House of the Dragon review: cautious Game of Thrones prequel won’t make you care about Westeros again

House of the Dragon is more closely inspired by The Crown than the sagas that have imitated Game of Thrones over the years but struggles to live up to either

The past half-decade or so of television production can be characterised as a series of attempts, some more successful than others, to find the next Game of Thrones. The HBO fantasy drama was a behemoth: even after a less-than-popular dénouement, it was always going to inspire imitators looking to sit upon that same throne. There are more straightforward iterations on the formula, like Netflix’s The Witcher or Amazon Prime Video’s Wheel of Time, expensive fantasy epics alike. Others, like HBO’s Westworld or Apple TV+’s Foundation, try to replicate that same dense-but-sprawling feel in a science fiction milieu, while others scrabble to shore up their share of intellectual property by televising previously ‘unadaptable’ books. Some have enjoyed more success than others – hands up anyone who watched Carnival Row? – and more still loom ominously in the background.

It stands to reason that a direct Game of Thrones spinoff would enter the arena – what better to recapture that same success? House of the Dragon is the first of several proposed spinoffs set in George RR Martin’s fantasy realm to make it to television: a Kit Harrington-penned Jon Snow sequel is in early development still, while the more mystical Bloodmoon, set to feature Naomi Watts and John Simm as scions of ancient houses, was cancelled after poor reception to an expensive pilot. This series, conceptualised in the wake of Bloodmoon’s cancellation, retreats to safer ground, telling a story of courtly infighting and palace intrigue during the reign of a Targaryen King, 172 years before the events of Game of Thrones.

What’s immediately striking about House of the Dragon – and, indeed, encouraging – is which of Game of Thrones’ potential successors it opts to imitate itself. Rather than looking to other fantasy sagas, it takes inspiration from two dramas with a more oblique (though arguably stronger) claim to Game of Thrones’ cultural standing: The Crown and Succession. House of the Dragon is based on biography and appendices prepared by George RR Martin – a broad timeline of events he first developed as backstory to help him write his books, before then publishing them to help him not write his books – but in terms of style and tone it borrows more liberally from two of the few series that have broken through in the zeitgeist.

The underlying premise is this. There have been generations of peace in Westeros, threatened only by Jaehaerys I Targaryen’s lack of a clear heir; though he was eventually succeeded by grandson Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), the memory of that brief instability looms large, and a barely repressed fear lingers for decades afterwards. As King, Viserys is genial – perhaps the only nice man in Westeros, fonder of building his little models than building an empire – and he’s in reasonable health, too, hardly at death’s door. Who might inherit the Iron Throne is not necessarily an immediate concern – but that trace of nagging doubt, the possibility that the realm could as easily be plunged into chaos in a day or in a decade, smothers ally and enemy alike.

Paddy Considine as King Viserys I Targaryen, sat at the head of the small council, a goblet on the table before him (Credit: HBO)

On paper, at least, there’s something fascinating about this. “The Iron Throne looms large,” one character remarks, and House of the Dragon is about how the shadow it casts drives people to madness – much as The Crown is about how monarchy hollows people out, leaving them fundamentally estranged from each other and themselves, House of the Dragon invokes similar themes, arguing that proximity to power inspires a paranoia that swiftly turns to violence, leaving a bloody trail of victims in its wake. That this all happens during peacetime – with no meaningful external or existential threats to speak of, all borne of restless egos and bitter resentments – only adds to its impact.

In execution, though, House of the Dragon struggles. Part of that is simply that it can never do The Crown as well as The Crown already does, or Succession as well as Succession already does (amusing though it is to see House of the Dragon recreate an early Succession scene in apparent homage) – a bigger part of it, though, is that it struggles to inject either with anything new as it mounts a hesitant retread of Game of Thrones’ well-established aesthetic. There’s a very cautious quality to House of the Dragon, a sense of panic just below the surface, that prevents it taking any real swings or developing any ambition of its own – it’s so plainly desperate to recreate a sense of “Game of Thrones, when it was good” that the result is almost generic, a kind of ‘lo-fi Westerosi beats to chill out and relax to’ type white noise that’ll struggle to command the attention of all but the most dedicated fans.

More troubling, though, is that the format works against the content. Borrowing again from The Crown, House of the Dragon makes liberal use of time jumps between episodes – six months here, a year there, eventually a decade (even recasting two of the leads). Though it’s meant to feel expansive, it adds a frustrating layer of abstraction to events, often creating a sense that we’ve missed crucial moments in a character’s evolution: it becomes hard to tell if a character is naïve or shrewd, a social climber or a true believer, a zealot or an opportunist, or both or neither. For this premise to work, House of the Dragon needs to conjure a moment-to-moment sense of punishing doubt, to sell the idea of paranoia reaching boiling point, to emphasise the tragedy of a friendship sacrificed at the altar of an uncaring Iron Throne. It shouldn’t be vast, it should be intimate, about relationships distorted to the point of derangement – but it opts instead for something akin to periodic biographical re-enactment.

It’s best in those rare moments when it is intimate. The core of House of the Dragon, even held at a distance as it is, essentially works: when you pare back the layers, there’s a family torn asunder. A closer focus on its female characters than Game of Thrones could boast in the beginning gives House of the Dragon something approaching its own identity, and strong performances across the board – in particular from Milly Alcock, Emily Carey, and Paddy Considine – help enliven the more by the numbers elements of the series. But there’s an inescapable simplicity to much of its character work (again the result of that time jump structure), and a certain impenetrability to its fannish deference to Martin’s fictional history. It’s hard to imagine a mass audience connecting with House of the Dragon, let alone flocking to it in droves – in the end, House of the Dragon is just another pretender to the throne.

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.

I’ve seen 6 of an eventual 10 episodes of House of the Dragon before writing this review. You can read more of our TV reviews here, or check back weekly as Steven Ross reviews House of the Dragon episode by episode.