For the better part of a decade, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones dominated the drama series Emmy races and delivered big enough ratings for their respective networks that it’s no surprise they wanted more. In a nice piece of kismet, HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel is arriving the same week that AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel concluded. Better Call Saul was a show that was hailed for maintaining fidelity and continuity with the Breaking Bad universe, while immediately carving out a tone and aesthetic all its own.
Game of Thrones was a bigger hit than Breaking Bad, plus the notable decrease in quality of its final season (or final seasons) may make the inherent affection for the brand more precarious. So it probably isn’t surprising that after an elaborate bake-off process to develop a prequel, HBO has ended up with a show that feels reverse-engineered to give devoted Game of Thrones fans a facsimile of what they liked about the original series, while casual Game of Thrones fans get … ummm … lots and lots of dragons.
House of the Dragon
The Bottom Line
A visually epic production, but an oddly limited story.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, August 21 (HBO)
Cast: Paddy Considine, Matt Smith, Olivia Cooke, Emma D’Arcy, Steve Toussaint, Eve Best, Fabien Frankel, Sonoya Mizuno, Rhys Ifans
Creators: George R.R. Martin and Ryan Condal
I mean, it’s right there in the title, House of the Dragon, which I can only assume supplanted the original Game of Thrones: Oops, All Targaryens!
So. Many. Targaryens.
Created by Ryan J. Condal and George R.R. Martin from parts of Martin’s Fire & Blood, House of the Dragon begins 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, famous for having resurrected dragons, traveled the whole of Westeros to ascend the Iron Throne and engaged in countless acts of mercy and brutality, while still having a worse story than Bran the Broken.
Dany’s brother, you might recall from the first season, was Viserys and House of the Dragon starts with his namesake, Viserys I (Paddy Considine), taking control of the kingdom after a contentious succession. Not as contentious as in Game of Thrones, mind you. Here, a council voted from among several contenders and chose Viserys over Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), who had a more direct claim, but no penis.
So now Viserys is king, but he has no male heirs. He has a spirited and intelligent daughter in Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), but she suffers from a similar deficiency to that which plagued Rhaenys.
Rhaenyra is kinda awesome. She rides dragons, stands up for her opinions and even though her friend Alicent (Emily Carey) thinks she isn’t paying attention, she knows her history, namely that she can’t become ruler in this patriarchal society. So Viserys, newly a widower, has a problem: Either marry again and keep trying for a son or else name brother Daemon (Matt Smith) as successor. The latter option is bad because Daemon is tyrannical despite his limited clout. Viserys’ chief advisor (Rhys Ifans’ Ser Otto Hightower), who also happens to be Alicent’s widower father, worries about what Daemon would do with absolute power.
There’s a lot happening in the first six episodes of House of the Dragon, but I think the show has made an intentional choice to push much of it to the background. I sure didn’t care about the Triarchy and some half-war with the Free Cities that could clog up shipping lanes and therefore upsets Princess Rhaenys’ husband Lord Corlys (Steve Toussaint), a legendary seafarer and part of Viserys’ council.
Instead, House of the Dragon is primarily the story of two young women — Rhaenyra (not to be confused with Rhaenys) and Alicent — navigating paths to power in a male-dominated world, being raised by fathers who don’t have a clue how to raise them, while Matt Smith rides dragons and chews scenery. (Remind me to give you my explanation for how the entire show is about why stupid men shouldn’t meddle in female reproductive health after some of my key points become less spoiler-y.)
Just to keep you on your toes, every once in a while somebody will mention a name like “Lannister” or “Baratheon.” There are a couple of midsize battle scenes, but they’re less effective — probably by design — than the suspense built in smaller and more intimate conflicts or any time anybody is about to have sex. Because like Game of Thrones, the sex in House of the Dragon is almost exclusively about power, and in this world, power is very frequently expressed through violence.
House of the Dragon looks like you want a Game of Thrones-adjacent series to look, which comes in no small part from the contributions of director/co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik. Jim Clay’s production design is rich and layered and takes even locations we know to more expansive places, though it’s a hair limited because most of our time is spent in King’s Landing, rather than the whip-around-the-kingdom approach of the original series. Jany Temime’s costumes are ravishing, though again limited because of those same factors. Ramin Djawadi’s score is epic and if it feels like he’s mostly paying homage to himself, who can blame him? And the visual effects, supervised by Angus Bickerton, are exceptional, though I’ll just keep repeating that as great as the dragon effects are, the person-sitting-on-dragon effects are pretty bad.
My biggest issue with House of the Dragon stems from my “Too Many Targaryens” complaint. Let’s start with the wigs, because some people look fine in a Targaryen blonde wig, but the Targaryen blonde wigs don’t actually look good on anybody.
But it’s less the wigs and more the lack of variety in characters, personalities and settings. Part of the fun of Game of Thrones was seeing how geography and different levels of in-breeding caused each House to have a different worldview, which colored how they looked at everything from architecture to sex to power. Some were righteous, some dour, some relaxed and prone to levity. The show’s variety and sprawl was an occasional deficit, but this goes too far the other way.
It isn’t just Targaryens whose collective personalities, dominated by their illusory control over dragons, would be insufferable in exclusively focused doses. I don’t want an all-Lannister show either, though I liked how a pair of Lannisters — twins played by Jefferson Hall — are positioned as “Aren’t they annoying?” comic relief here, perhaps because the mighty serious show is in desperate need of the little funny bits Game of Thrones had in spades.
Note that a series focusing mostly on either the Targaryens or the Lannisters would also be bad because no matter how much it’s part of the series’ brand (or of the history of more than a few real countries in our real world), incest fatigue is a very real thing even when it’s treated in a variety of ways. Game of Thrones mostly stuck to “Incest bad!” But House of the Dragon has “Incest bad!” and “Incest maybe-not-so-bad!” and “Incest necessary to unify splintered families!” It’s a lot of Targaryens and it’s a lot of incest.
Because House of the Dragon doesn’t cover as much physical terrain as Game of Thrones, it instills some scale by covering a broad swath of time. There are jumps of various sizes between each episode. There’s something literary about the approach, like chapters in a decades-spanning novel, and something choppy, especially when actors start being swapped in and out.
It isn’t distracting with supporting characters, where at least the casting team has made sure certain traits were identifiable for each actor playing the same roles. But there are major, perplexingly momentum-draining acting switches at midseason. Milly Alcock is the breakout star of the first handful of episodes, giving an assertive performance that straddles childlike innocence and increasingly fiery — pun intended — maturity. Then Emma D’Arcy steps in as Rhaenyra and by no means are they bad — really, quite the opposite — but it’s like if The Crown had introduced Claire Foy, made us love her and then moved on, in the space of half-a-season. It’s easier to warm to the transition from Emily Carey to Olivia Cooke as Lady Alicent, if only because it felt like the writers weren’t sure how to trace several steps of Alicent’s progressively dark arc and Cooke gets to settle into a fully formed character.
Smith is hammy, but always in an entertaining way; he gives the best of the secondary performances and the midseason maybe hints at evolving nuance for a character who is otherwise the most Targaryen-y Targaryen in a show that’s already too Targaryen-y. But that shift was part of what was easily my least favorite stretch in the episodes I’ve seen, as House of the Dragon starts leaning on some of Martin’s already most calcified tropes, from dead-eye scary kids to sensationalistic sex and violence to weddings that might end badly to a suspicious character with a handicap who’s half Tyrion and half Varys. Not everybody who walks with a limp needs to be Richard III.
It’s disconcerting to see House of the Dragon becoming less distinctive and more beholden to Game of Thrones as it goes along, when it ought to be the opposite. There’s a lot that’s impressive in the first six episodes, but it’s as safe as a show with incest, gore and horrifying depictions of childbirth could possibly be. It needs to find its own voice, though if that voice remains this Targaryen-y, winter may be coming for my once burning curiosity.