Unlike Game of Thrones, which was based on a series of novels, HBO’s House of the Dragon is based on a fictional history book. Unfortunately, that fact has never been more apparent than as it is in House of the Dragon’s sixth and most recent installment.
The episode, titled “The Princess and the Queen,” picks up 10 years after the events of House of the Dragon Episode 5 and introduces multiple new characters and actors, including Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, who have officially taken over the roles of Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower, respectively. However, the problems with House of the Dragon Episode 6 don’t have anything to do with its casting changes or the number of new characters featured throughout.
Instead, the biggest problems in “The Princess and the Queen” have everything to do with the way the episode rushes through its storylines. In doing so, the story leaves many of its biggest moments feeling emotionally hollow.
A Targaryen History — House of the Dragon Episode 6 builds off of the final moments of the show’s previous installment in more ways than one. Indeed, by the time that “The Princess and the Queen” has begun, Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) and Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell) have not only married each other, but have also given birth to two daughters.
The episode begins with Rhaenyra Targaryen (D’Arcy) giving birth to her third son since marrying Laenor Velaryon (John MacMillan), though it quickly becomes clear that none of Rhaenyra’s sons are biologically related to Laenor. They are, instead, the sons of Ser Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr), the City Watch Commander who saved her from being trampled at the end of House of the Dragon Episode 5. Meanwhile, in the 10 years since Rhaenyra and Laenor’s wedding, Alicent Hightower (Cooke) and Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) have become even more bitter and petty.
This is, obviously, a lot for House of the Dragon Episode 6 to communicate, but “The Princess and the Queen” doesn’t just bring viewers up to speed on the current state of King’s Landing. Instead, the episode also brings several major storylines to an end, killing off Laena and Harwin in the very same hour that they become relevant. The episode also sends Rhaenyra and her immediate family to Dragonstone and further establishes Ser Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) as Alicent’s personal Littlefinger stand-in.
To say that House of the Dragon Episode 6 tries to pull off a lot would be an understatement. Unfortunately, it also seems fair to say that “The Princess and the Queen” doesn’t quite pull off everything it wants to.
A Source Material’s Limits — There are moments in House of the Dragon Episode 6 when it feels like we are being shown the Cliffnotes version of a story rather than the full, expanded text. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that Fire & Blood — the book that House of the Dragon is inspired by — presents more of a detailed timeline of events rather than an in-depth story.
For the most part, the first five episodes of House of the Dragon manage to avoid evoking that feeling. The show’s initial installments were well-paced and unfolded patiently, or at least enough to make up for the time jumps that often took place off-screen between them. However, now that we’re in the back half of House of the Dragon’s first season, it seems like the show’s creative team is simply trying to fit in all of the important events from Fire & Blood that need to be shown in order to get to the Dance of the Dragons (i.e. the military conflict that will make up the bulk of its future seasons).
In House of the Dragon Episode 6, this narrative urgency means viewers are given the bare minimum when it comes to important storylines like Harwin and Rhaenyra’s unspoken love story. Their relationship is foreshadowed in the show’s earlier episodes through a handful of small, very easy-to-miss moments, but, when House of the Dragon Episode 6 begins, Rhaenyra seems closer to Harwin than anyone else in King’s Landing. But we don’t really understand how that happened.
In case that isn’t jarring enough, Harwin — along with his father — ends up being burned alive at the end of “The Princess and the Queen.” Laena Velaryon’s relationship with Daemon Targaryen is, meanwhile, handled in a similarly rushed manner in House of the Dragon Episodes 5 and 6.
The same treatment is also given to Larys Strong’s decision to orchestrate his father and brother’s deaths in “The Princess and the Queen.” Larys’ two scenes in House of the Dragon Episode 5 did, of course, establish him as one of the show’s major behind-the-scenes players, but there’s a big difference between him helping to destroy Alicent and Rhaenyra’s friendship and him deciding to have his closest family members killed.
The episode doesn’t take the time to actually explore Larys’ psychology or motivations for such a drastic action, which leaves the character as nothing more than a one-note villain in “The Princess and the Queen.”
The Inverse Analysis — House of the Dragon’s missteps in “The Princess and the Queen” are, by no means, serious enough to sink the series. That said, the show’s latest episode doesn’t just reveal the limitations of its own source material, but also the ways in which House of the Dragon’s storytelling can suffer when it relies too heavily on the structure of a fictional history book like Fire & Blood.
To put it another way: House of the Dragon works best when it’s able to use its source material’s format to imbue its own story with a sense of inescapable, slow-moving tragedy. The series stumbles and falls, however, whenever it fails to fill in the gaps in Fire & Blood and, instead, chooses to merely adopt the same pace of a recorded history book rather than that of a lived-in, fully fleshed-out story.
New episodes of House of the Dragon air Sundays on HBO.