House of the Dragon
Though lacking the star power and production values of "Game of Thrones," the new prequel series from HBO captures much of the magic and glory of George R.R. Martin's Westerosian saga.
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Given the mammoth success of “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s landmark fantasy series based on a (still incomplete) book series by George R.R. Martin, it seemed inevitable that a spinoff would eventually be conjured. The masses just couldn’t get enough of that grand, grim mix of dragons, political intrigue and iconic characters… not to mention heaping helpings of sex and violence.
I was not one of those who felt soured by the last season of GoT — if anything, my only quibble was that it felt rushed and probably should’ve been extended a couple more episodes.
So I’ve been excited about the new prequel series, “House of the Dragon,” which debuts Sunday and will encompass 10 episodes airing weekly on HBO, as well as the “Lord of the Rings” prequel, “The Rings of Power,” arriving on Amazon a couple of weeks later.
Set amidst the civil war of the Targaryen ruling family that sowed the seeds for its diminishment and eventual downfall, “House of the Dragon” captures much of the magic and glory of GoT. It’s a compelling mix of dastardly schemes, bloody battles and Shakespearean plots, with various noble factions conspiring to bring each other down.
It does lack the production values and star power of its predecessor — though we should probably remember that only Peter Dinklage and Sean Bean were “names” prior to GoT’s release, many of the young cast significantly raising their profile due its popularity.
Matt Smith, best known for playing one of the countless Doctor Who iterations, headlines the cast as Daemon Targaryen, the antihero of the piece. The younger brother of the king who had yet to produce a male heir, he becomes increasingly hostile and chaotic when he is passed over in favor of the royal daughter, who would be the first queen of the Targaryen monarchy to rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
Smith is a churlish, charismatic presence, not quite as depraved as the worst villains of GoT, though he shares Tyrion Lannister’s penchant for wining and wenching with the commonfolk. A mighty knight, Daemon feels the Iron Throne should be his by birthright and dint of deeds in battle.
In contrast, King Viserys (Paddy Considine) is a good-hearted but weak man, afflicted with the inability to make bold decisions, not to mention various ailments and diseases of the body. Over the course of the series, Daemon notably remains a physical reflection of vitality, with the Aryan blond hair and alabaster skin that underscores the Targaryen sense of privilege, contrasting with the literally decaying monarch.
The real central character, though, is Rhaenyra, the headstrong daughter of Viserys. With her parents unable to produce a son, she is named heir to the Iron Throne. This causes great strife in a patriarchal society where noble women are seen as commodities to be bartered off for political favors and do nothing but produce sons.
Rhaenyra begins as an aspirational figure, played as a teenager by Milly Alcock, a proto-feminist who openly speaks of not wanting to marry and preferring to ride her dragon into battle than be relegated to a life as a “breeder.” In time, though, her actions and thoughts become more Cersei-like as she plots to protect her position from all challengers.
The most obvious threat to her wearing the crown is the seemingly unlikeliest one: her best friend, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), whose own father is the Hand of the King (Rhys Ifans). When tragedy occurs in the royal family, this Hand is more concerned with directing events to benefit his own house than providing the best counsel.
Halfway through the season, a time-slip of about a decade occurs with most of the youngsters ceding their roles to adult actors. (Smith and Considine are the most notable exceptions.) Emma D'Arcy takes on the part of Rhaenyra and Olivia Cooke plays Alicent.
Interestingly, while the conflict between Daemon and Viserys is always in the background of the rising political tensions, it is the rivalry between the two women that drives the dramaturgy for the show more and more as it goes on — especially as they commence their own families and accompanying machinations for power.
At least, that’s as much as I can discern from the first six episodes, which is all that HBO is allowing critics to see for now.
Other notable characters include Corlys Velaryon, aka the “Sea Snake,” house of the second most powerful house, and his wife, Rhaenys (played by Steve Toussaint and Eve Best, respectively), who chafe at being subject to the king’s feckless ways; and Fabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole, a low-born knight who rises to be one of the Kingsguard and have a pivotal role to play.
Dragons figure prominently into the story, with each royal Targaryen child gifted with their own egg that will (hopefully) hatch and become a lifelong companion and powerful weapon. It was interesting to see how the beasts figure into the sociopolitical contest of wills, the contemporary equivalent of Great Britain’s sea power or the atomic bomb.
I’ve heard preview chatter about the series describing it as being set several hundred years before the events in GoT, but as the title crawl in the first episode makes clear, it’s 172 years before the death of the Mad King and the birth of Daenerys. Expect to see Starks, Lannisters and other forbears to the later characters, though mostly occupying the background.
“House of the Dragon” is based on the 2018 book “Fire & Blood” by Martin, who at this point seems to have no reason to finish the book series that was the basis for “Game of Thrones.” Series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have no involvement with the new show, Martin instead partnering with Ryan J. Condal to oversee the first season. Condal’s only significant previous credits are the screenplays to “Rampage” and 2014’s “Hercules,” both underwhelming, and the TV series “Colony.”
They’ve largely copied Benioff and Weiss’ playbook, dramatic confrontations and portentous council meetings interspersed with grisly battles and lusty couplings — though this show largely steers away from the gratuitous “sexposition” scenes that generated much mockery (and screencapping). There’s even a counterpart to the infamous “Red Wedding” that should generate attention.
I enjoyed the first six episodes of “House of the Dragon” quite a bit, though I detected a bit of narrative wandering in the last episode I was able to see. I’ll be tuning in eagerly for the rest with high hopes, and an expectation that things will get very dark and grisly by the end.