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Rhaenys Dies, Eve Best Explains Dragon Battle

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot details for HBO’s “A Dance of Dragons,” Season 2, Episode 4 of “House of the Dragon,” now streaming on Max.

The war had already started in earnest, but with Sunday’s episode of “House of the Dragon,” the Dance of the Dragons has officially begun. “A Dance of Dragons” culminates with the battle for Rook’s Rest, a small and unremarkable castle on the rocky coast of Westeros. But while the prize may be minor, the combatants are certainly not. Rook’s Rest is the conflict’s first skirmish to pit dragon against dragon — not the impulsive, accidental meeting that took the life of Prince Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) in the Season 1 finale, but a planned face-off with deadly results.

When an army led by Ser Criston Cole (Fabian Frankel) shows up at the castle’s gates, Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best) offers to fly with her dragon Meleys on behalf of her daughter-in-law Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), leader of the so-called Black faction. There, she’s ambushed by Prince Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) of the Greens, who’s joined at the last minute by his usurper sibling King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney). What follows is a victory for no one. While riding Vhagar, the oldest and largest dragon alive, Aemond takes down Rhaenys and assumes control of the castle. He also seizes the chance to act on his longstanding resentment of the weak, incompetent Aegon, reducing his own brother — and Aegon’s dragon Sunfyre — to a pile of smoking ash.

The fallout of Rook’s Rest will come into focus in future episodes. For now, “A Dance of Dragons” culminates the tragic arc of Rhaenys, a woman who began the series getting passed over for the Iron Throne in favor of her cousin and Rhaenyra’s father Viserys (Paddy Considine). Since that original insult, Rhaenys has endured more than her fair share of indignity and loss, including the death of both her children by her loving husband Corlys (Steven Toussaint). Rhaenys has reluctantly aligned herself with Rhaenyra, but she’s hardly a vocal partisan. The elder stateswoman has been both critical of her younger counterpart and a consistent voice against further escalation. Last season, she and Meleys broke out of the Dragonpit in King’s Landing. While Rhaenys could have eliminated the entire Green faction with a single “Dracarys,” she chose not to fire the war’s opening shot.

Courtesy of HBO

For Best, the transition from her character maintaining peace by any means necessary to volunteering as tribute is momentous, comparing the use of dragons to nuclear war. “The point is, ultimately, whatever we feel…the bigger picture is we must not send dragons into war, we must not go nuclear at all costs,” the actor tells Variety. “So for her then to say, ‘I will be the one to do this,’ she knows that there’s no living after that.”

Over Zoom, Best spoke about the practical realities of filming a dragon battle, how Rhaenys resembles a samurai — and the possibility for her character’s posthumous return.

I’ve read a little bit about the harness setup the actors use for the dragon riding. Can you tell me a bit about practically filming that final sequence?

What you see — cut together, obviously — is absolutely polar opposite to what actually happens. First of all, we’re all on our own. We all do it individually. This particular sequence, because it was so long, the boys each had about a week to shoot their stuff. Mine was two weeks, because she’s through the whole battle, she’s there. 

It was a really complicated sequence. And it was two weeks of just me on this — it’s like the size of a small house, really — this big, electronic, moving thing. I’ve been told it’s a bit like a bucking bronco. I’ve never been on a bucking bronco, but I’ve been told that’s similar. It’s got a saddle on the top of it, and you have to go up a flight of steps to get to it. Then you’re strapped into the saddle, and the house starts to move.  When we did it in Season 1, it was moving a fair bit, but it never got really, really violent. But this time, there were some complicated moves. It was quite intricate choreography that had to be plotted  — all these turns, and she was upside down. So you’re moving around, my legs crushed under me as it’s going around and around. I tell you, it was a very good workout for my thighs and for my core strength. Pilates, eat your heart out! 

Right!

I felt extremely not in my comfort zone. I definitely kept asking for more cushions, and needed more padding on my knees and feeling very ill-equipped to cope with all of this. And at the same time as it’s moving, they’ve got four guys with enormous leaf blowers blowing wind in your face. You can hardly hear a thing because there’s all this sound of the wind, and then you’ve got a director yelling into a microphone somewhere in the distance. “Look up! There’s Vhagar! Aemond’s coming in!” And you can hardly think straight. You’re thinking, “I’ve got this really intense moment for Rhaenys, and I’ve got to focus,” but you’re just clinging on for dear life in some cases.

There was one moment that was a particularly elaborate move. It was when the dragons were spiraling. It had to look like she was doing this 360 turn with Vhagar, and she was hanging upside down for a fair bit of it. In screen time, I think it was a miniscule moment, but in practical time, it was a whole afternoon of getting this machine to do a 180 turn. I started off and I was vertical to the ground, and then they spun it 180 degrees to the other side. God, my thighs and my core were really working to the max. Then it stopped and they said cut, and the machine’s supposed to right itself straightaway. There was a delay, so I was left hanging on the seat! Everyone had got up to have a coffee while I’m hanging onto this thing for dear life. “Let me down! Somebody let me down! Don’t forget about me!” There had just been a few seconds’ delay, but it felt like a year. My stomach muscles felt extremely proud of themselves that day.

On top of the physical practicality of doing it, you also have to communicate Rhaenys’ emotional state through all of this. 

Which was a very, very intense journey for her. That was challenging, to try and hold onto that. I spoke with [episode director] Alan Taylor. We’d had a session where we talked about what was going on with her emotions, because I felt very strongly that there were these really important beats that we needed to mark. In particular, the knowledge of the fact that it’s very likely a kamikaze mission. It has to be, because effectively, she’s starting a nuclear war, and she has been the one character throughout who’s done everything she can to stop them. Because she’s the one that knows from bitter experience, and all the younger generation are running around, saying “Send in the dragons!” She and Corlys are really the only adults left in the room who know, who’ve been there and seen it — what they’re facing. 

The context of nuclear war was very, very helpful, because that’s the equivalent for us. And I knew that when she had proposed herself, that she knew she had to take that responsibility, if anyone was going to have that weight. It couldn’t be Rhaenyra. She had to do it. I think she knows that she has to sacrifice herself for the team. Another journalist described her as Lancelot, Rhaenyra’s Lancelot, in many ways. I felt like that was very apt. There’s such a deep reluctance. In the end of Season 1, she makes that conscious decision not to start a war, not to nuke everybody. Everyone ever since has been saying, “Why didn’t you nuke them?” Everybody’s taking it personal, and she’s all the time looking at the bigger picture. All the time rising up, putting the personal aside, and rising above.

The point is, ultimately, whatever we feel, however attached and however devastated we may be, the bigger picture is we must not send dragons into war, we must not go nuclear at all costs. So for her then to say, “I will be the one to do this,” she knows that there’s no living after that. The choice to go, that second return to plunge in with Vhagar — that’s an absolute kamikaze mission. To me, that was when she felt very samurai. It was that last stand of the noble warrior. She could have just about escaped, and they could have maybe left everybody to deal with it. But she turns because she knows that’s what she has to do, morally and spiritually.

Courtesy of HBO

You’ve previously described Rhaenys and Corlys as the only healthy relationship on the show. But in their final conversation, we also learn that Alyn the sailor is Corlys’ illegitimate son. How does that change your view of their marriage?

It’s absolute agony, and it’s been this secret between them. We talked, Steven and I, and we really felt that they had never, it had never been spoken about. And yet, absolutely, it’s the biggest sword in her heart, obviously. Up until now, he’d been really her rock, the ground beneath our feet. And feeling that suddenly was unstable, feeling this relationship through the presence of Alyn and Adam suddenly rearing its head again, having been so deeply buried by her, never spoken of by him. He’s in complete denial about it, and it’s absolute agony for her. I really felt like her heart was breaking.

The difference between Season 1 and Season 2 was that they had been, in Season 1, absolutely a team throughout. Loss after loss, the grief over their children, going through these devastating, devastating events, and yet they were always facing them together. This time, a chasm opened between them. And yet again with that, she’s hiding it. I wanted to yell at her. “Just talk to him! Have the conversation! Please tell him how you feel!” Because yet again, in spite of the fact that it’s absolutely breaking her apart, to be reminded and to see this — as she imagines — presence of another woman via the illegitimate children, she’s yet again putting that aside and saying to Corlys, “You have to acknowledge and you have to accept that he could be your heir — and you need to do right by him.”

And that’s a classic example of her yet again putting aside her personal grief and her feelings. I think inside, she’s broken and devastated. But always doing the right thing. Never letting anybody, apart from Meleys, see her insides.

This season, we’ve seen actors who previously exited the show, like Milly Alcock, reappear in flashbacks and visions. Obviously, Rhaenys is no longer alive in the show, but is there any chance for her to return in a similar context?

I’d love her to. I think she should haunt him like crazy. She should pop up everywhere he goes, giving him all kinds of advice and a piece of her mind. We’ll see. Who knows?

Rhaenys starts the series as a potential candidate for the Iron Throne, and then she sacrifices her life as part of this greater struggle. Do you think at the end of her life that she feels she’s at peace with losing out on that opportunity?

I don’t think it gives her peace, but I’ve felt like the trajectory of Season 2 was a kind of increasing detachment, letting go and letting go and letting go. She just felt like she was getting lighter and lighter until that final moment on the back of Meleys. I think that’s the one moment that she suddenly — she finds peace. Literally, letting go. She’s been carrying all her own stuff, and pretty much everybody else’s too, certainly for Season 2. The weight of this unimaginable burden, and just letting it go.

It was truly peaceful. Whatever it is, whatever you call it. It’s bliss, or connection.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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