It’s universally known that season 8 of Game of Thrones left a sour taste in fans mouths after the series came to a close in 2019. To a degree, the final season was a let down in many aspects but to me, it was a satisfying enough conclusion based on where the series and main characters started to what is arguably the greatest tv series ever made. Fans across the globe have the right to be pessimistic about a prequel series set in the same universe after the astounding disappointment. But luckily enough, HBO seemed to have listened to the criticism of the predecessor and applied those lessons to House of the Dragon.
Taking place 172 years prior to Daenerys Targaryen being born, House of the Dragon, based on the novel Fire & Blood by George R. R. Martin starts in a period of peace and prosperity in the realm and follows King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) as he names his successor to the throne – one being either his brother Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) or his daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock portrays the younger version, Emma D’Arcy portrays the older version). If not for Princess Rhaenys Targaryen aka the “Queen Who Never Was” (Eve Best) Rhaenyra would never have a legitimate claim to the iron throne.
Spanning the course of 30 years, House of the Dragon is a lot like its predecessor – focusing on the interwoven relationships and alliances of its ensemble cast of individually motivated characters. It’s all about who sits on the iron throne – forged in fire and made up of swords. If a character doesn’t belong on the throne or that character doesn’t possess the necessary skills to lead, the throne itself will choose the rightful leader of the realm. From episode 1 that introduces the players in the game, King Viserys’ health progressively gets worse from cuts and scrapes of ruling. It’s not that Viserys isn’t fit to rule, Viserys’ decency as King makes him unfit as juxtaposed by his small council.
Leading the small council is Hand of the King Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) with his own political agenda to rule the 7 kingdoms. Otto plays the ‘game of thrones’ well through subtlety. Out of the King and the Hand, the Hand holds the true power in the capital of King’s Landing. Episode 1 shows a visceral and horrifying death to Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke), Viserys first wife and Rhaenyra’s mother, in which Otto places his daughter Alicent (Emily Carey portrays a younger version, Olivia Cooke portrays the older version) in the right place at the right time, consoling Viserys after his loss.
Due to the many different time jumps that span decades, show creators George R. R. Martin and Ryan Condal tell a condensed yet highly intimate version of the Targaryen civil war. From the beginning in episode 1, seeds are planted that will go on to bloom by the end of the finale that is the true start of what is called the ‘Dance of the Dragons’. What’s a show called House of the Dragon if there aren’t any actual dragons? Game of Thrones only had 3. This series however portrays the Targaryen’s at the height of their power with dragons coming in all different sizes and personalities – mirroring what their dragonrides feel and emote on a given day.
Series cinematographers Fabian Wagner, Pepe Avila del Pino, Alejandro Martínez, and Catherine Goldschmidt work wonders in framing these oversized pets. Dragons are used, controlled and manipulated by the Targaryen’s like how ranchers would tame a wild bronco. But leave it to the strong writing throughout the first season to show how little control these characters have over dragons. Most likely being saved for season 2 and on, Martin and Condal give us a taste of the fericiousnss these dragons possess. On the downside, getting the true scope of the cinematography suffers at the hands of the color grading. One of the issues of season 8 of Game of Thrones was due to the use of darkness – major battles were barely visible. House of the Dragon didn’t learn that lesson, following in the same path, making crucial senses hard to watch and decipher.
Led by the ensemble cast, season 1 is full of outstanding performances top to bottom, lead and supporting roles. It’s in the more intimate moments of power struggles and hushed council meetings that the atmosphere and environment is steadily injected with heavy doses of tension. I can feel the uncomfortableness in the glances between uncle and niece or father and daughter. Some play the game better than others but still, the ensemble is the anchor to this prequel’s longevity and success. Where the season starts with younger versions of Rhaenyra and Alicent, the actresses Milly Alcock and Emily Carey are replaced by different actresses playing the older versions.
Both Milly and Emily form the connection to these characters thrust into a world they didn’t create but have to survive by any means. From starting out as friends to becoming family, their relationship determines whats to come. It’s in these two performances that the chemistry carries over between Olivia and Emma – picking right up where their younger selves left off. Casting is House of the Dragon’s unsung hero.
Opposite the respective actresses who play Alicent and Rhaenyra, Paddy Considine and Matt Smith are the series heart and soul. Though rarely seeing eye to eye, Matt and Paddy showcase the bond of family. Through many disagreements and betrayals, Daemon’s added dimension always holds his ailing brother in high regard, coming to his defenses and rescue while usurpers take advantage of Viserys’ kindness.
Among the many successes, House of the Dragon thrives by its writing. Each chess piece moves across the board giving the advantage to one over the other and vise versa. Reminiscent of the earlier seasons of Game of Thrones, it’s the unpredictable nature that keeps the game interesting and refreshing. The writing is at the height of its power in its character development. Each character is given depth that will raise questions on who to root for. There is no good and evil in Westeros, some are purely bad people and deserve death but, majority have shades of grey and it’s through the performances that the depth is enunciated.
Returning to score the series is Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi who picks up right where he left off. If the tension wasn’t high enough already to induce adrenaline, Djawadi’s score further adds to it. Opening the credits is the same main theme that played in the predecessor and has not once gotten old or played out. The only update that was made was to the graphics – weaving in and out of King’s Landing with blood washing over each sigil.
House of the Dragon far exceeds the expectation and trepidation fans had going into a prequel series. Full of intrigue, violence, stunning landscapes and melodrama, the balance of high fantasy is handled with a familial craftsmanship of production design and value. At times, the harsh violence and strong use of blood and gore can be too much to handle but those moments are few and far in between. With an ending and cliffhanger that left season 1, the anticipation to see the civil war in season 2 is higher than ever.
Created By: Ryan Condal & George R. R. Martin
Episodes Directed By: Miguel Sapochnik, Greg Yaitanes, Clare Kilner & Geeta Vasant Patel
Music By: Ramin Djawadi
Cinematography: Fabian Wagner, Pepe Avila del Pino Alejandro Martínez & Catherine Goldschmidt
Starring: Paddy Considine, Matt Smith, Emma D’Arcy, Rhys Ifans, Steve Toussaint, Eve Best, Sonoya Mizuno, Fabien Frankel, Milly Alcock, Emily Carey, Graham McTavish, Matthew Needham, Jefferson Hall, Olivia Cooke
Where to Watch: HBO Max
Release Date: August 21, 2022
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Based On: Fire & Blood by George R. R. Martin