There was once a time when the map of Westeros was clear in my head: who all the players were, where they were positioned on the board, what everybody wanted, and how fucked they were — with large chunks of historical context and familial lore filling it out. But that was a whole monoculture ago, and as Game of Thrones’s first prequel series (House of the Dragon) arrives on HBO, much of that knowledge has atrophied. Not that it matters, necessarily. In this story, the board has essentially been reset.
This prequel does not start from a particularly enviable position. Sure, there’s the whole way Game of Thrones ended, which the show has to spiritually navigate whether it wants to or not. But there’s also the basic technical problem of exposition: House of the Dragon plops us into dense political machinations taking place several eras prior to Game of Thrones but with many familiar visual signifiers to screw with your brain. (Princess Rhaenyra as “an uncanny doppelgänger of Daenerys,” as our recapper Hillary Kelly puts it, caused me to forget where we were in history for a few minutes.) Plus, owing to George R. R. Martin’s framing of the series as more “historical fiction with some dragons thrown in” as opposed to “classic high fantasy,” House of the Dragon squarely opens as a story of royal-court intrigue largely operating without an instantly hooky external threat (i.e., White Walkers) at the outset.
It is the duty of this episode to disproportionately shoulder the burden of establishing stakes and emotional investment in a set of players distantly related to ones we used to care about — and to do so in a manner that isn’t, shall we say, ham-fisted or uninteresting. Now, let’s be frank: That’s an incredibly difficult task, and I’m not even sure it’s possible to deliver dense fantasy exposition elegantly. At the same time, Game of Thrones was notable for its ability to deconstruct, subvert, or innovate on genre tropes, and in the case of Fire & Blood, the 2018 book on which House of the Dragon is based, that deconstruction is embedded in the actual form: Martin wrote it as a historical account complete with conflicting perspectives. A natural question arises: Will House of the Dragon be able to accomplish the same?
As far as the premiere goes, not really. “The Heirs of the Dragon” was a talky, throat-clearing hour that sufficiently set the scene but felt distractingly clumsy in places. Let us count the dialogical ways.
7. “I’ve lost one babe in the cradle. Two stillbirths. Had two pregnancies ended well before their term. That’s five in twice as many years. I know it is my duty to provide an heir, and I’m sorry if I have failed you. But I have mourned all the dead children that I can.”
The bathtub scene is key to fleshing out the state of the kingdom’s succession conundrum: Due to Westeros’s present gender politics, King Viserys and Queen Aemma do not consider their daughter, Rhaenyra, a potential heir and have been trying unsuccessfully for a boy for a decade.
The scene feels natural for the most part, chiefly thanks to Sian Brooke’s striking and all-too-brief turn as the queen, but the moment quickly becomes encumbered in the above accounting. It’s a traditionally theatrical monologue, sure, and one could argue such theatricality might well feel “true” to the medieval-facsimile setting. But it’s still a recitation of history between two characters who share that history.
There’s another awkward line in this scene, notable because the word cock tends to catch the ear when audibly uttered: “A tourney? To celebrate the firstborn son we presently do not have? You do understand that nothing will cause a babe to grow a cock if it does not already possess one.” The line was delivered in jest, though, so it gets a pass.
6. “I made him Master of Laws, and you said he was a tyrant. As Master of Coin, you said he was a spendthrift that would beggar the realm.”
Look, Daemon is bad news. He’s a dick, definitely into his niece, and played by a Matt Smith clearly going after some sort of all-time run portraying onscreen cads after The Crown. That big scene with the City Watch communicates the depths of Daemon’s depravity (and closeness to the viscous aspects of the Targaryen bloodline) in a predictably gratuitous manner that includes, among other things, castration — which, fine, sure, have your “it’s a horrible violent world, so very gritty and real” moment, whatever.
But in this line, House of the Dragon shorthands how terrible Daemon will be for the kingdom should he ever prevail in his desire to claim the Iron Throne. We’re given another quick recitation of recent history in the middle of a heated moment as Viserys ticks off his hand Otto Hightower’s past assessments of Daemon’s performance in various positions on the court. It’s believable as far as rhetorical body checks go, but the seams of character development are showing.
5. “My lords, the growing alliance among the free cities has taken to styling itself ‘The Triarchy.’”
Contextually speaking, council scenes are great devices for dispersing copious amounts of plot-sensitive and world-building information. After all, the whole point of these meetings is to brief King Viserys on everything going on in his backyard and beyond so he can govern, strategize, and so on. In the first (of three!) council scenes in the pilot, a good deal of that responsibility fell to Lord Corlys, who, aside from being the most interesting person on the court as Lord of Ships (and husband to the most interesting person on the show, Rhaenys Targaryen, a.k.a. the Queen Who Never Was), has the unfortunate task of summarizing what’s happening outside of King’s Landing — a situation that will likely become a political or narrative factor at some point in House of the Dragon.
A lot of proper nouns pepper the rest of Corlys’s briefing: “A man called Craghas Drahar has styled himself as the prince-admiral of this Triarchy. They call him ‘The Crabfeeder’ due to his inventive method of punishing his enemies.” This is a piece of information that presumably sets us up for a future conflict, but it’s oh-so-clunky and unnatural. Props to Steve Toussaint, though, for grounding the delivery of that info dump as much as possible.
4. “It’s been 70 years since King Maegor’s end. These knights are as green as summer grass. None of them have known real war.”
Speaking of the Queen Who Never Was, Rhaenys gets this line during the King’s tournament as part of a conversation clearly meant to draw out a core idea of the episode, which visually pairs the violence on the field with the violence of the womb. “I wonder if this is how we should celebrate our future king,” Corlys wonders, “with wanton violence.”
Rhaenys’s reply performs a few functions: It gestures toward a violent former Targaryen ruler, orients us more firmly in the historical timeline, and establishes the fact that an extended peacetime facilitated by King Jaehaerys, Viserys’s predecessor, has resulted in military personnel eager but ill-suited for cross-kingdom combat. But the construction of the line itself is cliché. Once again — and this is consistent across all the expository dialogue in this episode — the delivery (here from Eve Best) is way better than the written line.
The tournament sequence is home to another expository line, though this one I happen to like. Answering Rhaenyra’s query about the mystery knight, Ser Harrold Westerling replies, “I’m told that Ser Criston Cole is the common-born son of Lord Dondarrion’s steward, but other than that (and the fact he’s just unhorsed both of the Baratheon lads), I really couldn’t say.”
3. “You are Daemon Targaryen. Rider of Caraxes. Wielder of Dark Sister. The king cannot replace you.”
Let’s not forget that Game of Thrones gave us the term sexposition (courtesy critic Myles McNutt). Not all exposition delivered through sex scenes necessarily counts as sexposition, as the concept specifically applies to scenarios in which the actual conversation doesn’t naturally stem from or relate to the sex and nudity being portrayed in the scene. I’d contend that the first Daemon-in-a-brothel scene in the premiere doesn’t count as an instance of sexposition, but it is a not-so-sneaky way to get across the names of Daemon’s dragon and sword. The line comes from Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), introduced in this scene as his intimate and apparent confidant, as she attempts to comfort him after his succession frustrations render him unable to, uh, complete their session.
2. The Entire Opening Sequence
Man, this is a tough one. An info dump is a pretty unexciting way to open a much-anticipated TV series, and here we get a stately, thick, and proper noun-filled one. With an adult Rhaenyra narrating the scene, we’re shown the election at Harrenhal, presided over by King Jaehaerys, where Rhaenys is passed over and Viserys is chosen to lead by a large margin. The fundamental theme is spelled out with grave import: “Jaehaerys called a Great Council to prevent a war being fought for his succession, for he knew the cold truth: The only thing that could tear down the House of the Dragon was itself.” The sequence adheres to a classic storytelling move in the genre, which doesn’t inherently mean it’s bad — it just doesn’t set a particularly dynamic tone for the rest of the series.
Also clunky is the title card that follows the premiere’s title image: “It is now the ninth year of King Viserys I Targaryen’s Reign. 172 Years Before the Death of the Mad King, Aerys, and the Birth of his Daughter Daenerys Targaryen.” I suspect the text is a reference to the way ye olde historical texts were written, but besides the somewhat cool partial dissolve that leaves behind “172 Years Before … Daenerys Targaryen,” the whole package feels like a Star Wars opening crawl.
1. Aegon’s Dream
In the premiere’s final scene, Viserys summons Rhaenyra to the Red Keep’s underground chamber, where, standing before the looming skull of his beloved late dragon, Balerion, he informs her that she, as opposed to Daemon (now expelled from King’s Landing and the line of succession), will be the heir to the Iron Throne. It’s a narratively satisfying turn in which Rhaenyra is finally recognized by her father, interspersed with a fan-service-rich moment when the Lords of the Seven Kingdoms (Spot the Stark!) gather to pledge fealty to the new heir.
But then Viserys proceeds to pour the episode’s most elaborate info dump all over Rhaenyra in the form of secret lore passed down to every Targaryen heir:
Ambition alone is not what drove him to conquest. It was a dream … Aegon foresaw the end of the world of men. ’Tis to begin with a terrible winter gusting out of the distant North. Aegon saw absolute darkness riding on those winds, and whatever dwells within will destroy the world of the living. When this Great Winter comes, Rhaenyra, all of Westeros must stand against it. And if the world of men is to survive, a Targaryen must be seated on the Iron Throne — a king or queen strong enough to unite the realm against the cold and the dark. Aegon called his dream “The Song of Ice and Fire.”
Though Paddy Considine as King Viserys manages to sell what feels like an incredibly consequential info dump — one that’s obviously meant to connect House of the Dragon to Game of Thrones and ensure the viewer’s emotional stakes — the nature of such a reveal, delivered as the first episode is nearly out the door, can’t help but feel awkward.
What’s worse, it’s a wild retcon that radically reframes the Targaryen family’s place in the story told in Game of Thrones. Across the original series, Aegon the Conqueror was mythologically evoked as a symbol of the Targaryen family’s historical power and lust for conquest. With this disclosure, Aegon’s bloody forging of the Seven Kingdoms (technically six — with Dorne voluntarily joining generations later) is cast in a far less morally complicated light.