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Sin begets sin begets sin: my thoughts on House of the Dragon, Season Two, Episode Three, "The Burning Mill".

Wars. What are they good for? And how do they even start? That is the main question posed by Episode Three of House of the Dragon Season 2, "The Burning Mill."

Rhaenys raises it first, telling Rhaenyra, as they bury the latest victims of the war, the Sers Arryk and Erryk, "Soon they will not even remember what it was that began the war in the first place." Rhaenyra thinks the answer is easy, "They usurped my throne." But Rhaenys, watching all, particularly her cousin’s leadership, is proving to be the wisest character in both houses, especially since the death of Viserys and the departure of Otto Hightower. Indeed, Rhaenys says outright, "Otto Hightower would never have allowed this." "That is one answer," she tells Rhaenyra before listing a growing number of alternative answers to how this war began: the beheading of child-prince Jaehaerys, or when Aemond killed Lucerys, or when Lucerys took Aemond’s eye. Rhaenys’s point is profound. "We now teeter at the point where none of it will matter," she says to nail this fact home.

Rhaenys’s words are mirrored in Harrenhal. Unlike the bloody battle between the ever-warring Brackens and Blackwoods, Daemon claims the largest castle in Westeros with one dragon and one line, "I’m claiming Harrenhal." He is actually welcomed by the castellan Ser Simon Strong, who, as it turns out, holds no love for his grand-nephew, Larys Clubfoot (I was pleased to hear it!). When Daemon asks about the generations-long enmity between the Brackens and the Blackwoods, Simon Strong’s answer reflects Rhaenys’s warnings to Rhaenyra, "The answer to that is... lost in time." "Sin begets sin begets sin," he says somberly – words that should have been this episode’s title!

Harrenhal has the perfect amount of 'spook'.

Unlike his niece-wife, Daemon is not one of the “ditherers of Dragonstone,” trying desperately to avoid war. He wants to hasten it, just like his nephews, Aegon and Aemond, and intends to rally the 40,000-strong army of the Riverlands to Rhaenyra's cause. But Harrenhal may have its own plans for Daemon. Those of us who have read the ASOIAF books know the mystery and mythology that surrounds this castle, thought to be haunted and cursed. This episode does an admirable job in its portrayal – rendering Harrenhal a perfect shade of 'spooky' with dark, rainy night scenes, and eerie music, the whole way through. Daemon’s dream of a young Rhaenyra sewing the head back on Jaehaerys and telling him, "Always coming and going, aren’t you? And I have to clean up afterwards," is an eerie touch that both reveals Daemon’s inner psyche and suggests future tension – what will Rhaenyra have to “clean up” after this Harrenhal visit? When Daemon awakens, he is standing in the Godswood, beneath the whispering leaves of the weirwood tree. A woman tells him, "You will die in this place." Cue shivers! Nice!

Rhaenyra attempts detente with Alicent.

The episode culminates, not in yet more death, but with Rhaenyra attempting to avoid it – and a revelation so satisfying to see unfold. Rhaenyra meets Alicent in the Grand Sept to talk. They speak of Viserys and his final words, and they both realise "there has been a mistake." Alicent’s expression shows, to her horror, how she mistook her husband’s dying utterance for proof that he wanted Aegon to rule after him. But her next realisation – that it is too late – is just as dramatic. Alicent has lost all influence. The young horses have bolted: Aegon, Aemond, Ser Criston Cole, and Daemon are manufacturing war. If everyone took a leaf out of Helaena’s book and learned to forgive, blood would be spared. But in true Game of Thrones style, that’s never going to happen.

Shot of the episode: Baela Targaryen on Moondancer.

Other thoughts:

  • Best line: Daemon tells Simon Strong he intends to take the throne – "It’s a big chair made of swords."
  • Best shot: Baela on her dragon, Moondancer, dives on Ser Criston, Ser Gwayne, and co. in a dramatic eye-pleasing scene, giving us a taste of the exciting cinematography to come when dragons really will "dance."
  • We are introduced to yet another smallfolk side quest: Ulf, who claims to be a "dragonseed" (bastard) of King Jaehaerys, adding to the already established group of Hugh Hammer and brothers Alyn and Addam. Having paused my reading of The World of Ice and Fire and Fire and Blood, I’m getting more curious about these "seeds" and what role they will play in the dance. My guess is it’s got something to do with that discombobulated dragon, Seasmoke.
  • The White Worm, Mysaria, has bought herself a place in Rhaenyra’s court with her loyalty (informing them of Ser Arryk’s breach last episode) and has essentially become the Blacks' Mistress of Whisperers. I hope she outwits uber-creep Larys in her new portfolio.
  • Speaking of Larys, he's been promoted to Master of Whisperers. I suspect it's only one Criston Cole Clusterf*ck away before we see his ultimate promotion to Hand of the King.
  • Rhaenys has more influence with Rhaenyra than anyone else at the moment and has, so far, advised extreme caution, like her grandsire, Jaehaerys the Conciliator. However, will Rhaenys’s influence endure now that Alicent has given Rhaenyra no solution?

More ponderings next week! If you'd like to receive my episode reviews much earlier (along with a bunch of other goodies) consider joining my epic fantasy membership.