It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to count HBO’s Game of Thrones as one of the most divisive TV series in recent memory. Everything from misplaced coffee cups on set to poor lighting in fight scenes created weeks of debate and conversation for fans – and understandably so, all things considered. What had started as a series adaptation of George RR Martin’s beloved, and notably unfinished, fantasy novel series had ultimately surpassed the source material, leaving the show to travel without a ready roadmap to an ending all its own. And while Game of Thrones’ mixed results may give many fans pause at the thought of returning to Westeros again, the same cannot be said for the network. HBO is totally on board with Martin and the Game of Thrones universe, as evidenced by their latest prestige project, House of the Dragon. And based on the first six episodes of the ten-episode season that were given for review, more Game of Thrones is currently the extent of the game plan.
Set hundreds of years before the events of Game of Thrones itself, House of the Dragon zeroes in on the Targaryens, the platinum-blonde line of dragon-riding conquerors represented almost exclusively by fan-favorite Daenerys in the original series. Now the Targaryens are out in full force, at the height of their power, gallivanting around all of Westeros with their dragons in tow – and well, that’s about all it takes. House of the Dragon is, by all accounts, just more Game of Thrones – yes, the Iron Throne may look different and the characters all have different names, but the stories are almost identical to what we’ve already seen. It’s political drama that revolves around the succession of a king, competing heirs, incest, secret affairs, lots of backstabbing, tons of violence and gore – and absolutely no surprises.
To its credit, House of the Dragon’s ensemble cast does a good job of selling their respective stories—even if most (if not all) of them are bizarrely paced and confusingly delivered. Each episode of Season 1 skips an undetermined amount of time confirmed not in title cards or any official notation, but in dialogue between characters announcing how much time has passed between the events we just saw. This gives the whole story a strangely fast-paced feel. Months, sometimes years, pass between the closing credits of one episode and the opening of the next, and arcs that feel like they should be the focus of the entire season flash in and out of existence abruptly with no time to breathe. Character relationships grow and sour at breakneck speed while obviously telegraphed bits of subtext and foreshadowing – like the King’s failing health, for example – drag on and on in slow motion.
Then, in one of the show’s oddest choices, there’s a more significant time jump between episodes 5 and 6, where a handful of characters are replaced by (slightly) older actors while others get a little touch-up with prosthetics and age makeup. Princess Rhaenyra goes from being played by 22-year-old Milly Alcok to 30-year-old Emma D’arcy while Allicent Hightower is switched from 19-year-old Emily Carey to 28-year-old Olivia Cooke. Meanwhile, their love interest Ser Criston (played by 28-year-old Fabien Frankel) stays the course throughout. King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) are similarly unchanged, apart from some age spots on make-up and swapped wigs. This isn’t to say that either actor is bad in their roles – but given the show’s already frenetic pace, and the fact that both Rhaenyras and both Allicents don’t really look that different from each other, it’s hard to see what the re-casting actually does adds to the show, if anything at all.
Equally confusing for a show called House of the Dragon is the general lack of, well, dragons. The big fantasy beasts are certainly around, to be sure – but there’s a glaring lack of emphasis in the front half of the season, with only a few notable exceptions – and the scenes featuring them are largely forgettable. Perhaps this is thanks to the fact that, unlike in Game of Thrones, Westeros is not currently at war – the Targaryens are apparently quite comfortable, and no armies are marching on King’s Landing – but it just becomes another problem while the show goes on. There’s just no real stakes to be found here – yes, there’s the question of who gets the throne when Viserys dies, but even that feels like an obvious and forgone conclusion given that we know exactly what Westeros looks like 200 years later. the line.
Even more frustrating is the fact that House of the Dragon seems convinced that this non-event is not only the most interesting thing it has going for it, but that it also makes some kind of pointed commentary on women’s rights and feminism in fantasy society. of Westeros. There are several moments in the first six episodes where characters almost look straight into the camera and say, “Wow, isn’t our society just terrible for women? Shouldn’t we be doing something about this?” Only to get the inevitable cartoonish rebuttal that no, we can’t, because of tradition and history and the like. Instead of actually engaging with these themes at all, or even attempting to provide any sort of critique or drama that actually centers or grapples with issues of misogyny, House of the Dragon repeatedly leans on tired tropes and expected beats about unhappy arranged marriages and forced births. We’ve seen it all before, and we know it won’t change.
House of the Dragon also never commits to this surface-level progressivism. It repeatedly sets aside the plans that focus on queens and succession to make time for rooms with men anxiously talking about a brief military conflict or an extended battle scene between anonymous knights crushing each other’s skulls with their fists or sword heroes. Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), who was poignantly dubbed “The Queen That Never Was” after she was passed over in her own claim to the throne by a patriarchal father, feels particularly underserved in this regard. She seems like an idea that probably had a ton of narrative weight and gravity in an earlier version of the story that didn’t survive into production, and now we’re left with a handful of rudimentary ideas and forgettable, scattered scenes referencing them. And again, this is nothing we haven’t seen before already with characters like Cersei Lanniser or even Daenerys back in the original show.
Being just like Game of Thrones isn’t always the worst thing, though. While it may make for an unsurprising story, the sets, costumes and production design are extremely strong. The show has a very polished look to it, and the familiarity with places like King’s Landing is actually an advantage here – love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny that Game of Thrones really knew how to sell an ornately embroidered dress and a battered, aged look castle. The violence is also done with some great practical and digital effects. Seeing little crabs pick apart screaming sailors bit by bit while they are crucified on the beach will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but if you can push past the disgust you will no doubt recognize that the gory tableaus are executed with amazing care on details in both make-up and VFX.
Strong images and skilled performances are hardly a selling point for the show as a whole. House of the Dragon will likely find an audience, but from here it’s hard to see exactly who that audience will be.