House of the Dragon Is, Against All Odds, Pretty Decent

“You can’t follow Thrones, it’s The Beatles.” So said Ryan Condal, who created the Game of Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon George R. R. Martin is featured in a Hollywood Reporter Cover Story about the Making of Dragon. The Beatles had spent record-breaking amounts of money and two years recording a terrible follow-up. Let it be that would throw the band’s entire legacy into question, this might’ve been an apt comparison. In truth, Martin, Condal, and Condal’s fellow showrunner Miguel Sapochnik have taken on the tougher task of constructing a franchise out of a once-great series whose final season alienated many fans to the extent that, even in our IP-crazy times, few seemed to come out of it clamoring for more.

Amid so much external pressure, it’s legitimately impressive that they managed to put together a pretty decent show. There was nothing remarkable about the first episodes. House of the DragonThe premiere of ‘, which aired Aug. 21 on HBO was a major highlight. It has structural problems, and elements that are too derivative. This creates a vacuum where there should be thematic resonance. But it’s solid enough to entertain Thrones viewers who preferred that show’s focused, dialogue-rich early seasons to the bloated, combat-packed spectacle it devolved into later.

Although there’s plenty of sex, blood, and dragon riding to overwhelm the senses, the prequel is, at its core (at least in the six episodes provided for review), a family drama. This prequel is exactly 172 year before Daenerys Targaryen’s birth. Thrones’ Mother of Dragons turned destroyer of worlds, it parallels parts of Martin’s novel Fire & BloodThe following is a story about the civil war that decimated the House Targaryen, the ruling House Targaryen, after many decades of peace in Westeros. As usual, the conflict centers on succession. The pressure to find a successor mounts as King Viserys Targaryen, a vulnerable Paddy Considine, ages and fails to produce a male heir. Competition heats up with other relatives who have ambitions for the Iron Throne.

Paddy Considine is King Viserys Targaryen House of the Dragon

Ollie Upton—HBO

In one corner, we have the show’s mostly lovable protagonist: Viserys’ 15-year-old daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock as a teenager and Emma D’Arcy as an adult). Rhaenyra, a dragonrider with fierce Daenerys energy and Arya energy, dreads the thought of having to live in a domestic environment, tethered by her husband, children, or other family members. Her father is well aware of her intelligence and leadership abilities. But he also knows that designating even the most competent woman as his heir would create unrest in Westeros and beyond, endangering House Targaryen’s reign. “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman on the Iron Throne,” Viserys’ cousin Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) warns. Rhaenys had been passed over for the crown a generation before she was born. Rhaenyra believes she’s different.

For one thing, it’s not like the other option is so compelling to the king. First glimpsed astride the Iron Throne, as though it already belongs to him, Viserys’ brother Daemon (Matt Smith, looking a bit like the Witcher) lives up to his none-too-subtle name. A sort of Targaryen Roger Clinton, he’s been entrusted with leading the King’s Landing City Watch after mishandling a series of other court positions, and takes advantage of the post by sending his men on rampages of murder and mayhem intended to strike fear into the local peasants. He lies, he cheats, he resents Viserys for marrying him off to an apparently quite ugly woman he calls “the Bronze Bitch” and frequents houses of ill repute (Naturally there’s a brothel scene in the premiere). Yet Daemon is not another Joffrey Baratheon; he’s more wounded than outright psychopathic.

Matt Smith House of the Dragon

Ollie Upton—HBO

While they’re rivals, Rhaenyra and Daemon are not exactly enemies. The tension between them—including sexual tension, because child brides are a time-honored Westeros tradition and there is no such thing as an incest taboo in House Targaryen—yields some of the show’s most compelling human drama. The interplay between the shy king and his brave daughter is also sharp as written and acted. Their relationship grows more complex when a newly widowed Viserys remarries Rhaenyra’s best friend Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, then Olivia Cooke), who is also the daughter of his self-interested Hand, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). Alicent also feels betrayed, Rhaenyra says. Both of them had hoped to live wild and unencumbered life together. Alicent, however, embraces her new place in Rhaenyra’s existing order that she wants to reform.

Every one of these relationships has been carefully crafted and tested with solid storylines. What doesn’t get quite enough attention in early episodes is the mutual resentment between Rhaenys, known to posterity as “the queen that never was,” and Rhaenyra, the girl who would be queen. Although we see plenty of Rhaenys’ husband, Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), a flourishing trader nicknamed the Sea Snake and Lord of the Tides, pushing his own seafarer’s agenda on the king’s council, Rhaenys barely gets to register her bitterness.

Olivia Cooke (left) and Emma D’Arcy (right). House of the Dragon

Ollie Upton—HBO

By relegating them to the background Dragon misses an opportunity to develop what is supposed to be its core theme: the patriarchy’s self-destructive hostility to female leadership. The nuanced political comment Thrones achieved in its first few seasons, Condal and Sapochnik need to give us more than just the medieval-fantasy equivalent of “but her emails!” Instead, frequent images of female suffering and death just reiterate the same broad, pseudo-feminist messaging about gender that Thrones D.B. David Benioff, Weiss, and David Benioff continued to hammer home the point: You’re a sucka to be a women, right? (It shouldn’t be lost on us that Dragon’s all-male creative triumvirate got to make its spinoff after HBO shelved the $30-35 million pilot for BloodmoonA prequel series, from Kingsman screenwriter Jane Goldman.)

Dragon It’s safe to play it safe. The succession premise leads to the horror subplot that unfolds at the margins of civilization. Thrones And Westworld composer Ramin Djawadi’s elegant score, the show sometimes seems excessively preoccupied with hitting all of its predecessor’s marks. The show could be better. Sapochnik directed some Thrones’ most elaborate battle episodes—he won an Emmy for season 6’s “Battle of the Bastards”—and he’s done an impressive job of replicating its visual style; if you missed all those sweeping shots of carriages gliding past palace gates, rejoice. But his keen eye can’t prevent many of the scenes that incorporate CGI from appearing slightly shoddy and cartoonish, despite the $20 million price tag per episode.

These are all minor problems compared with the show’s awkward pacing. Dragon It speeds through 14 years in the first half-season. The show jumpfrogs viewers from one type of court intrigue and another, without actually smoothening the transitions. A time jump of a full decade necessitated the replacement of Alcock and Carey with D’Arcy and Cooke—an abrupt, initially confusing substitution that also bummed me out because I preferred Alcock’s intense young princess to D’Arcy’s more placid Rhaenyra. (To be fair, I haven’t seen much of the D’Arcy era yet.) I appreciate that the show avoids the multiple timelines that have become a crutch and a cliché for prestige TV, but this particular chronological structure makes for a choppy introduction to the Targaryen saga.

I still think that with all the most confusing of the casting transitions and time jumps it is possible to make a good decision. Dragon is likely to find a rhythm by season’s end. This might not be able to dazzle, inspire or stimulate thought or drive culture conversation in any way. Thrones But it entertains. It’s not the Beatles. It’s not even Visualize Oder All Things Must Pass. Yet when you consider the bottom-tier Ringo solo album it could’ve been, House of the Dragon Still qualifies for minor miracles.

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