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Ollie Upton/HBO

Prior to Game of Thrones’ debut, I remember selling it to a friend with a low threshold for swords and sorcery as “like The Sopranos but in Middle Earth.”  This was something I’d read on a website, and while the Middle Earth part might not be so great a comparison — yes, there are swords and dragons, but there’s nothing magical about the dwarves of HBO’s Westeros — in a very Sopranos-like way, Thrones and its prequel spinoff are about the struggle for power and self-preservation as a series of devil’s choices on the way to the top. I think enjoying The Sopranos is still a suitable barometer for whether or not a person will dig the TV version of George R.R. Martin’s novels. After all, “Chaos is a ladder,” whispers Thrones’ Littlefinger, and if you think about the fate of Tony Soprano and the events leading up to it, Littlefinger’s apothegm is as apt for North Jersey mob bosses as it is scheming Westerosi lords. House of the Dragon is the same way, and in Episode 8, “The Lord of the Tides,” most of the principals are forced to reckon with the doom lurking at the end of their options, even if the doom is quitting while you’re ahead.

If the Sopranos comparison doesn’t work for you, at least consider that this episode features a big family dinner organized by the boss and attended by rival relatives who want to kill each other who are forced to make nice in the vicinity of various pork dishes. The Sopranosis lousy with scenes like this, but the one that comes to mind is the wake of Jackie Jr. (Jason Cerbone) in “Army of One,” the third-season finale. At Nuovo Vesuvio, after Jackie’s funeral, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), accompanied by the restaurant’s roving guitarist, begins to croon the Italian ballad “Core Ngrata.” Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), who knows her dad is a mobster and has just attended the funeral for her boyfriend (whom she assumed was murdered by a mobster), is drunk and has had enough of the pretenses, and she chucks bread at her uncle.

Now, the big family dinner that Viserys (Paddy Considine) demands is not exactly the same — though there is a moment when a server sets a roast suckling pig down in front of young Luke (Elliot Grihault) that I thought we’d see a good old-fashioned family food fight. It’s because maybe the king thinks that after all these years, his younger son Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) will find the humor in that pig prank Luke played on him, but the ailing monarch does demand that old grievances are set aside for the good of the family. The only wounds Viserys will allow to persist unhealed and for the world to see are on the right side of his face, revealed when he removes the golden half-mask that hides them so that his family can see him as he is: a man literally rotting away in real time who wants his last sensate moments to be pleasant.

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Despite Viserys’ terrifying visage, pleasant the moment is, after a fashion and before Aemond “You think Meadow ruined a family get together? Hold my beer!” Targaryen ruins it. After Rhaenyra (Emma D’arcy) and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) offer toasts laden with sincere, if begrudging, apologies, Jace (Harry Collett) and Aegon II’s sister Helaena (Phia Saban) share a nice waltz, followed by a montage of the family getting along. And then Aemond, perma-smirk curling beneath his nose and up toward his eyepatch, raises his goblet to his nephews Jace and Luke. His toast is empty flattery that ends in a pun about their biological father. And that’s where the niceties end, because of course Jace is not going to suffer any more of that “bastard” talk.

Prior to this, in a tense scene in the throne room, ramped up, ironically, by the sad, excruciatingly deliberate, painfully convalescent walk Viserys makes to the throne, Vaemond (Wil Johnson), who made some rather insinuating remarks about Jace and Luke’s true sire during the previous episode’s opening funeral, launches into a soliloquy about how unfit Rhaenyra’s eldest sons are to inherit Driftmark, let alone the Iron Throne. Daemon (Matt Smith) dares him to say what’s on everyone’s mind. And Vaemond, unlikeable truth teller that he is, screams that they are bastards, loud enough for the neighbors to hear. He also adds that that makes Rhaenyra a “whore!” Before he can be seized for his treason, the whore’s new husband, Uncle Daemon, draws Dark Sister and slices Vaemond’s head in half.

That the family can get together and offer mostly amicable toasts after all that is a testament to Viserys’ absolute authority, but the dinner scene does almost fool you into thinking that everything will be all right, right down to the moment when Viserys allows himself a smile. Then Aemond (in the Drunk Meadow role) has to fucking ruin it. His smarmy insults are far more consequential than the boss’ daughter whipping rolls at an old mafioso.

What set all this mess in motion is that Corlys (Steven Touissant), yet again fighting to put down the Triarchy’s incursion in the Stepstones, is on the brink of death from an infected wound, and Vaemond, Rhaenyra, and Rhaenys (Eve Best) have gathered in King’s Landing to press their claims to the Sea Snake’s holdings, as his death is more than likely. Rhaenyra and Rhaenys end up cutting a marriage deal between their children. Rhaenys’ devil’s choice is between pursuing her lost cause of claiming Driftmark and securing a future for her granddaughters, so she takes the latter. Rhaenyra’s devil’s choice was to make peace with her greatest rival, Alicent, which backfired spectacularly when Aemond made that joke about Jace and Luke looking “Strong.” By the time Daemon chops Vaemond’s head in two, the civil war train is fired up — all aboard! And after the dinner, as the episode draws to a close and Viserys’ condition worsens, Alicent hears what she wants to hear.

Queen Alicent, who, in line with the showrunners’ desire for her character to be like a “woman for Trump,” has removed all the sexy, vibrant Targaryen decor and turned the Red Keep into a shrine to the Seven, goes to see her king, who has returned to his tortured, pain-wracked, bed-ridden state of affairs. Out of his mind from pain and fantasy-dope, Viserys repeats snatches of the Song of Ice and Fire prophecy he shared with Rhaenyra when she was a teen, in which a “Prince Aegon” will unite the realm against an existential foe. Never mind that Rhaenyra has a pure-bred Targaryen son named Aegon and never mind that Aegon is the real name of a certain moody, secretly royal bastard to be born about 170 years later. Nope. Gotta be her Aegon, never mind that she had to dismiss a serving girl he raped in the beginning of the episode. The queen pays no mind to any of that, and, really, you can see how someone so power-obsessed would turn the other way to save herself and her family. After all these years of delicate positioning and assiduous politicking, why wouldn’t she cling to the notion that Viserys’ incoherent muttering was talking about her Aegon? She hears the king mention her son’s name, and even though she has no context for what he’s talking about and no one else is around to corroborate her story anyway, she is now emboldened from her interpreted truth.

The war is about to begin. And the worst part: It’s all based on the deterministic reading of a dying man’s gibberish.

Thinking back to The Sopranos’ final season, when Tony is recovering from being shot in the gut by Uncle Junior, his “every day is a gift” mantra is not applicable when it comes to shoring up his standing with his subordinates and rivals, and that sunny disposition behind the amends he offers to make with his sister, wife, and children doesn’t make his position any safer. If anything, that kind of insight could easily be perceived as weakness. Might Alicent have been more discerning when she heard her husband’s delirious moanings? Perhaps. But such discernment has no place in her ambitions. Just as war with the New York families loomed large near the end of The Sopranos, the Dance of Dragons covers the horizon like fog before a typhoon. Any advantage must be seized — family dinners be damned. For Alicent and Rhaenyra, there can be no quitting while they are ahead, because you can never stop looking over your shoulder.

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