When HBO first announced that they were going ahead with a prequel series to Game of Thrones, it was clear they were playing with fire. Could House of the Dragon possibly repeat the mammoth success of the biggest show of the 2010s? Would fans who felt burnt by Game of Thrones‘s final season, which gave fan favorite Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) a brutal heel turn and left the realm in the hands of “Bran the Broken” (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), give House of the Dragon a fair shot?
Miraculously, though, House of the Dragon manages to soar beyond Game of Thrones straight out the gate. The new HBO series captures the grandeur of Game of Thrones‘s later seasons, the elegant interpersonal drama beloved in the earlier ones, and puts its female characters front and center like never before. You needn’t be wary about returning to Westeros. House of the Dragon isn’t good; it’s great.
House of the Dragon is set about 200 years before the events of the original Game of Thrones at a time when the Targaryens’ power is at its peak. The show opens with the Great Council of 101, where the “wise king” Jaehaerys (Michael Carter) has called together the lords of the realm to settle a thorny family issue: who will succeed him on the Iron Throne? Granddaughter Rhaenys (Eve Best) is technically next in line, but the lords overwhelmingly vote for Viserys (Paddy Considine), the male heir. This cold open introduces the central villain of House of the Dragon: the patriarchy.
The first season of House of the Dragon tells the story of how childhood best friends Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcott as a teen, Emma D’Arcy as an adult) and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey as a teen, Olivia Cooke as an adult) fell out over the question of who would succeed Rhaenyra’s father on the Iron Throne. When we first meet the girls, neither have ambitions of glory, but the horrific death of Rhaenyra’s mother in the childbirth bed immediately changes their positions in court. Viserys decides to pass over his own male heir, chaotic younger brother Daemon (Matt Smith), in favor of Rhaenyra. Meanwhile, Alicent’s father, the politically powerful Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), pressures his submissive daughter to “comfort” Viserys in his hour of grief. After all, the king will need to wed again to try for that coveted male heir…
The question dogging Rhaenyra throughout the six episodes HBO sent critics is whether or not the Realm, the same one that rejected Rhaenys, will ever accept her. Her position seems secure until her father’s new bride delivers a healthy son who is fawned over by the lords and ladies of Westeros. Rhaenyra, meanwhile, also worries that her father means to sell her off to a pompous lord for a castle or other totem of wealth. Will she ever get the throne that was promised her? Or will she, like her mother, be reduced to a broodmare for her royal line?
Early on in House of the Dragon, Rhaenyra’s mother Aemma Arryn (Sian Brooke) tells her daughter that “the childbed is our battlefield” and House of the Dragon treats pregnancy and its trials like brutal, bloody warfare. While Game of Thrones used sexual violence to show the brutality of patriarchal societies — sometimes to a disconcerting degree — House of the Dragon looks at the inherent horror of reproduction. Rather than shy away from the gory, gross parts of childbirth, House of the Dragon forces the audience to consider how the quest to produce heirs simultaneously gives women in this world their power and their most deathly trials. Game of Thrones showed Lyanna Stark soaked in her “bed of blood” like a beautiful martyr. House of the Dragons makes similar scenes feel like violent acts of horror.
But House of the Dragon isn’t just about women jockeying for power in a system set up to demean them. It’s also, like Game of Thrones, a meaty political drama set in a lush fantasy world ruled over by dragons. Unlike Daenerys’s brood of dragons that took years to grow into maturity, House of the Dragon will have a total of 17 full grown dragons who soar through the clouds and incinerate legions of foes. There are battle scenes that only be described as “metal AF,” and set pieces that use the characters’ emotions as well as magical beasts to thrill and delight.
House of the Dragon has more than incredibly CGI beasts to recommend it. The true fire in this show comes from its fantastic ensemble cast of performers. Paddy Considine turns Viserys from a borderline buffoon in George R.R. Martin’s works into a tragic, haunted figure undone by his own capacity for love. Newcomers Milly Alcock and Emily Carey each command the screen in different ways: Alcock’s Rhaenyra is all spunk and spite, while Carey’s Alicent is a carefully composed inferno of suffering. (I’ve only seen D’Arcy and Cooke’s versions of the roles in one episode, but so far they match Alcock and Carey, while darkening the souls of both characters.) However the standout of the series has to be Matt Smith’s Daemon Targaryen. Smith takes a character who could be nothing more than a haughty bully and makes him an unlikely underdog. Daemon is terrifying, seductive, and irrepressibly charming. The perfect Dragon Prince.
That said, House of the Dragon isn’t without faults. So far, the show seems to be giving Daemon Targaryen’s lowborn sex slave-turned-spymaster lover Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) short shrift compared to the other characters. (It really doesn’t help that her character’s chosen accent is a cringe-y patois.) House of the Dragons also liberally uses time jumps, most notably between Episodes 5 and 6, where a few major characters are completely recast. Both casts are fantastic, but these jumps may be jarring for viewers not completely embedded in the lore of George R.R. Martin’s world.
Speaking of lore, perhaps the most impressive part of House of the Dragon is how it feels more Game of Thrones than even Game of Thrones. The show is full of details that will delight hardcore fans and also expands on the mythology of Martin’s universe in huge ways. Tonally, House of the Dragon is more like Martin’s fantasy tomes than David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s adaptation was. That’s partly because Martin himself co-created House of the Dragon and partly because HBO has thrown a massive budget into bringing the full scope of his world to life.
Overall House of the Dragon feels like a magical miracle. It’s as if showrunners Ryan Condel and Miguel Sapochnik looked at Game of Thrones and thought, “How can we make this even better?” rather than, “How do we do this all over again?” House of the Dragon is definitely the show Game of Thrones fans want, full of drama, fire, and blood. Oh, and lots of dragons.
House of the Dragon premieres on Sunday, August 21 on HBO and HBO Max.
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