Civil war in Westeros is hell

I expected to read “The Red Dragon and the Gold,” the fourth episode of House of the Dragon‘s second season, I felt excited. Based on the episode’s title, last week’s preview, and book readers’ knowledge of what happens at Rook’s Rest, I expected tension, adrenaline, and Loot Train Attack-level spectacle from this show’s first mass dragon battle.

But an hour later, after the credits had rolled, the battle had ended, and at least one major character had died, I felt dejected instead. Not because the episode failed, to be clear, but because it succeeded in portraying a different kind of warfare: chaotic, uncontrollable, and, above all, tragic for everyone involved. It’s like Dragon did their best to disprove Francois Truffaut’s sentiment that there is no such thing as an anti-war film.

For countless episodes, characters have promised that war would come; now, in the aftermath of Rhaenyra’s failed peace talks with Alicent in Episode 3, it is finally, irrevocably here. Even the dispossessed queen knows it, saying, “I have only one choice left: Either I win my claim or I die.”

As was the case with many of Game of Thrones‘ most spectacular battle episode, “The Red Dragon and the Gold” spends time with characters talking in rooms before climaxing in fire and blood. The episode’s early scenes fill in several plot points and character arcs: Daemon has a delightfully odd conversation with Alys Rivers at Harrenhal; Jace learns the secret prophecy of the “Song of Ice and Fire”; Alicent drinks moon tea to ward off a potential pregnancy with Criston Cole. But ultimately, the shortest episode of Season 2 so far is all about the fight.

Last week, Dragon did not show the actual Battle of the Burning Mill, only the corpse-filled aftermath. That effective choice left Rook’s Rest as the location of Dragon‘s first large-scale depiction of war – and a battle between dragons at that, which hasn’t happened in Westeros for over 80 years. (Vhagar versus little Arrax in the season 1 finale was more of a quickie than a battle for the former.)

A series of seemingly odd decisions from Criston Cole sets the stage for this conflict. The Kingsguard’s supreme commander and Hand of the King chooses to march his army to Rook’s Rest—a “pathetic prize,” Aegon sneers—rather than the more obvious target of Harrenhal, and then attacks in broad daylight rather than waiting to lay siege at night. “Fucking madness!” cries Gwayne Hightower.

But the hand is not lost on its wits; it is a trap! By attacking Rook’s Rest, the closest mainland castle to Dragonstone, Cole can lure out one of the Black Dragons—and then Aemond and Vhagar, lurking in a nearby forest, can take up the challenge.

The first part of this draft goes according to plan, as Rhaenys dons her armor, leaps onto Meleys, and charges into battle. But to the surprise of Aemond and Criston, so does Aegon, still sulking after a scolding from his mother, who mocks the king for “just doing what’s expected of you: nothing.”

Before flying off to war, Rhaenys and Aegon partake in an incredibly sweet reunion—or bittersweet, in retrospect, after seeing what happens to the dragons and riders. Rhaenys greets Meleys and Aegon greets Sunfyre affectionately, and both take a second to hug their mounts, emphasizing the bond between dragon and rider. Aegon even grins when he sees his beautiful golden steed, the only creature that can make the king smile since the death of his son.

But by doing something instead of NothingAegon disrupts the fall of the greens. Instead of a one-on-one fight between Meleys and Vhagar, it is a three-way dogfight. Aemond first stands aside instead of coming to his brother’s aid, and then, after joining the fight, orders a dragons blast without remorse or fear for Aegon’s health. Hit hard by the explosion of fire, Sunfyre falls like a stone to crash into the forest below.

This betrayal – which remarkably enough does not occur in Fire & BloodWhere Aegon and Aemond seem to be deliberately plotting against Rhaenys, the setup is right to fit the story. Aegon rushes to battle because he detests his brother for “conspiring without my permission,” while Aemond is stressed by the king’s mockery in the brothel and the broader belief that he would serve as a superior leader. (When Aemond mocks Aegon with an impressive High Valyrian vocabulary, the king can only sputter, “I can… wage… a… war” in response. Later, Aegon speaks to his dragon in the common tongue, while every other rider uses High Valyrian to give commands.)

With Sunfyre out of the picture, Rhaenys and Meleys turn to engage Aemond and Vhagar. As the two dragons close in, the camera captures Vhagar and Meleys in silhouette from below, hauntingly beautiful as they dance.

(The only major problem I have with this episode is the inscrutability of Rhaenys’ decision to turn and fight Vhagar, rather than flee from Meleys, who Fire & Blood calls “as swift a dragon as Westeros had ever seen.” Did she return to fight because of her troubled personal life, after confronting Corlys about his indiscretions and bastard children? Did she believe her dragon had a chance against Vhagar? Did she want to save the day, even with long odds? This choice is especially confusing because Rhaenys not (taking the chance to attack with Meleys during Aegon’s coronation in Season 1, when she could have ended the war before it began. “You should have burned them when you had the chance,” one of Team Black’s advisors tells Baela in this episode, referring to her pursuit of Criston and Gwayne. But that sentiment applies even more to Rhaenys at the dragon’s den.)

The resulting dragon duel is depicted as a tragedy for everyone on the battlefield. Earlier in the episode, Aemond remarks, “This war will not be won with dragons alone, but with dragons flying behind armies of men.” That’s true in the context of a long war, but in the (literal) heat of battle, it’s hard to imagine that the men matter all that much. The soldiers look like helpless little toys the size of dolls compared to the behemoths breathing fire above them. Vhagar is so massive that when she falls to the ground, the shockwave knocks Criston off his horse. The episode then uses slow motion to emphasize the immense damage she carelessly causes, crushing two men with a single thrust of a claw.

The soundscape contributes to this sense of overwhelming violence, from the panicked cries of faceless foot soldiers to the screams and agonized cries of the dragons. At various points in the battle, music and background noise fade in to emphasize the beleaguered breathing of the central characters.

Smoke fills the screen. Screams fill the air. And Meleys’ blood finally fills Vhagar’s belly, as Aemond’s mighty mount, the oldest living dragon in the known world, claims another scalp for her collection.

This climax of death seems shocking at the time, but how can a clash of this intensity not result in the death of at least one prominent character? Face clouded by soot, eyes rimmed with red, Rhaenys looks out over the field of blood and fire she so desperately wanted to avoid—and it is almost the last thing she ever sees, as Vhagar rises to capture Meleys’ neck in her jaws. The smaller dragon cannot break free, and as the light leaves her eyes, she looks back at her rider—the one the Red Queen had ridden for half a century; the one who had arrived at her wedding to Corlys on Meleys’ back—for the last time. Then the head breaks free, and the headless dragon and her human plummet to the earth below.

After Meleys and Rhaenys die, the camera cuts to Criston, who for a while is the only living person on screen; everyone else is either a corpse or a pile of ash. At one point, he tries to recruit a comrade to help him find Aegon, but the armor he touches falls to the ground as the body inside it crumbles to dust. Eventually, Criston staggers within sight of the crater formed when Sunfyre struck the forest, but by the end of the episode it is questionable whether Aegon is still alive.

From a plot perspective, it is unclear—as was the case with the Battle of the Burning Mill—whether either side can claim victory at Rook’s Rest, given the untold carnage on both sides. The dragon is both the symbol of and the reason for Targaryen rule in Westeros, so every dragon death serves as an attack on the unified Targaryen hegemony. As Rhaenyra said in the show’s pilot episode, without dragons, the royal family would be “just like everyone else.”

Fire & Blood describes Viserys’ reign as “the height of Targaryen power in Westeros”, with “more dragons than ever before”. But in the short time since Viserys’ death, that number has now decreased by at least two (Arrax and Meleys), perhaps as many as three (Sunfyre). Vhagar and Aemond are the culprits in each death – asserting their own dominance, but also weakening the broader power that Aemond’s family wields. It’s no coincidence that earlier in the episode, Alicent drops and breaks the dragon statue she had once repaired for Viserys.

And from a narrative perspective, that Dragon would stage its first full-on (pun intended) battle as such a hopeless disaster story sets the tone for the rest of the series. This portrayal is unlike any previous dragon battle in the Thrones universe. During most of the dragon raids in the original series, Daenerys and her children were the heroes, so the audience cheered for their raids against the slavemasters in Astapor, the Lannister forces on the Gold Road, and the wights beyond the Wall. Even when people were burned alive, those scenes were not depicted as horrors; they were triumphs.

But the Battle of Rook’s Rest brings only devastation, destruction, and death—the fulfillment of Rhaenys’ prophecy that “no war is so bloody as a war between dragons.” Except for Aemond and perhaps Vhagar, no one escapes unscathed. Even Criston, an architect of the successful battle plan, is knocked unconscious, wounded, and witnesses the potential downfall of his king.

“Now I’ve barely had hours to grieve one tragedy before I have to endure another,” Alicent laments in this episode, before one of her sons potentially kills another. That challenge could apply to viewers, too, as Dragon positions itself as a cinematic commentary on the horrors of war, while the war in question has only just begun.

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