House of the Dragon premieres Aug. 21 on HBO.
It’s been three years since Game Of Thrones ended, and five years since its fandom started complaining bitterly about its final seasons. Spin-off House Of The Dragon therefore debuts to less hype than it might have once had, but really could restore our fascination with Westeros. Immediately, its premiere boasts everything that Thrones did well: an overqualified cast of character actors; backstabbing; sexposition; and lots of dragons.
The first proposed spin-off to Game Of Thrones – a Naomi Watts-led adventure set in Westeros’ distant past – was ultimately scrapped, reportedly because it was too different from the original show. Perhaps as a result, it sometimes feels like there’s an element of overcorrection here. It’s beautifully rendered – the budget is clearly late-season Game Of Thrones rather than Season 1, and both the Cornish and Spanish locations and the computer-generated dragon flights look magical – but looks and sounds awfully close to its progenitor, down to iconography and locations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to the storytelling, since it’s set just far enough in Westeros’ past to keep us guessing, but it speaks of a pervasive timidity in Hollywood to take even the most minor of risks.
Still, that’s admittedly more a criticism of this show’s context than its content. Showrunners Ryan J. Condal and Miguel Sapochnik work from the relatively bare bones chronicle of George R.R. Martin’s Fire And Blood, a quasi-academic account of Targaryen rule that has none of the first-person intimacy of A Song Of Ice And Fire but does have loads of backstabbing and a civil war. That source material leaves these showrunners with room to embellish the record and its characters without breaking canon, and already you can feel them stretching the limits of the text to add heft to these new heroes and villains. As is traditional for Westeros, they’re the same people.
We return to Westeros at the height of the Targaryen dynasty, some 100 years after its founding and 172 years before Daenerys was born as her family fell. The Seven Kingdoms are as united as they get, following the long, largely peaceful reign of King Jaehaerys. After a minor succession crisis, his throne passes to the amiable Viserys I (Paddy Considine), who just wants everyone to get along. It cannot surprise any viewer to learn that he won’t get his wish. Considine’s one of the best actors around, adding layers as he goes, from dirty jokes with his councillors to surprisingly tough edges with his family. If he doesn’t always look quite at home in long tunics and elaborately carved stone halls, that only adds to the feeling that Viserys is not quite the king Westeros needs.
The headbutting around Viserys so far comes courtesy of his ambitious Hand, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), and wayward brother Prince Daemon (Matt Smith). Daemon, put in charge of forging a much-needed City Watch for King’s Landing, has built a brutal private army, which Otto (not unreasonably) sees as a problem. Otto, meanwhile, is trying to wield power that is properly the King’s, which Daemon (not unreasonably) also sees as a problem. Daemon presents as a psychopath, a degenerate and a bad sportsman, so presumably he’ll pull a Jaime Lannister and end up everyone’s favourite (at least for a time). Smith is already building interesting hints of vulnerability and self-mockery to the younger brother whose loyalty to his king holds – just. It’s worth noting that he’s the first person we see sit on this Iron Throne, a bigger and more aggressive seat than we’ve seen before, but if that’s foreshadowing there will be a lot of bloodshed before he returns to it.
It’s also important to keep an eye on teenage friends Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock here; soon to be played as an adult by Emma D’Arcy) and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey; soon Olivia Cooke). The daughters of the King and Hand, respectively, look at times like a romantic couple, but Rhaenyra also flirts with her uncle Daemon, and Alicent is pushed into the King’s path by her father: think Anne and Mary Boleyn and their ambitious father Thomas for a historical parallel. Both Alcock and Carey are excellent, and show enough friendship (at least) chemistry that you worry for their future relations.
The king is the most interesting character, if the least showy. Considine’s Viserys gently teases his daughter and tenderly buoys his heavily pregnant wife Aemma (who is also his cousin, played by Sian Brooke) in between drinking like a fish and telling dirty jokes. He’s avoiding military action against aggressive pirates, indulging his wayward brother and pinning all his hopes of an heir on his possibly forthcoming son. Aemma tells him that this difficult pregnancy will be her last, to his obvious discomfort, and a decision he makes later on adds a darker and more ruthless shade to the initially likeable king. In such moments the show establishes a feminist undercurrent, with the Targaryen women visibly straining against the patriarchal limits of Westeros society – and Viserys, who has directly benefited from that sexism, is slow to notice. Such blind spots and complexity make the character worthy of Considine’s time, and should make the power struggles around him less predictable.
Beyond the central family and council, other great noble houses have already been introduced – there’s a nod here to the Baratheons, the distant Starks, and to Dorne – but major players will include Bill Paterson’s Lord Beesbury, master of coin, and particularly Steven Toussaint’s striking Corlys Velaryon, the Targaryen’s oldest ally, Sea Snake and husband to the “Queen That Never Was”, Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best, chilly and authoritative). The Velaryon pair are the ultimate Westeros power couple, and get the best and worst of the show’s enormous wig collection.
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All those Targaryen blondes bring us to the question of incest, which is going to be an undercurrent to this whole show. If you thought Jaime and Cersei Lannister were a bit much, wait until you find just how closely related most of the principals are here. It puts a rather different spin on Uncle Daemon giving his niece a pretty necklace, and on Queen Aemma’s difficulties carrying her children to term. The book explains that Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters / wives established that the Targayens are exempt from the general taboo on inbreeding; that exceptionalism may allow them to ride dragons but it doesn’t exempt them from the messy fallout when genetics and duty collide. Daemon’s favourite sex worker offering to bring him a silver-haired maiden may turn out to be one of the least grotesque moments of this storyline when we look back, but it’s already pretty icky.
Still, how much can we complain about real-world grotesquerie when there are dragons flying through dawn skies, and knights brutally jousting, and glorious sweeping vistas of King’s Landing and the (still whole) dragon pit? One of the secrets of Game Of Thrones’ success was that there’s really very little magic in it. A glimpse of some White Walkers, an unusually large wolf and, in the dying moments of Season 1, some winged lizards was more-or-less it, lulling fantasy skeptics into a false sense of security. House Of The Dragon arrives to a TV landscape fundamentally altered – by Thrones itself – so this episode opens, post-prologue, with a dragon in flight and its red-and-black colours nailed to the mast. There’s no beating around the bush this time: House Of The Dragons is here to stake a claim to its progenitors’ title at the pinnacle of peak TV, and this first episode makes a solid case.
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