thrones star Gemma Whelan once said that when it came to filming sex scenes on the series, directors would just tell the actors, “When we shout action, go for it!”)
  • Otto gets his gossip from an anonymous source he calls the White Worm. Is this person House Of The Dragon’s version of the Master of Whisperers?
  • Given the content of this episode, the title “King Of The Narrow Sea” is for sure a double entendre.



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