The climate after Game of Thrones concluded its final season in 2019 was tense, to say the least. After eight years, fans who ardently followed along with the story of the Starks and the Lannisters and the Targaryens were treated to a bloodbath and ultimately an ending that left many longtime fans wondering what had happened to their favorite show. This impact rippled out to impressions of House of the Dragon. Although the creators, the story, and the cast are all different, the lingering bad taste of Game of Thrones’ series finale left viewers skeptical.
Personally, the ending of the landmark series left me feeling quite betrayed, and so it was with some initial bias against the show that I embarked on my House of the Dragon screeners. For those who have consumed all things A Song of Ice and Fire related, they’ll know that House of the Dragon is based on the novel Fire & Blood, written by George R. R. Martin, who also serves as a co-creator of the TV series alongside Ryan J. Condal. The prequel show mainly centers around one of the sections of the book that covers a famed civil war in Westeros history: the Dance of the Dragons.
If you thought courtroom politics were complicated during the reign of Robert Baratheon, you ain’t seen nothing yet. House of the Dragon plunges the reader into that sphere almost immediately, and that is where its strength lies. This time around, the name of the game is succession, but in Westeros, the idea of a woman ruling on the Iron Throne is unheard of, and therein lies the problem, when King Viserys Targaryen I (Paddy Constantine) is left without any male heirs when his wife dies during childbirth. With only a daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock/Emma D’Arcy), he names her his heir. However, he also has a younger brother, Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), who believes himself the rightful heir as he is the next male in line. Things are further complicated when the king marries again, this time to Rhaenrya’s friend Lady Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey/Olivia Cooke), and Alicent becomes pregnant.
Taking place over a vast amount of time — the first six episodes of House of the Dragon cover nearly 10 years of events — it is often a bit jarring to jump into a new episode and find out that four years have passed since the last. Since the meat of the action takes place when the actual civil war begins, it makes sense to hurry along to the good bit, but the inconsistency of time jumps often left me wondering what vital character moments I had missed in the passing years. Children are born, weddings are had, alliances are made. It leaves you with a bit of uncertainty on when we will next drop into the life of a character.
This is at its most jarring a little over halfway through the season, when many of the younger characters age up and their appearance changes, now played by a different actor. Alcock, as the younger Rhaenyra, does a stunning job playing the young and willful princess. A bit naive, but eager to prove herself, she is a fitting protagonist for us to follow — and it’s clear that, to some effect, we are meant to root for Rhaenyra. Alicent is, in some ways, her foil, along with her second cousin Rhaenys Velaryon (Eve Best) to a lesser extent. As Rhaenyra moves closer toward the day she is meant to be crowned, we watch as the people around her continuously remind her of the perils of being a female ruler, especially in Westeros. There are threats of war and insurrection if a woman dares sit on the throne, and it’s impossible not to feel indignant on Rhaenyra’s behalf, especially when she shows herself, time and time again, to be capable and powerful.
There is less of D’Arcy’s Rhaenyra and, admittedly, the change in casting is not the smoothest transition. The two actors do not portray the character in the same way, and perhaps that can be waved away with a ten-year jump, but it is noticeable. Similarly, Carey’s Alicent becomes hardened over time into the older version of Alicent played by Cooke, though her transformation is explained a bit better.
The surprise of the season is Smith’s Daemon Targaryen. Smith, who gained notoriety as the quirky and effervescent Doctor in Doctor Who, is all swagger, arrogance, and charm here as the rogue prince. While the initial casting certainly surprised people, Smith is very comfortable in his role and is easily one of the most entertaining characters to follow. Of course, those familiar with Game of Thrones will remember that the Targaryens had a custom, for many years, of marrying within the family in order to keep the purity of their blood. So, yes, there is some heavy incest in the series. And, unlike Jaime and Cersei’s relationship, which was often framed as perverse or abnormal, here marrying a brother to a sister isn’t considered unusual. If you’re squeamish about the idea of incest in a TV series, this is not the show for you.
Another high point for House of the Dragon, which should surprise absolutely no one, is the dragons themselves. Daenerys and her dragons were often the best part of the original series — but by then, dragons are considered all but extinct. In the time of House of the Dragon, the winged beasts are plentiful. It’s clear that much of the budget went to filming these majestic dragon flying scenes, and it pays off. The flipside of that means that we are confined mainly to King’s Landing, but that benefits the story more than it hurts it. The capsule setting is the perfect pressure cooker environment for our characters as their ambitions and destinies bump up against one another in the crowded capital. We’re working with a much smaller pool of characters than the original series, and it helps. It’s difficult to say if a newcomer will find quite as much enjoyment in the series as someone who is familiar with the material. There’s very little explaining when it comes to the houses or references to the original show.
When House of the Dragon does mention the original show, it’s a roll of the dice on whether it has its intended effect or not. Sometimes, we’re given a glimpse into the past, the beginnings of a house, or a family that we know will have a strong grasp over Westeros. Other times, most overtly, we’re given direct reference to the future through the eyes of prophecy. It’s here when the show garnered an eyeroll from me. To tie the new series to one of the weakest points of the original series is a mistake and will only serve to remind viewers, especially those displeased with how things ended, about that fact. It goes off-script and off-book, and it’s clear that it is meant to tie the two series together.
But these moments are few and far between. The courtroom politics and the intrigue of shifting dynamics are enough to keep you hooked, and I found myself hungry for more episodes and eager to know the fate of these characters. While we only knew the Targaryens as a folklorish dynasty seen through the eyes of Daenerys, it’s exciting to see the house when it was at its height. There is enough to love in House of the Dragon that keeps me coming back for more. Between the dragons, the strength of the actors, and the twists and turns of the plot, I’m eager to see where we will be taken next.