It has been a long 1,190 days since the finale of Game of Thrones aired, but George R. R. Martin’s world of Westeros is back! The beloved — and divisive — series took the world by storm, becoming a pop culture phenomenon that forever shaped the course of television storytelling. But where its predecessor focused so heavily on ice and winter, House of the Dragon heats things up with plenty of dragon fire.
SPOILER ALERT: If you want to avoid spoilers, consider yourself warned. We’re about to dive into the series premiere of the long-anticipated House of the Dragon.
Dragons take flight
The show opens with a crash course in Westerosi politics and some backstory surrounding the show’s central family, the Targaryens. The immediate density of lore might bring back flashbacks of early Game of Thrones viewings (“Wait, who are the Lannisters again?”), but a brief overview brings needed context by placing the prequel 172 years prior to the life of Daenerys Targaryen.
HBO kindly gives us a lot of supplementary material to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, but here are the main points you need to know: The Targaryens are the current rulers of Westeros, and they have DRAGONS. TEN of them. Which makes them largely unchallenged rulers. During a time of peace with an uncertain future, King Jaehaerys Targaryen I assembled a great council at Harrenhal to decide upon a suitable heir to the throne. His eldest descendent being a woman (Rhaenys Targaryen, played nobly by Eve Best), it was decided the throne would be passed to the next eldest, Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine).
“All Men Must Die”
We understand straightaway that this is a patriarchy, and that no woman has ever sat upon the Iron Throne. Given that Viserys doesn’t seem terribly interested in the throne that Rhaenys clearly desires, it is also implicit that if women were simply regarded with respect and equality, a lot of fire and blood could be avoided in the future.
The writers clearly assume that audiences have watched Game of Thrones. Even if you have, there is a lot to try to make sense of. But while we warm up to these new characters and timeline, we are immediately treated to some enthralling visuals: breathtaking views of King’s Landing and – praise the old gods and the new – dragons!
Nine years after this council decision, we are introduced to Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock.) We see her ride on the back of a charming golden dragon named Syrax. Rhaenyra is the only living child of King Viserys. She exhibits a free-spirited nature, though she carries shame at not being born a biological boy. For now (when she’s not riding her dragon), she pours wine for the King’s council, takes lessons in womanhood from her very pregnant mother, and spends time with her friend Alicent Hightower (played by actress Emily Carey). Alicent and Rhaenyra’s friendship appears very intimate, even homoerotic. Alicent comes off as fairly bland for now but will be of great importance to the story later.
A bratty prince with eyes on the Iron Throne
Meanwhile, people from all over Westeros flock to King’s Landing for a tournament celebrating the impending birth of a new heir (or so the King hopes). This includes Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), the King’s younger brother.
The bad boy prince, returning from the Vale, wastes no time making an impression upon King’s Landing. He slaughters cartloads of assumed criminals with his trained Gold Cloaks by his side (ACAB includes Gold Cloaks.) He then helps himself to a seat at the Small Council and gets ready to compete at the King’s Joust.
The King’s Tournament & a “stiff upper lip”
Things really start to get spicy at the ill-planned joust. Smartly interspersed with the brutality of childbirth in its violent realism, the joust pits Daemon, every part the embodiment of an arrogant young dragon, against Knights ready to fight and die for no reason but a King’s whim. The beautiful direction (Miguel Sapochnik, who directed some GoT’s finest episodes), cinematography (Fabian Wagner), and fight choreography give us truly compelling and beautiful brutality that is pure 100% Game of Thrones.
In the aftermath of this montage of violence, the future of the realm – and its leadership – is unsure. Prince Daemon views his brother Viserys as weak, and he may be right. Viserys values family and peace, a legacy he feels he is meant to uphold. But he is also reactionary rather than responsive. A strange illness is beginning to take hold of his body as grief invades his mind. How long will his rule last? Will it be his daughter Rhaenyra, who takes up his mantle? Will Daemon turn fang and claw on family? After all, “dragon blood runs thick.” And let’s not forget Rhaenys Targaryen, “The Queen Who Never Was”, but who has never forgotten the throne that should have been hers.
As King Viserys slices his finger on an upgraded Iron Throne, we are reminded why Aegon created a throne of swords to begin with: to remind us that a ruler can never be too comfortable.
Taking flight, but with big shoes to fill
The show sits at the height of an empire’s rule and decadence. Reminiscent of Ancient Rome (and with remembrances of a future Mother of Dragons), Targaryen rule feels ready for its downfall. But not before there is fire and blood. Carnage is definitely in store, and seeds of turmoil have clearly been sewn amid the ruling family. Other houses and characters spark intrigue already, but it is certainly this hot-headed family that is destined to rip itself apart.
The debut episode has just enough fanservice to invest us in this new story while never coming off as gratuitous. Smatterings of Baratheons, Starks, and Valyrian steel aren’t just little nods. Instead, they deepen both shows’ experiences by authentically increasing the lore.
A mix of old and new
Aside from episode MVPs Matt Smith with his understated yet undeniably draconic swagger and director/showrunner Sapochnik, the greatest asset to the episode may be Ramin Djawadi, who infused familiar GoT melodies along with the new, giving us a compass in a new world to make us feel immersed and at ease. Add to this the truly magnificent production design, and we have some high fantasy that makes us feel good to return to.
It may be too soon to tell, but the show seems in good hands with showrunners Ryan Condal and Sapochnik. They seek to create a cohesive viewing experience that feels in line and in love with the Westeros we know, rather than reinventing (or breaking) the wheel.
Still, after the widespread disappointment fans endured after the Game of Thrones finale, they have a lot to make up for. We have yet to see the signature wit and archetypal characters that made Game of Thrones such a success. Luckily, this first episode was a promising start.