The first of many planned follow-ups to Game of Thrones, HBO’s House of the Dragon debuted Sunday looking an awful lot like Game of Thrones. Although it’s set 172 years before the rise of Daenerys Targaryen and was shepherded to the screen by author George R. R. Martin and showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik (rather than GOT showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss), the amount of overlap between the two is, shall we say, significant.
This, apparently, was by design. “We specifically set out to start the show as Game of Thrones and not to try and deviate,” Sapochnik recently told the New York Times. House of the Dragon, which introduces a whole fleet of new Targaryens as well as other characters, isn’t quite a Xerox of Game of Thrones, but the premiere definitely plays as if Condal, Sapochnik, and Martin put some translucent paper on top of Game of Thrones, then traced it.
Usually, the replica of a thing is lower in quality than the original, and that is definitely the case when you place these two opening episodes side by side. “The Heirs of the Dragon,” the first episode of House of the Dragon, may borrow themes and story elements from Game of Thrones. But that drama’s pilot, 2011’s “Winter Is Coming,” did it first and better. Here are just six examples of how.
“Winter Is Coming” starts stronger than “The Heirs of the Dragon.”
The first episode of Game of Thrones immediately drops us into a snowy landscape where three members of the Night’s Watch get into an intense encounter with White Walkers, monsters that the show immediately makes clear are capable of killing and zombifying their victims. The opening sequence is suspenseful, gory, and a bit scary. In 2011, it happened to arrive when pop culture was arguably at its most zombie-obsessed. (The Walking Dead’s first season had wrapped just a few months earlier.) Even if you had never read George R. R. Martin’s books and weren’t huge into the fantasy genre, it was hard to resist the lure of such a visceral opening sequence.
“The Heirs of the Dragon,” on the other hand, begins with dry voice-over narration from the older version of Princess Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) explaining the history of sexist succession in the Targaryen family. In other words, it commits one of the cardinal sins of fiction — telling rather than showing. That’s a key difference between these two first episodes. Game of Thrones allows action to unfold and trusts the audience to absorb the relevant details, while House of the Dragon (in that opener and elsewhere) spends a lot of time dumping information that it deems important. Like, do we really need all these council meetings in which Fleabag’s dad drones on and on? These meetings could have been messages sent by a raven!
“Winter Is Coming” looks more convincing than “The Heirs of the Dragon.”
More than a decade has passed since Game of Thrones first aired. Visual effects and related technology have advanced significantly since then, which would suggest that House of the Dragon should look more detailed and dynamic onscreen than its predecessor does. Yet the world established in Game of Thrones still seems more authentic and tactile from the jump. Perhaps that’s because so much effort (and money) went into making the dragons look more convincing that House of the Dragon didn’t give as much attention to other production details? Or maybe they simply necessitated the use of more CGI, which can often still seem artificial even when it’s quite well done?
All I know is that even the smallest details, like the crimson leaves on the weirwood trees, pop more in “Winter Is Coming” than they do in “The Heirs of the Dragon.” The former transports viewers somewhere else, while the latter is giving a lot of green-screen energy — regardless of whether it was filmed using a green screen.
“Winter Is Coming” establishes its patriarchal society more compellingly than “The Heirs of the Dragon” does.
The first Game of Thrones episode makes it clear, in ways both subtle and grotesque, that women in Westeros are second-class citizens. When we meet young Arya for the first time, she’s forced to sew, because that’s what the other girls do. But within a few minutes, she proves that she can shoot a bow and arrow with more accuracy and skill than her brother Bran can, even though she’s banned from such pursuits.
The abhorrent treatment of women comes across more blatantly in the story line that involves Daenerys being married, against her will, to Khal Drogo. Not only is she raped by Drogo — a sequence that, relative to other moments in GOT, is not terribly graphic — she is scrutinized while naked by her brother Viserys III, who tells her she can’t back out of the wedding, because that union is crucial to his plans to eventually become king: “I would have his whole tribe fuck you, all 40,000 men and their horses, too, if that’s what it took.”
Did Game of Thrones run the risk of criticizing misogyny while, at the same time, being misogynistic? Constantly in the first episode, and even more so later on! But the ugliness in these scenes generates really strong emotional responses and solidifies our sympathy for Dany, which is important down the line in this series.
House of the Dragon is, to an even larger degree, about women trying to assert their position and strength in a realm that does not care to include them. But again, we largely know this thanks to exposition dumps: in the narrated opening sequence, in the conversation between Rhaenyra and Alicent about Rhaenyra’s ambitions, and in the many arguments over who should become heir after the death of the infant son of Viserys I. The big non-spoken illustration of the power women lack is the scene in which a C-section is forced on Queen Aemma with an okay from the king, who knows his wife will die if they try to yank out the baby. But yank they do, while the episode cuts back and forth between the procedure and a particularly gruesome jousting match.
I watched all of this and felt, honestly, nothing? Because “The Heirs of the Dragon” has such a slow pulse, this whole moment registers mostly as a box-checking exercise. “Make sure we include classic GOT gore that will make some people look away from their TV screens.” Check! The fact that prior to her terrible, lethal C-section, Aemma tells Rhaenyra that “the child bed is our battlefield” only makes the whole sequence and its metaphorical message about the plight of women seem more facile. Again, it’s the series telling us what to think and feel rather than organically eliciting thoughts and feelings.
“Winter Is Coming” Has Tyrion Lannister.
In an episode filled with intriguing figures, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion stands out in Game of Thrones as a character of extra fascination. As a Lannister with what appears to be a lack of moral fiber — he drinks too much, sleeps around, and isn’t terribly careful with his words — Tyrion could be a villain. But he’s funny, articulate, and, as an outcast in his own family due to his stature, someone worthy of empathy. In other words, we’re not quite sure yet whether Tyrion is a good guy or a bad guy, but we know for a fact that he’s electric to watch because of the charisma Dinklage brings to the role.
There is no similar breakout in the first House of the Dragon installment. It feels like the writers may be trying to slot Daemon into that position, since he’s an outspoken but wily and potentially dangerous figure. He’s depicted as an outlier in the Targaryen family (same as Tyrion), and we get to see Daemon in a brothel in the first episode (also like Tyrion). He’s played by well-known actor Matt Smith, who is certainly a commanding presence. But Daemon’s not necessarily someone whose presence you want to be in for very long. Even at his most devious, there is something appealing about Tyrion in the first episode that Daemon doesn’t yet have. And I’m not just saying that because the blond wig doesn’t quite go with Smith’s face. But I also might be saying that — a little.
There is no good way to say this, so I’ll just say it: The incest in “Winter Is Coming” is more interesting than the incestual implications of “The Heirs of the Dragon.”
Famously, the Game of Thrones premiere introduces us to Jaime and Cersei Lannister and the fact that they’ve been involved in a longtime sexual relationship despite being twin brother and sister. Talk about an overcoming-the-odds love story!
Actually, it’s gross, but it’s so odd and weird — and Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau have such immediate chemistry — that one can’t help but want to know more about how this relationship evolved and whether they’ll be able to keep their appropriately forbidden love a secret. This is even more true after the ending of the episode, which I’ll address momentarily.
There is no outright incest in “The Heirs of the Dragon” — Don’t worry, like winter, incest is coming! — but there is something a little sketchy going on in the first scene between Daemon and Rhaenyra. He brings her a necklace as a gift, and the way he places it around her neck … There’s a weird vibe there. They like each other a teensy bit too much. But whatever is going on doesn’t make much of an impact, because, once again, it feels like this is an exercise in checking off a box on a list of “Game of Thrones Things We Need to Wedge Into This Episode” — a box titled “Something Vaguely Incestuous.”
The ending of “Winter Is Coming” kicks the ass of that of “The Heirs of the Dragon.”
In the final moment of “Winter Is Coming,” Jaime Lannister shoves Bran Stark out of a window after that climbing-obsessed 10-year-old unwittingly sees him having sex with his own sister. In the final moment of “The Heirs of the Dragon,” the camera closes in on an image of Rhaenyra just after she has been officially confirmed as the king’s heir. She has a look of courage on her face at first, then trepidation creeps across it. It’s a nice piece of acting from Milly Alcock, but as a conclusion that makes you immediately want to see what happens next, it’s a tad flat. Especially compared to a kid getting shoved out of a window because he just saw two siblings, one of whom is the current queen, going it on in an attic!
Will Bran survive the fall? If he does, will he tell others what he saw? We know those answers now, but we didn’t then — or even if we did know from reading the books, its positioning as a cliffhanger in an almost literal sense is designed to leave us gasping. But the conclusion of “The Heirs of the Dragon” doesn’t do anything shocking. Like the rest of the episode, it makes you say, “That was okay. But I think I’ve seen this before.”