By now, Game of Thrones fans are familiar with certain in-universe axioms. Winter is coming. A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair. Dragons that spent their youth committing war crimes will probably default to that state in their old age. Okay, that last one isn’t true, but the consequences of taking these beasts of conquest for granted prove fatal in the House of the Dragon season finale, in which a childish game implodes into an all-out war and the losses will be repaid in years of bloodletting. All Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) might seek initially is an eye, but it’s his lack of foresight that leaves him blindsided by the end.
War has been on the Westerosi horizon for most of this season and in episode 10, it finally hits the shores of Dragonstone. Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) receives word that her half-brother Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) has been crowned king, robbing her of her birthright. She dispatches her sons, Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) and Jacerys (Harry Collett) across the realm as envoys, hoping to draw more houses to her cause before she declares war. Before they leave, she makes them swear that they will travel peacefully and refuse to engage in any fighting, an ominous narrative signpost that points to an impending fight. This scene is practically the equivalent of someone in a horror movie declaring that they definitely will be return, only to be murdered. (Which is exactly what happens in episode 6. RIP Harwin Strong.)
Lucerys travels to Storm’s End to secure the support of Lord Borros Baratheon (Roger G Evans), only to run into his uncle, Aemond (Ewan Mitchell). Still nursing the grudge of having lost an eye to Lucerys, who acted in self-defense back when they were younger, he demands that the boy pluck out his eye in return. Lucerys flees on dragonback, Aemond pursues and chaos follows.
Fire and Blood readers know how this ends, with both Lucerys and his dragon, Arrax, dead. “The prince was thirteen years of age. His body was never found.” is the two-sentence epitaph that sums up the tragedy of a life that was just as brief. House of the Dragon draws out this inevitability, letting dread percolate until Lucerys’ fear is as palpable as the howling wind and pouring rain of Storm’s End. The blinding darkness not only compounds his struggle to navigate it, but also his terror at being unable to spot Aemond’s dragon, Vhagar, before it looms up over him. A split-second of lightning illuminates the frankly distressing difference in size between the two dragons, eliminating any hope of Lucerys' escape.
Fire and Blood notes that Vhagar is five times larger than Arrax, though the show imagines their relative sizes as closer to that of a giant and the mosquito on his palm. It was never going to be a fair fight but for one brief, triumphant moment, House of the Dragon lets viewers believe that Lucerys has survived it. He maneuvers through a narrow crevice that Vhagar can't fit into and emerges out into a clear sky. The storm has calmed. He is safe. Then the camera spins around sickeningly, Vhagar emerges, and bites Arrax in half.
Lucerys' fate is fixed and unchanging, but the largest difference between the book and its adaptation is how he meets it. In House of the Dragon, the characters’ biggest hubris and ultimate undoing is that they believe they're in control. Episode 10 pierces the illusion that they ever were. Despite Lucerys’ warnings to stay calm and obey, Arrax breathes dragonfire at Vhagar out of fright and, in that moment, sets himself and his rider up to die. Vhagar, 180 years old and an ancient instrument of war and annihilation, retaliates with a death blow, despite Aemond's frantic protests. The prince, for whom the thrill was in the chase, is horrified at how it ends. The seductive strength of owning a nuclear weapon can’t compensate for the devastation it causes when it detonates. There’s a nice bit of symmetry to the proceedings. The day Aemond lost his eye is the day he gained a dragon. In his pursuit of regaining that eye, he loses control of that dragon.
Though pieced together from unreliable sources, Fire and Blood depicts Aemond’s actions as far more deliberate. The day is noted to be “as black as his heart” when he sets off in pursuit of Lucerys. When he returns home after having killed his nephew, he anticipates a hero’s welcome. The narrative choice to shift his behaviour from intentional to accidental speaks to a show that isn’t fully comfortable letting its characters be all-out evil. Earlier in the season, Alicent (Oilvia Cooke) believes that she is justified in usurping the throne and naming her son heir because of a deathbed misunderstanding. Now, Aemond, who as a child picked up a rock fully intending to cave his cousin’s skull in, locates a conscience because the script requires him to. Character nuance comes at the cost of culpability.
The beauty of Game of Thrones and by extension, House of the Dragon is that tragedy is rarely the result of a single stuck blow. Death comes by a thousand tiny cuts that add up until it’s too late to stanch the wound. In the book, Aemond’s slaying of his nephew sets off the long-brewing Dance of Dragons, a prolonged civil war across Westeros. In the show, the dragons dance, but the notion that they do so against their riders’ express wishes absolves the characters of any responsibility. It’s a cop-out for a franchise that has long reveled in cruel men. (Joffrey? Ramsay Bolton?)
A bit of dialogue in episode 1 foreshadows Aemond’s miscalculation. “The idea that we control the dragons is an illusion. They're a power man should never have trifled with, one that brought Valyria its doom,” says Viserys, though it’s what he says next that’s even more foreboding. “If we don't mind our own histories, it will do the same to us.” Aemond, who’s studied the ancient texts, knows the enduring devastation and ruin his momentary carelessness will enable. It explains why he pulls back at the last minute, but not why he sets off on this reckless path in the first place.
Kinslaying is one of the few taboos left in Westeros, and those who commit this sin are considered to forever be cursed by the Gods. Maybe Aemond, insecure and attempting to emulate a bravado he does not feel, will decide to embrace the label rather than admit to the shame of his error. If he does, he’d be more accepting of a darkness than the show itself has proven to be.