House of the Dragon, S.1, Ep.4: “King of the Narrow Sea”
If you’ve ever wondered what it would look like if Judy Blume and George R.R. Martin collaborated on a teen coming-of-age novel, those questions will be answered with the newest episode of House of the Dragon. “King of the Narrow Sea” is essentially what would happen if an episode of Degrassi Junior High was set in Westeros and featured graphic sex scenes. This framing is definitely a bold choice, and it is exciting to see that HBO is willing to take risks with such a high-profile series. Your mileage may vary as to whether the experiment actually yields promising results, but it is good to see that the series is open to taking chances, even if that means it might sometimes make mistakes or get messy.
The episode largely tracks the sexual awakening of future monarch Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock), who breaks free from the castle walls for an evening of pleasure and entertainment in the most sordid parts of King’s Landing. Traumatized by her mother’s death in childbirth, Rhaenyra has only ever been able to see sex as a danger or death sentence since it ultimately killed her mother. This episode charts her sexual development as she learns to see sex as something that can be exciting and pleasurable, although she is also sternly reminded that these pleasures are not entirely without consequence. After she moves from one extreme to the other – from terrified of sex to overwhelmingly obsessed with it – Rhaenyra eventually finds a healthy in-between as she develops a nuanced understanding of how she connects with her own sexuality.
The story is done in a sophisticated, intimate, and extremely nuanced way. After last week’s episode where characters were largely flattened and one-note, House of the Dragon has redeemed itself by showing that the writing team can, indeed, write with a sense of depth and balance. Rhaenyra’s development is realistic, well-paced, and compelling; the episode takes its time charting her growth in gradual, ever-changing stages instead of rushing too fast into any single moment or feeling. While definitely not a conventional plotline for a large-budget high fantasy series, it is interesting to see House of the Dragon delve into an episode that is almost entirely focused on one character’s development in a very human way.
When she’s not learning about sexual pleasures, Rhaenyra spends the rest of the episode following a “Princess Jasmine from Aladdin” plotline that is a bit derivative. Disguising herself as a page boy, Rhaenyra sneaks out of the castle with her uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) to escape the confinement of royal life and play some commoner tourism. She’s delighted by the pleasures of the so-called “Smallfolk,” although clearly oblivious to the struggles of their everyday lives. Particularly cringey is her choice to have fun pretending that she is a thief who gets caught by the city guard, only to be let go immediately upon telling him who she is. The moment sets up an interesting contrast to the first episode’s portrayal of how brutal and violent the city guard can be, and Rhaenyra’s obliviousness to the real struggles of poverty is very well-sketched. It’s a story that’s been told many times before, and this version of it does not add much new, but it is still done effectively.
One of the biggest concerns about House of the Dragon going forward is that its smaller cast and more intimate focus means that it doesn’t have the same range of class representation that Game of Thrones did. House of the Dragon has repeatedly tried to address how the squabbles of the nobility harm the everyday people whom they are supposed to serve; however, it never provides these everyday people with a sustained point of view in the form of a notable character. While Game of Thrones had characters like Hodor, Osha, Ygritte, and Hot Pie to provide a much-needed commoner perspective on the plot, House of the Dragon’s cast are almost entirely noble.
The closest we get to everyday people are Sir Cristen Cole (Fabien Frankel) and Myseria (Sonoya Mizuno), and even they are so ingrained within courtly life that they hardly provide a voice for common people. They do provide some telling commentary on the way that power dynamics impact their freedom and respect within the courtly system, and Cristen’s plotline in this episode delves into the consequences of these power dynamics, but it is still not quite the same as the sort of perspective that someone like Ygritte provides. It is good that the series wants to show how the Targaryen’s actions impact that outside of the castle, but it remains to be seen if this will actually be communicated through the point of view of a noteworthy character outside of the court system, or if we will just get more “sheltered princess pretends to be poor for a day” stories.
The performances, as always, are phenomenal. Frankel and Minuzo have more opportunities than usual to explore their characters; both play commoners who have gotten uncomfortably swept up in the political and personal affairs of the nobility, and both capture very different emotional responses to this complicated situation very well. Alcock is fantastic as usual, and she continues to perfectly capture the complicated, messy, compelling growth of Rhaenyra as a character. Also, particularly noteworthy in this episode is Emily Carey as the young queen Alicent Hightower, who is absolutely heartbreaking as a young woman trapped in a life of quiet desperation.
From a technical standpoint, this episode might be the strongest yet. The sound design in House of the Dragon has been standing out remarkably, and this episode’s music and sound is striking. The opening scene begins with a sharp and beautiful score that sets the tone for an episode that knows exactly how to use music and audio to enhance the emotional tone of a scene. When the pensive and striking scene quickly shifts into comedy as we see the laughable pool of suitors being thrust at Rhaenyra, the poignant score and lush cinematography quickly shift to match the tonal change, and the quick contrast highlights the hilarity of the suitors’ sad attempts at wooing. While very well done, House of the Dragon has been missing a lot of its predecessor’s signature wit, so it is nice to see the episode indulging in some good-natured humor before the more dramatic moments of the episode take center stage.
On the whole, “King of the Narrow Sea” is a bold experimental take on genre and audience expectations. It defies expectations of the fantasy genre by dedicating an entire episode to the sexual awakening and coming of age of a teenager, creating an intimate character study that is a departure from the types of stories that usually take up space in a setting like Westeros. While Game of Thrones was known for its sex scenes, these scenes were often used sex for shock value, sexposition, or as a smaller part of a larger narrative focus. Having an entire episode all about sex, taking it seriously from a narrative and character perspective is an interesting choice, and one that results in an undeniably unique and compelling experience.
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.
– This is the first episode to finally feature a female director. It continues to be strange that a show that is so explicitly interested in foregrounding a woman’s perspective on the ASOIAF universe was spearheaded by male showrunners, and the first three episodes were entirely male-led. Because this episode deals with extremely sensitive subjects and goes very deep into the sexual development of a young woman, it is important that Clare Kilner was on set to lead the episode and ensure that the performers and characters were treated respectfully through the episode’s difficult moments. That being said, the episode was still written by Ira Parker; as women’s fictional voices in the series become more important, real-life women’s voices do not seem to be as much of a priority.
– As if Matt Smith couldn’t get any more fabulous, he shows up in this episode with a fantastic new haircut that is sure to delight fans. The wig and hair work is also becoming less distracting, although it is unclear whether the design is actually improving or if they’re just an acquired taste that is becoming more tolerable with repeated exposure.
– The title of this episode is a strange choice since it implies that Daemon will be more central to the narrative in what is actually a very Rhaenyra-focused episode. Alternate title suggestions: “Are you There God? It’s Me, Rhaenyra,” “Westeros Junior High,” “Game of Moans,” or “The Dragons and the Bees.”