I can’t believe I’m actually writing this: HBO’s highly-anticipated Game of Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon premieres this weekend, and I am here to share with you my opinions. Call the banners! It’s time to return to Westeros.
First, let’s cover the disclaimers: I have seen a significant portion of the first season of House of the Dragon, enough so that I can give thoughts on how the show weaves together the younger and older versions of characters like Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock as a teenager, Emma D’Arcy as an adult) and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey for the younger, and Olivia Cooke for the older). That said, I’m only going to be talking about the show in the general sense. There will be NO SPOILERS in this review beyond basic stuff about the premise; e.g. what the Dance of the Dragons is, the overall conflicts, etc and so forth. I will not be discussing any plot points…but I will be telling you how I felt about what I’ve seen so far, and my overall impressions of the series, how it relates to Game of Thrones, how it differs, and what to expect.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it. Because House of the Dragon is here!
House of the Dragon is a very different show from Game of Thrones, but shares the same blood
How do you follow up one of the largest shows in television history? Game of Thrones was a phenomenon. It also happened to have a highly divisive ending. When it came to making its first Game of Thrones successor series, there was a lot of pressure on HBO to do it right.
So did they succeed? Is House of the Dragon everything a Thrones fan would hope?
The answer is more complicated than you might expect. As I started in on the series, I was struck by how much it felt like coming home. This show feels like it’s bringing fans back to Westeros, back to this world they’ve spent so much time in over the past decade. Much of that comes down to things like the scoring choices by Ramin Djawadi, who also composed the music for the original series, or the sweeping shots of familiar locations like King’s Landing. Hearing familiar names like Targaryen and Lannister, Baratheon and Stark.
At the same time, the more I watched, the more one thing became abundantly clear: House of the Dragon is not a retread of Game of Thrones. It’s not even the same type of show, really, though it does have many things in common. While Game of Thrones was an epic fantasy story that featured several prominent families coming into conflict, House of the Dragon is a family saga with fantasy elements. We’ve heard cast and crew say numerous times that House of the Dragon is a more intimate story that homes in on the Targaryens. And now that I’ve seen it, I can say with conviction that this is not just talk.
Over the course of the series, we’ll meet several generations of Targaryens. Births, marriages, and natural deaths are a much bigger focus in this series, because those are some of the things that change a family. The first season of House of the Dragon spans decades, and there’s a large time jump at one point; on the other end of it, characters like Rhaenyra and Alicent are played by different actors. House of the Dragon does some very interesting things with its long time span, even beyond that time jump. I won’t get into the details, but I think the show is handling them very, very well. It’s one of the things that makes it feel most different from Game of Thrones.
In some ways, House of the Dragon feels like an anthology series. Each episode stands on its own in interesting ways that you may not even pick up on until you’ve gone deeper into the season and look back. When showrunner Miguel Sapochnik said he could see House of the Dragon becoming an anthology series that depicts different parts of the Targaryen history, I was skeptical. But after seeing the show, it’s much easier to imagine. Certain characters only appear for one or two episodes, and certain events are huge focuses for a brief moment before the winds of change sweep us on to the next.
House of the Dragon treats its viewers like adults, so pay attention!
Kind of running with that, another thing I was pleasantly surprised by is that House of the Dragon is a meaty, complex show that treats its viewers like adults. There were times during Game of Thrones where it felt like the series was dumbing things down a bit, perhaps to make its dense source material easier for a broader audience to digest. Dorne comes to mind.
House of the Dragon leans the opposite way. It gives viewers a complicated political morass to navigate along with the characters, told in a slightly less traditional format than Thrones, with language that hews closer to Shakespeare than modern TV drama. This is an older era of Westeros — nearly 200 years before the original show — and it feels that way. It’s reflected in everything from how the characters talk to the set decorations.
At the same time, I think showrunner and writer Ryan Condal has done an admirable job of making the complexities of this series easy to follow (which, if I’m being honest, was a bit of a concern I had going in). House of the Dragon season 1 depicts the lead up to the Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons, showing how “the seeds of war are sown in a time of peace.” It is a slower burn than Game of Thrones. Instead of showing how a bunch of characters get swept up in a conflict involving rival Houses and White Walkers (don’t expect to see them in this show, by the way), House of the Dragon shows us how a family goes from a time of unity to the brink of civil war over the course of 30 years. We see grudges born and nurtured, and watch as they fester over time. It’s a fascinating departure from the viscerally immediate style of conflict on Game of Thrones.
The cast is stellar, and the relationships are complex
As for the actors, once again I was pleasantly surprised. Game of Thrones featured a ridiculously memorable cast. How could House of the Dragon possibly compete?
Paddy Considine is magnetic as King Viserys I Targaryen, the ruler who just wants to keep his family and all his political allies happy. Matt Smith is brilliant as ever as Daemon Targaryen, managing to make the rogue prince sympathetic even as he often does awful things. Milly Alcock and Emily Carey particularly wowed me as young Rhaenyra and Alicent, bringing a lot of depth to those characters in their younger years. The range of their work is broader than I expected, and both of them really knock it out of the park. Fabien Frankel as Criston Cole is another standout. Honestly, I could just keep going.
The show does a really commendable job at giving its various characters not only big moments to show off their personalities, but agonizing small moments where we’re close to their point of view and see their personal struggles even as those around them don’t. It’s easy to sympathize with them, and things get tricky when they’re confronted by people who don’t know all the details we do.
One question that I think that I and a lot of other fans had is how the show would handle switching actors for some of the lead characters partway through the season. It’s well-publicized at this point that Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke play Rhaenyra and Alicent as adults. That transition, which occurs after a large time jump, is handled very seamlessly; the show tees us up for it well. Even if you’re worried about the switch being jarring, there’s a good chance that by the time it happens, it won’t bother you much. The jump feels like an event in and of itself.
At the same time, it creates some intriguing challenges. Both Cooke and D’Arcy are riveting when they’re on screen. However, their Rhaenyra and Alicent feel different than Alcock’s and Carey’s. While young Alicent is quiet and thoughtful, older Alicent is more explosive and expressive. Rhaenyra has a similar sort of reversal. Are the writers trying to show us that the characters have changed over the years, or is it inconsistency? Honestly, it feels too early to tell, at least from what I’ve seen. But whatever my questions, I was never anything less than extremely engaged, and can’t wait to see more of the older actors so I can form a solid opinion on the shift.
One other thing I think bears mentioning is that Alicent and Rhaenyra aren’t the only characters affected by that large time jump. There are other characters recast, and those who aren’t get touch-ups done to their makeup and costumes so we know that time has passed. In general, the way the show handles the passage of time is impressive.
What would the House of the Dragon be without dragons?
Of course, if we’re going to talk about House of the Dragon, it’d be a little silly not to talk about the dragons themselves, right? Here again, I’d say that all the teases about different types of dragons that we’ve gotten leading up to the show have been really on point. The dragons are magnificent, and colorful, and as varied as you’d hope.
The show takes its time introducing them all to us, though; if you’re one of those people who’s been eagerly following every bit of news about the show and ogling every new picture of Syrax or Caraxes, you may have to wait a couple of episodes before the show really starts to surprise you. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of dragon stuff front and center — they appear in pretty much every episode — just that the show has a large cast of dragons and introduces them gradually.
The dragons are very expressive. Seeing how different dragons fly differently, act differently…it’s just fun, and injects a big dose of wonder into the series.
The field of battle and the battlefield of the birthing bed
Building off the dragons, I feel it’s worth addressing the action in this show. Like Game of Thrones before it, House of the Dragon has plenty of action-packed moments. But it feels less like there’s an obligatory action scene every episode and more like the show picks and chooses when to emphasize those elements. Again, it’s a slower burn. But when it does get into the action, House of the Dragon does it well.
There is one kind of scene that shows up a lot, and it’s not something we saw much of on Game of Thrones: birth scenes. Since House of the Dragon is a family saga, we’ll see multiple characters give birth. Sometimes it ends quite gruesomely. The show treats these scenes as the huge moments they are, depicting the “battlefield of the child bed” in a way that’s comparable to how Game of Thrones treated shocker deaths like The Red Wedding. I know that comparison might sound extreme, but it is apt. In Miguel Sapochnik’s words:
"In medieval times, giving birth was violence. It’s as dangerous as it gets. You have a 50/50 chance of making it. We have a number of births in the show and basically decided to give them different themes and explore them from different perspectives the same way I did for a bunch of battles on Thrones."
If there’s one thing I think House of the Dragon needs a trigger warning for, it’s traumatic birth scenes. They’re not all difficult, but one of them in particular that occurs early in the series is so horrifically realistic that people with related traumas may want to know about it in advance.
House of the Dragon makes plenty of changes from Fire & Blood, but is also surprisingly faithful
Next, let’s talk a bit for the book readers. House of the Dragon is based on George R.R. Martin’s book Fire & Blood, which covers the first 150 years or so of Targaryen rule of Westeros. More specifically, the show is based on the last third of that book, which covers the lead-up to the Dance of the Dragons and the war itself. The show is both in a more fortunate and more complicated situation than Game of Thrones. On the one hand, the source material is finished, so there’s no danger of running out. On the other, the story itself isn’t as straight-forward as it was on Thrones, since Fire & Blood is told from the perspective of a maester piecing together various accounts of these events centuries after the fact.
In the book, we see conflicting perspectives on the same event; it’s made clear that, in some cases, we just don’t know what happened for sure. The show does away with this conceit and shows us exactly how everything went. Usually, this involves events where there are only a few characters in the room, so the conflicting accounts from Fire & Blood still make sense; it’s just that now we get to pull back the curtain.
I enjoyed that aspect of the show quite a lot. In general, it feels like House of the Dragon is extremely faithful to Fire & Blood. It uses specific lines from the book, hits plenty of the major events, and generally feels like no one is changing any of George R.R. Martin’s source material on a whim. It focuses in on some very specific medieval elements that Martin often describes in his books, such as tourneys and hunts, with a level of care that even exceeds Game of Thrones.
That’s not to say that there aren’t changes, though. Some moments are altered for the sake of variety, or so that the we get to spend more time with characters who are relevant at a given point in the story. If you’re clinging to Fire & Blood like a bible, perhaps you’ll be upset by these small changes, but personally I think they work quite well for the story that the show is telling.
On the flip side, there are some things from Fire & Blood that I wish we’d gotten a bit more of. Part of this is down to the passage of time; by necessity, the show has to focus on specific plot beats or character relationships as it skims over nearly 30 years of history in 10 episodes. Some relationships are expanded upon. Others are cut back. One character is played by three different actors over the course of the show, yet by the time I was starting to get really invested in them it was already time for their curtain call. The show digs into one of their personal relationships, but others fall by the wayside.
Ultimately, I don’t know how I’d fix this beyond giving the show more episodes, which I’m not sure would have been the right call anyway. House of the Dragon is telling a complicated story over a very long span of time, and while I wish it had more room to explore particular parts of this fascinating world, I can also very much see why the show made the decisions it did.
Does House of the Dragon commit “high ASOIAF heresy”?
There’s one specific criticism of House of the Dragon that made the rounds a while back that I wanted to touch on. After the Los Angeles premiere of the show, @BaldMove on Twitter said that “There is something in the premiere episode of HOTD that would be considered high ASOIAF heresy were it not the active involvement and blessing of [George R.R. Martin]. I’m very curious what the theorycrafters will do with it.”
Now that I’ve seen not only the premiere but several episodes beyond, I know what this is referring to. Since the LA premiere it has been confirmed by George R.R. Martin that this particular plot point came directly from him. As the show goes on, the more it feels like this particular bit is rooted in Martin’s books. I won’t say anything more on it here; you’ll likely recognize it when it comes up. It strengthens the show’s ties to the original series, which in my opinion ultimately makes it an even more enriching experience.
House of the Dragon is here, and it is glorious. It’s different enough from Game of Thrones that it stands on its own, even while making it clear that they’re both part of the same family. It’s a complex, dark, tragic series with top notch acting, beautiful effects, and a bold approach to storytelling.
Will it become the next Game of Thrones? No. And it isn’t trying. But it’s a very good House of the Dragon.
House of the Dragon premieres Sunday, August 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.