Essentially Legacy in chain mail and armor, but replacing wicked wit with fiery displays of strength, HBO’s House of the Dragon — the long-awaited sequel to game of thrones – is generous and engaging, though rarely surprising.
The series delivers on much of what it did thrones popular: an epic scale that redefined TV fantasy narratives, with grueling and terrifying battle scenes, depraved orgies, torture, endless amounts of intricate palace intrigue. And dragons. Oh, those dragons. You can often hear them coming before we see them emerge from the clouds, adding to our anticipation. And they live up to their billing, stomping fire and gorging mortals with their fearsome wings and forked tails.
If only people made such an impression. Although the acting remains exemplary, a hallmark of the original series, this grim and bleak prequel set nearly 200 years ago thrones it sorely lacks a Tyrion, a shy joker to pierce the conceit. (Pity Peter Dinklage none of the four Emmys he won.) The closest we have is Matt Smith (Doctor Who, The Crown) as Targaryen black sheep Prince Daemon, the bad boy younger brother of King Viserys (a touching Paddy Considine), whose tumultuous reign dominates the first season. (HBO made six of the 10 episodes available for review.)
Grim and strange, clearly unfit to hold the crown he desires, Daemon lights up the Red Keep, an otherwise eerily bleak tomb atop Kings Landing. This is where the Targaryens, the silver-haired dragon-riding dynasty, have ruled for over a century as the series begins. Different from throneswhich spread its action across the seven kingdoms of Westeros, Draco mainly centers located in and around the palace, where gossip about the legacy is everyone’s favorite pastime.
You might need a flow chart (and spelling dictionary) to decipher who’s who in the sprawling cast. The princesses have names like Rhaenyra and Rhaenys. Two princes are named Aegon and Aemond. It might help if you’ve read the source material, George RR Martin’s murky text Fire & Blood, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. (He wrote this instead of filling in his own A song of ice and fire series, but that’s another story.) Fortunately, the series is much livelier and more focused than the book. But it also suffers from a lack of distinct personality.
The main conflict in the new series involves gender, given that Westeros is a chauvinistic nightmare land where women are used as political hostages and regarded as little more than fertile mares to produce heirs. (Birth is often fatal and always painful.) Leave it to the king’s cousin, Rhaenys (Eve Best), also known as “The Queen Who Never Was,” to explain further: “Men would sooner set the kingdom on fire than to see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.”
The king’s firstborn, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy as younger and older versions, both excellent), begs to change. She is determined to break with tradition and one day take over from her weak-willed father, kingdom be damned. Which it probably will be. As we learn from the introduction: “The only thing that could destroy the Dragon House was itself.”
Stick with it until episode five (18 September) and you’ll be treated to a royal wedding – never a peaceful occasion in Westeros – where the tensions during a feast and dance are so thick you could cut it with any number of blades on it The infamous Iron Throne. It may not be equal thrones Red wedding for shock value, but there is no doubt that the game is on.
House of the DragonSeries premiere, Sunday, August 21, 9/8c, HBO