House of the Dragon: 'The Black Queen,' explained

Now that's what I call a cliffhanger!

House of the Dragon's shocking season finale culminates in a major character's death, which marks a departure from the source material and sets the stage for a bloody second season. Let's break it down with some book context: 

One funeral and a coronation

We begin at Dragonstone, where Rhaenyra's (Emma D'Arcy) son Luke (Elliot Grihault) is fretting over the idea that he may soon become Lord of the Tides, as it's still not clear that Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) will survive his wounds. "It should have passed on to Ser Vaemond," he says, referring to the brother of Corlys whom Daemon (Matt Smith) beheaded. Between Luke and Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), the show really has a thing for kids who want nothing to do with their birthrights. Rhaenyra, reflecting on being named heir when the show began, gives her son a speech about doing one's duty and earning an inheritance. Well, the good news is that based on the way this episode ends, Luke won't have to become Lord of the Tides after all … so there's that!

Their conversation is soon interrupted by the arrival of Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), who comes straight from King's Landing to hit Rhaenyra with back-to-back gut punches: Viserys is dead, and oh yeah, Aegon has already usurped the throne and been crowned king. The stress sends a pregnant Rhaenyra into an early, painful labor, but the child is stillborn — and, in a decision likely to spark debate over whether the show went too far, we see her baby's bloodied, lifeless corpse in horrifying detail. Did this really need to be so graphic, guys? In the book Fire & Blood, Rhaenyra blames Alicent (Olivia Cooke) for the death of her child, who's revealed to be a girl, Visenya, named after the sister/wife of Aegon the Conqueror. 

"She was my only daughter, and they killed her," Rhaenyra says in Fire & Blood. "They stole my crown and murdered my daughter, and they shall answer for it." 

At the baby's funeral, Ser Erryk Cargyll (Elliott Tittensor) — the Kingsguard knight who helped Rhaenys escape King's Landing last week — arrives, declaring loyalty to Rhaenyra and presenting her with the crown formerly worn by Viserys and his predecessor, Jaehaerys; the book says this crown was stolen from King's Landing by a steward after Alicent ordered it to be locked away. Way to come through, Erryk! 

So we now officially have two rival claimants to the throne, both of whom have held coronation ceremonies for themselves; Aegon is wearing the crown of Aegon the Conqueror, the first lord of the Seven Kingdoms, while Rhaenyra wears the crown of her father. Aegon, though, certainly has the upper hand, given he's been crowned in King's Landing in front of thousands, making him appear more legitimate than the actual, rightful heir. It's also worth noting Viserys told Alicent earlier this season he had a vision of a son wearing Aegon the Conqueror's crown, giving her even more reason to believe she's following his wishes. 

The black council

Daemon is ready to jump right into war and start chopping off some more heads, even leaping to the conclusion that Viserys was murdered by Alicent — as if his brother wasn't already nearly dead a few days ago. "How did Viserys die?" he asks. Um, had you seen him? Daemon assembles a council and immediately begins plotting, despite Rhaenyra insisting nothing be done until she commands it. 

The book dubs this gathering of those loyal to Rhaenyra as "the black council," in contrast to Alicent's "green council." The "blacks" refers to Rhaenyra's side of the war in the book, while the "greens" refers to Alicent's side, hence the title of this episode being "The Black Queen." (The show never gave an origin for the term "blacks," but in the book, it comes from the fact that Rhaenyra wore red and black at the event where Alicent wore a green dress.) 

Daemon is so steadfast about going to war, he never even comes to his wife's side during her audibly painful labor, instead demanding members of the Kingsguard swear loyalty to her or be burnt to death. The show calls back a line in the pilot about how the childbed is a battlefield for women as it cuts back and forth between Daemon making moves and Rhaenyra waging another kind of war in her chambers. As Rhaenyra screams, we also see shots of her dragon, Syrax, appearing to be in pain too, emphasizing the connection between them. 

But after Rhaenyra is crowned, the plotting begins properly. As Daemon notes, their side doesn't have much of an army, though they have more dragons, especially if you count the ones that don't currently have a rider. (On the other hand, Aegon's side has the biggest dragon in the world, Vhagar, so that surely makes up for the difference in numbers.) Laenor's dragon, Seasmoke, hasn't been claimed by anyone since his fake death and is still on Driftmark.

We also later see Daemon singing to Vermithor, a rather large dragon who's about 100 years old and was last ridden by Viserys' predecessor, Jaehaerys, but doesn't currently have a rider. The book names Vermithor, who's living at Dragonstone, as one of several dragons that were "more accepting of new riders," so Daemon's getting him ready for one. It remains to be seen who will claim the beast, though Daemon's daughter Rhaena would make sense given she still doesn't have a dragon. Vermithor is meant to be the second biggest dragon alive after Vhagar, who's being ridden by Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) at the moment. Daemon also mentions another dragon, Silverwing, as being unclaimed on Dragonstone, having formerly been ridden by Jaehaerys's wife, Alysanne. There are also three wild dragons at Dragonstone, as well as some eggs that haven't hatched yet. 

In terms of allies, Rhaenyra feels confident she'll have the support of House Arryn in the Vale given her late mother was an Arryn, though the fact that the wife Daemon murdered was from the Vale could complicate things. Daemon, meanwhile, plans to head to the Riverlands to earn the support of Grover Tully (whose name, yes, is a Sesame Street reference, and his descendants are even named Elmo, Kermit, and Oscar). 

We know from last week, though, that Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) has already sent ravens to the Riverlands. And while Daemon says he'll send word to his loyal men in the City Watch, Otto mentioned last week he'd be moving to replace the captains who are Daemon loyalists, so the green team definitely has a big advantage by getting a head start. 

The quest for peace

Otto arrives to present terms of surrender, and since Alicent was able to push Aegon toward attempting a peaceful resolution, it's actually a fairly decent offer: If Rhaenyra bends the knee, she can keep Dragonstone, Luke will still be heir to Driftmark, and her sons with Daemon will be given gigs in King's Landing. 

Otto also presents Rhaenyra with a page torn out of the book that she and Alicent were reading together as kids in the first episode, the implication being that Alicent kept it all these years as a symbol of their friendship. It's become increasingly clear that Alicent does still care about her former friend, so could there still be a way to avoid bloodshed? Rhaenyra actually gets emotional seeing the page, though a trigger-happy Daemon wants to behead Otto right there. But Rhaenyra is ready to consider the offer, weighing the responsibility she has to secure peace for the realm and not lead it into a devastating war, even if that means never becoming queen herself. 

Daemon, for one, is furious she'd even consider that, and he grows so angry he begins choking her. This violent moment in the show is already somewhat controversial among certain book readers, given it's not from the source material — but to fair, this guy did already murder one wife, so it's not exactly out of character, either. Daemon is also a lot more enthusiastic about heading to war in this episode than in the book; in Fire & Blood, he at one point muses, "I will not throw our dragons against the usurper's unless I have no other choice," which ends up more being Rhaenyra's position in the show. Meanwhile, Rhaenyra showed no sign of considering the offer in the book, instead immediately declaring, "Tell my half-brother that I will have my throne, or I will have his head." 

But Rhaenyra does have a point that the offer is worth weighing. The whole reason she felt she had a duty to serve is because of the Song of Ice and Fire prophecy, but that only suggests a Targaryen must be seated on the Iron Throne to unite the realm against darkness during the coming winter. So maybe bending the knee to Aegon is a sacrifice Rhaenyra should make for the greater good. She just assumes Daemon knows about the Song of Ice and Fire, given he was heir to the Iron Throne before she was. But based on Daemon's reaction, it's clear Viserys never told him.

This suggests that in Viserys' mind, Daemon was never actually a candidate to become king, a realization that has to sting — and Rhaenyra smirks, as if rubbing it in. Paddy Considine recently revealed to The New York Times a scene was filmed where Viserys attempts to hint at "this idea of prophecies" to Daemon to gauge his reaction, but it was cut because "there's no way that Daemon would even connect to that — he'd laugh Viserys out of the room."

One last fight

When Rhaenys delivers news of Aegon's coronation, Daemon asks the question fans couldn't stop obsessing over last week: Why didn't she simply kill Aegon and Alicent while she had the chance? Well, she says it's because the coming war "is not mine to begin," a fairly decent explanation — so can we calm down, everyone? Even though Rhaenys spurned Alicent for a while, it's not clear that she's going to side with Rhaenyra, either; notably, she's the only one who doesn't kneel during Rhaenyra's coronation. Yet Daemon prematurely presumes her support during the black council scene, listing her dragon, Meleys, as being on their side — cut to Rhaenys giving a confused glance. 

But soon, Corlys finally returns after a two-episode absence, having recovered from his injuries. After the deaths of his daughter, son, and brother, he's ready to give up his quest for power and just retire, not picking either side in the war. But it's Rhaenys who convinces him to declare for Rhaenyra; like Alicent, she fears her grandchildren (or alleged grandchildren) will be killed by Aegon, and besides, seeing Rhaenyra's practicality and reluctance to go to war first-hand seems to have made her a genuine believer in her as queen. 

And so Rhaenyra now has the major advantage of Corlys' fleet, the biggest in the realm, behind her. Just as importantly, Corlys has gained control of the Stepstones, the crucial island chain between Westeros and Essos, meaning he can block travel and shipping to King's Landing. After refusing to kneel earlier, Rhaenys is now ready to get involved too by using her dragon in this blockade effort. There's a great line in the book where Corlys describes himself as clinging to life "like a drowning sailor clinging to the wreckage of a sunken ship," and he suggests the gods kept him alive "for this one last fight."  

This means war

Rhaenyra, still looking to avoid starting this war, seeks to get a few key houses on her side: The Starks in Winterfell (who are so concerned about their honor that they're unlikely to break their oath to her, one character points out); the Baratheons in Storm's End; and the Arryns in the Eyrie. But Jace has the wise idea to deliver messages to these lords personally when Rhaenyra could have easily just sent a raven — giving off big "this meeting could have been an email" energy. So Jace is dispatched to Winterfell and the Eyrie, while Luke heads to Storm's End, though Luke is clearly reluctant. Hey, what could possibly go wrong, kid? 

We last visited Storm's End in episode four, when Rhaenyra went there as part of her marriage tour. At the time, the lord of Storm's End was Boremund Baratheon (Julian Lewis Jones), who swore loyalty to Rhaenyra when she was named heir; the fact that Rhaenys, whose mother was a Baratheon, has declared for Rhaenyra might not hurt in terms of getting the house on their side. Luke's journey to Storm's End is meant to be a fairly simple delivery mission, and Rhaenyra makes him and Jace swear on the Seven-Pointed Star (basically, the in-world equivalent of the Bible) that they won't go to battle. She doesn't have much reason to be worried about the mission, believing Luke will get a warm welcome in Storm's End, and besides, Fire & Blood notes it was Jace who actually had the more dangerous assignment. 

But Luke is in for a rude awakening when he arrives and Aemond has beat him there with his dragon, Vhagar. Storm's End is also no longer controlled by Boremund, but by his son Borros, who couldn't care less about the oath his father swore to Rhaenyra two decades ago. All Luke has is a message for Borros, whereas Aemond has offered him a marriage pact and plans to marry one of his daughters, something Luke can't do given he's betrothed to Daemon's daughter, Rhaena (Phoebe Campbell). In a fun nod to the book, which describes Boros as "never a man of letters," it's implied he's illiterate — he's the Lea Michele of Westeros! — so he has to give the letter to his maester to be read into his ear. This leaves open the question of whether the maester accurately conveyed the message to him. 

Aemond, still salty over Luke taking out his eye years ago, demands an eye in return; he takes off his eyepatch, revealing he has replaced his missing eye with a sapphire. Fighting almost breaks out right there, but Borros forbids it. So Aemond starts chasing Luke on dragonback, still just demanding an eye and trying to scare him. But things escalate quickly when Luke's dragon, Arrax, and Aemond's dragon, Vhagar, both go rogue and stop obeying their commands. Arrax first attacks Vhagar against Luke's orders, and Vhagar then chomps down on Arrax, brutally killing him and Luke. Cut back to Aemond, who clearly didn't mean for this to happen … cue an Arrested Development style "I've made a huge mistake." 

The big question now is whether Aemond will own up to this as an accident or decide to act like it was intentional, so as to seem ruthless rather than completely incompetent. Either way, it's worth noting that "kinslaying" is considered just about the absolute worst crime imaginable in Westeros. "No man or woman is as accursed as the kinslayer," Rhaenyra says in Fire & Blood, and Aemond just became one. Whoops! 

This is another example of a moment that even shocked book readers, as Fire & Blood suggests Aemond killed Luke on purpose. But this twist was foreshadowed in the pilot when Viserys warned Rhaenyra that "the idea that we control the dragons is an illusion," and they're a "power men should never have trifled with." Not only did he call it, but it looks like the dragons will be a large part of the reason the civil war between Aegon and Rhaenyra, known as the Dance of the Dragons, happens in the first place. If dragons brought Valyria its doom, as Viserys previously said, they could now be set to bring down the House of the Dragon itself. 

After all, Rhaenyra, who has had to grieve a father and two kids within in a single episode, surely believes Aemond intentionally murdered her son. The pilot ended with Rhaenyra turning toward the camera looking reluctant, and the finale ends with a chilling shot her turning toward the camera filled with burning rage — so it's safe to say there's no longer any possibility of averting a war. After Luke's death, Fire & Blood describes, "the war of ravens and envoys and marriage pacts came to an end, and the war of fire and blood began in earnest." Talk about a cliffhanger, right? 

It isn't made entirely clear when or how Daemon learns about Luke's death, though the book notes that "watchers on the castle walls saw distant blasts of flame, and heard a shriek cut the thunder," so there were presumably some witnesses on the ground. The book also says Arrax's head and neck washed up on the cliffs of Storm's End, so that's another way they could have found out. 

Now what…?

And that's a wrap on season one! In the grand scheme of this story, these first 10 episodes were largely setup to ensure we're invested in all of the major players when the Dance of the Dragons begins, and now that it has, we can expect an even more action packed sophomore season. The show's biggest issue so far has been that its frequent time jumps often meant key events felt a bit rushed. But if the series has been speeding through certain plot points, it all has been to get to the place we're at now — and season two shouldn't have that issue as much. 

Many questions are left up in the air, though, including whether Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) was killed in that fire started by Larys (Matthew Needham) last week. As far as when season two might arrive, brace for a rather long wait, as it surely won't air before 2024 — by which point, we'll optimistically assume George R.R. Martin may have written two, or maybe even three, more chapters of The Winds of Winter.


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