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If House of the Dragon Season 1 was the slow burn of the fuse leading up to the Dance of the Dragons, then Season 2 is the powder keg finally going off. Dragons will battle dragons, kin will slay kin, and thousands of soldiers and smallfolk will lose their lives in the oncoming war between Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) and her half-brother Aegon II Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney).

Yet as explosive as the Dance is, House of the Dragon Season 2 is more interested in the cost of war than the epic scale of it. The first four episodes made available to critics are certainly, by definition, spectacular. Dragon dogfights are officially on the table, after all! More often, though, the season lingers on the characters’ grief in the face of atrocities, and their fear of escalating the conflict to even greater heights. It’s these intimate moments of hesitation that make House of the Dragon Season 2 such a brutal, affecting watch, as members of Team Black and Team Green move inexorably towards bloodshed.

House of the Dragon Season 2 drops us into the tense early days of war.

Daemon from "House of the Dragon" sits alone in a green field, wearing a full suit of armor.
Matt Smith in “House of the Dragon.”
Credit: Theo Whitman / HBO

House of the Dragon picks up in the days following the death of Rhaenyra’s son Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) at the hands of Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) and his ferocious dragon Vhagar. Much of Rhaenyra’s inner circle — including her husband/uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) — urge her to retaliate in kind, but her grief is all-encompassing, and she fears that an all-out war will do irreparable damage to the kingdom she’s sworn to protect.

Over in King’s Landing, the situation is reversed. Aegon wishes desperately to send dragons to annihilate his foes. His Small Council, especially his Hand Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) and his mother Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), advise caution and a longer-term strategy. Aegon isn’t alone in his bloodlust, though. Aemond and Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) share his readiness for war, although with somewhat clearer heads than their more unpredictable king. Still, the threat of mutually assured draconic destruction hangs over both camps.

House of the Dragon teases out that fiery threat to its breaking point, tension bleeding through the screen until you feel like you’ll snap. When the tension finally does break, it’s with a cycle of shocking mayhem and bloodshed from both sides, with innocents most often bearing the brunt of the violence. Each act crosses a new threshold into war. There is no individual point of no return, but rather a continuous spiral into oblivion. As Rhaenys (Eve Best) remarks to Rhaenyra, history may not even remember the moment the war began in earnest.

Rhaenyra and Alicent remain the heart of House of the Dragon.

Alicent from "House of the Dragon" lights candles at an altar, wearing a green dress and black veiled headdress.
Olivia Cooke in “House of the Dragon.”
Credit: Ollie Upton / HBO

The Dance of the Dragons itself plays out in the air or on battlefields, including an impressive set piece that calls to mind some of Game of Thrones best battles. But House of the Dragon always works best when it mixes the intimate with the epic. In Season 1, we saw the conflict of succession play out in the festering relationship between former best friends Rhaenyra and Alicent. In Season 2, this pairing remains the personal bedrock on which the show is built, only now in a different context.

With Rhaenyra on Dragonstone and Alicent in King’s Landing, the two don’t have much of a chance at interacting while they are at war. However, House of the Dragon is sure to link them in different ways. A scene that intercuts Rhaenyra’s funeral pyre for Lucerys with Alicent’s prayers to the Seven in episode 1 makes for a heartbreaking reminder of how the two remain intertwined. Elsewhere, the ways in which both are undermined by members of their Small Councils — especially their male relatives — prove frustrating.

In a season that weighs suing for peace against jumping straight to violence, it is most often women, like Alicent and Rhaenyra, who hold out hope for less bloodshed, while most of the men, like Aegon and Daemon, champ at the bit for a fight. It’s a dilemma that calls to mind House of the Dragon‘s very first episode, which juxtaposed Aemma Arryn‘s (Siân Brooke) painful birth with a celebratory tournament. Aemma had no choice in bearing her pain, nor did she have a choice to avoid the violent, fatal C-section forced upon her. The men in the tournament, by comparison, are just playing at (and opting into) pain.

Rhaenyra and Alicent’s wishes to avoid further pain for their families and the realm are well-founded — but as forces mobilize beyond their control, and as they reckon with their own roles in the war, is peace even possible anymore?

The answer, as we’ve known since Lucerys’s death — really, since the death of Viserys — is no. But that inevitability makes House of the Dragon‘s slippery slope into war all the more tragic. There’s no rushing into battles here without making sure everyone understands the consequences of what comes next. So when the dragons finally dance, the reaction is not one of awe, but of devastation.

House of the Dragon Season 2 premieres June 16 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and Max.

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