Directed by: Claire Kilner, Geeta Vasant Patel, Greg Yaitanes, Miguel Sapochnik
Distributed by: HBO
Written by Anna Harrison
There is no beating around the bush: the final seasons of “Game of Thrones” were horrendous. The political intrigue that catapulted the show to success was replaced by shock and awe with little thought for in-world consequences, and characters become hollow shells of their former selves with their actions explained away by claiming that they “forgot” about some plot point or another—though season eight was watched by millions, hardly anyone liked it, and the idea that people would dutifully fall in line for the first of many spinoffs (and, most bizarrely, a Broadway play about the Tourney of Harrenhal) was initially met with scorn. From the first, “House of the Dragon” was in a precarious position: how do you follow up to one of the most beloved and one of the most reviled television shows in history? It would be impossible to proclaim it a worthy successor to “Game of Thrones,” because it’s impossible to define what “worthy successor” means in this context—a cultural revelation? A really good show? A really bad one?
Either to their credit or detriment, showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal—both veterans from “Thrones”—don’t shy away from the original, even going so far as to keep the same score from Ramin Djawdi during the opening credits. (While it’s admirable to own up to your past, keeping the score while revamping the credits themselves feels lazy and too derivative of something like the Marvel fanfare.) We are back in Westeros, for good or ill, though it’s a much older one: 172 years before Daenerys Targaryen, in fact, something we are told before the show even starts, just in case we forgot how it all ends, though how could we ever forget what they did to Daenerys?
We are in the reign of Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), an unremarkable Targaryen king whose indecisiveness will send the whole dynasty into a tailspin. With only one child, and a girl one at that, the question of succession will drive “House of the Dragon” forward—the eternal game of thrones. And what an ugly throne it is: the Iron Throne in “House of the Dragon” more closely resembles George R. R. Martin’s original monstrosity than it ever did in “Game of Thrones,” with swords from defeated enemies sticking up from the ground all the way up to the throne itself, a nasty piece of work more likely to cut its user than provide a cushion. The symbolism is not exactly subtle, but in many ways, “House of the Dragon” more accurately assesses Martin’s thematic throughline than “Thrones” ever did.
“Thrones” made Martin out to be heartless and cruel, reliant as they were on shock and awe (especially in the later seasons), but in his heart, Martin is a pacifist. Theon Greyjoy’s torture and castration by Ramsay Bolton takes place entirely off-page (and is much more effective for it), as opposed to the drawn-out, torture-porn version in the show; vengeance is not something to be cheered, as “Thrones” frames it when Arya Stark slaughters the entire Frey clan, but drives you mad and leaves you wasting away, as exemplified by Lady Stoneheart, the resurrected specter of Catelyn Stark, who stayed dead in the show.
“House of the Dragon” does not entirely lose the impulses that “Thrones” had to value spectacle over sense—one of the showrunners, after all, is the man who directed season six’s “Battle of the Bastard,” one of the most abysmally nonsensical episodes in a show that accumulated quite a lot of those by the end—but it has a much firmer grasp on its source than its predecessor ever did. In fact, Ryan Condal has said that his favorite book in the series is “A Feast for Crows,” a thematically-driven book that does not include viewpoints from characters like Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow but instead focuses on the horrific aftereffects of war, particular on the common people (“smallfolk,” in Martin’s parlance). It’s hard to imagine original “Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss enjoying the slow pace of “Feast.”
But back to the matter of succession. Viserys’s daughter, Rhaenyra (first placed by Milly Alcock as a teenager and then Emma D’Arcy as an adult), has been named his successor and heir, but when Viserys has sons with his second wife, Alicent (Emily Carey in her younger years, followed by Olivia Cooke), the question of who will sit that accursed throne becomes much trickier. There’s also the matter of Viserys’s brother, Daemon (Matt Smith), and their powerful cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best) and Rhaenys’s husband, the wealthy Corlys Velaryon (Steven Touissant), as well as Alicent’s scheming father, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), and her sworn shield, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). It wouldn’t be Westeros if there wasn’t a sprawling cast of British thespians walking around in wigs, after all.
“Fire and Blood,” the volume on Targaryen history which Martin wrote instead of finishing “The Winds of Winter,” is written as a history book, not a novel, and so pacing matters less—that is, until you’re trying to make a television show out of it, and then it becomes tricky. When “Fire and Blood” skips forward ten years, it hardly raises eyebrows, but “House of the Dragon” attempts to cram several major time jumps into season one in order to get to the heart of the conflict and go from there. Given the timeline of the source material, “House of the Dragon” does its best, but these jumps leave much to be desired as the audience is left to fill in character arcs that remained offscreen; the result is uneven at best, especially as Sapochnik and Condal spend too much time focusing on less important things, like the Triarchy subplot, which could have been condensed to make room for characters like Ser Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr), who gets shoved to the sidelines despite his existence being the catalyst for much of the succession crisis. (To say more would be to spoil too much.)
None of this is bad enough to sink the show; in fact, the time skips are nothing compared to the show’s insistence that they connect everything back to the “song of ice and fire” prophecy that ended so poorly in the original show (if you will remember, there is a prophecy regarding the Prince That Was Promised and is clearly supposed to be Jon Snow or even Daenerys, and ends up being Arya in the show for reasons of “subverting expectations”). Had “Thrones” stuck the landing with this prophecy, or even paid it much attention at all, maybe I would be singing a different tune, but the inclusion is wholly unnecessary and reminds everyone of a thing we’d rather forget.
But, as I said, “House of the Dragon” gets a lot right thematically, despite David Benioff claiming themes are “for eighth-grade book reports” (maybe he should have written more of those). Even as we begin to care deeply for some of these characters—Considine in particular is a standout—we begin to realize how rotten this whole institution is, and how power can so easily corrupt those with the best of intentions. What good are vows and fealty when they deny you your happiness and strip you of your personhood? “So many vows,” Jaime Lannister once said. “They make you swear and swear…” and all for what? As the Targaryens edge closer and closer to civil war, there is a sense of inevitability and doom, because what else do they have except for the trappings of power?
“House of the Dragon” also handles its female characters better than “Game of Thrones” ever did. Where “Thrones” only ever had two episodes in its entire run directed by a woman (and the same woman to boot, Michelle MacLaren), four of season one’s ten episodes are directed by women, and it shows. Where “Thrones” liked to group women into categories—ice princess, “not like other girls,” uses sex to manipulate, and moms—“House of the Dragon” lets them be full and messy, especially Rhaenyra and Alicent, whose relationship drives much of the show. Sex, too, is handled better—gone are the days of random lesbian sex scenes inserted into the background for no reason. In fact, very few breasts were glimpsed during the entire season, and the sex scenes that did occur were steeped in character and done with taste; none of the scenes were for mere titilation. In fact, I would venture to say that the sex scenes in “House of the Dragon” are one of its greatest assets, something I never thought I would say about a sister property to “Game of Thrones.”
Still, it’s hard to get too invested in “House of the Dragon,” and not just because I know how it plays out. The distaste from “Game of Thrones” still linger, and while “House of the Dragon” shows immense promise (and those pesky time skips will chill out next season, which should lend itself to better pacing), I will keep it at arm’s length for now. Better to watch passively then care too deeply and get burned again.
“House of the Dragon” Trailer