House of the Dragon Arrives with Fire and Blood—and a Wisely Limited ScopePhoto Courtesy of HBO TV Reviews house of the dragon
It’s been three years and change since the series finale of Game of Thrones aired on HBO, and maybe that’s not enough critical distance to truly evaluate its legacy. But the view from the future is about the same as it was the Sunday night when the finale aired; this was a show that started out brilliantly, more or less maintained its form right up until the point when its world-building mechanisms reached maximum breadth, and then, like a supernova, collapsed on itself in one of the most painful denouements… ever? The main charge leveled at creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss back then was that the minute they ran out of book material, they were hapless; and while that’s true, in another sense they followed the arc of the books pretty faithfully. George R.R. Martin got to the same point in the story, hit a similar wall, and has been paralyzed into inaction for a decade. Is doing nothing really so much better than the TV version, which was making a complete hash of it until they could say “okay, now it’s done”?
I mention all of this not to rehash a nation’s sour grapes, but to attempt to explain why I, and so many others in my little world, just assumed ipso facto that HBO’s new series House of the Dragon was going to be trash. Yes, there is technically source material here, and as a Song of Ice and Fire nerd, I greatly enjoyed the source material (primarily 2018’s Fire & Blood), but in this case the source material was more of a reference book told like a history, rather than the fiction that came complete with dialogue and intricate character development that formed the basis for the first few seasons Game of Thrones. In other words, it was more like that show’s end; a series of plot points from Martin, followed by, “good luck!” That didn’t work the first time, and there wasn’t much reason for it to work this time.
But as they say in sports, the game isn’t played on paper, and as I watched the first episode this past week, it didn’t take more than ten minutes before I was hit with the sinking feeling that my priors were getting incinerated in metaphorical dragon fire, and my job as a reviewer was about to get a lot more complicated. House of the Dragon, it turns out, is not trash. In fact, it’s very good. The trick is in figuring out why.
Here’s where I’ve arrived on that question, and I’m afraid I have to resort to another sports cliche: It works because they didn’t try to do too much. This is the story of the Dance of the Dragons, the Targaryen Civil War that precedes the events of Game of Thrones by about 150 years, and comes about 130 years after Aegon I Targaryen and his sisters conquered most of Westeros. It’s almost smack dab in the middle of the 283 year Targaryen reign in Westeros, and there are dragons aplenty, but already you’re getting the sense that while the end is still far away, the first scribblings of the collapse are on the wall. The (mostly) peaceful 55-year reign of Jaehaerys I has come to an end, his grandson Viserys I sits on the throne after a contested succession, and just a few years later, when the action of House of the Dragon begins, there is another succession controversy that is politically complex but essentially stems from the fact that Viserys does not yet have a male heir.
Regardless of how arcane and nerdy that all sounds, the story here is a banger, partly because we already know about the Targaryens and how interesting they are, but partly because George R.R. Martin is a brilliant political plotter. Even if Game of Thrones had never existed, you could take these narrative ingredients, set them in any time or place, and baby, you got a stew going. The truth is, you don’t even really need dragons, or special effects, or any of the other gimmicky things that ended up taking center stage at the end of Game of Thrones in lieu of that precious chief ingredient: story.
The good news is, they know this—”they” being Martin, co-creator Ryan J. Condal, showrunner and director extraordinaire Miguel Sapochnik, and all the writers. The opening scene contains a flying dragon, which I thought was a bad sign, but very quickly the action settles on the court intrigue that made King’s Landing and the Red Keep so tantalizing in the original story. The settings are still gorgeous, to the point where if you watch too long you could develop a fetish for tables, and because this is HBO there’s that patented combination of very weird and very vanilla sex stuff, plus heads being chopped off and the like, and forays into foreign territory that seem to be more two-dimensional compared to the world-building in GoT, but—BUT!—they successfully relegate all that to the realm of window dressing, and let the viewer hone in on the stuff that matters.
One thing that really matters is the cast, and the cast is stellar. It would be easy to fall into the trap of making all the Targaryens a cult of white-haired self-admiring navel-gazers without much depth, but instead, their humanity shines through, starting with Paddy Considine as Viserys I. For a while, I couldn’t get a bead on him, couldn’t decide if he was weary and wise or a slave to his vices, or weak, or maybe a little stupid at the worst moments, and I soon came to the realization that both the writing and Considine’s performance embodied all of these things, and refused to treat him as a one-dimensional character. It’s an excellent depiction, and Considine isn’t the only one who pulls it off; Emma D’Arcy can go from haughty to whiny to kind to bold in a second as Princess Rhaenyra, his daughter. And Matt Smith, armed with a permanent smug grin, admirably brings the nuance to Viserys’ younger brother Daemon Targaryen in that “wow, this guy’s a major asshole but wait a second, maybe he’s not!” way that drew us in so completely when we first met Jaime Lannister. All are strong, but all are also vulnerable and short-sighted in their ways, and those two realities co-exist in dramatic harmony. For these three characters to be the principal engines of the plot, they have to be really, really strong for this thing to work—and they are.
Be warned: This will not be the world-shattering phenomenon that Game of Thrones was. It’s not quite that compelling, or dynamic, or irresistible. When the creators made the wise choice to scale down the ambition here and avoid the chaotic mess of what befell late-stage GoT, part of the bargain was a lower ceiling. This is “merely” palace intrigue with dragons, told well, in a way that successfully captures your attention and makes you want to keep watching, at least through the six episodes provided to reviewers. The violence and warfare is not quite as realistic, and though it seems strange to say since we’re dealing with the genre of fantasy, House of the Dragon can be more fantastical when it veers in that direction. What matters most, though, is that the people making this show, and the people acting in it, have a strong sense of exactly what they are and what they’re doing, and that identity allows them to hone in on the elements that actually work.
The Targaryens owe their power, in the end, to dragons, and though the principal players during the reign of Viserys I can’t see into the future, they already have a sense that when the dragons are gone, so are they; Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark are still a century away, but the ghost of their inevitability haunts the royal house. And if you’ll pardon the metaphor, there’s a meta-parallel with the show itself and its creators. Their “dragon” is the human drama and power struggle at the heart of this era in Westerosi history, expertly crafted by Martin. It’s their critical weapon, their nuclear bomb, and it seems to me that they learned and internalized the lesson of their predecessor, which is that when you play fast and loose with the story, you risk a major and irreversible collapse. That day may come for them, too, when the pressures of extending the show and inventing new twists and turns begins to weigh them down. For now, though, I’m happy to report that they know their dragon, they’ve harnessed its power, and in Season 1, they’re pouring on the fire.
House of the Dragon premieres Sunday, August 21st on HBO and HBO Max.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.