‘House of the Dragon’ Makes Westeros Feel New Again

House of the Dragon brings new chapter of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros tale to life, and so far succeeds thanks to a talented cast and some intriguing change-ups in tone and focus.
House Of The Dragon Review

Like the Targaryen’s fleet of dragons, whose eggs are hatched in fire and blood, HBO’s House of the Dragon is a series that can only be birthed successfully in the most specific of circumstances. To work, the show has to call to mind Game of Thrones without rehashing the greatest thematic hits of the series that came before it. It also has to hook Thrones-fatigued viewers, doing so while carefully mining from a period in Westerosi history that will no doubt remind us of doomed Daenerys and, thus, of the way our collective enthusiasm for Game of Thrones curdled before the phenomenon reached its conclusion. All in all, it’s an extremely tall order to fill. But somehow, so far, House of the Dragon pulls the whole thing off.

Though the series covers an impressive amount of time in the six episodes that are available for review, the first season of George R.R. Martin and Ryan Condal’s House of the Dragon mostly takes place about two centuries before the events of Game of Thrones. The show doesn’t feature multiple far-flung settings like its predecessor but instead focuses the action on King’s Landing, where the Targaryen family, led by King Viserys (Paddy Considine), strives to uphold their legacy during a time of internal strife. Unlike the prismatic point-of-view of Thrones, House of the Dragon also seems to have a main character: Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock, and later Emma D’Arcy), Viserys’ first-born daughter who prefers dragon-riding to domestic tasks and loses out on all the best parts of being in a royal family thanks to her gender.

Lest this description sound too much like that of a Stark sister, rest assured: Rhaenyra is a unique character and one of the new series’ most interesting. Alcock plays her with a measured emotional distance that can at times seem scathing, yet she also lets a childlike warmth shine through when the situation calls for it. The situation rarely does, though, as the biggest shift Thrones fans will have to adapt to is that House of the Dragon is, for now, mostly a courtly drama. It plugs in battle sequences and dragon-riding scenes on occasion, sure, but its focus is squarely on the duties and double standards facing the women of King’s Landing, particularly when it comes to marriage and child-bearing.

This turns out to be one of the series’ great strengths. While Thrones caught flak for scenes that rather inarguably exploited women, House of the Dragon is more likely to show a heroine screaming from the pain of childbirth than from any sort of torture. It’s a series that’s deeply invested in the blood that’s shed not on the battlefield but at home. It’s also, surprisingly, a less brutal series than its predecessor. Directors, including co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik, often let the camera look away from its most extreme acts of violence and pleasure, artistically relaying a visual indirectness that lets viewers take a breath. It’s a habit that occasionally lessens the impact of a scene but more often signifies empathy and makes moments that do stare unblinkingly at the story’s darkest parts hit even harder.

If House of the Dragon feels less relentless than the Martin worlds we’ve seen on-screen before, it’s because the show, which is based on his Targaryen family history book Fire & Blood, cares as much about the love that binds the white-haired family at its center as the betrayals that break them. Rhaenyra has a surprisingly positive relationship with her dad, while her bonds with her good friend Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, Olivia Cooke) and her antagonistic uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) are quickly tested as the pressure for Viserys to produce an heir intensifies. Smith is deliciously poisonous as a wild card character whose bad ideas are often the driving force for Targaryen family unrest. In a pre-civil war Westeros that so far bears little resemblance to the inherently cruel world of Thrones, Daemon is the darkly entertaining exception.

House of the Dragon’s biggest problem so far isn’t a glaring flaw so much as an easily endured weakness. The show drops viewers into the drama but then shifts forward in time more than once, taking some major players off the board and replacing others with aged-up versions of themselves. This is fine, but it does make it tough to find a narrative foothold in the first few episodes. It builds its world well from the start so that when the time shifts happen, the dynamics we’ve grown used to are revealed as mere prologue. While it could be argued that the series spends too long laying the groundwork for its inciting incidents, making the series setup feel as lived-in as the main narrative, the young cast is still so talented that it’s sad to see them go.

Yet even this disorienting pacing decision adds to the appeal of House of the Dragon. While Thrones fans are used to the hunt for familiar hero’s journey stepping stones, the path the latest series plots is rockier and defies attempts to shove these new characters into the archetypes and story patterns we know. An adage often attributed (perhaps mistakenly) to Mark Twain says that history doesn’t repeat itself but rhymes. That seems to be the case here, and so far, House of the Dragon offers up a very compelling rhyme.

House of the Dragon begins airing on HBO and HBO Max Sunday, August 21st. Watch the series trailer here.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)