House of the Dragon has finally delivered on its biggest promises

Ser Gwayne Hightower and Ser Criston Cole look up in fear in House of the Dragon season 2.
Theo Whiteman / HBO

Warning: This article contains major spoilers for House of the Dragon season 2, episode 4.

HBO‘s House of the Dragon has taken its time getting to the real, fire-breathing drama at the center of its story. The Game of Thrones prequel’s first season was largely a preamble — one that concluded with the shocking death of a character whose importance to the show’s ostensible lead, Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy), was larger than it was to the audience. In the episodes since then, House of the Dragon has similarly said goodbye — in sometimes horrifyingly brutal fashion — to several of its supporting characters. All the while, it’s done its best to make viewers feel the slow burn of a growing fire that has taken almost 14 full hours of television to explode.

House of the Dragon has remained a consistently entertaining, often awe-inspiringly well-presented production throughout this time, but a slow-paced drama set mostly in the same two castles (i.e., the Red Keep of King’s Landing and Dragonstone) isn’t necessarily what Game of Thrones fans signed up for when they originally tuned in. The series was sold as an explosive, dragon-versus-dragon prequel that would dramatize exactly how the Targaryen dynasty burned down from within. Up to this point, it hasn’t been nearly as rip-roaring as that. It has instead been much more mannered and reserved, at least by its franchise’s standards, than many people might have predicted before its debut.

Fortunately, with this past Sunday’s episode, House of the Dragon has finally become its most cutthroat and entertaining self.

A dance of dragons

Aemond rides Vhagar in House of the Dragon season 2.
Theo Whiteman / HBO

The fourth episode of House of the Dragon season 2, titled The Red Dragon and the Gold, ends with the show’s biggest and most important battle yet. The conflict, known among Fire & Blood readers as the Battle at Rook’s Rest, follows Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) as he and Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) execute an attack on the castle of one of Rhaenyra’s closest allies. In response, Rhaenys (Eve Best) volunteers to burn down Cole and his army with her dragon, Meleys. When she arrives at Rook’s Rest, however, she’s surprised to be met not only by Aemond and his fearsome dragon, Vhagar, but also King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney), who arrives unannounced atop his mount, Sunfyre.

The battle ultimately claims the lives of both Rhaenys and Meleys, while Aegon and Sunfyre each suffer what seem to be, at the very least, fatal injuries from not only Meleys, but also Aemond, the latter of whom knowingly commands Vhagar to launch a deadly dragonfire attack on his brother. The episode concludes with Aegon’s fate up in the air (Fire & Blood readers know what’s to come with him) and one of Rhaenyra’s most powerful dragons and dragonriders dead.

It’s a sequence of astonishing scope and power, brilliantly directed by veteran Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor. It also marks the moment when House of the Dragon‘s core conflict, a Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons, at last feels as dangerous as it should.

A shocking death, and a new turning point

It seemed initially like that turning point had come in the House of the Dragon season 1 finale, which ends with the death of Rhaenyra’s son, Luke (Elliot Grihault), at the hands of Aemond and Vhagar and a final shot of Rhaenyra as her heartbroken expression hardens into one of terrifying rage. The HBO series opted not to follow through on the ominous implications of that episode’s closing moments, though. By filling the first three installments of its second season with moments of filler, insignificant violence, and table-setting, House of the Dragon cost its central war the emotional weight and bloody edge that Luke’s death had provided it. The Battle at Rook’s Rest gives the show both of those elements again, and it does so in a far more immediately catastrophic, gut-punching manner than Luke and Aemond’s lethal quarrel.

Rhaenys rides Meleys in House of the Dragon season 2.
Ollie Upton / HBO

Like many of the biggest deaths in Game of Thrones, Rhaenys’ demise and Aegon’s scorched downfall in House of the Dragon season 2 have completely upended the landscape of the show. With one of Rhaenyra’s closest advisers now gone and Aegon, at the very least, incapable of sitting on the Iron Throne, those surrounding them will have to immediately adapt and update their plans. Characters like Aemond and Rhaenys’ husband, Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), have the chance to step even further into the spotlight now, while Rhaenyra and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) will need to find new paths forward for themselves and their allies.

We’ll have to wait to see how everyone within the series chooses to respond to the events of the Battle at Rook’s Rest, which has given the Game of Thrones prequel the barbed, ruthless sense of danger that it previously lacked. But no matter how it chooses to navigate the fallout of The Red Dragon and the Gold, it’s exciting to see House of the Dragon grow into the show that it was supposed to be all along.

New episodes of House of the Dragon season 2 premiere Sunday nights on HBO and Max.