I have been Game of Thrones re-pilled.
Much like Star Wars, Game of Thrones has become a dirty word in our cultural lexicon. There were memes, petitions, and soundbites to go around. Nothing seems less appetizing these days than re-opening the floodgates, not without proper armor this time.
Three years later, HBO is back to the Seven Kingdoms with a chance for course correction and maybe some redemption. I had my reservations but almost all were quelled by the prologue. Turns out I can quit Westeros for a time, but Westeros can’t quit me. Saying it now: I am cautiously optimistic about House of the Dragon, leading with more optimism than caution. 60/40.
Creators Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal find a way forward by going back to the ghost of Westeros’ past – when the Targaryens ruled, some 200 years before the song of ice and fire would come to fruition. The good ole days, back when dragons were as common as royal incest. (Not my beliefs, folks, I am just transcribing the show’s deal.) The first episode, “Heirs of the Dragon” opens with a pivotal moment in House Targaryen. King Jaehaerys names grandson Viserys I as his heir over his eldest grandchild Rhaenys, averting a civil war and maintaining the long line of male dominion.
Heavy, heavy foreshadowing going on, though I suppose that just comes part and parcel with the series. The Great Council convenes at Harrenhal, once a fortress built by Harren the Black as a monument to himself, claiming he could withstand any invasion. Then Aegon and his dragons came along. It is now the seat of House Strong, and, well, if you’ve read Fire & Blood you know George R.R. Martin loves cheeky ironies.
Jaehaerys wimps out where grandson Viserys will remain steadfast – he names his daughter Rhaenyra (gods, they really love their vowels) as heir over his own brother Daemon. These events lead to a period of strife and civil war known as “the Dance of Dragons,” which will splinter House Targaryen leading all the way to the Mad King, and we all know how that song goes. For linear purposes, the prologue serves as the beginning of the end for the House of the Dragon.
As guarded as I was after GoT’s bitter finale, I was smitten by HotD in all of 60 seconds. Because this kind of production scale is what separates Thrones from the rest of television. A whole crop of Netflix, Disney+, and Prime Video shows sprung up as GoT was winding down. Little dialogue, and letting the immaculate sets and costumes do the talking, HBO proves why they’re the undisputed kings of blockbuster television. Technology like The Volume is cool and all, but nothing beats the surreal blur of sets and location. (Of course there’s green screening, but it’s when they use it that makes all the difference.)
While I do miss GoT’s incredible ensemble, HotD’s got a worthy line of dramatic actors playing epic fantasy. Paddy Considine, a frequent Edgar Wright collaborator, is inspired casting for Viserys. He’s not quite as commanding or fearful as he thinks he is, and Considine has the sympathetic (or just plain pathetic) touches to render Viserys as a lesser ruler from his forebears.
I don’t know how Rhys Ifans skated past Westeros the first time since GoT was hiring every UK actor out there. He’s in it now as Otto Hightower and he has the regality to match the character’s benevolence, like a halfway point between Tywin Lannister and Eddard Stark. A complicated path awaits Otto as Hand of the King, and it’ll be a treat to see how Ifans plays these upcoming maneuvers.
Matt Smith’s face was destined to play a Targaryen. (He looks like savagery and cunning had a baby.) As Daemon, he is the pointed edge to Viserys’ rounded hilt; one brother wants peace, and the other… We’ve had only an appetizer of a Targaryen being a shithead prior. I cannot wait to see Smith own that mantle and piss off viewers on the level of Joffrey and Ramsay. Not that Daemon is a one-note monster; his arc is as rich and madly complicated as Jaime Lannister, minus the shame about the incest. Fair warning now: if it seems like Daemon is an affectionate uncle to his niece, please remember this is HOUSE TARGARYEN. Is he everybody’s new problematic fave? We’ll see.
My favorite performance so far is Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra. She looks exactly as well-meaning and naïve as Daenerys, with the quiet fortitude of someone cast aside for a baby brother to arrive all her life. When Viserys finally names her his heir, he tells her about Aegon’s prophecy. It’s an unnecessary callback (call-forward?), but at least it’s not as egregious as The Hobbit pointing Legolas to a “rider in the North.”
I feel like her character is where HotD will do most of the series’ correcting by showing Rhaenrya as the precursor to Dany. If GoT’s final season was rushed, then HotD appears to have all the time that its predecessor did not. Since the show will be about Rhaenyra’s rise and fall, expect a time jump where Emma D’Arcy will take over the character, presumably during the Dance of Dragons. It’ll be interesting to see how the show will handle this exchanging of roles. (The one I’m anxiously waiting for is Olivia Cooke as Alicent Hightower 😍)
This being the first episode, there’s a lot of table-setting to do. Not to sound like a stalwart defender, but there’s something therapeutic about watching a chessboard being put together. I say this knowing some not-so-chill things happen in this ep. There’s a gruesome slaughter in King’s Landing early on, and a particularly upsetting C-section depicted. Viserys loses a wife and son during childbirth (shoulda named that kid Caesarea, amiright?), his relationship with brother Daemon is tested, and Rhaenyra is proclaimed heir. Very laid back by GoT’s standards.
There’s a tournament in the middle and it’s a testament to how far this property has come. Where once a tourney in King’s Landing looked like a direct-to-video of A Knight’s Tale, now it looks like a Ridley Scott epic. This is HBO’s premier money-maker and they are sparing no expense to compete in a television landscape usurped by the big streamers.
When HotD mercifully brought things back to the throne room, I knew for sure my Sunday nights were settled. Say what you will about its ending, but this is what GoT did best—when words, titles, and egos clashed, not swords. Kings and queens sitting on a throne made of molten swords kinda laid down the series’ the dramatic edge, where deceptions and politics and verbal jousting were as exciting as any spectacle on the battlefield.
Yes, GoT is guilty of chasing that spectacle in its final run. Which is what makes HotD so exciting as a return to form. A return to the shadowy plots, the shifting alliances, and fatal checkmates, with fine actors donning wigs and selling the honesty of a fantasy. That’s what made this world full of walking dead people and dragons feel so real. This time there’s no walking dead to muddy the chessboard, just dragons butting heads.
It remains to be seen whether House of the Dragon can exercise patience knowing its got dragons on every corner of the map at their disposal—knowing that huge battles lie ahead for these characters. At the very least, the show has an endpoint where GoT obviously did not. The tradeoff is that GoT had dialogue and scenes to lift directly from the books, whereas Martin’s Fire & Blood is a dry history scroll, meaning the show will have to invent these scenes to fill in the blanks. (I do NOT recommend Fire & Blood unless you’re having trouble sleeping.)
Invention may have been what killed GoT’s final seasons, but it’s not a bad starting point for a successor. Streams don’t always have to cross; they can coexist in tandem. If House of the Dragon can stay parallel to its source material, it can meander however it wants. It wouldn’t be as boring as reading Fire & Blood anyhow. As long as they can keep up the production scale, it’ll still be leagues better than the competition.
I for one am just glad to be back in Westeros again.