Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the show’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the show’s own trailer. However, be aware that potential spoilers may be inferred throughout the review.
In the world of television, there’s nothing quite like Game of Thrones (2011 – 2019). The so called ‘Golden Age of Television’ was already in full swing with massive hits like Oz (1997 – 2003), The Sopranos (1999 – 2007), Band of Brothers (2001), Six Feet Under (2001 – 2005), The Shield (2002 – 2008), The Wire (2002 – 2008), Lost (2004 – 2011), Deadwood (2004 – 2006), Rome (2005 – 2007), Dexter (2006 – 2013), Mad Men (2007 – 2015), Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) and Boardwalk Empire (2010 – 2014), but Game of Thrones shifted the medium’s focus from cops, criminals, and grounded realism to high spectacle, epic fantasy and world-building lore. With that kind of impact, it was only a matter of time until HBO graced our screens with a spin-off. Enter, House of the Dragon (2022).
Set roughly 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon recounts the height of the Targaryen dynasty, under the rule of King Viserys ‘The Peaceful’ (Paddy Constantine). The realm is in a relative state of normalcy, meaning the Targaryen Royal family can focus on training their dragons, strengthening their line, and preparing for the next successor to the crown. This is of particular difficulty, considering that King Viserys has no male heirs. Seeing potential in his eldest daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy), Viserys names her as the heir to the throne, which is controversial considering there has never been a Queen as ruler. As a result, many lords plan to supplant Rhaenyra behind the King’s back. This includes the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), who uses his daughter Alicent (Emily Carey and Olivia Cooke) as a pawn in the game.
Game of Thrones was notable not only for its groundbreaking storytelling, but also its unbridled cinematic spectacle. Famous episodes such as The Rains of Castamere, The Watchers on the Wall and Battle of the Bastards have become iconic for their grand scale and epic conflicts, all of which are arguably grander than anything seen in classic films like Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000) or 300 (2006). If there was any doubt as to whether or not TV replaced film as the premiere cinematic medium, Game of Thrones was the final word in that debate. Therefore, it stands to reason that House of the Dragon needed to match its predecessor’s technical prowess. Happily, House of the Dragon is almost as flawlessly constructed as the best of Game of Thrones, even if the frame sometimes feels a little emptier by comparison.
The high production value extends to the performances, with nearly all of the principle players bringing their absolute A game. Milly Alcock and Emily Carey are a revelation as Rhaenyra and Alicent respectively. Following this show’s massive success, you can bet that both Alcock and Carey will surely shoot to superstardom very shortly. Happily, the older versions of Rhaenyra and Alicent are played just as expertly by Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, both of whom successfully convey the emotional and psychological weight of decades worth of pain. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans deliver equally compelling turns as Daemon and Otto, with Daemon emerging as a strangely interesting presence despite being rather contradictory at times. All said though, Paddy Constantine is the absolute standout as King Viserys, mostly due to the character being more honourable (and tortured) than we’ve often seen in the world of Game of Thrones.
The exception to this strong cast is Fabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole, who sadly comes across as incredibly flat (especially considering he constantly shares the screen with far more skilled actors). While many others supporting cast members all perform well, they sadly don’t get ample opportunity to shine, due to the show’s rather destructive structure. Across these 10 episodes, the story covers roughly 20 years of time in a (to be frank) ridiculous format. The first few episodes slowly trudge through a series of non-events, only to suddenly jump forward in time for the rest of the season (and then this repeats with only a handful of episodes left). Sure, it’s not uncommon for a season of television to montage through time, but that structure renders House of the Dragon rather frustrating. This is because massive story points will occur, only to have them completely dealt with either off camera in the time jump, or completely unceremoniously in the space of a few minutes. Story turns need to advance the plot or have consequences, which they very rarely do in House of the Dragon.
What makes matters worse is that massively important setups will occur in the time jumps, meaning the audience didn’t actually see major story points unfold from the beginning. Instead, we only see the payoff to these threads, but without the necessary build up these moments feel meaningless. Unfortunately, this affects the character development too, as the time jumps necessitate the need for an entirely new cast of characters every few episodes. We never have the chance to get to know these people before they are either killed off or replaced with the next person. Even the characters we do have for the whole show are affected by this, as it feels like we’ve missed their important life events. All this makes you wonder why the story didn’t just start at the important part, which sadly only seems to occur at the very end of the show anyway.
The common defence for this is that we need to see all the context to understand the main story, but this shows a lack of imagination, efficiency or intelligence in the writing. The original Game of Thrones didn’t waste a whole season explaining the war against the Mad King, as they managed to provide all the necessary context in the body of the main story. Sacrificing a sensible story structure for the sake of exposition is becoming very common in narrative storytelling, and it sadly doesn’t result in a satisfying viewing experience. When all is said and done, House of the Dragon doesn’t really feel like it arrived at any significant point, nor does it feel like it will, considering we already know how it’s all going to end. What’s the point of telling a story if you’re only going to tell essentially the appendices to the story?
It’s no secret that Game of Thrones ended in a way which soured the show’s entire legacy. Unlike other massive shows with disappointing endings, Game of Thrones was the only one where the ending actually invalidated the entire show. While House of the Dragon was probably intended to bring fans back to the well (and it has), its long lasting impact will likely be far different. In the long run, House of the Dragon will probably just be a reminder as to how much better Game of Thrones was in its prime.
Best way to watch it: With loud music to drown out the stupidity.