House of the Dragon, S.1, Ep.8:
“The Green Council” Review
Game of Thrones is known for its large-scale penultimate episodes. While the series’ season finales were (usually) very strong, the real highlight for fans was always that second-last episode, which was typically the most shocking, intense, and epic of the season. Needless to say, as a prequel to Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon had high expectations for its own first penultimate episode “The Green Council.” While the episode has a few rough spots, and it’s far from perfect, there are two absolutely stunning elements that make it memorable and worth celebrating.
The two standout parts of this episode are Olivia Cooke’s jaw-dropping performance as Alicent Hightower and an ending that seems to nail down a central thesis of Fire & Blood that the series has otherwise failed to develop thus far. The latter will be discussed in more detail during the spoiler zone at the end of this review; in the interest of keeping the rest of the review spoiler-free, it obviously doesn’t make sense to comment on the episode’s final scene in too much detail. All I will say here is that it is refreshing to see the series finally return to a thematic issue that it keeps hinting at, but hasn’t yet fully explored.
Like “Blackwater,” one of Game of Thrones’ most memorable episodes, “The Green Council” is focused on one singular, major event in one single location. Many major characters don’t even appear on screen; even Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), who is being increasingly (if a bit problematically) positioned as the show’s protagonist, is entirely absent. The episode follows the immediate aftermath of the death of King Viserys (Paddy Considine): within moments of his passing, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) initiates a long-awaited scheme to ensure that his grandson Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) takes the throne and invalidates Rhaenyra’s claim.
Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, Alicent believes that her husband’s dying wish was for their son Aegon to take the throne. Of course, Viserys was actually making a completely unrelated comment about a dream had by Aegon the Conquerer, after whom his son was named: he still fully intended for the throne to go to Rhaenyra. Alicent, having no knowledge of Aegon the Conquerer’s dream, assumed that he was talking about their Aegon, and thus decides to support his claim to the throne thinking she is honoring her husband’s memory.
At first glance, it would be easy to pin the entire civil war that is likely about to commence on a misunderstanding at Viserys’ deathbed; however, Alicent quickly learns that this misunderstanding is completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Her father, along with many powerful lords, had been planning a coup all along, and they clearly intended to proceed with it regardless of what Viserys or Alicent intended. They also intend to muder Rhaenyra; while Alicent agrees to support Aegon’s claim, she does want a nonviolent resolution. Alicent spends the rest of the episode trying to understand what power means to her; she navigates between naive dreams of being able to “sweetly steer powerful men towards peace” and pressure from powerful figures like Rhaenys (Eve Best) to demand more for herself.
This is very much Alicent’s episode, and it is a compelling character study. At any given moment, Alicent is balancing the many different people that she has been in her life: she is, all at once, a sweet and loving young girl who got swept up in politics beyond her ambition, a deeply sad and dissatisfied woman trapped in a hopeless situation, a fierce defender of the people she loves, a woman slowly learning to embrace her own strength and find her own voice, a loving wife mourning her husband, and a forceful maelstrom of power, hope, despair, desperation, love, and fury. Alicent has spent her life swept up in the schemes and desires of powerful political figures, and in this episode she desperately seeks a way to take the wheel. Her situation seems hopeless: people plot to murder the only real friend she has ever had while her evil, sadistic son is being positioned to rule the entire realm, and there is little she can do besides look for agency and influence in the very limited options available to her. As Rhaenys says, Alicent has spent a lot of time putting up more windows inside her cage, but she is still trapped in so many ways.
Alicent’s core is made up of seeming contradictions; through her increasingly jaded frustration, she also still preserves a fragment of the sincere hope that she had as a child. Through her fury she clings to kindness, and through her despair she seeks empowerment. The one thing that Alicent rarely experiences is joy, and the series emphasizes the way that a life filled with sadness, tragedy, and a constantly stolen agency can do to grind a person down. Alicent’s situation is devastating, and her character is one of the most complex, heart-wrenching sophisticatedly-written characters that ASOIAF has seen since characters like Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner).
It takes a skilled pen and a phenomenal performer to pull off a character like Alicent, and luckily Sara Hess and Olivia Cooke are more than up for the job. It is inspiring to see an actress who manages to embody so many sides of the same character in every shot; Alicent’s every facial expression simultaneously communicates her mourning, her fear for Rhaenyra, her despair, her desperation, her determination, her hope, and her strength all intermingling as she tries to figure out who she is and how she intends to move through a world that has been set up to tear her down. Cooke embodies so much emotion and intensity in her performance that it is safe to say that her work is by far one of the most meaningful parts of the series. Between Cooke’s masterful performance in this episode and similarly powerful performances from the rest of the cast in last week’s, it is safe to say that, for all of its flaws, House of the Dragon is worth the watch for the acting alone.
Unfortunately, while “The Green Council” is a stunning character study when it focuses on Alicent (which is the majority of the episode), the rest of it is a bit rough. The problem, which House of the Dragon has had before, is with repetition. It is always a bit obvious when a show doesn’t trust its audience, and it is a bit disappointing how little faith House of the Dragon sometimes seems to have in its.
It was made perfectly clear last week that Aegon is a terrible person, so it is strange that “The Green Council” spends so much time making sure you know that he is. When a character has a reputation for sexually assuatling women on a regular basis, it should be pretty clear already that he’s evil; adding in a child pit fighting ring to the equation just to make it absolutely clear that Aegon’s actions are desicable seems redundant, especially since the show doesn’t seem to intend to do anything else narratively or thematically with the ring besides remind people that “Aegon = Bad.” Similarly, watching Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) casually smash an old man’s head into a table serves as a friendly reminder that he’s the worst, but at this point this kind of scene is just beating a dead horse. We already understand that we’re not supposed to like Criston or Aegon, so spending a huge portion of the penultimate episode simply reminding people of something that they already know seems like wasted time.
A large part of the episode consists of people trying to find Aegon, who is hiding because he doesn’t want to be king. The weak narrative device (“Aegon is missing? Can you find him?) is a thinly-veiled excuse to bring audiences on a tour through all of the bad things that he does (which, again, is something we already knew), and to show off a bit of King’s Landing. The section is largely either uninteresting, repetitive, pointless, or just generally poorly-paced enough to make viewers want the camera to return to whatever is happening with Alicent. Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) is also shoehorned in; she is now an underworld leader known as the White Worm, and while this sets her up as a potentially compelling character in the future, her role in this episode is largely unnecessary. Speaking of shoehorning, Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) continues to be largely pointless, mainly serving as an attempt for the show to appeal to fans of Petyr Baelish without capturing any of the reasons why people actually liked Littlefinger’s character.
Overall, however, all of these weaknesses are more than worth it; it’s easy to forget all of the underwhelming parts of the episode because the best parts are so memorable. Alicent’s character is written expertly in this episode, and Cooke conveys her extremely well. The episode’s other highlight, its compelling ending, is something that will be covered in the Final Thoughts section (which is fair game for spoilers), but it is also worth the experience. On the whole, House of the Dragon’s first season is winding up to a satisfying and compelling conclusion, and the show has more than proven that it is worth getting excited about.
Unlike the rest of the review, which aims to be as spoiler-free as possible, this section explores some additional notes on the episode, and may occasionally dabble into major spoiler territory. It may contain spoilers, both for this episode and for the larger ASOIAF universe including novels that have yet to see TV adaptation. Proceed at your own risk.
Way back in Episode 3, I mentioned being excited about the fact that House of the Dragon looked like it was going to make meaningful commentary about how the high-stakes power struggles of the nobility often completely ignore the lives of the everyday people they impact. While the small council may talk a big game about “protecting the realm,” the reality is that their actions often do little to help the very people who actually make up said realm; in fact, their actions are often harmful. Episode 4 also hints at this theme, but the series otherwise consistently drops it, forgets about it, or fails to develop it effectively.
In a series about a civil war between two powerful houses, it can be easy to get swept up in the drama about which line of succession is right and which is wrong; however, in doing so, one can lose sight of the fact that this sort of war often means devastation, death, and struggle for the people who have to live through it and fight in it. Getting too wrapped up in powerful individuals and symbolic titles often means ignoring the people who those titles and figures are supposed to serve.
This episode ends with a powerful reminder of this issue. On the one hand, Rhaenys is positioned as being one of the “good guys.” With Vaegon clearly being evil, the series is obviously trying to emphasize that Rhaenyra is a better ruler for the Seven Kingdoms; with all of her flaws, she is not a sadist who enjoys forcing small children to brutalize each other in a fighting pit. While Alicent definitely gets more depth in this episode, the series is still doing a lot of work to position audiences on the side of Rhaenyra’s Blacks and against Alicent’s Greens. With all of this in mind, fans should be cheering on as Rhaneys emerges from the ground on dragonback, triumphantly escaping her imprisonment, threatening the evil king, and riding away to warn Rhaenyra of the attempt on her life.
Except, in the process, she injures and likely kills a large number of the innocent people who had just been literally herded in to watch Vaegon’s coronation. Whatever someone thinks about things like lines of succession and Valyrian blood, all of this is completely irrelevant to the guy who got randomly killed by a wayward dragon wing because Rhaenys wanted to make a dramatic entrance when she knew the building was packed full of innocent people. Rhaenys’ exciting moment that would normally have fans cheering feels uncomfortable and jarring because of the clear disregard for the common folks’ lives that she shows in the process. On the grand stage of the game of thrones, it was a brilliant and powerful move; in the everyday lives of real people, it was selfish and devastating.
This duality – between what seems heroic in the world of nobles and bloodlines and what actually matters for the majority of the population – is something that should be at the heart of a series like House of the Dragon. It was a core theme of much of Game of Thrones, and something that is just as relevant in a series about a civil war between two individuals that ends up engulfing an entire continent. While protecting the realm from an evil king like Vaegon is a meaningful issue that likely does affect the everyday person by protecting them from his horrific acts, the larger questions of whose bloodline matters or whose parentage is legitimate ultimately mean nothing to someone whose death becomes collateral damage.
House of the Dragon has been hinting at this theme repeatedly, but has yet to fully delve into it. By ending their penultimate episode with a major catastrophe inflicted by the showy display of one of the most likeable, protagonist-sided characters in the series, the show has finally hit the nail on the head, committing to the commentary set up by the powerful opening to its third episode. The scene is remarkable, impactful, and memorable, and it is one of the highlights of the series by far.