The actor talks filming that final scene for a whole day, that shocking death, and where Rhaenyra goes from here.
House of the Dragon season one just capped off a slow-burning season with a devastating finale, as the simmering tension between would-be successor to the throne Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) and Queen Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) reached a boiling point.
Reeling from the death of her father, King Viserys (Paddy Considine), and the attempt to usurp her claim to the throne by Alicent and her father Otto (Rhys Ifans), Rhaenyra is still reluctant to declare all out war. But a peaceful mission to court other noble houses to Rhaenyra’s cause goes awry when her 14-year-old son Lucerys “Luke” Targaryen is ambushed by his uncle Aemond — who harbours a grudge with Luke after a childhood scuffle cost Aemond his left eye. During a storm, Aemond pursues Luke until his Boeing-sized dragon, Vhaega goes rogue and obliterates Luke’s young dragon, ripping the beast apart and sending Luke plummeting to his death.
After weeks of gentle politicking and an episode largely spent tempering her urge for violence, Rhaenyra is unmoored by the news, and the look on her face says one thing: the Dance of the Dragons has officially begun.
GQ spoke to Emma D’Arcy to discuss Rhaenyra’s grief-filled season, how they filmed their character’s two very different birth scenes, and who they’d like to spend more time with next season.
GQ: You joined House of the Dragon midway through the season after a time jump. How are you adjusting to being in the spotlight?
Emma D’Arcy: What I would say is that, watching one’s work for the first time, alongside, like, 10 to 20 million people is definitely quite vulnerable. I feel much more comfortable and enthused speaking about the work than I am good at speaking about myself.
When you signed on, did you know the season would culminate in Rhaenyra losing both her unborn child and her son Lucerys right after? How much did you know about her story ahead of time?
Pretty early. I sat down and read the whole thing over the course of like, a whole day. Me and my partner set up a table in my living room and read them through one by one.
Practically, I knew that in the second half of episode 10, the shapes are so big, in that there are state-shaking events throughout. The challenge is to find somewhere to go. The currency of House of the Dragon is literally: massive life events. And normally they are within the category of suffering and trauma. Episode 10 is like one hilly landscape, with huge tremors.
All throughout the episodes I’ve played Rhaenyra, she is getting a repeated education in grief. She loses her lover [Harwin Strong], and she loses her father, too, but this episode, losing her son really shifts the goalposts on what that suffering can do to the body. So I knew, heading into this episode, this was the moment when a massive reframing would happen to her.
In the books, Rhaenyra’s stillborn child is her only daughter but it isn’t clear here. What did you read into the fact she has now lost all kinds of familial bonds: father, mother, daughter, son?
The way that I made sense of it is that she feels well-educated in grief. Then she learns at the end of episode 10 that she knows nothing about grief up to this point. There’s that idea that you would die for your lover, but kill for your children. She understands that now.
There’s a line in the show’s first episode where Rhaenyra’s mother, Aemma, tells her “the birthing bed is our [women’s] battlefield” — but the battle doesn’t end when you give birth to a healthy baby, either. It’s never-ending.
Yes, and that kind of ravaging of the body that can happen as part of giving birth, is also something that can happen again, if you lose a child in their adolescence.
Rhaenyra refuses help and delivers the baby herself. What was the significance of that decision to you?
I don’t know how contentious this is going to be, but the most important thing for me about the birth in episode 10, is that… She has a fear that begins when she loses her mother. And that’s one of either dying in childbirth, and/or being incapacitated by childbirth by being forced to bear children within this system. Simultaneously, she lives in anticipation of this call to the throne when her father dies. But she’s in the worst-case scenario, in that she is fundamentally incapacitated at the same point as being told “your father’s dead, the throne is yours, and you’ve been usurped.”
The advice Rhaenyra is receiving is to have patience, in the hope of preventing the child being stillborn or preventing harm to the child. And she ignores the advice, seeking instead to get this body out of her. And I think it’s really fundamental, and it will be possibly divisive, but ultimately I think she chooses her own bodily autonomy. She prioritizes her own bodily autonomy. She literally says in the scene, like “get it out.”
That’s really heavy.
It is. Somehow this sort of psychic trauma is also like a bodily trauma and the tearing is happening both within the psyche and also within the body.
It’s the fourth graphic birth in ten episodes. Are you aware of the criticism surrounding the frequent birth scenes?
I haven’t seen loads of it to be honest. But I take real issue with the idea that we shouldn’t see women in labour depicted with gritty realism, and blood, and placentas. Especially on a show where part of its USP is big, gory battle sequences.
What it feels like is that we want women to conform to a certain image. Which is interesting, insofar as acting is concerned, because, there’s also a lot of fun to be had getting to do the big physical, physically demanding sequences. And it’s interesting that maybe sometimes that is not afforded to female characters.
You’ve been Rhaenyra over a six-year period in the show’s timeline, so there are some parts of her life we missed. Do you fill in the blanks yourself?
I definitely had conversations about it. John [MacMillan, who played Rhaenyra’s first husband Leanor Valyron] and I had some conversations about it. Our characters got married when they were played by younger actors, and before the first time jump between episode five and six. So we wanted to figure out how their relationship operated in that period, as both of them have lovers outside the marriage.
Me and Matt Smith had conversations about what Rhaenyra and [second husband] Daemon’s family home looked like. To my shame, I couldn’t claim anything like a month-by-month journal.
The finale saw Rhaenyra tell Daemon about the Song of Ice and Fire prophecy. He hadn’t heard it, and responded by grabbing her throat. Can you talk through his reaction in that scene?
Me and Matt spoke about this scene a lot. We wanted to make sure we understood it really intimately. That moment could be perceived as a huge change in their dynamic. In that scene, by the fireplace, two things happen at once. First, you have two characters who are grieving. And I think one might say that Daemon is managing that grief less eloquently than Rhaenyra is.
Did you and Matt discuss whether Daemon has been physically violent to Rhaenyra before?
I don’t actually think he’s been violent to her before, although I think there’s been a lot of conflict. But fundamentally, when Rhaenyra realizes Daemon was never taught the prophecy, she suddenly gains legitimacy. Because she understands that it was her, she was chosen for this.
There’s this huge question for her all the way through the series: “you chose me, and now you don’t fucking speak to me.” She was tasked with uniting the kingdoms when she becomes Queen but by naming her his heir, Viserys has done the opposite, because his heir is a woman and that has divided the Kingdom.
She begged him to show her what to do because she can’t do it alone, and I think in this scene, she gets a message from beyond the grave the moment that she understands that Damon wasn’t chosen. Simultaneously, Daemon gets shafted from beyond the grave by his brother, who he loves more than any other character in the show. On the one hand, he can say that he doesn’t believe in prophecies. But he was never trusted to anyway.
The closing scene of the whole season focuses on Rhaenyra as Daemon tells her that her son, Luke, has died. Is it true that it took a whole day to shoot?
I had been very nervous about it, because by that point, there had been so many kinds of mountainous shapes in the landscape of that episode. I wanted to find clarity with a new kind of earth-shaking piece of news. But I actually had the most beautiful day of shooting. It did take a day, although half of that was the crew making that crane do that beautiful movement you see in the episode.
When we got on set to rehearse, it has to be known, it was Matt Smith, in a turn of fucking genius, who offered the idea that Daemon should give Rhaenyra the news while we’re both walking away from camera, towards the fireplace. It was a sublime choice, and I could see it instantly. We’ve sort of touched on it, but I think losing a child, losing her son, it reframes grief immediately.
Rhaenyra sent Luke to Storm’s End to deliver a message to House Baratheon, and told him he’d be warmly received by Lord Boros, but he’s sent away with his tail between his legs after the Baratheon’s arranged an alliance with the Hightowers. Do you think she feels guilty that she led her son to his death?
I don’t think there’s space in that moment. It maybe comes later, but I don’t think she gets there — at least in what we see on screen.
Is there anyone you didn’t get to spend much time with this season that you’re looking forward to interacting with in season two?
Liv Cooke! Midway through season one, me and her were fighting for more screen time together. I don’t know what they’re cooking. But I would love that. The other one is Corlys Velaryon, (played by Steve Toussaint). I think Rhaenyra really seeks to claim surrogate fathers, and I think she is drawn to him somewhat. It even happens in this episode with Otto Hightower on the bridge.
That scene took me completely by surprise. As soon as Rhys and I rehearsed that scene, I wanted to do right by him, and we didn’t plan it this way but that validation of a paternal figure factored into the scene. Rhaenyra has just lost her father, and I think she wants this male authority figure to validate her. If she gives in to him, she can go home, and maybe even be loved, and maybe Alicent would take her back. It caught me off guard, but the desire to do right by this other paternal figure after losing her father was so strong and it came in the moment. I’d love to do more scenes with Rhys, we have had very little together other than large group scenes.
Written by Chris Mandle
Published October 25, 2022