In season 2 episode 4, peace is no longer an option and three dragons collide in battle.

Akhil Arora, a Film Critics Guild member and a Rotten Tomatoes-certified TV critic, who has been reporting on Game of Thrones since 2016. He has written for NDTV and SlashFilm.

Rhaenys Targaryen in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4
Eve Best as Rhaenys Targaryen atop her dragon Meleys in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 // Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

As the devastating albeit thrilling moments of the fourth episode of the second season of House of the Dragon unfold, you realise why Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) has been doing the utmost to avoid conflict. It’s why she made the perilous trip to King’s Landing to see her old friend, Queen Dowager Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), in the hopes that peace could still be had. But in episode 4 “The Red Dragon and the Gold”, it’s clear to Rhaenyra that she has only two choices left. Either she accepts death, or she marches into battle to assert her right to the Iron Throne. Increasingly cornered, she greenlights the use of a dragon in battle. What follows is horrendous.

House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4—directed by Alan Taylor and written by series co-creator Ryan Condal—was divided across four primary locations. Let’s study all of them.

At Harrenhal in episode 4

Episode 4 began in Harrenhal, with Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) having another vision. This time, he’s in the Throne Room at the Red Keep, with a young Rhaenyra’s (Milly Alcock, back again) muffled voice in the distance. When Daemon is finally able to ascertain what she’s saying in High Valyrian, it’s all his worst fears: dream Rhaenyra notes that he created her but now he’s bent on destroying her all because his brother, the late King Viserys, loved her more. Daemon chops her head off but even her dismembered head continues to talk. The terrified Targaryen wakes with blood on his hands, with Simon Strong (Simon Russell Beale) repeating Rhaenyra’s last line: there’s been a raven.

What does the raven say? Aegon’s army left King’s Landing a fortnight ago led by Criston Cole, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard and the new Hand of the King. (By the end of House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4, he would be neither.) Strong notes that the castles of Rosby and Stokeworth have both fallen without siege. Criston Cole’s armies have effectively tripled their strength and are likely coming for Harrenhal. Even if Daemon manages to raise an army, he won’t have time to train one, the Castellan of Harrenhal notes.

Daemon goes to meet with the Lord Paramount of the Riverlands, Grover Tully, but instead, he’s greeted by his grandson Oscar Tully (Archie Barnes) in episode 4. Turns out Grover is too old and sickly to move from his bed. Daemon is frustrated for Oscar is a child who has no power and no desire to go over his grandsire’s head. He walks out, asking Strong to write to the Brackens or the Blackwoods—whosoever is on their side—to raise their bannermen and come see him. That’s both funny and depressing. The fact that people don’t know their own allies and enemies is a disappointment. But it’s also hilarious that the thousand-year-old feud between the Brackens and Blackwoods has rendered it meaningless.

Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4
Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 // Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

That night (or another) in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4, Daemon has another vision. He follows the man, only to discover that it’s him wearing an eyepatch. Is he thinking of Aemond? When he turns, he encounters the unknown woman from episode 3. Her name is Alys Rivers (Gayle Rankin), a healer and master at Harrenhal who got the job after the last one fled in the middle of the night. It’s Harrenhal, what do you expect? She says as much, noting that Harrenhal has been cursed since the first stone was laid.

Alys is a smart one for she sees that Daemon is at Harrenhal in the name of raising an army for Queen Rhaenyra but hasn’t sent a raven since he arrived. Is he secretly glad that Rhaenyra’s legitimacy is being contested? And is thinking of raising the Riverland army for himself? Alys offers him a concoction to sleep better but it’s so strong that Daemon’s next waking moment is at a council meeting where he’s half-asleep. Willem Blackwood (Jack Parry-Jones) is there, just as Daemon requested earlier in episode 4. But he can’t even focus on the guy, let alone on what he’s saying. Instead, Daemon sees his second wife Laena Velaryon (Nanna Blondell) as the cupbearer. He’s losing it.

At Dragonstone in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4

Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best) goes to the docks to see her husband but runs into Alyn (Abubakar Salim) first, the man who saved her husband from the jaws of death. Rhaenys has figured out in seconds that Alyn is Corlys’ bastard son, and she hints as much to him (Steve Toussaint) when he arrives. Rhaenys also notes that she has been called to Dragonstone. With the Queen off somewhere—we know she’s in King’s Landing, but the others don’t—the council is hounding young Baela.

Speaking of the council, Beala (Bethany Antonia) and Rhaenyra’s heir, Prince Jacaerys “Jace” Velaryon (Harry Collett), are getting an earful for not making moves in response to Criston Cole’s threat in episode 4. Rhaenys is unable to do much on her own, with the men questioning why her word matters any more than the others. Corlys’ arrival changes their tune—I’m guessing they will listen to a man and the Sea Snake. With him by her side, Rhaenys notes that they should push for what Rhaenyra wants: an end to the conflict.

Rhaenys Targaryen, Corlys Velaryon in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4
Eve Best as Rhaenys Targaryen and Steve Toussaint as Corlys Velaryon in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 // Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

We return to the council later in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 as Rhaenyra returns from King’s Landing and learns how much Cole’s forces have grown. Her son Jace wants to know where she’s been. Rhaenyra gives him the truth and says she tried to prevent war. If she’s going to end the 80 years of peace she inherited, she needed to know for sure. Now, she knows she only has two choices: win the throne or die. Cole’s decision to go after Rook’s Rest piques her. Everyone thinks they should respond with a dragon—Rhaenyra wants to go herself. Jace feels it’s too dangerous, so he tries to volunteer but she tells him he lacks the experience. Rhaenys then volunteers and Rhaenyra cannot fault the logic.

In private later in episode 4, Rhaenyra tells Jace about the Song of Ice and Fire, the story—about Aegon the Conqueror’s dream—that her father once told her. Meanwhile, Rhaenys leaves for war with her dragon Meleys.

At King’s Landing in episode 4

As Grand Maester Orwyle (Kurt Egyiawan) visits Alicent House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 to deliver moon tea—she pretends it is for someone else not her—she asks him for advice about the succession. She’s clearly reeling from her chat with Rhaenyra in episode 3 and discovering that her husband wasn’t talking about her son Aegon in his last moments, but Aegon the Conqueror. Naturally, Orwyle does his best to feign ignorance, claiming Viserys never spoke to him about the matter.

At the small council in episode 4, King Aegon II Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney) is upset that Daemon got to Harrenhal first. Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), his new master of whisperers, notes that it’s of no use. He controls the gold, and while Daemon struggles with Harrenhal, Criston Cole takes the other castles in the Crownlands. Aegon isn’t happy that he’s not being kept informed.

But there’s an additional blow—turns out his brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) has been planning the war without consulting the king. And it seems like the rest of the council is in the dark, too. When Aegon tries to protest in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4, Aemond berates him in High Valyrian, noting how the King has been busy elsewhere. If Aegon has a better strategy, Aemond would be happy to hear it. Aegon’s High Valyrian is so poor he can barely craft a sentence. Aemond clearly has control of the council and Aegon’s puny grasp is slipping.

Aemond Targaryen in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4
Ewan Mitchell as Aemond Targaryen in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 // Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Larys then goes to see Alicent in episode 4 who lies about her condition. They chat about losing Harrenhal, the many wins elsewhere that are likely to infuriate Rhaenyra, and the constant stream of grief Alicent has been through. Larys then notices that Alicent has been reading history books. He wonders if Viserys changed his mind because of historical precedent. Alicent wavers, which prompts Larys to wonder if she’s doubting his intentions. But the Queen Dowager has gone nihilistic of sorts. Alicent says the war will be fought, many will die, and someone will ascend the throne. It matters little what Viserys thought or what Rhaenyra or Aegon’s supporters believe.

There’s another small council scene in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4, where Aegon is silent as the others discuss a lack of resources for the war effort. The King is bored, and he says as much. The logistics of war aren’t exciting for him. So, he leaves and goes to see his chambers, where he finds his mother who’s looking for her husband’s books.

Aegon is upset that the council doesn’t care what he thinks. When she asks what thoughts he has, Aegon says he’s the king. Wearing the crown does not impart wisdom, Alicent bluntly tells him in episode 4. The men in the council earned their seats. Her hope was that he would learn from them and be half the king his father was. She then reminds him of what it took to get him on the throne. Aegon wonders what she would’ve him do. Alicent lays out it for him: do nothing, that is what is needed of you. That’s a brutal thing to say to your child, but I suppose he had it coming.

A weary Aegon passes the time with drink in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4. But he’s an impetuous teenager, after all, and he’s had too much. Aegon heads to the dragon pit and flies out with Sunfyre, without informing anyone.

In the Crownlands in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4

Having had a close shave with a dragon, Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), Alicent’s brother Gwayne Hightower (Freddie Fox), and their forces have been travelling at night. They’ve taken Rosby and Stokeworth, as we learnt at Harrenhal, and now they are at Duskendale in episode 4. As the fortress burns, the losers, House Darklyn, are given a choice: bend the knee or die. As Criston is about to behead the head of the house, he berates him, calling him “Kingmaker”. Criston kills him and the rest obey. Then, instead of heading west to Harrenhal, Cole reveals he means to head northeast, follow the coastline, and hit Rook’s Rest. Like he’s discussed with Aemond.

Criston Cole in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4
Fabien Frankel as Criston Cole in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 // Photo: Theo Whiteman/HBO

When they arrive near Rook’s Rest in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4, Cole informs the troops that they will attack by daylight. Gwayne thinks he’s lost it and reminds him what happened the last time they ventured out in broad daylight. Regardless, they push.

As a puny battle is being fought, Rhaenys arrives first with her dragon Meleys and burns the lot. Gwayne notes that he warned him but turns out, Cole has an ace up his sleeve. He’s been hiding Vhagar and Aemond as a backup in episode 4. He gives the signal but when Aemond sees that the King has also arrived, he lets him take the lead. And by that, I mean sacrifice himself. Gwayne wonders if this was Cole’s idiotic plan, forcing him to improvise. He uses the King’s presence to convince his men to attack.

Above, in the skies in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4, Meleys gets the upper hand on the King’s Sunfyre. But the mood shifts as Aemond arrives with Vhagar. He’s huge! So huge that he dwarfs the other two dragons. Aegon thinks he’s been saved but Aemond instructs Vhagar to burn them both. Sunfyre falls out of the sky and lands in the forest, with Aegon’s fate unknown.

Rhaenys escapes the worst of it and then turns around to face Vhagar. Surely, this is a suicide mission? Their sizes are unmatched and as they both grapple and fight, they fall to the ground in episode 4. Vhagar’s fall kills many of the king’s own men. An injured Meleys and Rhaenys survey the battlefield, flying low. Vhagar arrives out of nowhere, grabs Meleys’ neck and kills her, with Rhaenys falling to her death.

When Criston Cole wakes in House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4, he finds a roasted battlefield. Some have been charred on the spot. Cole walks towards the King in the forest. He finds Aemond with his sword unsheathed. Aegon is lying in the middle, either dead or gravely injured. (Was the sword meant to put the dragon out of its misery or did Aemond plan to use it on Aegon, too?) Aemond walks away as Cole falls to his knees.

House of the Dragon season 2 episode 4 is out now on Max.

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