It's been three years since Game of Thrones flamed out in spectacular fashion, promising a frenzy of fire and fury, then crumbling into ash in the collective imagination that so eagerly devoured it for close to a decade. Of the thousands of casualties across the show's eight seasons, perhaps the most painful loss viewers endured was the death of the watercooler TV show — when Thrones ended, it felt like collective viewing did too. Despite the sharp drop in quality over its last season, it consistently maintained a chokehold on cultural conversations, its rich lore and expansive universe inviting viewers to scour every last corner in service of their escapist fantasy. As many as 19.3 million tuned into the finale on HBO.
Since then, the channel's efforts to recapture that magic have sent it chasing across the length and breadth of Westeros. Some of the titles in development include 10,000 Ships, the story of a Dornish warrior queen, Sea Snake, based on one of the continent's greatest seafarers, and Snow, a spinoff about a man who knows nothing. A Naomi Watts-led prequel, Blood Moon, was canceled after its pilot was shot.
All of this is to say that expectations for House of the Dragon were low, tempered by infuriating endings and false starts. Based on George RR Martin's Fire and Blood, the show winds back the Thrones clock, charting the rise and downfall of the Targaryen dynasty. The shaky opening of episode 1 gives viewers a reason to suspect that they were right to tread cautiously. First, it's set to a voiceover, which is never a good sign for any show with the potential to be heavy on exposition. Second, it cuts to an intertitle informing viewers that the show is set 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), which seems like an ominous signpost warning of additional clumsy tie-ins to the franchise. After these initial stumbles, however, the show finds its rhythm. The voiceover disappears, one's ribs are safe from any further Thrones nudges. From the first aerial sighting of Kings Landing as seen on dragonback to the more intimate tracking shots of the corridors of Harrenhal, House of the Dragon feels like coming home (to a family that has dragons and is into incest, but still).
The show smoothly reveals itself as a tale of power and the struggle to maintain its delicate balance. When it begins, King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) is straining under the pressures of naming an heir, a worry that grows more nagging as the episode progresses. Since tradition dictates that a woman cannot inherit the Iron Throne, this immediately disqualifies his daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and positions his impulsive, volatile younger brother Daemon (Matt Smith), as his successor. It's fascinating to watch the ripple effects of a family feud in this universe, the way petty squabbles and jealousies can destablise an entire realm. Here, the personal and the political are intertwined. When Viserys I cuts his finger on his seat's jagged edge after a family spat, the image of the throne drawing blood is an evocative one, a visual rendering of how the realm bleeds men dry.
What's even more haunting is the way it bleeds women too. "The childbed is our battlefield," Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke) tells Rhaenyra at one point, a sentence that's as prophetic in its utterance as it is terrifying in its depiction. A solid stretch of filmmaking midway through the pilot cross-cuts between a jousting tournament held to celebrate the king's potential new heir, and the writhing, agonised queen about to give birth to him. Both scenes are harrowing to experience. Images of blood-soaked battlefields alternate with blood-soaked bedsheets. Bodies are brutally violated in both. The juxtaposition is thematically significant — a winner and loser emerge on each side of the equation, though the expert way tension is sustained and the events unfold initially make it hard to discern which one is which. The cost of securing the realm is high, but it seems to be one only women pay.
Over the years, Thrones has been criticised for its abundance of 'sexposition' — scenes that rely on nudity to keep audiences watching as vast amounts of dry, dull information are spoonfed to them — but where House of the Dragon employs sex scenes, it does so with minimal talking. The result is that the actor's physicality conveys the intent of the sequence. In one scene, Daemon thrusts dully into a local prostitute from behind, growing increasingly frustrated — how is a man meant to keep it up when the gloomy prospect of losing his claim to the throne is weighing him down? In another scene, he has the distinction of being the saddest participant at an orgy. The camera swirls around the hedonistic allure of bared breasts and tangled limbs until it makes its way to him moping in the corner. (Surely social etiquette dictates you be more enthusiastic at an orgy?)
But Daemon pulls himself together soon enough and that's when everything falls apart. In true Thrones fashion, where a man who dies in season 1 can cast a long shadow over season 8, four short words can shatter a long-cherished dream. House of the Dragon has dragons and derrières. But it's the words — cutting, deceitful, anguished, vengeful — that stoke this show's fire.