In a break from HBO tradition, House of the Dragon is a blockbuster TV series that fuses melodrama, sexual violence, and body horror with a gritty narrative about a flawed patriarch struggling to hold their social power during a time of rising tension. Oh, wait…
Jokes aside, House of the Dragon isn’t bad, by the light of the Seven. The pilot is also nothing very special, but it may well evolve into such over the course of a successful season. Success, however, seems rather academic with something bearing the branding of Game of Thrones, if the enormous day-one viewer numbers for this episode are to be believed.
House of the Dragon follows some of the later stories from original writer George R. R. Martin’s Targaryen-centric spin-off novel, Fire and Blood, adapting the events and characters as a 200-odd-year-prequel to the start of the Game of Thrones TV series. As complicated as any prequel situation usually sounds, the upshot is that viewers get a whole show centered around the “incest elves” who conquered the Britain-analogue of Westeros, and whose line would eventually produce fan-favourite character Daenerys Targaryen.
The immediate downside one would expect of such a setup is the reduced scale, at the moment: yes, this is a pared down, “mostly Fire” version of A Song of Ice and Fire, lacking the sprawl of the best Game of Thrones episodes and taking place mostly within the walls of dingy pre-Renaissance buildings, but it’s still quite a handsome show nonetheless.
The flight of dragons (wyverns, really) can be fun, women flounce in sparkly clothing, men stomp about in big coats and armour: the appeal of the King’s Landing sections of GoT comes mostly intact. Think of it like any 21st-century “franchise return” styled prequel, from Weta’s Hobbit trilogy to the weird Battlestar web series Blood & Chrome, the identity is in the nostalgia of aesthetic details.
Still, even with the advantage of “welcome back to Westeros”, there remains the same prequel staleness that only a few franchise expansions of this sort can avoid: these are not “new” characters per se, they are spins on characters that feel like they belong to this world. So the young, headstrong heir smacks of Arya’s attitude and disregard for tradition. The patriarch, in this case, King Viserys, is heavily influenced by Ned Stark’s incapacity to lie and cheat at the royal court. Even Matt Smith’s Daemon, a truly remarkable piece of casting to be sure, is primarily a backfilling of Joffrey Baratheon’s ‘cruel and unstable’ archetype. If your interest lies broadly in the tone and content that Game of Thrones has come to be known for, this won’t be much of a problem though.
Make no mistake, as another helping of dismemberment, fucking, and internecine family bullshit, House of the Dragon delivers in spades. If content warnings be thy enemy, I suggest reconsidering if the show is for you because the level of brutality on display has not been toned down—the already infamous birth sequence that makes up the middle of the episode will be particularly traumatic for people with wombs, but the show offers equal-opportunity molestation and gore as a statement of intent in this first hour.
In a more welcome addition to the Game of Thrones standbys, the pilot promises formal evolution over the first half of the original show, which was militantly focused on immediate and linear storytelling. The episode begins with a prologue, for crying out loud, which can be a death knell for unconfident fantasy but here is simply a power move, as if to say: “even an epic fantasy prologue isn’t enough to stop this show from being the biggest thing on the planet.”
Later on, the Tourney sequence even borrows the shorthand of outside/inside action from the end of The Godfather (also featured in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith), where the birth/breaching of Viserys’ son is intercut with the daytime excitement of jousting and sword fights. Sequences throughout the pilot play with timelines this way, making much more use of point-of-view manipulation, a stylistic addition to the Game of Thrones lexicon that, considering the much-less-detailed source material, will come in handy as the story of the Dance of the Dragons heats up.
Ultimately, this will remain a spin-off to the original show, and not seen as a continuation of all its strengths—however, with the focus on the Targaryens, its willingness to play with time in ways the original show couldn’t, and a budget that apparently doesn’t have any trouble depicting the world of 200 years before Game of Thrones, dragons included, House of the Dragon seems set up to succeed as a relatively stand-alone and compelling return to form for the franchise. Hopefully, the creators have some more surprises on the way without relying too much on nostalgia to buoy the series along.