‘House of the Dragon’s’ pacing has been a problem. Episode 8 might finally solve it

A princess and a group of dignitaries stand in a castle
The families of Westeros gather in “The Lord of the Tides,” Episode 8 of “House of the Dragon.” Actor Emma D’Arcy is at center.
(Ollie Upton/HBO)

“The Lord of the Tides,” the eighth episode of “House of the Dragon,” poses a question that few of us cared about before tonight: Who will inherit the Driftwood throne? Had my disinterest been measured in a T-shirt slogan it would have read, “I waited all week for ‘House of the Dragon’ and all I got was a stupid piece of beach debris.”

And I don’t think my exasperation was unreasonable. “Game of Thrones” was a great series, but it took plenty of side journeys that seem pointless in retrospect: the Warlocks of Qarth, the Wight babies, the hippie commune that’s only memorable now because its leader was played by the magnetic Ian McShane. Television is a much more crowded space than it was back then, though. There’s no time for meandering journeys, even on dragon back.

Despite its shaky start, though, Sunday night’s installment of “House of the Dragon” evolved into the prequel’s most consequential and game-changing episode to date. Fortunes flipped, heads rolled, enemies bonded and a dying dynasty’s wishes were woefully misinterpreted, ensuring 200 years of bloody unrest and plenty of fodder for future seasons.

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The last seven episodes of the series have been a crash course in the people, places and rivalries of old Westeros, and while it’s been a captivating ride, it’s felt rushed at times. Sunday, the drama appeared to settle, finally, into a fixed timeline and chosen its main players for the long haul. The series is now poised for epic battles between kin and more over who sits on the Iron Throne.

Episode 8 picks up six years after the totally acceptable marriage of Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) to her father’s brother, uncle Daemon (Matt Smith). They have blond twins, and another child on the way, when news arrives at Castle Driftmark that Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) has been injured in battle and may not survive. The legitimacy of his heir, Rhaenyra’s brown-haired son Prince Lucerys Velaryon (Elliot Grihault), is immediately challenged by the Sea Snake’s brother, Ser Vaemond (Wil Johnson). There’s much at stake given that the Sea Snake is wealthier than the Lannisters and has the world’s largest navy. Vaemond calls for a petition hearing at King’s Landing. When all the families converge in the Red Keep, it kicks off a series of events that forever change the course of the realm.

Adding to the mix is the health of King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine). He’s deathly ill and barely lucid due to regular doses of pain medication known as “milk of the poppy.” And because the show delights in gore, the king’s decay is a ghoulish and graphic affair. (I admittedly could look at him only through the safety of my hands.) At the urging of Rhaenyra and Daemon, he musters up the strength to oversee the hearing and reinstate his grandson’s right to Driftmark, much to the dismay of Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke).

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He who dares to question the legitimacy of the princess’ “bastard” son loses his head, then it’s on to dinner, where the king pleads for his family to “Set aside your grievances, if not for the sake of the crown, then for the sake of this old man who loves you all dearly.” For a brief, touching moment, enemies come together for the ailing king. Rhaenyra and Alicent even propose toasts in each other’s honor. Once he’s carted back to bed, though, old grievances between their offspring (i.e. gouging out a cousin’s eye, stealing a dead aunt’s dragon) rise to the fore, revealing a powder keg of entitlement and resentment. The fuse is lighted by the close of the episode.

The royal children, now young men and women, are played by new performers. Harry Collett portrays Rhaenyra’s eldest son, Jacaerys Velaryon, and Ewan Mitchell plays the king’s arrogant middle son, Aemond Targaryen. Aemon One Eye is a dastardly character, replete with an evil smirk and eye patch. He’s positioned to take Prince Daemon’s place as the court’s most dangerous rogue.

The future looks dark for Westeros, regardless of who sits on the Driftwood throne. Let the games begin.