The massive sprawl of Game of Thrones could be both blessing and curse. The HBO fantasy epic had a seemingly bottomless and varied well of colorful characters and places from which to draw stories, and to keep the audience from growing tired of any one corner of its fictional world. But in striving for such breadth, GoT at times struggled with depth. Installments of the series could feel less like TV episodes than hasty guided tours of the Seven Kingdoms: If you look over on your right, you’ll see Jaime Lannister leaping into a pit to rescue Brienne of Tarth from a large bear! And coming up in a moment on our left is Theon Greyjoy being castrated by the mysterious sadist who’s been torturing him all season… On the rare occasions when an hour stayed entirely with one group, like Jaime’s brother Tyrion mustering the defenses of King’s Landing for the Battle of the Blackwater, the narrative focus was so potent, it was hard not to wish for more of that — or to wonder what the show could be if it didn’t have to service dozens of characters and subplots.
HBO’s new prequel series House of the Dragon offers one version of what that would look like. The series takes place predominantly in and around the walls of the castle known as the Red Keep, with all of the significant figures either being members of the royal Targaryen family or people in their employ. While there are still many characters, all of them are in some way directly tied to the question of who will succeed Viserys (Paddy Considine) as ruler of Westeros.
But the spinoff unfortunately proves a poor test case for the less-is-more theory when it comes to adaptations of George R.R. Martin’s books. A more streamlined show built around a character as rich as Tyrion, or Arya Stark, could perhaps work smashingly. House of the Dragon, unfortunately, is filled with characters and conflicts that would struggle to hold the audience’s interest if they were just one small element among the many of its parent series. As the only subjects, they’re almost uniformly dull, preventing House of the Dragon from justifying its existence as anything other than a calculated piece of brand extension for the newly-merged Warner Bros. Discovery.
The series takes place roughly two centuries before the events of Game of Thrones. The Targaryen dynasty has successfully ruled Westeros for a long time, with the family’s cadre of fire-breathing dragons helping to maintain order within a kingdom that, as we saw on GoT, could very easily fracture otherwise. Viserys is the grandson of the previous king, inheriting the Iron Throne not because he has the most direct line of succession — that distinction belongs to his cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best) — but because he is a man and Rhaenys is… not. In a bitter piece of irony, Viserys moves through middle age with only one surviving child, his teenage daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), as various would-be male heirs keep jockeying for position, most prominently Viserys’ younger brother Daemon (Matt Smith).
Will the brave and inquisitive Rhaenyra(*) get to inherit the kingdom that should be rightfully hers? Will she be forced to marry into a powerful family — perhaps even one of Rhaenys’ children with Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) — to work around the institutionalized misogyny of the era? Might Daemon scheme his way to the crown? And what happens if Viserys ever manages to have a son who lives long enough to jump the queue ahead of Rhaenyra? All of these questions are basically the same question. It is also more or less the plot of Downton Abbey Season One, though this show’s most ubiquitous old-timey phrase is “lady wife” instead of “breaking the entail.” (And the dragons get more screen time than the underbutlers and kitchen maids.)
(*) Yes, this is a show featuring prominent characters named both Rhaenyra and Rhaenys. Martin’s names are exasperating under the best of circumstances, but building a show entirely around the Targaryens only indulges the worst of his impulses regarding nomenclature — not only with these spellings, but with so many characters having names that are indistinguishable from their siblings or cousins, often making it impossible to figure out who is being discussed in a given scene. It also forces far too many actors to wear blonde wigs of various degrees of plausibility, with Paddy Considine’s looking particularly bad. For most of its run, GoT only had to wig up Emilia Clarke, and was better for it.
Palace intrigue, and questions of succession and legitimacy, were of course a huge part of Game of Thrones, but far from the only part. And they were only sometimes even close to the most fun part of a given stretch of that series. Building a whole show around this subject, and filling it all with a gang of mostly dour Targaryens, gives the whole project the air of the Star Wars prequels, which vastly expanded the role of the self-serious Jedi knights without also making room for the humanity and humor of a Han Solo type. Game of Thrones had a rueful sense of humor to go along with its violence and mind games, and highly quotable characters like Tyrion and Cersei. None of that wit or energy is present here.
Rhaenyra’s struggle to assert in herself in a world that would prefer she be a docile baby factory — or wishes her dead to simplify matters — is the series’ one semi-compelling arc. Milly Alcock is very strong in the early episodes, as is Emma D’Arcy once they take over the role following a midseason time jump. But the frequent leaps forward in the plot keep undermining the attempt by co-showrunner Ryan Condal — who created the series with Martin (adapting material from Martin’s Fire & Blood) — to build both character and conflict. Every time House of the Dragon starts to get even the most precarious emotional foothold, we are suddenly years into the future, and the impact diminishes.
Nearly everyone around the princess is boring, meanwhile. Viserys is by design a weak and uninspiring king — which is how a very skilled actor like Considine plays the role — but there is just so much of him. The show attempts to treat his innate unsuitability to the job as an intriguing dramatic subject of its own. Mostly, though Viserys’ poor decisions — particularly when it comes to addressing the obvious threat his brother poses to both himself and Rhaenyra — play more as a plot device to keep various middling stories in play. Matt Smith is the biggest name in the cast, and Daemon is meant to be the charismatic and dangerous wild card at the center of all the action. But while Smith remains a very striking camera subject, a bit too much of his performance as Prince Philip from The Crown creeps in here. He plays Daemon more as a petulant overgrown child than the nearly mythical warrior the show wants to present him as. And most of the supporting players (say, Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower, Viserys’ most trusted advisor) and their motivations are introduced poorly, at best(*).
(*) The character who benefits most from the big time jump is Otto’s daughter Alicent. Played as a teenager by Emily Carey, she’s mostly a blank slate who, like the monarch that her father works for, exists mainly to serve the needs of the plot. When Olivia Cooke steps into the role in the sixth episode, this adult Alicent almost immediately feels like the dramatic equal of Rhaenyra.
Condal’s co-showrunner is Miguel Sapochnik, one of the best Game of Thrones directors, particularly when it came to spectacle(*). Where GoT mostly saved its big dragon moments for the later, more expensive seasons, House of the Dragon gives you House Targaryen’s mighty pets early and often. Much of this, like a confrontation between two armies on a high stone bridge as dragons soar in and out of the fog that surrounds them, looks stunning. Other parts, though, are fairly stagebound. And some of the bigger set pieces don’t quite work, like an allegedly triumphant battle sequence where proper effort isn’t put in to establish the geography of how the winning side achieves its victory.
(*) Mostly, anyway; he was also behind the camera for the impenetrable darkness of “The Long Night.”
But Condal, Sapochnik, and company may be leaning on the grand imagery more than they should. As thrilling as it eventually was to watch Daenerys ride her own dragons to victory, GoT built its bond with viewers more through talk than action. If viewers didn’t care about Ned Stark, or Brienne of Tarth, or even poor, doomed Hodor, all of the huge fight scenes or zombie invasions would have rung hollow. House of the Dragon has occasional moments that seem to vibrate on the same frequency as early GoT, but those owe mostly to how Sapochnik and other directors like Greg Yaitanes shoot more intimate bits of physical and psychological peril, like a horrifying childbirth sequence.
There’s a scene in an early episode where one character discusses a prophecy about the march of the Night King and his White Walkers — events that we saw play out on Game of Thrones. It is meant as an attempt to link the two series, beyond all the familiar names that are thrown at viewers at an often wearying speed. But nostalgia for GoT does not seem particularly high now, three years after a tedious finale that nobody liked. More importantly, though, because we know exactly how things played out with the Night King(*), we know that nothing that happens on this show will matter in the slightest when humanity has to save itself from extinction. All that stuff is inevitable, and largely unrelated to what everyone is fighting about here.
(*) Early episodes put the kingdom into conflict with a band of pirates led by a man known as the Crab Feeder, for his particularly nasty method of killing his prisoners. Like the Night King, the Crab Feeder is a triumph of design over drama, with a cool and disgusting look that only somewhat obscures that he has no discernible motivation beyond liking murder.
Inevitability doesn’t have to be a problem, nor people clashing over tangential matters. This week saw the end of Better Call Saul, a prequel that attempted to answer questions that most Breaking Bad viewers had never cared to ask, but that did so in such smart and exciting fashion that the audience’s foreknowledge turned into a feature rather than a bug. And some of the best GoT arcs involved characters like Cersei getting caught up in petty squabbles while a zombie army was on its way to wipe out all involved parties.
Those shows, though, hummed with the spark of life that House of the Dragon rarely manages to generate. For any diehards who care most about Westeros itself and its history, that may not matter. But no matter how many CGI dragons it has to offer, the new series will not rekindle the fire in the hearts of viewers who loved Game of Thrones at one point not for the world, but for the people in it.
House of the Dragon premieres Aug. 21 on HBO and HBO Max, with new episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen six of the first season’s 10 episodes.