It’s been three years since David Benioff and D. B. Weiss screwed the pooch in monumental fashion, turning one of the most acclaimed fantasy franchises, Game of Thrones, into a laughing stock with six terrible episodes (actually, a Knight of the Seven Kingdoms was a great episode ruined in retrospect by underwhelming payoff).
Now, Ryan J. Condal has stepped up to the plate to rehabilitate the Game of Thrones universe with House of the Dragon, a ten-part series set 172 years before the Game of Thrones. The separation is handy because it prevents House of the Dragon from being tarnished by Thrones’ legacy - though there are plenty of Easter eggs - and allows the show to stand on its own two feet and set out a story on its own terms. House of the Dragon follows the civil war known as the Dance of Dragons in Westeros over the succession to the Iron Throne. Various members of the Targaryen house will vie to succeed Viserys I on his death, and in the first episode of the season, we are introduced to many of the key players.
The series starts with an opening reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings films, with some important exposition that gives the audience a crash course in the state of the Targaryen dynasty. This removed the need for long and awkward explanatory dialogue between characters, and I’m all for it.
In episode one we meet Viserys I, played by Paddy Considine, the current ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, though he has an infected wound which maesters keep fretting over (I’m sure he’ll be fine…), Rhaenyra Targaryen, Viserys’ daughter, played by Milly Alcock, Daemon Targaryen, Viserys’ brother, played by Matt Smith, and Otto Hightower, Hand of the King, played by Rhys Ifans.
Viserys appears to be a benevolent, but fairly weak willed leader, and it’s clear from the off that everything is going to go to pot when his wound eventually finishes him off. Rhaenyra could be mistaken for Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys - Patrick Delaney’s ‘short and dumpy’ comment notwithstanding. It feels like Alcock has studied Clarke’s performance in Thrones and decided to imitate her as closely as possible - hopefully as the series continues she will develop a style and character that is unique. While it looks like Rhaenyra is being built up as the hero of the piece, Daemon is very much coded as the bad guy. He runs the City Watch like a rogue Baltimore cop, rejoices in others misfortune, and doesn’t fight fair. Just one episode in, it might not be correct to rush to judgement, but there is a worry that unlike the morally grey characters of Thrones, House of the Dragon will colour the main characters as black or white. But perhaps as the series continues we will see some moral shading. Otto Hightower could be House of the Dragon’s answer to Varys, the man is clearly a plotter, but this early into the show he is also an enigma with a lot of potential.
The storytelling was strong throughout, although everything happened as you would expect - in a fantasy series if a woman goes into labour at the start of an episode you can have a pretty good guess at how that will end. But on the whole there was enough intrigue to satisfy me and the relationships between characters have been well defined.
The stand-out scene from the first episode is a cutting together of violent action from a joust with a painful childbirth, drawing a painful parallel between the two events. The scene is like an inversion of the final act of The Godfather, and offers a promise to the audience that House of the Dragon has just as much capacity for brutality as Thrones.
There’s a lot riding on House of the Dragon being a success, with a list of other spin-offs waiting in the dock, including a Jon Snow sequel, and a prequel called Ten Thousand ships, which actually gets name dropped in this episode. It’s likely that because of the pressure to get things right, and with the lessons of the Game of Thrones ending bearing down on them, producers didn’t want to just blindly throw everything at the season premiere. The first episode is interesting, it establishes the world of the prequel, and introduces a group of powerful contenders for the Iron Throne, but it feels very careful. There was a little bit of sex and a fair amount of violece, though there could have been more. Even the swearing felt restrained - only one C-bomb - in Westeros that is positively puritanical!
There’s a ways to go yet - we are just one episode in, I am far from downhearted. We all know what rushing through the action can do to a series. If House of the Dragon wants to take it slow, as long as there’s some pay-off further down the line, that’s alright with me.
House of the Dragon begins on HBO on Sunday 21 August. UK viewers can watch the series on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV from Monday 22 August, with both a 2am simulcast and a 9pm repeat.