A case study in the episode‘s interest in social rituals as a way of hiding and exposing reality is its lone on-screen death, that of the nameless man whose neck is broken as part of a convoluted scheme to fake Ser Laenor’s (John Macmillan) death. At Laena’s burial, her uncle gets a covert opportunity to poke fun at Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) over the paternity of her boys. Ser Laenor’s battle with his lover Qarl (Arty Froushan) serves as cover for their bittersweet escape from the brutal power games of the royal court, while Rhaenyra’s secret marriage to her uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) helps to inflate her image as a vicious power player. The ceremonies and traditions that unite the Westerosi people are everywhere we look.
It’s something of a small marvel that the episode manages to calm down after last week’s episode’s frenetic pace while still managing to keep so many plates spinning at once, but director Miguel Sapochnik and writer Sara Hess accomplish it expertly. “Driftmark” flows at an easy pace, from the melancholy yet politically heated opening funeral scene to the young prince Aemond’s (Leo Ashton) darkly magnificent and unsettling claim of the dragon Vhagar.
Its setting—the coastal estate of House Velaryon, where the royal family has assembled to grieve—as well as Rhys Ifans’ reappearance as the gaunt, cadaverous Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, giving the entire event a Gothic feel. These inbred nobility plotting, trying to get together, and engaging in combat in their isolated palace while the country teeters on the precipice of destruction is more than a bit evocative of The Masque of the Red Death.
The main action scene
The episode’s main action scene, a fight between the royal children that quickly degenerates into a worse situation, makes the future look more grim than at any other time. When Prince Aemond successfully mounts Vhagar and returns, Rhaenyra’s sons and Daemon’s daughters ambush him in the Driftmark dungeons. The young Targaryen dynasty heirs’ playful argument quickly turns violent, with fists and feet giving way to rocks and knives, while the scenario is lighted and filmed like something from Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Viserys’ (Paddy Considine) request for a restoration to the family’s status quo is enough to make his request sound almost comically out of date, like a referee trying to end World War II with a whistle. Ashton has a great performance as Aemond; he is as disagreeable a winner as he is a disgruntled loser, brutalising and insulting his younger relatives and nephews with towering scorn because of his status as a second son without a dragon.
Aemond gets both his rage and his attitude
Watching Olivia Cooke as Alicent makes it simple to understand where Aemond gets both his rage and his attitude. The former friend of Rhaenyra has evolved into a fragile, dysfunctional lady, but after the fight between the kids, she finds her strength. Alicent loses her cool and demands an eye from one of Rhaenyra’s sons as payment for Aemond’s irreversible harm. Once more, the episode decides to centre its conflict around a ritual, this time the most fundamental one, the literally biblical custom of “an eye for an eye.”
Through the ritualistic demand, we catch a glimpse of the real Alicent—a bewildered and terrified woman whose abusive father had left her in a constant state of terror. The final exchange between a parent and child is eerily similar to the candid discussion Rhaenys (Eve Best) and her husband Corlys (Steve Toussaint) have following the funeral of their daughter, in which Rhaenys denounces her husband’s desire to place his own ancestors on the throne. Otto, on the other hand, applauds his daughter’s unruly conduct and says it demonstrates her tenacity. The episode’s most disturbing image may be his joy at her obvious ill health, another lie hidden under his solemn demeanour and the mysterious customs of the royal court.