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House of the Dragon Season 2 Has Dragons And Intrigue, But Needs Momentum And Fun

In its continued bid to make HotD as big as Game Of Thrones, HBO treads lightly in George R.R. Martin's world of ice and fire.
  • Olivia Cooke and Ewan Mitchell in House of the Dragon Season 2 (Photo: Theo Whitman/HBO)
    Olivia Cooke and Ewan Mitchell in House of the Dragon Season 2 (Photo: Theo Whitman/HBO)

    Caution is a concept most Targaryens have difficulty wrapping their silver-maned heads around, but it's been an essential component in making the televised account of their family history, House Of The Dragon, work as well as it has. Given the critical disaster that was the final (two? three? four?) seasons of Game Of Thrones, it came as no surprise that HBO approached its prequel series as carefully as it did during its favorably reviewed first season. But this caginess has been a two-way street; no one forgets getting burned by a dragon (show) twice.  

    So, aside from vastly improved dragon effects (riders can dismount!) and a few notable glow-ups designed to woo wary GoT fans back into the fold — hello, more visually impressive/physically perilous Iron Throne — House Of The Dragon co-creators George R.R. Martin and Ryan Condal have taken great care easing us back into this world of ice and fire. They’re eager to evoke fond memories of its predecessor's former glory and leery of highlighting the less savory aspects of its decline once those pesky adaptive stores ran dry. 

    HBO also has an ace to play in this latest bid for must-see Westerosi TV: It adapts Fire & Blood, a ponderous tome that documents the Targaryen reign in Westeros from the first days of Aegon I Targaryen's Conquest to "The Dance of the Dragons," the Targaryen civil war that is still episodes away from being brought to life in stunning fidelity, a tale that Martin has, in a sense, completed. (Let's table the fact that the author has yet another volume of Fire & Blood pending.) "The Dance of the Dragons" has two things Game Of Thrones never did during its ill-fated eight-season run: structure and an ending.

    Yet despite the sturdiness of its narrative schematic and the dizzying scope of its production, this first half of House Of The Dragon Season 2 suggests that the prequel series is still trepidatious about breaking new ground. Its fresh title sequence shows a gorgeous animated tapestry weaving together defining moments in the bloody Targaryen dynasty, but it still circumspectly deploys Ramin Djawadi's pulse-amping GoT score. Game Of Thrones' most notable workhorse, Alan Taylor, directs two of the four episodes made available for review, giving this season a disheartening sense of televisual déjà vu. 

    This return-to-form approach only draws further attention to HotD's shortcomings. Its biggest critical hurdle, the disorienting time-hopping that kept viewers from growing accustomed to key players, is finally out of the way — with all the story preliminaries established well enough in Season 1, it seems the Dance of the Dragons can now begin at a more leisurely pace — yet few in the cast add much spice to the general blandness that makes up much of this series. With the tragic fall of King Viserys (Paddy Considine) now complete, Westeros is without a stabilizing leader, and so is House Of The Dragon

    Among this season's most consequential players is Queen Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy), whose dusty claim has been cast aside for the lackadaisical reign of King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney), a Chad regent who fills out his Kingsguard with fellow bros and frequently rankles his Hand, grandsire Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), with his shortsighted inanities.

    And let's not forget the Dowager Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke), who seeks victory for her family through peace while accepting it will be won through violence. Nor should we omit Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), the Queen Who Never Was, or her husband, Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), the Lord of Driftmark, who begrudgingly allies with Rhaenyra in a final attempt to secure a place in history for him and his house.

    While Season 1 mired itself in the minutiae of succession, the first half of Season 2 is concerned with war — or the meandering path leading to it. As a quickly broomed skirmish between two minor houses shows, House Of The Dragon is rather choosy about which battles it produces in light of last season's ludicrous budget. So much of the lead-up to this inevitable Targaryen Dance plays out in brothels, bedchambers, and tables, where generically costumed types grumble about matters related to the smallfolk, the suffering wartime economy (the markup on chicken is apparently crazy), and, when the mood strikes them, their dark desires.

    And while the players in this new game are said to be as violent and lusty as ever, Alicent points out that what they get up to doesn't need to be, as she puts it, "wanton." Maybe she's speaking on behalf of HBO, which has trimmed this second season to eight episodes and only cracks open Martin's debauched toolbox when necessary. (Though, the decision to pull the camera away from one disturbing sequence turns out to be a blessing.) 

    Season 2 of House of the Dragon takes greater care not to stir up controversy as brazenly as its predecessor. The sex and violence of Game Of Thrones are more carefully considered this go-around; its nudity is composed, and its bloodshed is doled out sparingly. Season 2 is a considered, artful, and respectful approach to adapting Martin's morally complex and frequently unforgiving text, which makes it less daring and interesting than what's come before.

    Thankfully, this restraint doesn't extend to its top performers. D'Arcy remains a formidable presence (even when the show tasks their character with unintentionally comical tasks that we're forbidden from revealing), and a notable shift in charisma occurs whenever Matt Smith, as Daemon Targaryen, enters a room. Another highlight is Ewan Mitchell as the sleek, baleful Aemond Targaryen, whose lethality and ambition are underscored by an interior gentleness that only begins to show just as the first half of this season comes to its fire-breathing close. 

    For all this refinement, House Of The Dragon lacks the spark of its predecessor at its peak. It's rich in lore and heraldic detail (Condal is obviously a fan), and it must be said in fairness that few TV writers share the same savviness or mastery of dialogue as Martin. But must these characters be so stiff?

    Sure, there's plenty of dragon-on-dragon action, but where's the mischief? Where's the bawdiness of Mushroom, the King's Fool from Fire & Blood who has been wrongly yanked from TV life? In its caution, House Of The Dragon forgets the low-brow pleasures that once made the many intrigues of Westeros so intoxicating to watch. As it inches towards a more pivotal second half, it’s clear House Of The Dragon Season 2 has so far surrendered the spirit of Martin's saga to prestige polish and a perceived intolerance for wanton sex and violence. Say what you will about Robert Baratheon, his brother-in-law Tyrion Lannister, or the destruction their lustiness helped create; those characters knew that sometimes chaos makes the party worth attending.

    House Of The Dragon Season 2 premieres June 16 at 9:00 P.M. ET on HBO and Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.

    TOPICS: House of the Dragon