Critics praise House of the Dragon season 2 for its restraint, its depth, and those dragons

The reviews for House of the Dragon season 2 are in, and they're (mostly) very positive! Let's run them down from most effusive to least:
House of the Dragon season 2
House of the Dragon season 2 /

Critics have gotten to watch the first four episodes of House of the Dragon season 2, which is fully half the new season. What do they have to say? Let's take a survey, starting with the most positive reviews and working our way down to the pans:

House of the Dragon season 2 is great

Fortunately, there are plenty of critics who were very impressed with the new season, which picks up in the direct aftermath of season 1, with Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D'Arcy) and her supporters — called the Blacks — about to go to war with her younger half-brother King Aegon Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his followers — known as the Greens — over the Iron Throne. Rhaenyra's husband Daemon (Matt Smith) and King Aegon's mother Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) find themselves somehwat adrift.

  • Yahoo News: "Every episode is a triumph, with each actor delivering exceptional performances no matter the scene. D'Arcy and Cooke lead the cast impressively as Rhaenyra and Alicent, they draw viewers in and hold that power with their emotional, thought-provoking takes of their respective characters...Smith matches this high bar well as Daemon, particularly when he steps into his own cerebral tale away from Rhaenyra which allows him to pull at his character's flaws and vulnerabilities."

TheWrap agrees, adding that that Fabien Frankel also shines now that his character, the tainted Kingsguard knight Ser Criston Cole, has more to do. They also caution that the time jumps that were so important to the structure of the first season are gone; now that the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons is starting, we're going full speed ahead chronologically:

  • "The show also manages to service the older cast, finding gripping arcs for all involved. In particular, D’Arcy and Cooke remain electric and magnetic to behold. Fabien Frankel finds new levels of bastardy in Ser Cirston Cole. Matt Smith’s Daemond remains unhinged, twinged with a sense of melancholy over his brother’s death."

Slant Magazine praises the richness of the interplay between the characters, citing one moment where King Aegon's grandfather Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) calls her grandson a jackass. "The less that these characters seem like monsters, the harder it is to relish in the blood shed by them and their families, and the more that audiences must heed the show’s underlying warning against hyper-partisan violence."

Slant also notes "a masterful use of ellipses in the third episode," where we'll learn about the long-standing rivalry between the Blackwood and Bracken families, who stand in for the family-vs-family conflict at the heart of the show. "Their sworn allegiances to separate houses—one the Green, the other the Black—raise the stakes, and in one sharp jump cut, the words they traditionally throw back and forth are forever severed, the green fields and creek now black with bodies and blood."

Also of note is a masterful use of ellipses in the third episode, which opens with what appears to be a glimpse at a long-standing land-ownership feud between two neighboring families, the Brackens and the Blackwoods. Their sworn allegiances to separate houses—one the Green, the other the Black—raise the stakes, and in one sharp jump cut, the words they traditionally throw back and forth are forever severed, the green fields and creek now black with bodies and blood."

  • "...At one point in episode two, a luridly impatient Aegon II tells his small council of advisers that he wishes 'to spread blood, not ink.' Almost as if in rebellion, House of the Dragon wisely does both, splashing the screen with vivid, graphic, and often intensely intimate battle sequences, but in a way that consistently, vividly, and often poignantly advances the plot."

At the same time, a lot of critics note that these first four episodes move slowly and deliberately. Whether that's a good or a bad thing may depend on your point of view, but Mashable appreciate it:

  • "Yet as explosive as the Dance is, House of the Dragon season 2 is more interested in the cost of war than the epic scale of it. The first four episodes made available to critics are certainly, by definition, spectacular. Dragon dogfights are officially on the table, after all! More often, though, the season lingers on the characters' grief in the face of atrocities, and their fear of escalating the conflict to even greater heights. It's these intimate moments of hesitation that makeHouse of the DragonSeason 2 such a brutal, affecting watch, as members of Team Black and Team Green move inexorably towards bloodshed.

"There's no rushing into battles here without making sure everyone understands the consequences of what comes next. So when the dragons finally dance, the reaction is not one of awe, but of devastation," Mashable finishes. I'm all for that.

House of the Dragon season 2 /

House of the Dragon season 2 is good

Empire thought this new season of House of the Dragon was "a confident and element improvement upon the first," but didn't think it quite lived up to the example set by its progenitor show Game of Thrones. Empire also missed the presence of Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen, who died near the end of the first season:

  • "But fortunately, we have the equally impressive Cooke and D’Arcy — not to mention Ifans and Matt Smith (still brooding malevolently as Daemon) — to do the heavy lifting, while Tom Glynn-Carney, Ewan Mitchell and Fabien Frankel (as the dark-hearted Criston Cole) are able to spread their wings in juicy roles. With characters as troublesome and combustible as these, who needs dragons to blow the world to shit?"

Lots of critics made comparisons to the first season and to Game of Thrones, including Slashfilm: "If season 1 was entirely about establishing the parameters of the prequel series, the new rules so to speak, season 2 quietly shifts gears into a more familiar, but welcome mode. House of the Dragon so clearly established its identity in season 1 that season 2 is able to latch onto the pleasures that made the first four seasons of Game of Thrones such addictive, remarkable television without feeling redundant."

  • House of the Dragon ultimately does deliver the lavish and horror-tinged war sequences that defined the later seasons of Game of Thrones, but it's these early moments that stick with the viewer. Those battles wouldn't have their skin-crawling effectiveness if they weren't built with such deliberate pacing, such a strong sense of sheer, often unavoidable calamity from both sides. But it's most impressive that a show this expensive and told on such a large scale can feel so intimate, that its most exciting sequences are often the Small Council scenes where characters slide tokens around maps, push each other's buttons, and prepare for the worst."

Daily Beast is another outlet that thinks the second season of House of the Dragon is "superior" to the first, although they think the show as a whole is blunted by the fact that it's ultimately a prelude to Game of Thrones, an arguable point if you ask me: "House of the Dragon’s sophomore run is propelled by a monstrous early fatality and a similarly bold retaliation, and [showrunner Ryan Condal] infuses his material with an urgency that was often lacking before."

  • "There’s no ignoring that all of this is prelude to a more cataclysmic chapter of this fantasy epic—a notion that’s intrusively emphasized whenever anyone alludes to the Song of Ice and Fire. Fortunately, those moments are rare; the pressing importance of Rhaenyra’s quest for her birthright, and Alicent and Otto’s concurrent maneuvers to maintain Aegon’s claim to the crown, is gripping enough in its own right to distract attention away from the proceedings’ fundamental nature as backstory. It’s no easy feat to elicit passionate engagement with a tale whose real ending is already known, and Condal’s success in that regard is, especially in these episodes, impressive."

Like others, Uproxx was taken with the season's delibrate pace: "I was worried about the understandable temptation to make everything more ACTION PACKED in season two, like a sequel that misunderstands the appeal of the original, but that’s not the case. The "bigger, badder" battles are coming, but the House writers understand that while dragons are fun and all, they’re best used as an off-screen threat. The real thrills are provided by the palace intrigue and the fine line between the personal and the political."

Keep in mind that there are fewer episodes this season than in season 1: eight vs 10. But Screenrant doesn't think people have any reason to worry: "The pace gradually increases across the first four episodes and there's a good understanding of how the war is playing out and why decisions are being made, meaning the buildup makes a lot of sense."

Inverse is yet another outlet that appreciates the pacing decisions:

  • "House of the Dragon is much slower than its predecessor or even its contemporaries, but it commands our attention all the same. Quiet character drama proves just as riveting as a bloody betrayal — and it’s hard not to be amused by all the endless floundering, especially from the characters desperate to prove their worth. We finally get the chance to spend time with a fully-realized cast, and House of the Dragon settles into a satisfying, compelling groove. War, like winter, is obviously inevitable. We can’t fault Rhaenyra, Alicent, or the creative team behind the scenes for savoring the calm before the storm."

But lest you start thinking that there's no action at all, Esquire assures that when the battles come, they are spectacular. They also note something a lot of critics picked up: that there seems to be an effort to highlight the lives of the smallfolk this season, apart from the silver-haired royals and their games of oneupmanship:

  • "[O]ften, Dragon excels when we are outside these inner chambers, out in the world of Westeros in the lives of – gasp! – normies. We see how the decisions of these petty, brattish, bloodthirsty royals impact Westeros, from mass executions in King’s Landing to grumbling farmers in far-flung lands. The point is very clear: one impulsive decision from a bratty Targaryen has huge consequences for everyone else."
House of the Dragon season 2 /

House of the Dragon is okay

Most of the reviews for House of the Dragon season 2 were very positive, but not everyone found the measured pace compelling. At least TV Guide liked it enough to be optimistic:

  • "HBO sent the first four episodes for review, and much of the episodes feel like the wind-up for a pitch that's going to come in the rest of the season. Something consequential happens in every episode, but there's a lot of time spent laying the groundwork for stuff that feels like it will pay off later. Season 1 did the same thing, and the second half of the season was much more exciting than the first half, so I'm not overly concerned. A lot of setup before end-of-season blowouts has always been part of theGame of Thrones model. But there are moments when I found my attention wandering, as characters whose importance is not clear mutter about people we don't know."

The New York Post was one of a few outlets to opine that Matt Smith wasn't given enough interesting things to do this season, which seems to dovetail with some comments Smith has made about Daemon's new arc. "Season 2 has several pitfalls," writes the Post. "For one, grief is a very human emotion, but it’s rarely dramatically compelling. Another great HBO show, The Leftovers, figured out how to make grieving characters dynamic onscreen, but despite D’Arcy’s fine performance, the writing flails on how to accomplish that with Rhaenyra. Since she’s the main character, this takes some wind out of the show’s sails."

  • "For another, Smith delivers a good performance, too, but the show doesn’t know what to do with Daemon. Much of his plot feels like filler – an especially odd choice, given that Smith is the most famous cast member. It’s a waste of Smith for the show to bench him."

Paste seemed kind of dismissive of the whole enterprise, but did like looking at it: "While it ditches the controversial time-skips from the previous run, it’s still clearly an adaptation of a fictional history book (Fire and Blood) that lacks the propulsive storytelling ofGame of Thrones. That said, what it lacks in narrative pizzazz, it frequently makes up for with impressive production value, great performances, memorable gaudiness, and all the other little details that make it mostly worthwhile to return to this brutal fantasy world, even if there are diminishing returns." had a very interesting review that questioned the wisdom of making a show about two warring family factions without committing to depicting one side or the other as the "good" guys: "The main issue with this season is that the writers don’t even know who they are rooting for. Characters on both sides continue to flip-flop, and in turn, their motivations get murkier by the episode. It’s exhausting to watch at times and frustrating to see such a fantastic first season crumble under the weight of creators who have a disheartening misunderstanding of the story Martin was trying to tell with Fire & Blood. At its core, this is a story about a woman being usurped strictly because of her gender, and the dynasty she belongs to subsequently tearing itself apart to keep her away from her birthright."

  • "While season two of House of the Dragon starts strong, it eventually becomes clear that this series is at war with itself. A tale as poignant as this deserves more space to breathe, and so do these characters that are portrayed by such a brilliant group of actors. The pacing of season one, while not necessarily an issue then, has returned to haunt the series. With only eight episodes, this season may not be able to reach its full potential."

I think this review is interesting because I disagree with the premise that the Dance of the Dragons is at bottom a story about a woman being stripped of her birthright because of her gender; I think the flip-flopping loyalties and motivations of the characters are very much the point. It highlights how you're able to take a variety of things away from the series. I predict the discourse to be scortching hot.

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon season 2 /

House of the Dragon season 2 is bad

There were a couple of critics who didn't seem to like the new season much at all, including IndieWire. For instance, here's their take on the first episode, which sounds like it contains the dreaded Blood and Cheese incident: "But despite being easy to admire (if typically upsetting to watch), the return episode still feels… little. The next three hours do, too, standing in diminutive defiance to the soaring dragons, screaming masses, and crumbling castles that fill their extended runtimes. The spectacle is grand yet the impact modest."

  • "The plotting, the scheming, the characters all feel familiar to the tens of millions tuning in, and such familiarity is both a comfort — to those yearning to revisit the Seven Kingdoms’ regal, gloomy vibes — and a cage. In Season 2, as war fitfully plays out and its combatants are largely separated, the season needs to fight its way out of a corner; to break precedent instead of playing into it. And it needs to get on with it already."

But most reviews were very positive, and some rapturous. Personally, I'm very excited. In the interest of ending on a positive, here's Collider's take:

  • Despite being based on an existing story, Season 2 still keeps book readers on their toes by altering and rewriting aspects, elaborating on controversial events, and delving deeper into the psyche of our leads. The season is full of unexpected twists, including surprising schemes, character pairings, and appearances. It's undeniable that House of the DragonSeason 2 flourishes in a wayGame of Thronesnever could. It wasn't hard to pick your Westeros house during the seasons ofThrones, but it's impossible to do what House of the Dragon season 2's log line demands of you. All must choose? How do you make an impossible choice? With so much complexity and visual impact, House of the Dragonsimply might just be the best fantasy television show of the decade, and more than lives up to the legacy of this franchise.

House of the Dragon season 2 premieres on HBO and Max on Sunday, June 16.

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