House of the Dragon
HBO, August 21, 2022
Aug 20, 2022
Photography by Ollie Upton/HBO
As both a prequel to, and spinoff of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon has a lot to live up to, and, a lot to live down. Arguably the most popular and influential show of the past decade, Game of Thrones redefined prestige television and the fantasy genre with its continent-spanning epic of knights, princesses, bastards, dragons, ice demons and weddings gone wrong.
Based on George R.R. Martin’s famously unfinished novel cycle A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones took the world by storm only to collapse under its own weight with a final season that many viewers found rushed and disappointing. Although this writer is not one of those viewers–not only did I (mostly) like the final season, I think time will be kind to it–the future of what HBO was hoping would be an ongoing franchise seemed uncertain. With nearly a dozen potential successor shows in various stages of development, Martin and HBO seemed unsure of what aspects of the original show should remain in a spinoff, and what should be jettisoned.
Martin has spent the last two decades writing various novellas and “fake histories” set in the world of Westeros, any of which could be mined for inspiration. Fire & Blood is the source material eventually settled on. It is the first volume of an in-universe history of House Targaryen, the ancestors of exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen, one of the heroes, or villains depending on your perspective, of Game of Thrones. The Targaryens ruled Westeros for nearly 300 years and in Fire & Blood, Martin details the various kings, queens, princes and bastards who comprised a family of pale-skinned, platinum-haired dragon-riders. The idea seems to have been to keep what people liked about Game of Thrones: sword fights, political intrigue, dragons, and turn them up to eleven.
Beginning 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragons finds the Targaryens at the height of their power in Westeros. From the opening scene at the Great Council of 101, complete with expository narration, the show seems to be catering to the small sliver of fans that have actually read all 700 pages of Fire & Blood, Volume I. No narrative expense is spared in terms of the complicated network of cousins, marriages and rivalries that make up the Targaryen court in King’s Landing. When characters discuss both recent and ancient history, you can almost hear the pride in the writer’s voices as they nail details from Martin’s source material with an accuracy that would make the Wiki of Ice and Fire editors envious.
As much as the dragon can be in the details, one of the advantages House of the Dragon has over its predecessor is that, rather than trying to cram a massive, multi-faceted novel into every season, they are allowed to expand on what is effectively a detailed outline, allowing the writers and cast to give shading and nuance to characters that are effectively just sketches on the page. Chief among these is Paddy Considine’s performances as King Viserys Targaryen, the First of his Name. Presented as an amiable but absentee monarch in the source material, Considine gives the character a layer of pathos that was never achieved in Martin’s text. Similarly impressive is Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra, Viserys’ presumptive heir, a role she will share with Emma D’Arcy following a time skip in the coming episodes. Stealing the show is the most famous member of the cast, former Doctor Who, Matt Smith, as Daemon Targaryen, Viserys’ younger brother, a violent, showboating wildcard in the Targaryen court. The character that benefits the most from the expansion of the source material in the first episode is Aemma Arryn, Viserys’ queen played by Sian Brooke. Appearing in only a few lines of Fire & Blood, Aemma is the fulcrum of the most moving and brutal sequence in the premiere, one that is sure to further inflame the discourse around the series’ depiction of violence toward women.
According to HBO, Game of Thrones is still their most streamed show, even three years after its divisive ending. House of the Dragon is similar enough to the original series that it shouldn’t have much trouble drawing in fans looking for more of the same. However, it escalates and complicates some of the best and most controversial elements of its parent show that it should have no trouble standing on its own. (www.hbo.com/house-of-the-dragon)
Author rating: 8/10