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House of the Dragon’s latest episode reveals the series’ biggest problem

Alicent and Criston face each other in House of the Dragon season 2.
Ollie Upton / HBO

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

The second episode of House of the Dragon season 2 begins, as it should, in chaos. As the news of Prince Jaehaerys’ murder spreads throughout the Red Keep of King’s Landing, bed maidens and castle workers are detained, all while Jaehaerys’ father, Aegon II Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney), rages over his son’s death, and members of his Small Council — namely, Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) — brainstorm over how to respond to the tragic event. The Hightowers, as cunning as ever, decide to use Jaehaerys’ assassination to their political advantage by parading the boy’s dead body through the streets as part of a funeral procession and denouncing his murder as an act of wanton cruelty on the part of Aegon’s rival, Rhaenyra (Emmy D’Arcy).

Jaehaerys’ death naturally hangs heavy over the entirety of House of the Dragon episode 2, and director Clare Kilner repeatedly re-emphasizes the grisly nature of his murder with close-up shots of his bloodied bedsheets and the stitches that keep his severed head attached to his corpse. Despite all of that, the episode, written by Sara Hess, greatly struggles to navigate the inevitably dour mood set by the House of the Dragon season 2 premiere’s shocking conclusion. The episode, specifically, races through so many important plot twists and developments that it leaves you reeling from the emotional whiplash caused by its haphazard plotting.

There’s too much going on

Alicent sits next to Helaena in House of the Dragon season 2.
Theo Whitman / HBO

House of the Dragon‘s latest episode packs a lot into its 69-minute runtime, which — despite its length — proves to be too short. So much happens throughout the installment, including Jaehaerys’ morbid funeral, Otto’s removal as Hand of the King, Aegon’s executions of all of the Red Keep’s ratcatchers, Criston Cole’s (Fabien Frankel) confrontation with Arryk Cargyll (Luke Tittensor) and his subsequent demand that Arryk pose as his brother Erryk (Elliott Tittensor) and attempt to assassinate Rhaenyra Targaryen. That, notably, is just what happens in the episode’s King’s Landing scenes.

On top of all of those beats, the episode also makes time for a tense argument and parting of the ways between Rhaenyra and her husband, Daemon (Matt Smith), over his involvement in Jaehaerys’ murder, multiple scenes between Rhaenyra and a still-captive Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), and a duel between the Cargyll twins that results in the deaths of both. Somehow, in spite of all the moments of grief and death scattered throughout the episode, it then ends with Alicent and Criston sleeping together again less than 24 hours after their affair helped pave the way for the murder of one of Alicent’s grandchildren.

The show’s real battle: plot vs. character development

Alicent stands alone in House of the Dragon season 2.
Ollie Upton / HBO

To say that the latter scene is an odd one for the episode to end on would be an understatement. It is, for starters, extremely jarring to jump from the brutal back-to-back deaths of Arryk and Erryk Cargyll to more increasingly callous and emotionally cold moments between Alicent, Otto, and Criston. Even more importantly, Alicent and Criston’s climactic hookup speaks to a bigger problem that House of the Dragon has faced ever since it premiered, and which is suffocatingly apparent throughout the show’s most recent installment. The series, quite simply, continues to have a hard time juggling the emotional needs of its many characters with the necessary advancements of its plot.

The new episode rushes through so many confrontations, deaths, and political twists that it doesn’t give itself any room to explore the emotions its biggest moments would inevitably provoke. No one outside of Aegon and Jaehaerys’ mother, Helaena (Phia Saban), reacts at all normally to the boy’s midnight decapitation. Alicent, Otto, and Criston, in particular, treat the event with a level of disregard that isn’t just appalling but which defies logic. To be clear, House of the Dragon‘s characters can absolutely be villainous, but the show has to be careful not to lean so hard into their shared selfishness that they become one-note.

The series’ latest chapter jams so much violent, brutal trauma into its runtime that it’s impossible to accept even two characters as self-involved as Alicent and Criston immediately moving past Jaehaerys’ horrifying murder and jumping right back into bed together. It’s a storytelling decision that threatens to completely negate the initial weight of Jaehaerys’ death.

Is House of the Dragon repeating Game of Thrones’ biggest mistake?

House of the Dragon Season 2 | Weeks Ahead Trailer | Max

For most of its eight-season run, Game of Thrones managed to keep its overarching story moving forward without ever leaving its characters and their needs by the wayside. That, of course, changed in the show’s final two seasons when it began to prioritize its plot over its characters, but Thrones would not have gained the following that it did if it had always fallen victim to that mistake. Up to this point, House of the Dragon has never taken its audience’s intelligence for granted as much as Thrones‘ last 13 episodes did.

The show has, however, consistently struggled to bring its plot-heavy source material (a fictionalized history of the Targaryen dynasty titled Fire & Blood) to the screen. That’s a problem it will have to address sooner rather than later if it wants to stop causing the same kinds of intense emotional whiplash that it does throughout its newest episode, especially given that the seeds have already been planted for its cast to grow even larger this season and next.

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

Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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