We are now six episodes into House of the Dragon (Sky Atlantic). During those episodes, Lord Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) has appeared on screen for a total of approximately 10 minutes. That’s less than three per cent of the series to date.
Despite this, he is already, without the faintest shadow of a doubt, House of the Dragon’s best character – and Needham its best actor.
In fact, after the events of this latest episode, I don’t think it’s too early to say that Lord Larys is one of the most disturbing psychopaths in the entire Game of Thrones canon. And, given the competition, that’s quite some achievement.
Not least because we didn’t actually meet Lord Larys until last week, in episode five, when he subtly let slip to Queen Alicent the truth about Princess Rhaenyra’s illicit sexual affairs – thus immediately souring the relationship between the two women, and indeed the relationship between Alicent and her husband, King Viserys, because, in his effort to cover up Rhaenyra’s illicit affairs, he’d sacked her father, Ser Otto Hightower.
In this week’s episode, however, we discovered that Lord Larys is not merely some slippery gossip-merchant. He’s a monster. A monster to rival Ramsay Bolton in sheer murderous depravity.
First he freed a group of prisoners on death row on condition that they let him cut out their tongues (so they can’t grass him up in future). Then he dispatched them to have his brother (Ser Harwin Strong, the secret father of Rhaenyra’s children) and his father (Lord Lyonel Strong, the King’s chief adviser) burned alive inside his family’s ancestral home. As far as we know, his brother and father had never wronged Larys personally. Larys had simply decided to have them brutally killed, because he believed that doing so would benefit Queen Alicent – and therefore, in some as yet unspoken way, him as well. (“I feel certain you will reward me when the time is ripe…”)
Horrendous enough. What makes Lord Larys (and Needham’s performance) all the more chilling, however, is that outwardly he doesn’t seem dangerous at all. Quite the opposite. He is small, weedy, seemingly frail (he walks with the aid of a stick), impeccably polite (note the daintiness of his table manners during his dinner with Alicent), constantly smiling and solicitous (at least to Alicent), and a maker of downright twee small talk ("It seemed a sin to let such a pie grow cold"). Then there’s his voice: a dreamy, meandering murmur, barely louder than a whisper, which rises and falls with a gentle sing-song lilt. I’d be interested to know whether Needham is a fan of Blue Jam, Chris Morris’s nightmarishly surreal BBC radio comedy: the voice Needham uses for Larys sounds uncannily like the one Morris used for his Blue Jam monologues.
At any rate, the softly spoken innocuousness of Larys’s manner only serves to accentuate the monstrousness of his actions. At the end of the episode, after a horrified Alicent realises what Larys has done, and gasps that she never wished for any such thing, Larys’s response is to smile serenely, and to smell some pretty flowers, as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Which, quite evidently, he hadn’t.
In short: he’s a villain of absolutely outstanding quality. Come to think of it, perhaps the greatest single measure of his impact is that I’ve managed to spend the first 550 words of this review focusing solely on him, while ignoring the numerous other seismic developments in this episode.
Since last week, the series has jumped forward in time by a whole decade, and the younger members of the cast have therefore been replaced by older ones – so Rhaenyra is now played by Emma D’Arcy, Alicent by Olivia Cooke, and Ser Laenor Velaryon (Rhaenyra’s closeted gay husband) by John Macmillan.
In the meantime, Prince Daemon has started a family with Lady Laena Velaryon – who, as a 12-year-old girl four episodes ago, was offered to King Viserys as a potential bride, before he chose to marry Alicent instead. Now all of a sudden we find Laena married to Viserys’s younger brother, and pregnant with Daemon’s child. Barely have we digested this information, however, than the marriage is over – because a suicidal Lady Laena has commanded their dragon to torch her to death, after a childbirth scene with hideous echoes of the one that killed Viserys’s wife and baby son in the very first episode.
Now I’m almost 750 words in and I still haven’t mentioned that Rhaenyra and Alicent have become such bitter enemies that Rhaenyra, the heir to the throne, has decided to quit King’s Landing altogether. In my reviews of the early episodes I repeatedly grumbled that there was too little action. Now there’s so much that I can barely summarise it.
Anyway, the two most recent episodes have been spectacular. If this is the effect that Larys can have in just 10 minutes of screen time, God knows what he’ll do if the writers give him a full quarter of an hour.