House of the Dragon, episode 7, review: Westeros finds another way to make us feel queasy

Olivia Cooke as Queen Alicent in House of the Dragon - HBO
Olivia Cooke as Queen Alicent in House of the Dragon - HBO

Oh dear. Three weeks ago, in episode four of House of the Dragon, Princess Rhaenyra and her uncle Daemon started getting it on – only for Daemon to chicken out and flee. In my review, I expressed my heartfelt relief and gratitude that we’d been spared a full-blown sex scene.

Sadly, I spoke too soon. Because this week, in episode seven, all my deepest, clammiest fears came true.

The worst of it is, they didn’t pause to agonise over the morality of it. Not even for a moment. It was as if they’d actually forgotten they’re related. I found myself shouting at the screen, in a desperate attempt to remind them.

Rhaenyra: “You abandoned me.”

Daemon: “You were a child.”

Me: “She was your NIECE.”

Rhaenyra: “I’m no longer a child.”

Me: “But you’re still his NIECE.”

My efforts, however, were to no avail, and we were soon subjected to the full, sickening horror. Personally, I find it awkward enough watching sex scenes between characters who aren’t close blood relations. But this one was excruciating – not least because it was shot as if it actually was a normal sex scene. The slow, teasing, will-they-won’t-they build-up (lingering looks, tilting heads); then the hungrily impassioned snogging to a soundtrack of swooning violins; then the delicate, tender removal of each other’s clothes; and then finally the pair of them going at it full bore on a beautiful deserted beach, while, in the background, the waves heaved and sighed. From start to finish it was a grotesque (and I assume deliberate) parody of all the hoariest sex scene clichés. “But you’re his NIECE! And you’re her UNCLE!” No, they still weren’t listening to me.

I know this is Westeros, where royal incest is seemingly considered no more than a mild breach of upper-class etiquette, like resting your elbows on the table or saying toilet instead of loo. But that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. And then at the end of the episode we were forced to watch them slurping each other’s faces off once again, because they’d actually gone and got married – having apparently seen no other obstacle to this arrangement than the fact that Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy) was already married to someone else.

Matt Smith and Emma D'Arcy in House of the Dragon - HBO
Matt Smith and Emma D'Arcy in House of the Dragon - HBO

That minor impediment was swiftly dealt with, as Daemon (Matt Smith) hired someone to bump the existing husband off. In a neat twist, however, it turned out that the husband, Laenor Velaryon (John MacMillan), was in on the plot all along, and with the help of the supposed hitman was able to fake his own death and escape to a new life elsewhere. An outcome which I imagine will suit him rather nicely, given that he never seemed entirely happy in his marriage to Rhaenyra, what with being gay and all. So at least the incest ended up doing someone some good.

Anyway, grim though it may have been, this was another strong episode, crackling with tension and conflict: in particular, the brawl between the royal brats that resulted in one of Queen Alicent’s (Olivia Cooke) sons losing an eye to one of Rhaenyra’s. This was followed by Alicent – in the latest step of her journey from meek ingénue to vengeful gorgon – bellowing at her husband: “I shall have one of HER sons’ eyes in return!”

Funnily enough, King Viserys (Paddy Considine) wasn’t altogether keen on this suggestion, given that Rhaenyra’s sons also happen to be his own grandsons. Which is a point worth dwelling on. Because in House of the Dragon, it isn’t just Rhaenyra and her uncle who have an unhealthily close relationship. Now that Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) is back, the King’s chief adviser is the father of the King’s wife, which means he’s also the grandfather of (some of) the King’s children. Meanwhile, the King’s wife is the former childhood confidante of the King’s daughter – but now in adulthood the two are bitter rivals, because the King’s adviser wants his own eldest grandson, the King’s son, to take the throne instead of the King’s daughter. No, not easy to keep track, is it. At any rate: all these characters are far too closely linked for their own good, or for that matter anyone else’s. In fact, it’s their closeness that’s driving them apart.

Still, great drama. I can’t go, however, without mentioning the episode’s one serious flaw: Lord Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), the simpering psychopath, was barely in it. Despite what he did in last week’s shocking climax, the writers allotted him just a single paltry minute of screen time.

Honestly. God knows what they think they’re playing at. Larys is by miles the show’s best character. I felt as if I’d gone to watch a new Bond film, only to find that 007 had nothing more than a brief cameo 50 minutes in, sipping an espresso while browsing the FT.