It’s safe to say that apprehension towards a return to Westeros has been on high alert since the conclusion of “Game of Thrones” and the impending premiere of the latest HBO spinoff, “House of the Dragon.” Admittedly, it was hard to get excited for something that left me dead inside, even if anyone and everyone that was the cause of the destruction of Westeros were left off the bill. They are here, so there was at least some hope of a better return to the dark and full of terrors fantasy world. After two episodes, “House of the Dragons” seems to be struggling with this very things, with both episodes demonstrating the larger meta conflict of desperately trying to return us to the things we remembered while also trying to tell its own story worth investing in.
The series so far seems to both miss the mark and hit the bullseye at the same time, delivering a number of downright eye rolling moments that remind us of all the memories we tried to forget while also building a worthy framework worth seeing through to the end. “House of the Dragon” isn’t necessarily the home run we all hoped it would be, but it has enough of what we longed for to be a worthy return to the wild world of Westeros.
Quick disclaimer: I have not read “Fire and Blood.” Actually, I haven’t read ANY of the novels written by George R.R. Martin, so my knowledge and critiques will only be contained to the respective medium of television. I have no knowledge of how well the source material is adapted, what’s missing and what’s added and who all these new old characters are and why they’re important. So if you’re looking for a more extensive, learned type of review, this one isn’t it. This is only a review of the show itself and how some of how it relates to the “Game of Thrones” SHOW it is spinning off from. If I had a cookie to give you for reading the books and being better than us lowly tv casuals, I would. Unfortunately, all I can do is give you a television review based solely on the two episodes that have aired.
Based on GRRM’s “Fire and Blood,” the prequel series returns viewers to a very different King’s Landing, with the story taking place some 172 years before the events of “Game of Thrones.” Here, the famed dragon-riding House Targaryen rules the Iron Throne, resting on their powerful and plentiful dragons to maintain their empire. Of course, we know that this absolute power doesn’t last, and the downfall of the House Targaryen over the following century is the story that unfolds. This show is focused on the war of succession that eventually rips the house apart, and recounts how the family ends up losing all of their dragons until Daenarys shows up centuries later. “House of the Dragon” transports us back to the brutal and cutthroat world of politics, power grabs, rival siblings, cunning women constantly overlooked and used by men, brutal deaths and yes, boobs and wieners. It’s not nearly as egregious as it was in the original show, but there are still plenty of episodes to hit the nudity quota left by its predecessor.
Prequels are always risky, especially one based a show with such a checkered and complex existence. Frankly, most fans just want Martin to finish his goddamn book instead of literally doing anything else instead of writing “The Winds of Winter,” so selling “House of the Dragon” to viewers is already a very hard sell. Luckily but the second episode, the new series seems to find its footing and identity, creating tension and placing their characters in the places we need them to be in order to be compelling and move the actual story along. This is really hard to do when all of the events both present and future are preordained, all conclusions forgone and all characters’ final end already written. The challenge of “House of the Dragon” isn’t necessarily telling the story. It’s making the story being told interesting despite knowing how it all ends. For that, the series does significantly better when it decides to rest in its own current world than when it is trying to remind us of its “Game of Thrones” connections.
That is perhaps the biggest difference between the first two episodes. The first one seems dead set on trying to tell the “Game of Thrones” reminder story, while the second episode feels more like a tried and true “House of the Dragon” episode. I get that the series needs to establish itself and set the table for what we’re about to dive into, but something about the setting feels off and not quite as taught as it feels in follow up episode. Without getting into spoilers to site specific examples, there is a moment toward the end of first episode that feels so forced it is deserving of a “Alright, I”ma head out” SpongeBob meme. In contrast, Episode 2 gives us a brief return to Dragonstone, and feels like more of a subtle reminder of where we are and why it is important to both stories. Admittedly, some of this apprehension towards the first episode is my own inability to fully uncover the shows purpose and identity. The stark (pun INTENDED) contrast between my enjoyment of the first two episodes probably has more to do with my apprehension glasses and defense mechanisms left by the scars of “Game of Thrones” Season 8 and not so much a poorly executed pilot.
I’m going to praise the performances in a minute, but I have to get the VFX complaints off my chest. It’s a big part of what I disliked about episode 1, and something that has been getting in the way of being able to enjoy a lot of things. “House of the Dragon” tries to give a more vibrant, less run down version of King’s Landing. The idea is that we are being harkened back to a time of peace (sort of) long before the Iron Throne became musical chairs of multiple houses all scheming and vying for the throne. But this restored version of Westeros just looks awful. The sweeping, fulling digital shots of King’s Landing just looks cheap and straight out of 2003. It’s unfortunate, because it’s not just “House of the Dragon” that has suffered from this. Most if not ALL of Marvel’s phase 4 outings have been plagued with extremely under produced and hard to watch digital effects. And this wouldn’t be such a big deal if the series’ predecessor hadn’t gone out of its way to do tons of location shooting to provide the grit and realism needed to sell this fantasy world.
I don’t blame the visual effects team for this, either. Hollywood has become obsessed with digitizing anything and everything, and treating all of their visual effects artists like slave laborers. Impossible deadlines for massive projects and terrible business practices have most certainly caused this dip in quality, and it is just unfortunate to see this rear its ugly head in “House of the Dragon.” The second episode feels a little more practical, taking a break from the skies and focusing on royals scheming in dark hallways. This has always been where the show thrives; the ever sprawling spiderweb of predators and violent men is Westeros at its best. I wish a series with all the money in the world could put that money where their mouth is, and spend it on the series’ strength instead of skimping on the quality and giving everything that video game sheen. It makes the whole of the world inaccessible because our own eyes are telling us nothing here is real, which in turn means no one here is worth caring about. If you’re not even going to pretend like this fantasy world could’ve existed, then why the hell are we even here? This could just be an R-rated animated series at that point. But that’s not what we signed up for, and “House of the Dragon” feels like it course corrects a bit in the second episode, and I hope it continues the more on location, practical effect approach.
Yes, even the dragons look bad. Sorry not sorry.
Ok, I’m off my VFX soap box.
Lastly, where “House of the Dragon” doesn’t miss even a little bit is with its casting. Paddy Considine as King Viserys I Targaryen is terrific, embodying the age old saying that good men don’t do well in Westeros, and he continually makes the wrong choices in attempts to keep the peace. In trying to please everyone, he quickly ends up alienating and displeasing everyone. His brother Daemon (Matt Smith) is the perfect antithesis to this. He’s a wild, violent, arrogant man who does everything 100% even when it’s messy and wrong and downright vile. Smith is one helluva villain, and clearly belongs here in Westeros. He is also complex, and while he is clearly the antagonist of the series, he’s got just enough complexity and petulance matched with charm that you don’t hate him outright. He’s more Littlefinger in the early season than Joffrey the moment you lay eyes on him. Milly Alcock as young Rhaenyra Targaryen is a stand out among her more veteran peers, channeling the young girl who wants more but is a victim of tradition and royal duty. You can see the early traits of Daenarys in this young girl, and while she doesn’t become the savior and destroyer of King’s Landing, Alcock does a tremendous job of incorporating those familiar traits into a new, intriguing character that we want to see more of. This is a true skill from Alcock, who could’ve easily phoned it in with her best Emilia Clarke performance. Instead, she truly defines herself as her own Targaryen, and a worthy protagonist to follow through this new journey.
Overall, the series is a worthy return to a somewhat forgotten world. Though it took some time to find its footing, it has enough strengths to make a good case for existing and telling a story we’d like to see unfold regardless of the conclusion we all know in advance.
The series has its issues, but the bar left behind by the latter seasons of its predecessor lets “House of the Dragon” easily fly past those faults and limitations…like a dragon…in the wind. Catch it on Sundays on HBO and HBO Max.