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House of the Dragon’s Aegon is just another kid fighting in a pit

“Without our dragons, we’re just like everyone else,” a young Rhaenyra told her father, King Viserys (Paddy Considine), in the series premiere of House of the Dragon. For Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), locked in her apartments in the Red Keep as the Greens fight among themselves to decide the succession, a simple oaken door proves her cousin’s insight trenchant di lei. “The Green Council,” season 1’s penultimate episode, places its focus precisely on the little things on which great events hinge, and it’s a richer hour for it.

The everyday takes on tremendous significance as crisis grips King’s Landing in the wake of Viserys’ death, tiny quirks of logistics becoming matters of life or death in the space of a single night. Who knows how Prince Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) spends his evenings? Who’s outside the door and who’s behind it? Which servant is listening to which conversation? Without Viserys to stabilize all these opposing forces, the slightest imbalance trips a landslide of conflicting plots and counterplots. Even as Alicent (Olivia Cooke) relays Viserys’ delirious last words as proof he wanted his eldest son di lei, Aegon, crowned upon his death di lei, she begins to realize that her husband’s small council has been plotting treason for what seems like years . When bumbling Lord Beesbury (Bill Paterson) rails against his fellow councilors, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) inadvertently murders him while trying to force him to take his seat di lui.

It’s the little jade marble Beesbury set into his socket at the table that deals the fatal blow, another example of the inescapability of life’s most mundane features. Had it not been there, he might have lived to take the black. Had Ser Arryk (Luke Tittensor) not known of Prince Aegon’s proclivity for watching orphan children with filed teeth and nails fight in grudge matches, he and his twin di lui, Ser Erryk (Elliott Tittensor), might never have run across the Lady Mysaria’s network of spies. Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) herself, emerging as a power player in her own right by snatching the crown prince out from under the noses of his minders and family di lei, wants only to secure the crown’s protection for the same desperate orphans who amuse the prince and his ilk of hers. Even Aegon himself wanting to vanish into obscurity, to throw off his birthright and become just another anonymous silver-haired nothing like the unkempt bastard he’s implied to have abandoned to the fighting pits. “Do you love me?” he asks his mother di lei once he’s been dragged back to her and dressed for his coronation di lei. “You imbecile,” she answers. There is no place for such pedestrian concerns at the peak of power’s crumbling mountain.

Alicent seated at the Small Council table with her hands folded on the table in front of her.  To her right di lei her father stands with his hands slightly clasped;  on her left di lei, Ser Criston stands at the ready

Photo: Ollie Upton / HBO

It’s hard not to feel for Aegon, slime that he is, as he’s literally hauled screaming into a life he doesn’t want. That Alicent can tell her father di lei to his face di lei that she sees now she was only ever a piece on his board di lei while doing the same to her own child without a hint of self-awareness provides a gutting insight into the culture that has brought Westeros to this tipping point. The children in the pit are just another incarnation of the royals at the center of the show’s grand drama, forced to fight each other to the death for reasons they don’t fully understand in a place they lack the context to comprehend. As above, so below.

The same parallel is at work in the juxtaposed scenes of Kingsguard Lord Commander Ser Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish) removing his white cloak when he refuses to serve a warrant of execution against Rhaenyra, Daemon, and their children, and of Princess Rhaenys donning a commoner’s traveling cloak to escape the Red Keep. Both are becoming nobody, one by forsaking a cloak, the other by donning one. That something so simple as a bolt of cloth could decide one’s place in the world is a sobering reminder of just how fragile the fearsome machine that is the Targaryen dynasty has become.

Rhaenys’ final transformation comes when she dons her armor and mounts her dragon Meleys during Aegon’s coronation. Not for the first time, House of the Dragon contrasts House Targaryen’s sigil and the thing itself, a hill of muscle and scales which erupts through the ceiling of the dragonpit, crushing countless smallfolk gathered to watch the ceremony. Metaphors aside, a dragon changes the rules of engagement, bestowing an outsize power even greater than an army’s on a single individual. “They’re a power with which men should never have meddled,” said Viserys of House Targaryen’s monstrous weapons in the show’s premiere. Watching Meleys pulverize human bodies under her claws, it’s not difficult to see what he meant. It’s been a great advantage to the show that its depictions of superhuman devastation are so firmly grounded in realism and consequence, an antidote to the bloodless mass destruction of Marvel movies and other superhero fodder.

“The whole of King’s Landing must witness it,” Otto says of the coronation earlier in the episode. It’s the paradox at the heart of feudalism: to wield power of life or death over the realm’s faceless masses, you must first secure their awareness and permission. The royals who depend on them utterly don’t even see them as they’re trampled underfoot. With its tracking shots through the Red Keep’s kitchens and its focus on servants, commoners, sex workers, and refugees, the episode situates itself firmly in the streets of King’s Landing, but it never forgets what’s always waiting to fall like the hammer of God on those same streets. The people may have rung the bells of King’s Landing for Aegon, but it’s Meleys who tolls the final note in celebration of his reign di lui.

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