House of the Dragon Season 1 recap: Hatching the Dance of the Dragons

By Gen Terblanche17 May 2024

House of the Dragon Season 1 recap: Hatching the Dance of the Dragons

HBO Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon is taking us back to Westeros for tales of warriors, dragons, and a bitter family feud over who gets to sit in the most uncomfortable chair in the world. 

Watch the official HBO trailer for House of the Dragon Season 2

As House of the Dragon Season 2 begins, we’re at the dawn of the notorious Targaryen Civil War, which became known as the Dance of the Dragons. It sounds grand, but the path to any history is travelled in small, human steps. And the Targaryens’ road to ruin is paved in petty resentments and jealousies, small offences with huge consequences, misunderstandings, shifting loyalties, overwhelming ambition, a pinch of madness, a dash of prophecy, and really unfortunate timing. Here’s how matters between Queen Alicent Targaryen and Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen festered into violence in House of the Dragon Season 1, step by step.

Binge House of the Dragon Season 1 on Showmax now.

And if it gets you in the mood, binge Game of Thrones Season 1-8, also on Showmax.

Episode 1: Two prophecies and Otto the plotter

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Desperate for a male heir, King Viserys I Targaryen (played by Paddy Considine) of Westeros chooses the life of his unborn son over that of his wife Queen Aemma (played by Sian Brooke). His choice is based on a vision and a prophecy that will drive the Targaryen Civil War to come. He tells his queen, “Our son was born wearing Aegon’s iron crown. When I heard the sound of thundering hooves, splintering shields, and ringing swords, I placed our son upon the Iron Throne as the bells of the Grand Sept tolled and all the dragons roared as one.” Tragically, though, both mother and baby die. 

During a tournament that’s meant to celebrate the birth, Viserys’s younger brother Prince Daemon (played by Matt Smith), then heir to the throne, taunts The Hand of the King Otto Hightower (played by Rhys Ifans) as payback for Otto criticising Daemon’s unhinged violence. Desperate to keep Daemon from the throne, Otto urges Viserys to name his oldest child, eight-year-old Princess Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock) his heir instead. And he gets Viserys to disinherit Daemon by revealing that Daemon mockingly called the dead baby “heir for a day”. 

Once Rhaenyra becomes his heir, Viserys tells her what the words “song of ice and fire” on his dagger, which has been passed down for centuries from King to heir, really mean: “Aegon foresaw the end of the world of men. ‘Tis to begin with a terrible winter gusting out of the distant north. Aegon saw absolute darkness riding on those winds. And whatever dwells within will destroy the world of the living. When this Great Winter comes, all of Westeros must stand against it. And if the world of men is to survive, a Targaryen must be seated on the Iron Throne.” 

But once Viserys names Rhaenyra his heir and gets all his lords to witness and agree to the change, Otto sends his daughter Alicent (Emily Carey), Rhaenyra’s childhood companion, to “comfort” the recently widowed king, with a long view to her being the next queen of Westeros and giving Viserys a sane, male heir to depose Rhaenyra, perfectly aware that the the lords won’t stand for a woman on the throne. 

The episode also introduces the canny Mysaria (played by Sonoya Mizuno), a courtesan and companion of Prince Daemon’s who develops a spy network at King’s Landing. 

Episode 2: Diplomacy vs dragons

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Daemon crowns himself King of the Targaryens’ ancestral seat, Dragonstone, and sends his brother a cheekily wedding invitation, in which he announces that, as the true heir to the throne, he’s taking Mysaria as his second wife, and that he’s placing a dragon egg in their baby’s cradle. While Viserys sends Otto to negotiate the return of the egg (laid by Dreamfyre, and chosen by Rhaenyra for her father’s baby before he died), 15-year-old  Rhaenyra manages to get it back without bloodshed by crashing their meeting on dragonback and telling Daemon to kill her himself if he wants to be heir so badly. 

Rhaenyra gains success with fearless surprise moves, and shows her ability to control a wild card like Daemon, where even her father and his closest advisors have failed. But when she is told to pick a new soldier for the Kingsguard, she chooses Ser Criston Cole (played by Fabian Frankel), who defeated Daemon during the jousting tournament, and thoughtlessly rejects noblemen’s sons, undermining their loyalty to her as heir. 

Meanwhile, following some astute social engineering by Alicent (who deliberately implants the idea that a good queen is kind, then performs kind acts for Viserys), Viserys undermines his own allegiance with Lord Corlys Velaryon (played by Steve Toussaint) and his cousin, Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (played by Eve Best) by refusing to marry their daughter Laena (played by Nova Foueillis-Mosé) in favour of Alicent Hightower. And Rhaenys, who was originally passed over as heir in favour of Viserys, warns Rhaenyra, “Men would rather put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the iron throne”. 

Episode 3: How to lose friends and make enemies

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Alicent and Viserys have a two-year-old son, Aegon, and Alicent uses her status as queen to get 17-year-old Princess Rhaenyra to bend to her will, as a rift deepens between them because Rhaenyra is convinced that Viserys will soon demote her as heir in favour of Aegon. Increasingly isolated, Rhaenyra urges the King’s council to send dragons to help Daemon and Lord Corlys to put down the growing pirate uprising, contradicting his rich and powerful advisors like Tyland Lannister (played by Jefferson Hall). And in the court, her continuing fights with her father shock the nobles, leaving Rhaenyra with few allies aside from Alicent. 

During a hunting expedition in honour of baby Aegon, Rhaenyra’s contemptuous rejection of a proposal from Tywin’s twin Jason Lannister does more damage, even though it provokes King Viserys to remind everyone that Rhaenyra, not Aegon, is his heir. Rhaenyra unwittingly offends Alicent’s inner circle with her sharp tongue, too. And after she leaves the party in a huff to hunt in the forest with her bodyguard, Ser Criston, a new schemer, Larys Strong (played by Matthew Needham), youngest son of the Master of Law, Lord Lyonel Strong (played by Gavin Spokes), and brother of the knight Harwin Strong (played by Ryan Corr), worms his way into Alicent’s circle. 

A drunk King Viserys tells Alicent, “I thought Rhaenyra was the way out of my abyss of grief and regret. And naming her heir would begin to set things right. I never imagined I would remarry… that I would have a son. What if I was wrong?” Otto adds to Alicent’s doubts when he tells her, “When you bore the King a son, you ended 15 years of uncertainty and doubt…He’s the firstborn son of the King. To deny that he is heir to the throne is to assail the laws of gods and men.” While Otto’s scheming, Viserys tells Rhaenyra to find a husband herself and admits, “I did waver at one time. But I swear to you now, on your mother’s memory, you will not be supplanted.”

Episode 4: Escandalo!

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen and Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon

Mysaria, now known as White Worm, runs an extensive spy network in King’s Landing. Daemon and Viserys reconcile, while Rhaenyra abandons her husband-hunting tour of Westeros after (yet again) insulting every nobleman in earshot and causing deadly fights to break out among their sons, leading a Blackwood to kill one of one of the Bracken heirs while the Baratheons are hosting Rhaenyra. Home again, Rhaenyra tactlessly moans to Alicent, who’s wearily pregnant yet again, about the icky prospect of being a breeding machine for royal heirs – and we get a gritty close up of what that’s actually like for Alicent. But Rhaenyra apologies when she realises what she’s said, and Alicent continues to support her and plead her case in court where needed. 

When Rhaenyra moans to Daemon, too, he has sex with her in a brothel out in the open, after which Rhaenyra seduces her besotted guard, Ser Criston, who breaks his vow of chastity for her. Otto tells King Viserys what Daemon and Rhaenyra did, but Viserys accuses him of plotting to get Aegon made the heir. Meanwhile, Alicent confronts Rhaenyra, who tells her, “Daemon never touched me. I swear this to you upon the memory of my mother.” Daemon, however, boldly admits the truth to Viserys and offers to marry Rhaenyra. And after Alicent tries to convince Viserys that Daemon is lying, Viserys strips Otto of his title as Hand of the King.

Episode 5: The worst wedding until the Red Wedding

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As Otto leaves King’s Landing, he blames Alicent for his fall because she believed Rhaenyra, and he warns her, “If Rhaenyra succeeds him, war will follow, do you understand? The realm will not accept her. And to secure her claim, she’ll have to put your children to the sword. She’ll have no choice.” Lyonel Strong becomes the new Hand of the King, and when Larys hints to Alicent that the King made Rhaenyra drink a contraceptive tea, she realises that her friend lied to her face and disgraced Alicent’s father to cover up her sins.

Viserys asks Corlys and Rhaenys’ son Ser Laenor Velaryon (played by John Macmillan) to marry Rhaenyra, and as Laenor is gay, Rhaenyra suggests to him that they both do as they please after they’ve done their duty. So when Ser Criston begs Rhaenyra to run away with him and restore his honour by marrying him, Rhaenyra (yet again) chooses her words poorly and claims that she has a greater purpose in her life (the song of ice and fire), so he can be her side piece. Later a crushed Ser Criston confesses his affair to Alicent, unaware that she’s actually questioning him about Rhaenyra and Daemon. 

Rhaenyra and Laenor’s wedding exposes the gaping holes in Rhaenyra’s support base as the Hightowers and the Lannisters express their disapproval. And when Alicent arrives late and wearing green, Lord Larys comments, “The beacon on the Hightower, do you know what colour it glows when Oldtown calls its banners to war?” The emerging lines between green and black are drawn, and blood flows as Ser Criston beats Laenor’s lover to death on the dance floor, and Viserys bleeds from his festering sores. But Alicent prevents Ser Criston from committing suicide, appointing him her personal guardsman. 

Episode 6: Trial by fire

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Ten years have passed and when Rhaenyra (played by Emma D’arcy) gives birth to a third son, Alicent (played by Olivia Cooke) demands to see the baby at once, so Rhaenyra staggers off and introduces baby Joffrey (named after Laenor’s murdered lover), to Viserys, while Alicent taunts Laenor about how the babies’ father is obviously Harwin Strong.

The children pick sides, too. Rhaenyra’s son Jacaerys (played by Leo Hart) and his dragon Vermax train with spoiled and nasty Prince Aegon (played by Ty Tennant), who gets the boys to tease his brother Aemond (played by Leo Ashton) by presenting him with a “dragon” that’s just a pig with wings. After Aegon is caught out, Alicent urges him to stay on Rhaenyra’s good side, warning him, “If Rhaenyra comes into power… your very life could be forfeit. Aemond’s as well. She could move to cut off any challenge to her succession.” A bitter Ser Criston allows Alicent’s sons to bully Rhaenyra’s sons during combat training, prompting Harwin to beat him up, making the whispers about Rhaenyra’s infidelity even louder. 

The rivalry between mothers intensifies as they stand in for Viserys on his council. But when Rhaenyra tries to make peace, Alicent points out, in a council chamber full of sniggering men, that Rhaenyra is leaking milk through her dress. And Larys  sends killers to have a disgraced Harwin and his father burned to death at Harrenhal. 

Meanwhile, Daemon marries Laenor’s sister, Laena Velaryon (played by Nanna Blondell) and they have two daughters, Baela (played by Bethany Antonia) and Rhaena (played by Phoebe Campbell). But Laena makes her own dragon, Vhagar, burn her to death after her third pregnancy goes wrong. 

Episode 7: Alicent draws first blood

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The Targaryens and Velaryons unite at Driftmark for Lady Laena’s burial, with Otto Hightower back as Hand of the King. Rhaenyra’s sons Jacaerys and Lucerys (played by Elliot Grihaul), who’re mourning the murder of their own father in secret, comfort Baela and Rhaena while Aegon mocks them and Aemond taunts them. 

Rhaenys and Corlys argue privately about how the connection with the Targaryens has destroyed their children. Daemon and Rhaenyra fight when Daemon suggests that Alicent ordered the attack on Harrenhal, but they cool off by having sex on the beach. And even the little kids come to blows after Aemond claims Laena’s now riderless dragon, Vhagar, for himself. During the battle, Aemond loses an eye to Lucerys  and in the uproar that follows, all fingers point to Aegon for spreading the rumours about Rhaenyra’s sons being Strongs, not Velaryons. When Viserys refuses to punish Lucerys, Alicent slashes Rhaenyra’s arm with his dagger as she vents years of envy, telling Rhaenyra, “What have I done but what was expected of me? Forever upholding the kingdom, the family, the law. While you flout it all to do as you please. Where is duty? Where is sacrifice? It’s trampled under your pretty foot again.” Fed up, Viserys declares the matter closed and warns, “Anyone whose tongue dares to question the birth of Princess Rhaenyra’s sons should have it removed.” 

As Alicent turns to Larys, now the master of Harrenhal, for help, Rhaenyra and Daemon fake Laenor’s murder, allowing the real Laenor to escape and live a free life, while Rhaenyra marries Daemon – despite the fact that in doing so they make their strongest allies, the Velaryons, suspect them of having Laenor murdered.

Episode 8: A king’s dying wish

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Six years later, Alicent shows her mastery of getting people to do what she wants with a gentle word, as she delicately pays off a young nursery maid who has been raped by Aegon (played by Tom Glynn-Carney). Her son, however, is out of her control. Rhaenyra travels home to King’s Landing with Daemon and their own babies, Aegon and Viserys (they’re all dreadful name repeaters), to try to repair her relationship with Rhaenys by offering to marry her sons to Laena’s daughters, as Corlys is on his deathbed. 

Despite their differences, Rhaenys is still adamant that if Corlys dies, his throne goes to Lucarys, but Corlys’ brother Vaemond (played by Wil Johnson) challenges the succession, opening the door for Alicent and Otto to knock a leg out from under Rhaenyra. Debate is cut short when Viserys hobbles into the throne room despite being in agonising pain, and tells everyone that the succession is already settled. And when Vaemond insults Rhaenyra and calls her sons’ parentage into question, Daemon beheads him.

In the aftermath, Viserys demands a family dinner and peace…or else. Understanding what needs to be done, Rhaenyra says, “I raise my cup to Her Grace, the Queen. I love my father. But I must admit that no one has stood more loyally by his side than his good wife. She has tended to him with unfailing devotion, love, and honour. And for that, she has my gratitude… and my apology.” Touched, Alicent tells her, “Your graciousness moves me deeply, Princess. We are both mothers and we love our children. We have more in common than we sometimes allow. I raise my cup to you and to your house. You will make a fine queen.” 

Viserys looks ready to die happy at last. But when Lucarys smiles at seeing the servers set a roast pig in front of Aemond (played by Eawn Mitchell), remembering the childhood taunt about the pig with dragon wings, Aemond addresses Rhaenyra’s sons as Strong boys and Alicent and Rhaenyra have to break up a new fight, so Rhaenyra insists on returning to Driftmark to keep the peace … even though Viserys is one deep breath away from death.

Later, thinking Alicent is Rhaenyra, a dying Vicerys tells her, You wanted to know if I believe it to be true…the song of ice and fire. It is true. What he saw in the North. The Prince That Was Promised.” And Alicent believes that he’s telling her that she must make Aegon king to save Westeros. 

Episode 9: The king is dead, long live the queen king

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With the King’s death still a secret, Alicent sends Ser Criston and Aemond to recover Aegon, while Otto sends twin Kingsguard men Ser Arryk and Ser Erryk (played by Luke and Elliott Tittensor) to bring Aegon back to him. But someone is ahead of them – Mysaria has the prince in her clutches, and she demands that Ser Otto close down the child sex trafficking and exploitation in King’s Landing, both of which, it seems, Aegon has been enjoying. 

After Alicent claims that it was the King’s dying wish that Aegon take the throne, not Rhaenyra, Otto immediately sets in motion all the plans he has made behind Alicent’s back by securing his allies, including the Lannisters, Riverrun and Highgarden, locking down the treasury, isolating all Rhaenyra’s possible allies, imprisoning Princess Rhaenys, and killing any of the lords of the keep who object to the new succession. When Lord Beesbury (played by Bill Patterson) declares these acts treason, Ser Criston slams his head into the table, killing him. Alicent realises, to her horror, that Otto intends to kill Rhaenyra and her children, too, and she protests, while Lord Commander Westerling (played by Graham McTavish) refuses to carry out any murder plots. But when Alicent asks Princess Rhaenys for advice, she’s told, “A true queen counts the cost to her people. And yet you toil still in service to men…Have you never imagined yourself on the Iron Throne?” 

Taking the reins, Alicent announces, “My son will be anointed tomorrow at dawn. The whole of King’s Landing must witness his ascent. He will assume authority. There will be no more dithering. My son will take the crown of his namesake, the Conqueror, and carry Blackfyre, his sword. Let the people remember the ancient strength of House Targaryen.” But behind the scenes, the triumphant Queen has to lower herself to cater to Larys’s foot fetish before he’ll tell her about the White Worm’s spy network. 

As she prepares her son for the coronation, Alicent orders him not to have Rhaenyra killed, no matter what Otto tells him. And during Aegon’s coronation, Princess Rhaenys and her dragon Meraxes burst through the floorboards of the dragonpit where Aegon is being crowned, and escape to take the news to Rhaenyra. 

Episode 10: The Black Queen

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Princess Rhaenys warns Rhaenyra that Alicent has already established Aegon as king by crowning him in front of the common people (the ones Rhaenyra thought didn’t matter). Rhaenyra goes into premature labour and her baby is stillborn, like her reign. But Ser Erryk, knowing what a disaster Aegon will be for the kingdom, delivers Viserys’s golden crown to Rhaenyra, and Daemon crowns her Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen. Rhaenyra and Daemon don’t have much to work with: 13 dragons, 30 knights, 100 bowmen and 300 foot soldiers to hold their position at Dragonstone. And they have just a handful of allies, with the Vale, Riverrun, Storm’s End and Winterfell undeclared. 

Flying a flag with a green dragon, Otto Hightower gives Rhaenyra Alicent’s terms for surrender, which promise that Rhaenyra, her family and her allies won’t be harmed or stripped of their properties. A message from Alicent (a page that Rhaenyra tore out of her book as a child) makes Rhaenyra believe in the sincerity of Alicent’s offer, even though Daemon rejects it in contempt. And when Rhaenyra tells Daemon about the song of ice and fire, he grabs her by the throat in fury. Still undecided on going to war, Rhaenyra tells her advisors, “When dragons flew to war… everything burned. I do not wish to rule over a kingdom of ash and bone.” Her restraint impresses Rhaenys, who privately convinces Corlys that they need to stand with Rhaenyra. 

Wanting to be certain of her allies before she sends anyone to war, Rhaenyra sends her sons out on dragonback to negotiate. But when Lucerys arrives in Storm’s End to talk to Borros Baratheon (played by Roger Evans), Aemond has landed ahead of him on a bigger, nastier dragon and promised to marry one of the Baratheon daughters. As Lucerys leaves, defeated, Aemond chases after him on Vhagar and when Lucerys has Arrax blast flame at Aemond, Vhagar breaks Aemond’s control, disobeys him, and kills Lucerys and Arrax.

With war now inevitable, and both queens convinced they’re fulfilling prophecies and saving the kingdom by backing their claims to the throne, the stage is set for House of the Dragon Season 2, coming to Showmax express from the US, from 17 June 2024.

Binge House of the Dragon Season 1 on Showmax now.

And if it gets you in the mood, binge Game of Thrones Season 1-8 now.