If there’s anything we’ve learned from Westerosi customs, it’s that weddings are rarely nonviolent affairs. House of the Dragon’s mid-season transition episode—the moody and well-acted “We Light the Way”—purposefully recalls moments from Game of Thrones’ notorious Red Wedding, though Dragon’s ceremony fails to hit the former’s body count. (At least, not yet.)
There’s a lot of commotion over marriage and its downfalls this episode, as we open “We Light the Way” with a welcome departure from King’s Landing, instead clomping through the verdant fields of the Vale. Lady Rhea Royce, wife of Prince Daemon, weaves a path through the hills on horseback, her rhythm smooth and exact until she encounters the hooded figure of her husband. He looms in silence as she, his Bronze Bitch, barbs him. “Have you at last come to consummate our marriage?” she demands. “The Vale’s sheep might be willing, even if I am not.” That’s an objectively demented (and delightful) thing to say to a man of Daemon Targaryen’s temperament. Sure, he kills her in response, but what a way to go out!
Meanwhile, Alicent is floundering amidst the political machinations of the Red Keep. Her father, Ser Otto Hightower, blames her for his dismissal as Hand of the King, though she insists that, had he not been so relentless in pushing for Aegon as heir, he might have retained his job. That last part having struck a nerve, he swoops in close with a treasonous bit of insight: “The king will die,” he assures. “It might be months or years, but he will not live to be an old man. And if Rhaenyra succeeds him, war will follow, do you understand?” As Alicent begins to shudder and weep, he continues, “You know it. You are no fool and yet you choose not to see it. The time is coming, Alicent. Either you prepare Aegon to rule or you cleave to Rhaenyra and pray for her mercy.” He hugs her as she breaks into open sobs.
Later, out from under her father’s embrace, Alicent gets another dose of cold truth, this time in the form of Lord Larys Strong spilling tea. Under the weirwood tree, Lord Clubfoot points out a red plant from Braavos that “shouldn’t be thriving here” but, against all odds, has bloomed. (Bit of a heavy-handed metaphor, but I’ll roll with it.) He’s probing Alicent for clues as to how and why Otto was scorned, coaxing information out of her by appealing to her emotions. “It feels something of an injustice,” he suggests. When she seems reluctant to share anything useful, he sprinkles a bit more of his own intel as bait.
He shares his concern over Princess Rhaenyra’s health: Rumor has it that the Grand Maester was seen delivering a special concoction to the princess’s chambers the other night. Surely something must be quite wrong to warrant such a visit? Alicent’s face hardens. Rhaenyra sailed to Driftmark just that morning; the princess couldn’t possibly be ill. And Alicent’s apparently spent enough time on the birthing bed to recognize the maester’s abortion tea when described. And if Rhaenyra needed Plan Tea, that means Rhaenyra lied about her chastity (or lack thereof). Still, Alicent isn’t satisfied with mere rumors. Like any good reporter, she needs a primary source.
At Driftmark, an ailing Viserys and his new Hand, Lord Lionel Strong (good for ’ole Lio!), are greeted by Ser Corlys and Princess Rhaenys in the drafty castle High Tide. They discuss the late Lady Rhea’s passing—what a strange coincidence, given her skill as an equestrian!—but transition to more pressing matters: the betrothal between their son, Ser Laenor, and Rhaenyra. Corlys and Rhaenys seem amenable to this idea, but Corlys inserts a little stinger: He presumes that, in keeping with Westerosi tradition, Rhaenyra’s children (and thereby the heirs to the throne) would keep the surname Velaryon.
“Surely, Lord Corlys, you are not proposing the Targaryen dynasty end with my daughter, simply because she is a woman,” Viserys says. (You just have to laugh. Rhaenys certainly does, smirking as she leans against the brittle wood throne of their castle, High Tide.) Ever the people-pleaser, the king nevertheless agrees to an “equitable compromise.” Laenor and Rhaenyra’s children will bear the name Velaryon until one of them is to become the new sovereign, at which point they would rule as a Targaryen.
While their parents discuss the particulars, Laenor and Rhaenyra stroll along the coast and act out a conversation reminiscent of the “wine, not the label” scene from Schitt’s Creek. Laenor likes goose, Rhaenyra roast duck. It’s implied their marriage will remain open to satisfy both tastes, so long as together they provide the realm with suitable heirs. Ser Joffrey Lonmouth—Laenor’s lover—seems particularly taken with this idea.
But Princess Rhaenys, Laenor’s mother, frets over those would-be heirs. She recognizes marrying Laenor to Rhaenyra puts a target on his back, and on the backs of their eventual children. If the realm didn’t accept her, the Queen Who Never Was, why would they accept Rhaenyra in her stead? Rhaenys recognizes a battle brewing, no matter how Corlys longs for so-called “justice.”
After the arrangements are finalized, Rhaenyra and her sworn sword, Ser Criston, sail back to King’s Landing. It’s amongst the rolling waves that Criston approaches her, eyes practically sparkling with earnestness. (You’ll recall that, last episode, they enjoyed a steamy night together.) He’s not thrilled with the idea of Rhaenyra marrying to satisfy the whirling cogs of the crown. “If there were another path, one that led to freedom, would you tread it?” he asks, and it dawns on her what he’s really after. So he just comes out with it, inviting her to elope, to run away with him, to start a new life amongst the bursting fruits and vivid landscapes of Essos. “In Essos—” he pauses, clutching his hand to his armored chest. “You could marry me.” He’s bearing everything, practically bleeding out in front of her, hoping she’ll rush in and staunch the wound.
But Rhaenyra, for all her merits, is a Targaryen—and Targaryens are not a particularly generous brood. She smiles, touched, but can’t return his emotion. It’s wrenching to watch her face fall. It’s even more wrenching to watch his.
“I am the crown, Ser Criston. Do you think I would exchange infamy for a bushel of oranges or a ship to Asshai?” she asks, so perfectly encapsulating the pride and entitlement of her brethren. Sure, some of Rhaenyra’s reluctance might be owed to a real sense of duty—to her father, to her people. But so much more of it is about status. Her dreams of eating only cake and riding to battle and glory, first expressed in episode 1, were not as pure as she’d first expressed them. Now, she wants only to rule.
Fabien Frankel is fantastic in this scene as Ser Criston, his eyes filling with tears as he recognizes what Rhaenyra is asking of him. Not only did he break his oath of chastity, potentially sacrificing his white cloak—“the only thing I have to my fucking name”—but now she’s asking that he humble himself further. “So you want me to be your whore?” he hisses. Rhaenyra insists the Iron Throne is bigger than them both, that her very name permits certain pleasures, but he tears himself away, another casualty of the princess’s recklessness.
When the ensemble returns from Driftmark, Viserys passes out in the middle of the Red Keep courtyard. Alicent, watching from the wall, chooses not to rush to her husband, but instead summons Ser Criston to her chambers, where she wishes to question him “on a delicate matter.” And, woof, it is a delicate matter indeed. The misunderstandings of this scene are so fraught, it’s uncomfortable to watch. Alicent wants to know about the status of her BFF’s virginity: She stumbles around the right wording, but she’s hunting for information about the princess’s pursuits with Daemon. Criston thinks she’s asking about Rhaenyra’s antics with him. “It happened, Your Grace,” he says. (At this point I paused my screen and audibly groaned into a pillow.) He then proceeds to confess to his sins, startling Alicent, who’s forced to put the pieces together quickly. Not only did Rhaenyra lie to her about having sex, but she had it with Ser Criston! As well as maybe Daemon?!
Emily Carey must be commended for her ability to portray all these realizations as they each make their way, in rapid succession, across Alicent’s face. Criston asks for a merciful death as punishment for his crimes. Instead, she lets him go. “Thank you for your honesty, Ser Criston,” she says, almost as if speaking to Rhaenyra instead of her sworn sword.
Meanwhile, Viserys is dying. He knows it. “It hardly makes a good song, does it?” he asks Ser Lionel, as he sweats in his chambers, a ghoulish patch of decayed flesh snaking up his arm. As the lights flicker against his pale, sickly face, he questions if he’ll be remembered as a good king, or instead another scribble in a long list of Targaryen successors. He admits to his own weaknesses; they haunt him as much as they do the kingdom he serves. Once the Black Dread’s rider, he is a mere apparition of his forebears. “I often think that, in the crucible, I might have been forged a different man,” Paddy Considine, in his best form, sighs. He then allows a stirring, foreboding confession: “’Tis, perhaps, best not to know.”
We jump, then, to Rhaenyra and Laenor’s resplendent rehearsal dinner—or, anyway, the Westerosi equivalent of one. The actual set here is gorgeous, the tables overflowing and the costumes as ornate and thoughtful as we’ve come to expect, but I have to register a complaint about the lighting. A film of dust seems to coat the entire scene; skin, wood, metal and fabric alike come across dull and colorless. Even in its heyday, Game of Thrones often caught flack for its general inability to properly light a moody or grim scene. House of the Dragon appears to be flirting with the same error.
Thankfully, Daemon’s here to boost the energy a bit. He relaxes into his chair at the head table while Ser Gerald Royce demands explanation for Rhea’s mysterious passing. “In the Vale, men are made to answer for their crimes,” Ser Gerald threatens. “And?” Daemon asks, before reminding the knight that, due to his aforementioned lack of consummation with Rhea, they never had children. Therefore, Daemon stands to inherit Runestone, the seat of House Royce in the Vale. (In the corner of the screen, Ser Lionel—exhausted by all this drama—reaches for his wine goblet.)
Daemon’s not the only one eager to ignite a little controversy. Alicent, running late to the grand occasion, finally arrives right in the middle of Viserys’ speech—and she’s dressed in gown of striking emerald green, the color of House Hightower when its beacon declares war. (Larys, for one, is living for this turn of events.) Fans of the book, Fire & Blood, will recognize this as a significant turning point for Alicent and her side of the Dance of the Dragons. She has lost all faith in Rhaenyra. She recognizes that her father’s warnings are true. The name of this episode, “We Light The Way,” also happens to be the motto of House Hightower itself. No more will Alicent stand aside.
But that’s not all! Much more is set to take place amidst the backdrop of Rhaenyra and Laenor’s goofy little courtship dance. Daemon and Laena strike up a flirtation rife with ulterior motives. Ser Joffrey notices Ser Criston pining after Rhaenyra, and correctly guesses that he’s the princess’s paramour. And Daemon confronts Rhaenyra, sharing Criston’s objections if not the knight’s tact: “This is not for you. Laenor is a good man and a fine knight. He will bore you senseless.”
Rhaenyra—perhaps still pissed that her uncle abandoned her in a brothel just as things were getting hot and heavy between them—shoots back: “So take me, then. Has this not been your purpose? I am not yet married. But the hours pass swiftly.”
Daemon grabs her face in his hands, gripping it as if to kiss her, with Viserys watching from the head table, seething and shocked. But we don’t get to witness if uncle and niece’s lips lock. Before anyone can register the scandal, a fight breaks out, sending the entire party into chaos. Viserys hunts for his daughter among the undulating crowd, but only after a long moment of panic does Ser Harwin Strong (a.k.a Breakbones) throw her over one shoulder and escort her out of the kerfuffle. Meanwhile, Criston is unleashing all his pent-up heartbreak onto Ser Joffrey, beating him to a pulp in a scene eerily reminiscent of Oberyn Martell’s gruesome death in Thrones. The knight didn’t seem to take too kindly to Joffrey’s threats of blackmail. Laenor, seeing his lover’s ruined face and lifeless body, shrieks with agony.
That night, Laenor and Rhaenyra are married before an intimate crowd, the banquet hall a demolition zone of spoiled food and debris. Criston sinks to his knees at the weirwood, mere seconds away from stabbing himself with a dagger when Alicent—finally ready to put her wheels in motion—stays his arm. And at the end of it all, Viserys passes out again, leaving his fate in question as we plunge into episode 6’s major time jump.
The next time we see these characters, they will look and feel different in more ways than one. Alcock as Rhaenyra will be replaced with Emma D’Arcy, and Carey as Alicent with Olivia Cooke. I’ll admit no small amount of dismay at bidding Alcock and Carey goodbye; they’ve been fantastic in these roles, establishing the foundation so necessary to carrying this series through its many twists and turns. If we weren’t to love these characters in their youth, there’d be little reason to love them in adulthood, when we can expect them to be more ruthless, more (dare I say it) unlikeable. But if this is the intimacy and intrigue that only the first half of House of the Dragon has to offer, I’m practically buzzing to receive what comes next.