House of the Dragon is the perfect mix of early seasons Game of Thrones’ intrigue and drama, and latter seasons production values. It’s a big ol’ family melodrama between a whole bunch of horrible people, and the less awful of them, that focuses everything that audiences loved about GoT down to a single dynasty. It results in an utterly compelling season of medieval fantasy drama, as good as the best seasons of the franchise’s flagship series.
Taking place around 200 years before the prophesised Song of Ice and Fire (as is addressed in the series), the Targaryen’s rule over Westeros, and a new battle for the Iron Throne comes into focus. Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock as a teenager and by Emma D’Arcy as an adult) is the only child of King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine). When Rhaenyra’s mother dies during childbirth, the question of succession becomes paramount, whether it falls to Viserys’ brother, Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), or will Westeros have its first woman monarch in Rhaenyra. Meanwhile, Viserys’ cousin Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) and her husband, Lord Corlys Velaryon’s (Steve Toussaint) seek to join the two houses of Old Valyria, especially since the elder Rhaenys was robbed of the Iron Throne when her grandfather named the younger Viserys heir. In the shadows, the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) plots his own plan for the line of succession, leading his daughter, and Rhaenyra’s best friend, Alicent (Emily Carey as teenage Alicent, Olivia Cooke in the adult role) towards the now widowed king. A new, or well new for viewers, battle over the Iron Throne ensues.
The show is decidedly less sprawling in terms of where the drama is taking place, with King’s Landing, Dragonstone and Driftmark as the primary settings for the family’s various squabbles, occasionally taking a trip elsewhere, as well as the sheer number of characters, leading the way for a far more contained piece of medieval fantasy drama. This lends itself to a far more focused drama, often leading to big dramatic beats between the entire extended family. Debates of succession, parentage, rumours of incest and affairs, all played out in grand halls and amongst the wider family. It is astonishingly riveting, every episode offers up more self-interest, arrogance, lies and lust to bask in the sheer drama of, written with such precision and a love for the melodramatic.
That being said, the timeframe for which the show takes place is far more extended. Jumping through various ages for the characters, beginning with Rhaenyra and Alicent in their mid-teens, and the season ending when they’re in their 30s. There’s something a touch disconcerting about these time jumps, while at first, they are minor jumps, six months or a year between episodes, the biggest jump is a decade half way through the season. Up to this point, we’ve been getting to know the young Rhaenyra and Alicent and understanding their relationship to each other and the extended royal family and the lords that serve them. While it is disconcerting, it also is so gracefully handled, and adds layers upon the characters and the drama. The history behind the relationships and the groundwork laid to build to the climax of the season becomes integral. There’s a lot left wanting in those time jumps, especially the decade long one, however they’re handled so well and creates vital depth of character, that it’s practically not an issue.
The show feels extremely in conversation with its phenomenon predecessor series, not just in the sense that the creators know it will be comparisons between the two series, but also in a sense that feels like it’s trying to confront and address some of the observations, criticisms and ideas of Game of Thrones within the text. Episode 4 may be the best example of this, in an episode that is ostensibly about the franchise’s relationship to sex and sexual relations, and pointedly from a woman perspective, and the way in which GoT depicts sex in every form, from power dynamics to simple pleasures. This kind of interrogation of the elements of which its predecessor was famous for, not limited to sex, but violence, a woman’s role in these political wars, the political machinations of succession, the underhandedness of those who lust for power, and the self-righteous actions of those who believe they deserve said power. In exploring these themes in a way that GoT couldn’t due to its broad scope, House of the Dragon crafts a response to it seminal forefather, a show that is decidedly building upon what’s come before in a way that challenges some of its criticisms.
HotD has a complex empathy to it, around even its most monstrous of characters. You may hate them in one episode only to find some kind of understanding for their position in the next, a keen sense of how even at their most selfish and immoral, there is a humanity to them that is undeniable. Throughout the season, the writers craft these elegant moments in which allow the audience to see the humanity through the monstrosity. These layers create such unique depth to all the characters, including the ones who are not given the same treatment, bringing simple humanity to people that could otherwise be waved away as awful human beings.
The performances in this series are some of the best on TV at the moment. Each week, another actor would steal the show, from Alcock in the early season striking an utterly compelling performance that captured charm and determinism so perfectly, to Smith effortlessly swinging from unhinged and jealous to charismatic and endearing (ostensibly the bad boy of the Targaryens), Considine crafting a performance not dissimilar to Sean Bean’s in GoT, albeit with a greater arc to fully embodying a kind hearted, misguided monarch. Carey’s Alicent is endearing and her arc is tragic to the point that it gives Cooke so much to play with as older Alicent, a performance that is perfectly despicable, yet also empathetically tragic. D’Arcy follows through on Alcock’s performance with such maturity, they latch onto the heart of Rhaenyra so perfectly, older and wiser, but still filled with determinism and kindness.
It’s obviously impossible not to compare House of the Dragon with Game of Thrones, even outside of the shows being part of the same franchise, Game of Thrones was a phenomenon, not only did it come at the very right time, it ushered in a new era of screen media fantasy, one that was for adults, that was political and multifaceted, that pushed its content boundaries. I was 13 when GoT started, but even I heard about it, it was a phenomenon. House of the Dragon follows through beyond its franchise ties, but hones in on the maturity and complexity George R.R. Martin’s world provides to expand upon one of the biggest shows of all time. In doing so, House of the Dragon escapes the shadow of its predecessor to be more than just a return to form, but a refinement of what captivated audiences for the better part of a decade, delivering one of the best seasons of the franchise thus far.
The entire first season of House of the Dragon is now streaming on Binge
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