Where did House Of The Dragon season 1 go wrong?

House of the Dragon failed Team Black with one tiny detail from which all issues spawn.
House of the Dragon. Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO
House of the Dragon. Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO /

I think many people can agree that HBO's Game of Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon is a good show on its own. It’s also a decent adaptation of George R.R. Martin's book Fire & Blood, which explores an inter-family Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons. Not a perfect adaptation, sure, but still light years away from being a catastrophic one. In fact, despite some structural changes that we’ll discuss, Martin still swears by it. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?

Now, both as a fan and as a critic, I cannot say I didn’t enjoy most of the first season. I also can’t deny that some small differences would have made it much, much better. Where exactly did the showrunners go wrong? Let’s analyze. 

The problem with Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower

For me, the one, seemingly tiny detail that started a problem spiral is this: making lead characters Alicent Hightower and Rhaenyra Targaryen closer. Martin writes Fire & Blood as a history book told from the perspective of biased sources. The facts and retellings are up for interpretation and negotiation. But nowhere is it said that Rhaenyra — the daughter of King Viserys I Targaryen and the heir to the Iron Throne — and Alicent — the daughter of King Viserys' Hand Otto Hightower — were best friends as children; this, the House of the Dragon writers made up.

In Fire & Blood, Alicent is a bit older than Rhaenyra, but on the show they're around the same age. Alicent has a place in Rhaenyra’s heart that she does not have in the book. The two grow up together and become as thick as thieves, and the show does not allow Rhaenyra any other friends.

House of the Dragon /

Making Alicent the sole center of Rhaenyra’s affection has a broader consequence: Rhaenyra is completely isolated after Alicent turns in Episode 5; feeling betrayed by Rhaenrya, Alicent devotes herself to blocking Rhaenyra's ascent to the Iron Throne. On the show, it looks like Rhaenyra only leans on her male romantic interests like Daemon Targaryen, Criston Cole, and Harwin Strong, and that she is lonely and bitter outside of these relationships. While it’s true that she takes up with these men in the book, she also has other friends, both women and men, along with a string of noble supporters and allies among the commonfolk.

Considering that the showrunners made Rhaenyra stick around King’s Landing for a whole decade — in the book she leaves to rule her own court at Dragonstone as soon as she can — it seems a bit off that she would have no true friends or allies. The show makes Rhaenyra look less politically able than she is in the book, something that her detractors (both in-story and online) often bring up. We don’t get to see how Rhaenyra holds and entertains her own court at Dragonstone, and that she has an entire faction of allies in King’s Landing and elsewhere throughout the Seven Kingdoms.

At any rate, by making Alicent Rhaenyra’s confidante and friend, the show scuttled the person who held those titles in Fire & Blood: Lady Laena Velaryon. It's a pity, and something the audience misses out on terribly. Lady Laena, a force to be reckoned with in the book, is relegated on the show to her role as Daemon’s not-enough wife, a mere afterthought to Rhaenyra, with whom she shares one lone interaction, despite them being cousins who were raised together and boasted the same interests. It’s hard to believe in a version of events where Rhaenyra and Laena did not fly their dragons together, and yet, that is what House of the Dragon gave us. It’s sad, because the show creators should know their audience enjoy complex narratives, and yet they seemed to think that a woman having two female friends would be too much to process.

On the show, Laena and Daemon stay for years in the Free City of Pentos, far from Rhaenyra’s inner circle. It further isolates Rhaenyra from politically savvy allies, and makes it harder for the audience to assume that House Velaryon will automatically be on Rhaenyra’s side in political matters, although at this point Rhaenyra is married to Laena's brother Laenor Velaryon.

In fact, Rhaenrya's faction — known as the Blacks — is still in its embryonic stages when the first blood in the Dance of Dragons is spilled. For Rhaenyra, Velaryon support is not guaranteed until the very last second. In the book, the Velaryons are her staunchest supporters and allies no matter what; both as a princess and as a queen, Rhaenyra has always known she could count on the Velaryons to provide political, economic and strategic support.

To someone who has not read Fire & Blood, Team Black lacks cohesion and even loyalty. Alicent's faction — Team Green — look much more united, as they are shown as a family. But that's what Team Black is too; Rhaenyra’s and Laena’s children grew up together just as their mothers did, and the children are betrothed at an early age. The Targaryens and Velaryons are constantly intertwined, and even after Laena’s and Laenor’s deaths, there is no doubt as to who Corlys and Rhaenys will support. 

House of the Dragon failed Team Black, and it’s all because they wanted Alicent and Rhaenyra to be friends who betray each other with secrets, so that we could empathize with both sides once the war between them broke out.

Hopefully, season 2 does better by the source material. The trailers certainly look very promising. I still hold out hope for a good adaptation, but all changes — no matter how small — can have long-lasting consequences.

Next. hotd trailers foreshadow. 9 big events foreshadowed in the House of the Dragon trailers, with receipts. dark

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