Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) ends House of the Dragon season one just as she began it, mourning a Visenya. The sustained heartache of the finale and the pace at which her losses pile up — a father, a crown, a stillborn daughter, a son — set the tone for a character overwhelmed by grief, at her most wounded and vulnerable before her eyes light up with vengeance. In a show more focussed on spectacle over sentiment so far, it’s the closest this season has come to striking a rich emotional core. House of the Dragon has churned furiously, barely allowing viewers to get invested in the characters before it decimates them through war and loss, and while the final image suggests an even further escalation, this one feels well-earned. Ten episodes later, the first cracks have appeared in the foundation of House Targaryen. All that’s left to do is watch it crumble into ash.
It wouldn’t be a Game of Thrones’-adjacent show without questions of parentage, claims of succession, major political shifts, dragons, deadly weddings and inevitably, nighttime scenes that viewers claim are too dark to see. Viewers wondering how far House Of The Dragon strays from this template need look no further than the show’s opening credits, their accompanying theme plucked straight from Ramin Djawadi’s indelible Thrones tune.
Based on George RR Martin’s Fire and Blood and set 172 years before the birth of Thrones’ Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), House of the Dragon reaches back into the past to trace the future of the Targaryen dynasty. It might chart a familiar return to Westeros but even so, its decision to confine itself to a few locations unlike its sprawling predecessor and examine the power dynamics of largely just one extended family instead of a dozen allow it to settle into a distinctive, if uneven, groove of its own. At its most engrossing, this pared-down prequel is a reminder of the smart, intricate machinations Thrones was capable of before the biggest twist it sprung on viewers was that lacklustre cop-out of a final season. At its most confusing, however, integral character development is assumed to have happened between episodes, motivations are opaque and the pacing builds urgency only to let it dissipate.
Much of this is down to the time jumps in between each episode, which range from a few months to years. This allows the show to examine the ripple effects of major decisions over time, but the emotion of their immediate aftermath is lost. How does Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) confront her best friend Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey) after she blindsides her by getting engaged to her father? At what point does Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) relent and make peace with the idea of his brother Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) marrying his daughter (now played by Emma D’Arcy) after the possibility of him taking her virginity sent him into a blind rage a few episodes earlier? Try to imagine Thrones beheading Ned Stark (Sean Bean) and then cutting to a ‘10 years later’ title card. So much delicious drama, so much of it left it up to the imagination of viewers. It’s an odd choice for a show with source material as rich and dense as House of the Dragon.
The show’s erratic pacing also rushes through what should be larger conversations, condensing big moments into the space of a single episode. When Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) asks Rhaenyra to run away with him because of how long she’s been complaining of palace life, his words are weightless because viewers haven’t experienced her angst firsthand, as he has. At the same time, explosive events take so long to ignite that their flame sputters out — Alicent calling for war through her deliberate choice of clothing in episode 5 signals a cataclysmic turning point for her family, the realm and the show itself, one that then takes close to two decades and several episodes later to arrive. “Fire and blood” are House Targaryen’s words, so why does so much of the show reduce them to a flicker and a trickle?
Too many leaps forward in time mean that it can be hard to spot the connective tissue between past and present versions of the same character. Alicent goes from a kindly, demure naif played by Emily Carey to a seething, perpetually soured version played by Olivia Cooke. Too much of her interiority is sacrificed in favour of narrative momentum. Likewise with Daemon, who remains the show’s most opaque character even at the end of its first season, swinging wildly between smirking mischief maker and sadistic psychopath. Viewers never find out why he hates his first wife, Lady Rhea Royce (Rachel Redford), so vehemently, instead of just what she represents (marriage as a cage). Or why murders her in cold blood, but displays less of a misogynistic attitude towards his second wife, who he decides not to subject to the pain of a cesearen section, a common enough procedure that his brother forces one upon his wife. Does Daemon love Rhaenyra or does he marry her because she’s his closest path to the throne? He kills a man who dares to question the legitimacy of his stepsons, but then he chokes their mother. There’s unpredictability and then there’s utter inscrutability, and Daemon veers towards too much of the latter.
Some of the show’s best moments set up layers of conflict —honour besmirched by love, friendship tainted by jealousy, political ambition that destroys personal relationships — and then prod the characters closer to the edge of a precipice. Two major events that bring the family together, a wedding in episode 5 and a funeral in episode 7, are strikingly shot, with the camera snaking around the characters, lingering on their loaded glances, setting up a tinderbox of repression and desire, envy and yearning. Little is said during these sequences, but each word holds weight. The characters are stricken by the grief of their past, the grimness of their future and the distant promise of any alternate paths. In House of the Dragon, as in Thrones, no relationship is so secure that it can’t curdle into rivalry, which is what the most perceptive scenes understand.
The idea of legacy hangs heavy over several characters, with the prophecy of a prince that will one day unite the realm driving several of their actions, unlike in the book. Along the way, they find themselves stuck on paths they wish they never took, or leading lives they have no control over. Their desire to prove themselves has as much sway over them as their fixed ideas of destiny. Several characters that attempt big swings for power either get badly burned, like the Velaryon family who lose both their children, or torch others in their quest to maneuver closer to the throne. All the talk of going down in the history books and cementing the future, however, falls flat when you think of how Thrones’ ending all but ensured it vanished from the cultural conversation.
Other allusions to its predecessor serve House of the Dragon much better. When Daemon murders Rhea, he smugly muses that he now stands to inherit Runestone, the family seat in the Vale of Arryn in episode 5. It calls to mind how nearly two hundred years later, Littlefinger will pull from the same playbook, shoving Lady Lysa Arryn out of the Moondoor and to her death so he can consolidate power in the same territory. When the ailing Viserys calls Alicent by his former wife’s name in a fit of forgetfulness in episode 7, the scene mirrors the moment Cersei’s love for her new husband Robert Baratheon curdled into contempt — when he called her by the name of his lost love, Lyanna. These Thrones echoes aren’t employed in the grating way that most pop-culture references are now, in which callbacks are currency and cameos are mistaken for compelling storytelling. Instead, any parallels between House of the Dragon and Thrones accompany the bittersweet realisation that people are fundamentally unchanging, prone to repeating their follies a whole century later, doomed to the same generational cycles of tragedy and loss.
Another way House of the Dragon navigates the past through the lens of the future is by adopting a more progessive view than Thrones allowed for. The sex scenes are fewer and far less gratuitous, used to further the plot or fill in character detail (though Daemon’s erectile dysfunction, established several times over, is a curious trait that the show seems to have abandoned midway.) Rape isn’t depicted onscreen as it was in Thrones, only its aftermath and repercussions. There’s a pointed focus on the agony of childbirth, a fantastic cross-cutting scene in episode 1 acknowledging while men seek out pain (and the glory associated with it) on the battlefield, it’s a ritual women are simply expected to endure at home. This also makes for one of the show’s most affecting moments — Laena Targaryen (Nanna Blondell) choosing to die a dragonrider’s death rather than succumb to the sepsis brought on by a botched birth.
Dragons are the most tangible and magical as they’ve ever felt, with an impeccably shot, tense stretch at Storm’s End in episode 10 superbly using their sheer size to evoke fear. The good news is that future seasons will feature a lot more of them as the realm descends into war and bloodshed. As long as the storytelling is just as fierce.