Enthralling, Worthy GOT Prequel Off To Strong Start

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How can a new TV series carry on the legacy of Game of Thrones without continuing its story or following its characters? This is a question House of the Dragon is clearly concerned with — its first episode opens with a title card clarifying how long before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen it takes place. Thankfully, its answer is not to dwell on these connections for too long, but stake its own claim as leaner than its predecessor. Where Game of Thrones was a tale of sprawling, even apocalyptic, conflict, House of the Dragon is the story of a familial struggle for succession, with fewer moving pieces that are more intensely intertwined. The show is aware that it must lay the foundation of these relationships that become wounds so deep they create bloodshed. Over the course of season 1’s first six episodes (which were provided for review), showrunners Ryan J. Condal and Miguel Sapochnik make a compelling case that their return to George R. R. Martin’s Westeros should once again be appointment viewing.

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Even if it benefits from a narrowed scope, House of the Dragon still has an ensemble of key players, and it moves through a lot of story within its first episodes. This proves no barrier to entry, however; even if viewers might struggle to name every character after half a season, who they are in narrative terms is always clear. At the center of the story are King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), an ailing peacetime ruler who strives to stave off a descent into war; Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), his violent, contrarian brother and official heir; Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock), Viserys’ willful eldest daughter; and Lady Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), her best friend at court and daughter of the King’s Hand, Ser Otto (Rhys Ifans). Viserys lacks a firstborn son to clarify the royal line, and even though he loves his brother, he fears what would happen if Daemon is ever allowed to sit on the Iron Throne. Others are more concerned with the civil war that could follow should Rhaenyra become the first woman ever to rule. And should Viserys eventually sire a son, what then? The Targaryen family has ruled over Westeros for a century after their ability to ride dragons facilitated their conquest of the Seven Kingdoms, but what happens to that dynasty when the question of who should rule next has no clear answer?


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This circumstance looms over the series, and it is thrilling to watch House of the Dragon expose the web of allegiances and rivalries at the heart of its coming conflict. This is in large part because the political is made very, very personal. Two brothers who want desperately to love each other cannot help but hurt each other at every turn. A daughter craves her father’s respect after he has spent years overlooking her and awaiting a son, but the chasm between them proves difficult to bridge. Two friends, as young women born into a political landscape, are told they have to be pawns in larger plays for power. One acquiesces to her role while the other resists it, and they find themselves pushed apart. These descriptions of the key relationships are simplifications, but like the best character dramas, things simultaneously are and are not that simple. Even as audiences watch the political reality tightening around the Targaryens, sealing their fates in amber, it cannot help but feel like everything might be avoided if even one of these pairs could just work through their issues. The time dedicated to developing these conflicts is so judiciously spent that when the first blows finally are struck, it will be enthralling.


It will also, as these six season 1 episodes tease, make for quite the spectacle. The stability of Viserys’ reign is given an early challenge in the form of an upstart group of marauders threatening Westerosi control of the seas, which proves a strong story choice. Not only does the relative lack of emotional stakes in this outside threat add weight to the potential devastation of a civil war, but it gives viewers a taste of the quality and epic-scale action filmmaking that awaits them. It remains to be seen if this new show will succeed in courting less controversy than Game of Thrones, but it does not shy away from impactful displays of violence, which bear the marks of the effects work, craftsmanship, and direction that made the original show’s battle scenes so acclaimed. Plus, the new series lives up to its name early on, with plenty of dragon sequences, and their involvement in warfare set up to be explored in much greater depth. House of the Dragon appears to once again sit in this sweet spot of commitment to character and the high-quality realization of a fantastical world. As long as it doesn’t lose focus, it should make for genuinely thrilling television.


That said, a lot still rests on the second half of season 1. In their commitment to properly setting up the relationships central to the conflict, the showrunners make the risky gambit of traversing more than a decade from episode 1 to episode 6. Purely in terms of narrative, this feels well executed, neither rushing through key development nor needlessly stretching storylines too thin. But, as a result, the actors playing the younger Rhaenyra and Alicent age out of their roles midway through the season, and are replaced by series regulars Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, respectively.

Five episodes is long enough to grow attached to an actor’s performance of a character, particularly when it is as excellent as Alcock’s headstrong princess, and the viewer’s instinct will likely be to resist that transition at first. Episodes 1-5 feel rich enough that more stories from the connecting years could have been told, dedicating a whole season to that initial cast before moving on, and it’s possible that House of the Dragon comes to regret not taking that road. It will be up to the four remaining episodes to prove that this ensemble, and these characters at these ages, are worthy of the preference they have been afforded.


House of the Dragon premieres on HBO & HBO Max Sunday, August 21, at 9pm ET. Season 1 will consist of ten episodes that will air weekly.