tv review

House of the Dragon Is Built on a Shaky Foundation

Photo: HBO

House Targaryen’s words are “fire and blood,” and they should be what House of the Dragon delivers in this Game of Thrones prequel about the silvery-haired royals who ruled Westeros for centuries, emerged victorious from myriad wars, and quite often married one another. Blood, the series has, in graphic and gory bursts and splatters. Fire, though, is harder to conjure.

That’s the case both figuratively, as House of the Dragon’s rote mimicry of its predecessor undermines character development and dampens any sparks generated by its ensemble, and literally, due to a lack of sustained time with the titular creatures whose presence in Game of Thrones was so thrilling and fantastical. (Drogon mourning Dany’s death remains one of the series’ most genuinely affecting moments.) The problem is not just that the dragons here feel less physically tangible than they did before or that they lack definitive personalities. It’s that House of the Dragon takes them for granted, just as it does our attention.

Adapted from George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood and premiering on August 21, House of the Dragon arrives at an arguable disadvantage. The last season of Game of Thrones soured viewers with increasingly nonsensical plotting, anticlimactic endings for various heroes and villains, and the fact that Bran Stark, turned into some kind of magical surveillance program, ended up on the Iron Throne. But before that, there were valid criticisms of the series’ reliance on sexposition and rape as a character-building device and its recurring othering of characters of color in Dorne, Essos, and the Dothraki Sea.

Given all that, House of the Dragon exudes a noticeable wariness in the first six episodes provided to critics for review, as if showrunners Ryan J. Condal and Miguel Sapochnik are doing their best to head off similar grievances. Against complaints about how female characters lost their interiority as Game of Thrones went on, House of the Dragon offers up two teen-girl protagonists whom the first season follows through 15 or so years. In response to gripes about the omnipresence of sexual violence, writers promise there will be less. The casting is more inclusive, in particular for House Velaryon, one of the ancient Valyrian houses that is similar to House Targaryen in its wealth and prestige, if not the number of dragons it possesses.

All of these decisions feel like good first steps — but then House of the Dragon stumbles on the next step of developing an inner world, characterizations, and relationships of its own. Those teen girls end up mired in the same kind of soft-power sniping as Sansa, Margaery, and Cersei before them (or, technically, after them). Rape is replaced with a horrific perspective on labor and birth that limits female characters to their anatomy but that the series justifies with the line, spoken by a mother to a daughter, “the childbed is our battlefield.” The show takes a Bridgerton-like approach to racial diversity, with Black members of House Velaryon and other people of color in its armies, but then doesn’t dive into how that ethnic difference might be viewed throughout Westeros. (Pirate baddies still get the orientalist treatment, though, and are dressed quite a bit like Ottomans.)

Those are all components of a larger prevailing shortcoming that hovers over House of the Dragon through various time jumps and recastings: It defines itself in relation to Game of Thrones as a prequel but is indecisive about to what degree it should be a copy versus an evolution. The series assumes its viewers have a certain amount of familiarity with marriage as political capital, how chaos is a ladder, and the meanings of “a song of ice and fire” and “dracarys” and assures those same viewers that they can still enjoy watching those things because House of the Dragon is more woman-focused and (somewhat) less lurid. But the series seems so stuck on what it doesn’t want to be that no part of it feels fully defined on its own terms.

An opening intertitle informs that House of the Dragon begins 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, immediately tipping off that this series keeps non–Game of Thrones watchers at a distance. The Seven Kingdoms are ruled by King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), who, as the oldest male descendant of the previous king, was chosen as ruler over a woman with a stronger claim, his cousin Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best). A succession council thought the realm wasn’t ready for a female ruler, and the series returns to this misogynistic tension over and over again without illuminating anything new about the fact that, yes, patriarchy bad. Nine years into Viserys’s rule, Rhaenys’s understandable resentment over being denied the Iron Throne casts a shadow over the alliance between Viserys, Rhaenys, and her devoted husband, Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint). The king has a better relationship with his Hand, Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), whose 15-year-old daughter, Alicent (Emily Carey), is close friends with Viserys’s same-age daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock). Otto, though, hates Viserys’s younger brother, Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), a wildcard whose impetuousness and open desire for power have made him few friends at court.

There’s a lot of that kind of thing introduced in the early episodes: houses that don’t get along, siblings who feel passed over, knights questioning one another’s honor. But those sentiments are blandly written and even more rigidly delivered by an ensemble that is so far solid but lacking the kind of nuanced material that helped Peter Dinklage turn Tyrion Lannister into such a mercurial figure or Emilia Clarke into the infamous Mother of Dragons. Instead, this extraneous plotting suppresses what should be one of House of the Dragon’s main priorities: building out who these characters are internally rather than how they present externally.

Rhaenyra and Alicent suffer most from the series’ use of them as chess pieces rather than people, moving them closer or further away from the crown to amplify narrative tension. But what do either of them actually anticipate or envision for their futures? How do they spend their days? If they are meant to be best friends, as the pilot suggests, what memories or experiences have they shared, and what about that closeness fulfills or irritates them? Despite being House of the Dragon’s attempt to show that this franchise is About Women™ now, Rhaenyra and Alicent each have major gaps in their characterization, and that patchiness makes everything from who they fall in love with to how they perceive each other either perfunctory or puzzling. Alcock gives young Rhaenyra flinty gumption as she fights to remain Viserys’s heir and convince the realm that she can be queen, but the season’s fourth and fifth episodes saddle the character with goofy choices that not even her liveliness can make believable.

Older versions of Rhaenyra and Alicent, played by Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, respectively, have a little more to work with as their worlds get bigger and they wield more influence within King’s Landing. But the series’ leaps forward in time are ultimately a hindrance, not an asset: Too much progression is alluded to rather than depicted, and years of war, marriage, and parenthood are shunted offscreen in a way that keeps these characters as thin ciphers. Early on in Game of Thrones, before the show collapsed under its own self-seriousness and truculent shock value, it was easy to pick favorites to love or hate. That’s not just because the Starks were so principled and just, and the Lannisters so smug and corrupt, but because the series took its time building the layered relationships between families, allies, and enemies and framing their decision-making through house words and ideologies. The show traveled around the fictional continent, making disparate locations like the Wall, Harrenhal, and the Iron Islands feel tangible and real.

But even if you weren’t to compare House of the Dragon to those immersive early days of Game of Thrones, the former feels limited both visually, with its nondescript CGI exteriors, and narratively, in particular by its refusal to slow its pace. A foe who could have been a way for the series to explore Westerosi geography and deepen its central players is disposed of rapidly and anticlimactically. An affair between one of the main characters and a Kingsguard knight materializes and vaporizes in barely 45 minutes of screen time. Daemon seesaws so often between “misunderstood bad boy” and “legitimate asshole” that it’s impossible to keep track of what Smith is attempting to achieve with all his smirking. House of the Dragon moves like it’s trying to outrun a fireball, but without texture and finesse, the series is just small council meetings full of arguing old men, an irritating amount of Targaryen-on-Targaryen flirting, and increasingly gruesome childbirth. The series’ opening text warns that “the only thing that could tear down the House of the Dragon was itself,” and whether unintentionally or subconsciously, it’s right.

House of the Dragon Is Built on a Shaky Foundation