House Of The Dragon is in some ways more about the game of thrones than Game Of Thrones ever was. It is the story of the Targaryen Dynasty during a time of turmoil and uncertain succession. Although King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) rules over a peaceful and prosperous realm, the court drama and intrigue at the Red Keep carries on relentlessly.
In HBO’s original adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s work, the game of thrones was certainly an integral part of the story, but it took a much different shape. The death of Robert Baratheon led to the War of the Five Kings, with Robert’s younger brothers, Stannis and Really, his son Joffrey, Robb Stark the King in the North and Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands all gathering armies and readying for war.
In House Of The Dragon, there’s little mention of gathering swords until we’re very nearly through the sixth episode (as far as I’ve seen in the show). Virtually all the battles that are waged are done so with words and secrets, betrayals and broken promises. And that’s fine. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s just that the intrigue and politicking go on so long and at such a glacial pace, even the fine production values, expensive set and costume design and skillful cinematography can’t mask the fact that much of this could have been whittled down.
Viserys I is a soft king who was voted onto the Iron Throne when his grandfather, Jaehaerys I, ran out of male heirs. His brother, Daemon (Matt Smith) is next in line, but Daemon is hot-headed and mercurial, a man the lords of the Seven Kingdoms mistrust. With no male heir, Viserys soon names his daughter Rhaenyra (played first by Milly Alcock and later by Emma D’Arcy) next in line, a controversial and divisive decision that later comes back to haunt him and the realm.
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The story unfolds over many years. In the first five episodes at least five years pass, followed by a ten-year time-jump between the fifth and sixth episodes. More time passes in six episodes than in the entirety of Thrones.
This has strange implications for pacing. House Of The Dragon moves along well enough in its first episode, but then seems to at once flounder and leap forward all at the same time after that. Years pass in the blink of an eye, and yet many characters remain underdeveloped, their motivations unclear. Smith’s Daemon is fascinating and cruel and weirdly likable despite his monstrous actions, but I often found myself waiting for him to do . . . something? There seems to be a lot of waiting that goes on. Waiting for the king to die. Waiting for the princess to marry. Waiting for Daemon to do something that has actual consequences. Waiting for the story to really get started.
At times, interesting narrative threads simply lead nowhere. I won’t give any examples as I really don’t want to spoil too much at this point in Tim, but there is a sense that, other than a few fated decisions, many of the choices these characters make simply have no real consequences. Naturally, it’s entirely possible that in the next four episodes of the season, we’ll see the real crazy stuff goes down—the Red Weddings and shocking beheadings and all the rest.
While I’m happy to spend more time with the scheming and politicking of court, the slow pacing can sap the energy from the story, and after the excellent premiere, the next few episodes before the time jump felt oddly stilted and at times even repetitive. The relationship between Rhaenyra and her childhood friend Alicent Hightower (played first by Emily Carey and later by Olivia Cooke) forms much of the foundation and conflict for the entire story, but it seems a great deal could have been achieved in this regard much quicker, rather than spending such a long time with the younger versions of these women.
There was something relatable and deeply human about the first seasons of Game Of Thrones that’s missing here. Certainly Considine’s Viserys is a complicated and fascinating man—a weak king with a non-confrontational temperament. He may not be the protagonist, but he’s easily the central character of the show alongside his daughter. Rhaenyra, meanwhile, is the only character you really want to root for and even she makes that hard at times. Most everyone else is just there, plotting and scheming for personal advantage. The few seemingly selfless characters, like Lord Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes) are refreshing simply because they’re not as Machiavellian as the rest, like Hand of the King Otto, Hightower (Rhys Ifans).
For all its ‘shades of grey’ Game Of Thrones gave us clear heroes to root for in the Stark family. Even the whoring, wise-ass Tyrion Lannister was someone we could immediately put in the good guys’ camp. But here, the grey is almost overwhelming. The question of succession looms large for all six of the first episodes, and as the king ages and the question of who should replace him looms larger, the tension and threat of violence begins to take shape. But it takes an awful long time to get there, and along the way it’s difficult to really become invested in any of the characters enough to really care who should sit the Iron Throne in the end.
Don’t get me wrong. I have still enjoyed House Of The Dragon a great deal and I’m excited to write more detailed recap/reviews for each episode. But even with all these dragons, there are no moments quite as powerful as those early scenes in Thrones. There is no discovery of a brood of direwolf pups, one for each Stark child; no Tyrion Lannister telling Jon Snow that ‘all dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes’; no White Walkers moving like ice and shadow through the dark forest.
Nor are we met with infuriating injustices like the Hound killing Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, because the petulant prince Joffrey wants revenge on Arya. Nothing at all that will make your blood boil quite so much as that moment, or gasp in surprise when Jaime tells his sister “The things I do for love” while pushing Bran out the tower window.
Certainly there is no-one quite so deliciously vile as the Lannister twins, including their Lannister ancestor, Jason (who is quite possibly an even more self-centered jerk than Jaime).
The schemers here are just schemers plotting against other schemers and I’m hard pressed, even six episodes in, to worry about who might stab who in the back. I suppose I’m rooting for Rhaenyra, but then I’m also rooting for Daemon and he’s kind of a bad guy. Kind of? Maybe good guys and bad guys simply don’t exist in this story, just guys and girls arguing over whether or not girls can be taken seriously as ruler of Westeros.
Perhaps part of this is simply that House Of The Dragon is a slow burn. It takes its time gathering momentum. It punctuates this slog with brief distractions: A birth gone horribly wrong; a violent assault on Flea Bottom’s criminal element; orgies and debauchery.
Perhaps this will all get better as the show’s story takes shape and the real conflict around the succession turns bloody. But I think it’s more than just pacing. I think it has to do more with stakes and the show simply never doing a really great job at communicating those stakes to viewers—beyond the matter of succession. But as Game Of Thrones proved, it’s not really the Iron Throne we care about, it’s whether our favorite characters will escape King’s Landing or be captured or killed before they can make it back home.
The epic fantasy and the court intrigue were never what made these stories special, though they certainly didn’t hurt. What made these stories matter to us so much was always the characters, and House Of The Dragon has a lot of work to do if it wants us to care about any of its characters half as much as Bran and Dany and Ned.
Ultimatetly, I think House Of The Dragon is a show that’s very much worth your time. You just need to keep your expectations in check. This isn’t just a different era set hundreds of years before Ned Stark took his children south to King’s Landing, it’s an entirely different kind of story altogether.
There’s enough familiar here, including the music, that it feels like a recognizable world that we’re stepping back into. There’s jousting and duels, pageantry and all the rest, so if you enjoy low-magic Medieval fantasy like I do, you’ll still find plenty to love. It’s beautifully shot and wonderfully acted and I’m still very much excited to see where it goes.
But it’s still no Game Of Thrones.