House of the Dragon Season Preview:
Episodes viewed: 6 of 10
TV: Sky Atlantic and Now TV are showing it.
In Westeros, almost two centuries before the time of Daenerys, King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) sits on the Iron Throne. Viserys’s daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock / Emma D’Arcy) becomes heir after her brother Daemon (Matt Smith) is disinherited. However, there are rival claims to the throne, and conflict seems likely.
Prequels are challenging to write. (Ask George Lucas about it.) To make one work, you have to break free from the shadow of the original, find stakes and tension in a story where everyone knows the ending, and — if you’re House Of The Dragon — follow up a show like Game Of Thrones, which was both the most-acclaimed and least-acclaimed television series of all time. HBO’s extravagant fantasy adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s books finished in 2019 on such a sour note in some parts that it’s easy to forget it was, at its zenith, as wonderful as TV has ever been: finely detailed political intrigue, complicated characters, historical allegory, and big-budget fantasy extravaganza.
Much is new and much is old in our inaugural spin-off show. There is still terrible violence, well-placed cursing, and plenty of orgies. The peroxide wigs still appear to be wigs. There are also rumours of a “Great Winter” and the “Prince That Was Promised,” as well as appearances by Baratheons, Starks, and Lannisters – indications of future players in the game. However, fan service is not overdone due to the writers’ awareness of earlier complaints. This is unmistakably a Targaryen story, with the camera concentrated on a single family as it progressively disintegrates.
So far, the writing lacks the lustre of Game of Thrones’ most significant moments.
That is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The plot has a focus that the original program did not have: a single noble house, a specific question being solved – Succession, if Logan Roy rode dragons — and it gives the series purpose and energy. It’s all leading to one thing: the Targaryen civil war, which was previously only recited as a dry fictional history in Martin’s Fire And Blood.
However, this comes at the expense of texture. There are interminable heir talks, petty council squabbles, and meetings that could have been cancelled. So far, the writing lacks the sparkle of Game of Thrones’ most profound moments. There is no equivalent to Tyrion’s witty drinking-and-knowing-things, no petty scheming on the level of Littlefinger, no revealing character moments as startling as Robert and Cersei finally having an honest conversation.
It goes at such a breakneck pace — the first episodes span several years — and with such deep politicking that it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the character woods from the plot-heavy trees. Matt Smith is most intriguing among the ensemble, fantastic as a petulant, hissable monster sharing more than a few features with the future Prince Joffrey, albeit Smith finds bits of humanity to add to the savage Targaryen supremacism. Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy, who plays Rhaenyra, who, like Daenerys before her, struggles with what it means to be a woman in a viciously patriarchal environment, are also terrific. “Childbirth is our fight,” Rhaenyra’s mother tells her, and indeed, three frighteningly traumatic births occur in the first six hours, with only one end nicely. Despite its claims to revere them, this franchise’s handling of female characters is a recurrent blind spot.
At the very least, the stakes are enormous and epic. “This is not a trivial matter,” Paddy Considine’s Viserys says solemnly, and the film appears to be worth every penny of its reported $150-200 million budget, with a muscularly cinematic battle almost every other hour; a lavish royal wedding that longtime viewers will be suitable to distrust; and no skimping on dragons. Thrones spent an entire season introducing its distinctive animals; its sibling program does so in three minutes. Dragons are a common sight in Westerosi sky, which changes how combat is played; the goalposts inevitably shift when you have a dozen massive flying weapons of mass destruction on your side. When used effectively, as in the fiery opening to Episode 3, we are reminded of the terrible power they still possess: not cheesy fantasy fluff but genuine shock and awe.
Despite its stoic plotting, this program has a lot going for it. A decade time jump in episode six, recasting several characters, gives the series new life; D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke (the unstable Queen Alicent Hightower) breathe new life into their aged-up characters, and the abrupt switch-up signals a show prepared to take risks. This is a prequel that could still surprise us. However, it faces an uphill dragon ride even to the heights of Thrones’ best work.
House Of The Dragon has a lot to prove, and its first few episodes are admirable. But, for better or worse, it has yet to emerge from the shadow of its predecessor.