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House of the Dragon Review: A Blonder (But Just as Brutal) Return to Westeros

The fall of the house of Targaryen begins with a matter of succession.
  • Paddy Considine, Sian Brooke, Michael Carter, Steve Toussaint and Eve Best in House of the Dragon. (Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO)
    Paddy Considine, Sian Brooke, Michael Carter, Steve Toussaint and Eve Best in House of the Dragon. (Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO)

    On the scaly wings of once-prevalent dragons comes HBO's much-anticipated return to the world of Game of Thrones.

    Though House of the Dragon boasts new characters, new family lines, and new showrunners, once viewers find themselves back behind the walls of the Red Keep and hear the familiar strings of the old theme song haunting the new musical motifs, it'll be hard not to imagine we're back again as if we'd never left.

    Contributing to that sense is the fact that it hasn't actually been all that long since Game of Thrones exited with Bran the Broken atop the Iron Throne. The GoT finale aired on the same night that Barry ended its second season, and seeing as Barry only just returned for its third season this Spring, in some ways it feels like our adventures in Westeros were merely on an extended hiatus.

    Vibes aside, though, House of the Dragon is decidedly not a continuation of Game of Thrones, and in setting itself 200 years before the events of that series, author George R. R. Martin and showrunners Ryan J. Condal and Miguel Sapochnik have made sure that there will be no character crossovers, even if certain bloodlines, locations, sigils, and one particularly memorable seat of power will all be very familiar to viewers.

    Throughout Game of Thrones, much was made of the great Targaryen dynasty, the lineage of Weterosi rule that heroine-turned-last-minute-villain Daenerys was determined to return to. Now we get to experience that dynasty in a prequel series whose historical borders are familiar — i.e. we know this will all eventually lead up to the "Mad King" Aerys Targaryen torching his family's legacy and the dragons that helped them retain power essentially extinct. But we are, as a title card helpfully reminds us, 172 years before that all happens.

    There's plenty that's new (to us) about old Westeros. There are a lot more dragons, for one thing. We're told the Targaryens command ten of them alone. What's not new is a sense of anxiety over who sits on the Iron Throne, now and years down the line. We're told in a prologue that 100 years after Aegon Targaryen's conquest of the Seven Kingdoms, his descendant, King Jaehaerys had to choose an heir, and since his sons were dead, a great council was convened where it was determined that his eldest grandchild, Rhaenys (Eve Best) would be passed over in favor of her cousin, Viserys (Paddy Considine). Now, many years later, with Viserys unable to produce a male heir, he's facing yet another crisis of succession, with the contenders being his brother Daemon (Matt Smith) and daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock as a child, Emma D'Arcy as an adult).

    That's the premise, and yes, that does make it sound like House of the Dragon is the answer to an HBO exec's request for "Game of Thrones but make it Succession." Of course Game of Thrones itself was a show about succession before Succession (and for that matter, so was The Sopranos). Viserys is a weak king, whose back is literally wounded from the unease upon which he sits on the Iron Throne. Daemon is strong but power-hungry, brutal, and vain. Rhaenyra is merely a young girl, though she's already a dragon rider and quite popular among the common "smallfolk." What's a king to do?

    Fortunately Martin has populated King's Landing with a healthy mix of schemers and sidekicks, including Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King who's dispositionally opposed to Daemon and not afraid of using his daughter Alicent (Emily Carey as a child and Olivia Cooke as an adult) to get ahead. There's also Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), a seafaring lord who's on Viserys's small council, and who also happens to be married to passed-over Rhaenys, who's acquired the nickname "The Queen Who Never Was."

    Though she's positioned as a side character, Rhaenys is close to the center of one of the major themes that House of the Dragon leans on, namely the idea (and resistance to the idea) that a woman could sit atop the Iron Throne. How formidable will that institutional resistance be if Rhaenyra is to ascend? What will she need to prove herself capable of to make that happen?

    Feminism has always held a prominent if deeply uneasy place within Game of Thrones. Obviously the ambitions of women like Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Arya Stark were central to the show from the start. But GoT often stumbled in telling their stories, drawing ire for the way it used sexual assault as a crucible for a character like Sansa Stark to endure before she was hardened into a formidable political player, and losing many a fan's loyalty for the way in which it "sold out" Daenerys by the end. The story of Rhaenys getting passed over and Rhaenyra being named heir is potentially thorny and satisfying, especially with an actress as talented as Best.

    That said, it's hard to not to be a bit a skepical that two new male showrunners will do better by this feminist storyline than David Benioff and D. B. Weiss did with the last one. Especially after watching a legitimately horrifying scene in the premiere episode which, without spoiling any plot points, is as brutal as anything that was on Game of Thrones and which in this particular national climate will likely have a dark resonance that hits viewers in a lot of different ways.

    In general, a lot of what's new in House of the Dragon feels like an echo of what's familiar. Once again a lot of political moves are maneuvered in the brothels of King's Landing. There's a mistress character from Essos who maybe has her own agenda. We're treated to another handsome swordsman from Dorne. The handsome brutality of Daemon Targaryen is just begging for the Jamie Lannister treatment.

    One thing we get less of in the premiere than you might expect is those much ballyhooed dragons. You'd think the show would frontload the one thing that really separates this world from the one we got in Game of Thrones (well, that and the fact that the budget for white-blond wigs). The premiere episode does end up featuring the return of the familiar "dracarys" command for fire, the anticipation for which has a real "say the line, Bart!" feel to it.

    Ultimately, that's the balance that House of the Dragon will have to strike, at least at first: walking in the footsteps of Game of Thrones while steadily establishing its own vocabulary. Game of Thrones began to truly thrive in the culture when its very particular idiosyncrasies seeped into the imaginations of its audience. For now, House of the Dragon is on training wheels, but it's easy to see it being able to fly very soon.

    House of the Dragon premieres on HBO and HBO Max Sunday August 20th at 9:00 PM ET.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: House of the Dragon, HBO, Game of Thrones, Emily Carey, Emma D'Arcy, Eve Best, George R.R. Martin, Matt Smith, Miguel Sapochnik, Milly Alcock, Olivia Cooke, Paddy Considine, Rhys Ifans, Ryan J. Condal, Steve Toussaint