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HOUSE OF THE DRAGON 2×3 “THE BURNING MILL” is the third episode of the second season. As a huge fan of Game of Thrones, I’ve always viewed this series as something of an apology tour for the franchise after the events of season eight. That may not be fair to the actors and production status but it seems like it exists in large part to win back over the once-massive fandom that felt betrayed by the ending. Sometimes its very good at this and sometimes it’s very bad.

With the death of Prince Lucreys and Prince Jahaerys, it was assumed by most fans that war was now on. It turns out this may have been both true as well as misleading. While the first strokes of the war’s blades may have been the above two events, it is actually the feuding houses of House Bracken and House Blackwood that decide to go to war first. Mostly because of their already preexisting hatred from literal millennia of rivalry in Westeros’ history. The battle is meaningless in the grand scheme of things since this is not a war that won’t be resolved by the conflicts of men at arms but foreshadows what might be soon happening across the Seven Kingdoms.

Some fans may have difficulty with the slow burn of the war but I actually feel like the desire to get to the big battles as well as dragon fights is missing the point of the Dance. The actual battles are the least interesting part of the story. The characterization, plots, counterplots, and more are the real heart of the story as well as made Game of Thrones great. Season One rushed through events that should have probably been two seasons. Indeed, last episode was one of the best in the series because it bothered to allow the characters to mourn their losses.

Daemon Targaryen, meanwhile, heads to the haunted ruin of Harrenhal to try to make amends by raising his own army to destroy the Hightowers. What he finds instead of a hostile keep is a handful of servants as well as an aging castellan, Simon Strong. Larys Strong may be the Lord of Harrenhal but he is loathed by the people under his command that believe he murdered both his father as well as brother (which he absolutely did). Frustrated by a lack of enemies to kill, he soon finds himself haunted by what may be the literal ghosts inhabiting the keep.

I’ve always been a big fan of Harrenhal but it’s not been until now that we get a sense of what a dreary, dark, and terrifying place it is. The showrunners have constructed something straight out of Dark Souls. We also get a hint of Alys Rivers, who is a character that I hope has her role expanded from Fire and Blood. The magical element from Game of Thrones has mostly been lacking from House of the Dragon, dragons aside, and it’s nice to see it make a return in a big way. Even if it doesn’t make up for the absence of Sarah Snow.

Ser Criston Cole is surprisingly competent as a military commander as well as the Hand of the King. Maybe it is because as a veteran of the Dornish campaigns in the Stormlands, he actually isn’t smashing into the Peter Principle. Also, it may be that the bar has been set so low by Aegon II’s court that anything approaching the bare minimum of competence is an incredible accomplishment. Maybe that’s also why they introduced Queen Alicent’s brother, just so they can have him look good by comparison.

Aegon II appoints his favorites as his Kingsguard despite their lack of qualifications and actually tracks down his brother Aemond to the brothel he’s frequenting to publicly humiliate him. Note: There’s a surprising amount of male nudity this episode and it is interesting to note the prevalence of it in this season. Either way, it makes me wonder if Aemond is going to start plotting some Cain and Abel nonsense.

The most controversial scene, though, is related to the one bit of characterization that I don’t like. Basically, the treatment of Rhaenyra Targaryen as the wise, almost angelic ruler who wishes to avoid war at all costs. Normally, this is a laudable goal but her refusal to deal with the fact that Aegon II is actually invading the Riverlands is something that instead paints her as a weak ruler instead.

We also have Rhaenyra sneaking into King’s Landing to meet with Alicent Tower, which is a thoroughly ridiculous scene since she doesn’t bother to contact her earlier in order to arrange a meeting. On the plus side, their meeting resolves the ridiculous, “Viserys was talking about Aegon the Conqueror and Alicent thought he meant his son” but the fact that plot is brought up at all again is a poor decision. Still, it was nice to see both actresses acting against one another again.

I think my biggest complaint about the scene is not its impracticality. The Smallfolk are not going to recognize any Targaryen save by their white hair and violet eyes. It’s not like she’s on television or even the coinage. Plus, Rhaenyra can get on a dragon to get past most logistical issues of travel. No, the issue is the scene ruins itself by not having any tension. It is an extreme risk for Rhaenyra that there’s never any sense of actual danger. Alicent could have ended the war there and we should have wondered if she would or if Rhaenyra had agents among the church to protect her. Things that would have made them both look competent as well as raised the stakes.

Overall, this was an okay episode but one that isn’t nearly as strong as the previous two. I feel like both Alicent and Rhaenyra should have been both supporting the war option themselves by the end of Episode 2. The bridges were thoroughly burned by then. I’m excited about upcoming events but I feel they’ve lost some of the momentum from the first two episodes.

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