House of the Dragon Series-Premiere Recap: A Song of Ice and Fire

House of the Dragon

The Heirs of the Dragon
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

House of the Dragon

The Heirs of the Dragon
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Welcome back to the little dragon show.

First, a warning. Game of Thrones is famously unfinished: Theories and speculation flourished across ye internet throughout the show’s run because beyond seasons four and five, its future was (is) as murky as the swamps of the Neck. Just last week George R.R. Martin told the New York Times that his ending for books six and seven — The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, respectively — will substantially differ from Dave Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s tragic(ally bad) finale. House of the Dragon has no such protections in place. This is Westerosi history, as told in the last third of Martin’s Fire & Blood, one of those tales of knights and maidens fair that Shireen Baratheon huddled over in her sad little princess cell, an entirely finished story. Google searches on characters or plot points will return spoilers. Research at your own risk.

This series premiere wants to provide glimpses of the Westeros universe we remember and spin the perspective just enough to make House of the Dragon distinct. The angles on King’s Landing are all different — until we soar over the balconied cloister where Cersei painted her map of the Westeros she thought she would rule. When Princess Rhaenyra lands her golden-scaled dragon Syrax and slides off his back, for a brief moment she’s an uncanny doppelgänger of Daenerys — until she spins around. The spot of dusty ground she lands on is a site from season eight put to a new (old) use — this is the dragon pit where the remaining lords met to hash out their plan for Bran the Broken to take the throne. Over 172 years earlier, when House of the Dragon is set, it’s being used for its original purpose. House of the Dragon is unabashedly for Game of Thrones fans.

This first episode is well-acted, violent, revolting, CGI’d to the hilt, and more than a little horny — a typical Game of Thrones stew. There’s a pile of sliced-off testicles, a severed head, and one moment where a couple in the act of copulation have to freeze, underneath a spotlight, and hold the position while a main character gives a speech about a dead baby. It’s not TV, it’s HBO!

The two biggest distinctions for this series are its hyper-focus on one family, titular dragon-folk the Targaryens; and its setting in a Westerosi golden age, a time with its own Colosseum-like stadium for tourneys and Renaissance-esque fashions. So far the series feels expansive enough not to get bogged down in a Succession-like teeter-totter, where the balance of power swings back and forth to the point of nausea. The news Lord Corlys drops about anarchy brewing down on The Stepstones (islands off Sunspear), and the introduction of strangers like Ser Criston Cole, a joust-master of Dornish descent, promise a universe broad enough to braid in disparate but connected storylines. And starting at a dynasty’s peak means that it can only turn to ashes in their mouths — just what devoted fans love to see. Still, House of the Dragon will never have GoT’s scope, and it’s best to recognize that early on. This is the Reader’s Digest condensed version.

With that said, this is a Targaryen enterprise, and when a preponderance of main characters have waist-length white-blonde Legolas hair, first meetings can feel confusing. Let’s break things down with a family tree.

The scraggly-haired king seated in the burnt-out shell of Harrenhal when the episode opens is Jaehaerys I, the fourth king of House Targaryen’s Westerosi dynasty. (Martin explains in Fire & Blood that Harrenhal hosted, despite its 1-star appearance, because it was the only castle large enough for such a gathering.) To his left, his granddaughter Rhaenys (eldest daughter of his eldest son) and her husband Lord Corlys Valeryon, with his glorious white dreads. To his right stands his grandson Viserys (eldest son of his second son) and pregnant Aemma. The line of succession is unclear, and in a piece of rather awkward monarchical theater, they all await word from a council of lords on who will take over after Jaehaerys’ death. Both his sons died before they could inherit the throne, and as the eldest child of the eldest heir, Rhaenys has a claim, but her sex renders her a less-than-ideal candidate for the lords of Westeros. Viserys isn’t next in line — he’s more of an Archie Mountbatten Windsor than a Prince George — but his testicles win out for him in the end. Another man will take the Iron Throne.

Nine years into Viserys’s reign, and 172 years before the birth of Daenerys (a fact that the showrunners proclaim in big bold letters), another silver-haired dragon-rider swoops into frame. We meet Princess Rhaenyra (a very capable Milly Alcock) gliding through the clouds on Syrax; she’s the kind of girl who reeks of dragon, might tell her Septa to fuck off, but also gigglingly attends tourneys and dutifully stands as her father’s cupbearer. She is also Viserys’ only living child, a teenage girl who adores her father but rightfully begrudges that he’s spent his life waiting for a son.

Instead Viserys has a brother, Daemon (Matt Smith, who snarls well), a black sheep who practically collapses into laughter when he overhears the notion that he might not want the crown. Daemon was Master of Laws, but didn’t believe they applied to him, and Master of Coin, but was happier spending than counting, so he’s been made Commander of the City Watch, where he turns “dogs” into men, provides them with the gold cloaks that will inspire their moniker, and lets them loose on King’s Landing to carve up the rapists and murderers, and really anybody else who happened to be on the street that evening. Like Rhaenys (Eve Best, who needs more to do, please!) and Viserys before them, Rhaenyra and Daemon are two imperfectly qualified candidates for the Iron Throne (which is pricklier than we’re used to — it takes a few notches out of Viserys). But much depends upon a babe in the womb.

This first episode is divided into women’s realms and men’s realms, and the two rarely overlap. There are at least three Small Council meetings, where Viserys (Paddy Considine, the glue holding this all together) hashes out matters of state with his sometimes-bumbling advisors. Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans, with an impeccable moneyed Charles Dance accent) is Hand of the King, loyal and true, wise and cautious, absolutely enraged at the mere sight of Daemon’s face. Lord Lyman Beesbury (Bill Paterson, whom you will best remember as the stuttering dad from Fleabag) is Master of Coin, and a man who hedges his bets. Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint, with just the right amount of swagger) is Master of Ships, a fitting role for a man known as the Sea Snake. Grand Maester Mellos (David Horovitch) and Lord Lyonel Strong, the Master of Laws (Gavin Spokes), round out the group, which spends its time debating when to hold the tourney in honor of the unborn maybe-son currently in Aemma’s belly agonizing over Daemon.

Daemon is a hulking pile of overbred masculinity, except for one small thing — he can’t seem to keep it up in the bedroom. His favorite haunts are the streets, where he lops off heads with none of the judicious consideration of Ned Stark or Jon Snow, and the brothel, where his favorite girl, Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno, who is too brilliant to be relegating to just stroking … ego), insists his cock’s failure doesn’t change the fact that he is the irreplaceable Dragon Prince. Is it self-hatred or psychopathy that inspires him to mock his dead baby nephew late in the episode? That is, we expect, one of the major questions House of the Dragon will explore.

Meanwhile, the women of the Targaryen clan (and their allies) are ensconced in traditional roles. The show’s creators have insisted that House of the Dragon will largely avoid using sexual violence as a convenient plot point, the way GoT did. But that doesn’t mean that their female characters will escape the fates of so many women of earlier ages (and let’s be honest, so many women of our own age). The series’s first lengthy conversation between two women is a harbinger of uterine doom. “This discomfort is how we serve the realm,” Queen Aemma explains to Rhaenyra from a divan, where she writhes and sweats in the fullest bloom of pregnancy. The two have “royal wombs,” she explains, and “the childbed is our battlefield.” Not the most reassuring motherly advice, but perhaps the most honest. Some cranky viewers will complain that it’s reductive to cast female characters in these molds, but the reality is that before the advent of modern medicine women’s lives and fears and hopes often did revolve around childbirth. They died in those beds, surrounded by their own blood, while other women coached them and cleaned their limbs and shook their heads at another sister lost. Aemma, unlike her counterparts, has a partner who hears her when she claims that this will be her last child, that the five dead babes before this one have destroyed too much of her. Unfortunately, she’s right.

The intertwining sequence of the tourney and Aemma’s brutal childbirth is this episode at its most vicious and its best. While the men choose blood and gore for sport, a woman is held down and sliced into without any say. (Sian Brooke, who isn’t even listed in the show’s IMDB cast list, is phenomenal in her exhausted terror.) Most onlookers, including Rhaenyra and her dear friend Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), who gleefully toss their garlands to jaunty jousters, accept both forms of bodily mauling as necessary and inevitable. The death rankles — Princess Rhaenys drily notes that it is rather ill-fitting to welcome a child to the world with face-smashing — but not enough to stop anyone, Viserys included, from carrying on.

This first episode covers a little more ground than I would have liked. Had it ended with Baelon’s tiny choking sound, there might have been a better narrative pause. As it is, Viserys resolves his succession (for the moment), sending Daemon back to his wife (apparently so ugly that the sheep near Runestone are more fuckable?) in a fiery, sword-twirling speech, and ceremonially anointing Rhaenyra his heir apparent in a solemn Great Hall ceremony.

Rhaenyra and Daemon’s moments together are some of the most charged and exciting — their conversations in Valyrian edge them closer to dragon than human, and that little trill of desire when Daemon clasps a necklace around Rhaenyra’s throat has some big incest energy. They are certainly lining up as rivals, so let’s hope that the show’s writers keep them in close contact, and don’t develop the itch for journeys across the Narrow Sea that so hobbled later seasons of GoT.

The action of those later seasons is where, oddly, this first episode of House of the Dragon ends up. Down in the tombs, under the watchful eye of a massive dragon who escaped the Doom of Valyria, Viserys lets Rhaenyra in on a secret that is only passed from king to heir. When he came to Westeros, Aegon had a dream: He foresaw the end of the world of men. “It is 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 house of the living. When this great winter comes, all of Westeros must stand against it.” A Targaryen must be seated on the throne to unite the realm, he continues. “Aegon called his dream ‘The Song of Ice and Fire.’ This secret has been passed from king to heir since Aegon’s time, and now you must promise to carry it and protect it.”

Here is the thread that loops us back to Daenerys, to Jon, to the world of Westeros we’ve already known. But how much does the future mean for the past?

From the Ravens

• There’s a prophecy afoot! Viserys tells Aemma that he had a dream about their unborn child, that, “Our son was born wearing Aegon’s iron crown,” he says, “and I heard the sound of thundering hooves and splintering shields and ringing swords, and I placed our son upon the Iron Throne as the bells of the Grand Sept tolled and all the dragons roared as one.” This isn’t true for Baelon, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t carry any meaning …

• Aemma’s moment in the tub is notable for what it leaves out: her bare breasts. In days of yore, GoT would have seized the chance to show any nudity it could, but Aemma remains tastefully covered by her milky bath water.

• “The gods have yet to make a man who lacks the patience for absolute power.” Amen, Otto.

• What are we to make of the fact that Viserys builds models? Train Dad alert!

• The pus-spewing sore on Viserys’s back is a nice nod to Henry VIII’s septic leg wound, which left him limping and drove him partially mad.

• Alicent Hightower is a lovely reader, and I’m sure her book of fables will offer Viserys some small measure of comfort, but I think we all know why her father really sent her into the king’s chamber to “comfort” him. (And what did Otto write in the letter that he sent to Oldtown?)

House of the Dragon Premiere Recap: A Song of Ice and Fire