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House of the Dragon recap: episode four – sex and laughs return to Westeros at last

Spoiler alert: this recap is for people watching House of the Dragon. Do not read on unless you have watched episode four.

‘You Targaryens do have queer customs’

Last week, I penned a post for this august publication about the apparent lack of raunch in House of the Dragon. The piece asked whether the nasty, abusive nature of so many of the sex scenes in Game of Thrones – and the outcry that had arisen in the wake of the #MeToo movement – had made the producers wary of including much more than the occasional flash in their new spin-off, and asking what it would take to make viewers comfortable with the prospect of seeing sustained nudity back in Westeros.

Barely five days later, I have my answer. To my surprise, it is a pretty convincing one. Bringing in EastEnders veteran Clare Kilner as only its second female director ever (the first, Michelle McLaren, shot two episodes in each of seasons three and four of GoT, meaning that pretty much all of those gruesome assaults were directed by men), the fourth episode of House of the Dragon (titled King of the Narrow Sea) managed to depict sexual activity in a multiplicity of ways – transactional, dutiful, uninhibited, incestuous, disturbing and rather sweet – without coming across as crass or discomfiting. Given all that’s gone before, it felt like a minor miracle.

‘I know that there is only one true king, your grace’

Of course the episode didn’t start as saucy, but in another register that this series seems to have avoided thus far – humorous. The scene of Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) enduring proposals from elderly men and green boys was genuinely funny and oddly adorable, even if it did end with the sting of shocking violence. Her voyage back to King’s Landing allowed for some more gentle flirting with her white-cloaked protector, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), before the sight of a dragon swooping over the Red Keep heralded the arrival of a more problematic returnee.

Are Daemon and his brother, King Viserys (Paddy Considine), finally making up?
Are Daemon and his brother, King Viserys (Paddy Considine), finally making up? Photograph: HBO

The long-delayed meeting between Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) and his brother King Viserys (Paddy Considine) could have gone any number of ways, so this only-slightly-bristly rapprochement felt, at first, rather pleasing, as did the boozy garden party that followed, with Daemon and Viserys bonding over their shared disinterest in tapestries. But of course it was all a ruse – Daemon wasn’t there for his brother but his niece, and the throne she is currently set to inherit.

Where people come to take what they want’

Rhaenyra’s escape through the catacombs of the Red Keep took us back to the first series of Game of Thrones, as she slipped through the same gallery of dragon skulls in which Arya Stark overheard Lord Varys conspiring to crown Rhaenyra’s own descendent, Daenerys Targaryen. Her glee at being out among the fleshpots and fire-breathers of King’s Landing was infectious, only slightly marred by the fact that her uncle was clearly up to something, and that he made her watch one of those endless, sub-Shakespearean mummers’ plays that Westerosi commoners and HBO producers seem to find so amusing.

Daemon with his much-needed new haircut.
Daemon with his much-needed new haircut. Photograph: HBO

Then it was down into the bowels of a brothel, which is where things got complicated. There was plenty of flesh on display, but none of that was especially shocking. Neither, really, was Daemon’s seduction of his niece, which we had surely seen coming (as it were). No, the biggest surprises were Rhaenyra’s enthusiastic response and Daemon deciding to stop, both of which felt startling but, on reflection, exactly right for their characters.

As did Rhaenyra’s bold decision – against the advice of Leonard Cohen – to take her horniness home with her and lavish it on the first available male specimen, the rather startled Ser Criston. This union had been on the cards for some time, but it was still a delight to witness, thoughtfully written and beautifully played, all awkward fumbles and endless unpicking of laces. For the first time in the series, we got to see two people having what felt like a genuinely nice time.

Behaviours unbecoming of a maiden’

But it couldn’t last. Just as Varys had his “little birds”, so Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) has a network of informants scattered throughout the city, and it wasn’t long before whispers reached him of Daemon and Rhaenyra’s canoodlings in the cellar. His decision to take the news straight to Viserys was predictable, as was the King’s furious reaction and re-exiling of Daemon, who seemed pretty happy to slink back off to Dragonstone.

Lady Alicent (Emily Carey), whose obedient coupling was heartbreaking.
Lady Alicent (Emily Carey), whose obedient coupling was heartbreaking. Photograph: HBO

And once again, it gave Viserys the opportunity to restate his respect and affection for his daughter. Whether or not he believed her protestations of innocence – which were at least partly justified, though not by choice – he was willing to back her, sacking Ser Otto as the King’s Hand, a move that will surely have unforeseen and bloody consequences. Yes, Viserys may have used his daughter’s misadventures to gain enough leverage to push Rhaenyra into agreeing to marry Laenor Velaryon, but he didn’t make too much of a fatherly fuss about it.

Whether or not this promising marriage pact comes to fruition – and we have to wonder if Ser Otto or Ser Criston (or even Rhaenyra’s illegitimate child?) might get in the way – the fond, evenly matched relationship between father and daughter has been one of the most pleasing aspects of House of the Dragon thus far, and one that feels utterly unlike anything in Game of Thrones.

Did Viserys believe Rhaenyra’s protestations of innocence?
Did Viserys believe Rhaenyra’s protestations of innocence? Photograph: HBO

Additional notes

  • Does anyone else find themselves doing a double take whenever consulting producer Richard Sharkey’s credit comes up, just to be certain that Ringo from The Beatles hasn’t effected a sudden, late-in-life career change?

  • Not content with killing the Crabfeeder, Prince Daemon has also defeated his wealthy backers, the Triarchy, without breaking a sweat. Has this entire storyline come to a close, or is there more to his victory than meets the eye?

  • Speaking of Daemon, that floppy indie haircut was much-needed, and leaves Smith looking a lot less like an escaped elf.

  • Was the brothel called the White Worm, or was the Gold Cloak on duty referring to some kind of shadowy underworld figure with whom Ser Otto has seedy dealings? Either way, it was surely an affectionate and highly appropriate nod to the great Ken Russell.

Violence count

A spot of gruesome tween swordplay at the start, a few fleeting glances at awful goings-on in the alleys of King’s Landing, and the swinging boot of one fraternally furious king.

Nudity count

See above. Smith, Cole and Alcock (no sniggering at the back) and/or their body doubles each exposed varying expanses of flesh, while hordes of highly flexible, hopefully well-compensated extras cavorted in a wild display of lusty, Bacchanalian vigour. But let’s also spare a thought for poor, gilded-caged heir-factory Queen Alicent (Emily Carey), whose obedient coupling with the well-meaning but horribly damaged Viserys was a lot less gleeful, and a lot more heartbreaking.

Random Brit of the week

It would give anyone pause – Prince Daemon strides into the throne room, advancing towards his brother’s royal seat only to be halted in his tracks by the sword-wielding Ser Harrold Westerling, current Lord Commander of the Kingsguard and a truly commanding presence. And fair enough: Glaswegian actor Graham McTavish has quite the CV, from playing a drunken weasel (!) in Terry Jones’s 1996 Wind in the Willows adaptation, Mr Toad’s Wild Ride, to a central-ish turn as the taciturn Dwalin in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. We wouldn’t mess, anyway.

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