In 2011 HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George R.R Martin’s book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, began airing. Game of Thrones would last eight seasons and became a massive cultural touchstone of the 2010s. Unfortunately, the show concluded with its 8th season in 2019, and now in 2022, HBO has just finished airing the first season of House of the Dragon, a spin-off series that takes nearly 200 years before the start of Game of Thrones. So does House of the Dragon live up to the legacy of Game of Thrones, or is it a massive miss like the last couple of seasons of Game of Thrones?
In House of the Dragon, we follow Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy/Milly Alcock) and her father, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine). Rhaenyra is the oldest child of Viserys and, for a long time, his only child. Viserys often tried to have another child with his wife to produce a male heir to the Iron Throne. However, when his wife got pregnant with a male heir, she and the child died during childbirth; this led to Viserys deciding to break over a century-old tradition by naming a woman, his daughter Rhaenyra, as his heir. This decision by Viserys would create 25 years’ worth of tension within House Targaryen, ultimately leading to the in-universe event known as the Dance of the Dragon, a civil war within House Targaryen that would lead to the extinction of dragons.
House of the Dragon is a fantastic return to form for the series after the absolute disaster that was seasons 7th and 8th of Game of Thrones. Gone are the nonsensical plot lines like Beyond the Wall or The Long Night and, of course, the infamous line “who has a better story than Bran the broken?” Now we are back to seasons 1 through 4 of Game of Thrones, a political drama within a fantasy world that juggles a couple of dozen characters over several ongoing plot lines full of violent battles, political alliances, and backstabs. Nearly episode left me wanting more to see how this would play next week.
Like Game of Thrones, we have several characters to follow along with the story, and since this season takes place over 25 years, We meet plenty of characters that come and go through the means of birth and death. Rhaenyra as a protagonist was fascinating to unfold. Early on, she isn’t initially someone who wants the throne but instead wants to go out adventuring into the world. Her relationship with her best friend, Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke/Emily Carey), daughter of the king’s most trusted advisor Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). In episode one, they have a tight bond with each other in a way that could mistake for lovers, but this is Westeros, after all, a world where today’s best friends could be each other’s biggest enemies. How their relationship highlights something, I love about this franchise, where they seek more power for either yourself or your heirs could end up destroying the bonds you cherish the most. George R.R. Martin is a massive fan of the works of William Shakespeare, and the relationship between Alicent and Rhaenyra is a very Shakespearean-like tragedy. Now with Alicent and Rhaenyra, it should be noted that initially, both characters are played by Emily Carey and Milly Alcock, respectively, but from episode 6 and onwards are played by much older actresses Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy. Now, this is due to the show taking place over 25 years. In the first half of the series, Rhaneyra and Alicant are teenagers full of optimism and innocence. But as that six progress, they lose more and more of that innocence and become more cynical and dangerous. So, by the time we get to that time skip, both women are much older and have become wives due to arrange marriages, and our mothers would do anything to protect their child and their inheritance. Young and older actresses are perfect fits for these kinds of roles. While it was ashamed to see the younger ones go after enjoying their presence throughout the series, both older actresses are great, and I am sure they will continue to be excellent in future seasons.
I must mention King Viserys Targaryen and Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith). Matt Smith as Daemon makes a solid first impression; in episode one alone, he commands such a presence by playing this likable scumbag. Daemon loves his brother but doesn’t respect him as a king. He thinks he is a fragile king that isn’t suited for the iron throne. In many ways, the show shows that Daemon is right about Viserys, as Viserys’s actions or lack of action end up setting up the dance. While Viserys doesn’t trust him and believes that Daemon would be a terrible king, the show backs this up due to the first thing we see is Daemon ordering the city guard to round up any criminals in the city and torture them. Now, as someone who has never seen an episode of Doctor Who, this ended up being one of my first real exposures to Matt Smith outside of last year’s Last Night in Soho. Math Smith, as Daemon, plays this role beautifully; he plays this bad boy anti-hero incredibly well and, for many, was the highlight performance.
My favorite performance in the show and quite my new favorite character in the entire Game of Thrones franchise is Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen. Now Game of Thrones gave us some fantastic characters with equally outstanding performances, such as Sean Bean as Ned Stark, Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister, and Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell, to name a few. King Viserys is that type of Shakespearean-like tragedy that Martin loves so much. Viserys is a beautifully written character who tries his best to maintain peace within the realm, show love to his daughter, and shape her up to be a great queen. However, you get the sense that the death of his first wife broke this man, and he starts letting people such as advisors and even his daughter walk all over him. Yet, in episode eight, Paddy’s performance is just simply incredible. There are two scenes in episode one, in the throne room. Another during dinner where he performs so well that George R.R Martin himself said it made Paddy’s character a better one than the character he wrote for the books. His performance is one of the best I have seen on TV in recent years. It is worth watching the series for it alone.
House of the Dragon also has a giant spectacle to it. Episode three’s climax is a significant battle at a beach where Daemon leads a charge against a large band of pirates that has the scale we saw in episodes from the latter half of Game of Thrones, such as Hardhome. Then we have the dragons, there are a dozen or so of them throughout the series, and the CGI on them looks great every time they appear and end up appearing more often than you expect. With how the end of this season marks the start of the dance with dragons, I am sure future seasons will have the scale of Game of Thrones’ most significant battles with hopefully the excellent writing of House of the Dragon.
House of the Dragon is a fantastic show, even if you have never seen Game of Thrones. While episode one sets up this plotline that becomes important in Game of Thrones that ended, and I am anti-climatically in the final season, for the most part, you can follow House of the Dragon just fine. This first season may have been a prologue to a much larger story about war, hopefully unlike its predecessor. It sticks the landing and paves the way for planned Game of Thrones spin-offs like Dunk & Egg and the untitled Jon Snow sequel series, and hopefully, at some point, this century, the Winds of Winter can finally release. Because right, this is a far more optimistic time for Game of Thrones as a franchise than it was back in the spring of 2019.