Five minutes into the first episode of House of the Dragon, the prequel to Game of Thrones, I found myself relaxing. I missed this, I realised. This grand, finely crafted world. The rich acting. The plotting and scheming and empty machinations throughout the ages. The dragons.
By the time the sixth episode sent for review came to an end, I craved for more. At least another eight seasons, as with Game of Thrones. Anything to explore George R. R. Martin’s world longer.
Because while the first season of House of the Dragon occasionally stumbles with the immense amount of history, characters, and groundwork it needs to lay out, it is also instantly addictive television at its best.
Set two hundred years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, House of the Dragon is both familiar and alien. It’s a delight to see dragons again, especially as the colossal budget allows us multiple chances for some spectacular sequences. But at the same time, this is not the fantastic myth Daenerys painted in Game of Thrones.
We should probably deal with the elephant in the room while we’re at it. I thought the divisive finale for Game of Thrones was fantastic and exactly what the series had built up to all these years. House of the Dragon takes the bitter irony of an unchanging political system, where dynasties dictate history, and runs wild with it. This is the tragic story of one family bringing ruin to them and everyone around them through hubris and blind ambition. The hundred years that ruined the Targaryen line and brought about The Dance of Dragons.
It’s a story that lives in the realm of irony. As an audience, we’ve spent the last ten years hearing the stories told by Daenery’s of the kingdom her lineage ruled over. Now, seeing it, we realize just how badly the truth changes over the centuries. Those in power still gaze into the distant country that is the past, wondering how the kingdom used to be once.
At the center of this is Rhaenyra, daughter to Viserys, king of the realm. When we first see her, it’s easy to think we’re seeing Daenerys again. Like her future descendant, Rhaenyra is cunning, ruthless, and hungry for power. Unlike Daenerys, she holds no illusions over her place in the story. There is something refreshing about her clear ambitions. We know where the Targaryen line is headed, yet it’s surprising how hard and fast the series goes for the darkness that awaits.
Which will lead to some interesting conversations in the coming weeks. Much of the first season is anchored by a brilliant performance from Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra. I anticipate much of the same hype and fanfare over her that Daenerys received. Before the season is out, I predict most will have to revisit that devotion. Heroes don’t survive in Westeros, and none of the Targaryens would count as pure of heart in the first place.
Supporting Alcock is a cast of veterans of all ages. Paddy Considine brings great gravitas to the well-intentioned, but blissfully ignorant king. Matt Smith has a lot of fun as the heinous Daemon Targaryen. His strutting and complicated vindictiveness are a feast for any actor, yet Smith goes above and beyond in giving him life beyond the caricature Daemon would have everyone else see. A mid-season feast, complete with side-eyes and veiled threats behind flowery language, is one of the best things seen in the Game of Thrones franchise.
Equally compelling is Emily Cooke as Alicent Hightower. Once close friend to Rhaenyra, her place in the court is as precarious as they come. Cooke plays the part with subtle beauty, deftly balancing loyalty with fear, hope with terror. As her father, Rhys Ifans brings weathered charm to the hand of the king. A man, like Tyrion, cleverer than most, yet not smart enough to know when to fold.
House of the Dragon is a huge gamble. It’s almost insane to think it exists. If it had turned out bad, it would be a feast for crows as the fandom tore it to pieces for daring to think it could add to a beloved series. It comes as an extension to a story some disliked vehemently, despite the series spending years repeating its mission statement every season.
And yet, despite this, or even because of this, House of the Dragon is a remarkable achievement. At least in this first season. It’s a series that respects its audience by not holding their hand. It dives deep into the lore and history of Martin’s magnum opus and never lets up. But it also dares to double down on a storyline that wasn’t the easy fan favourite. In telling the sordid history of the Targaryen line, House of the Dragon makes the case of Daenerys as a dangerous warlord even greater.
How the eventual fall and ruin will happen remains a mystery for now. As the season ramps up towards the finale, already a decade has passed. Time means little for lineages. Rulers age, new conquerors arrive, and the game never stops. This is magnificently operatic storytelling of fictional history done right.
If this keeps up, House of the Dragon may become something even grander than Game of Thrones. A vast political epic about dynasties that, in crafting such believable fantasy, rivals the richness of Tolkien.
For now, this is a perfect beginning. The wheel turns once again.