Title: House of the Dragon (HBO Max – 2022) Creators: Ryan J. Condal, George R. R. Martin Stars: Paddy Considine, Milly Alcock, Olivia Cook, Emma D’Arcy, Matt Smith, Steve Toussaint, Eve Best, Rhys Ifans
Let’s face it: The last time we visited George R. R. Martin’s fantasy realm of Westeros, in the closing seasons of the epic HBO series The Game of Thrones, many of us were disappointed. The series had outpaced the glacial release frequency of the author’s books, and showrunners were let loose with all their creativity (or lack thereof). What reasons would we have to travel back to this realm of warlords, intrigues, and fire-breathing dragons?
House of the Dragon takes us back some 200 years before the start of Game of Thrones. The story follows the trials and tribulations of the fair-haired nobles of the Targaryen family and their dragons, of which there are a lot in this series. The series is based on George R.R. Martin’s 2018 novel Fire & Blood, which follows the family’s descent into madness and civil war.
Paddy Considine plays King Viserys, who sits on the iconic Iron Throne, trying to govern his family and bloodline. This is the infamous Targaryen family at the height of its power, governing lands, armies, and most importantly, a flock of fire-breathing dragons!
House of the Dragon is, at its core, a family drama – albeit one with murder, mayhem and said fire-breathing dragons. You might recall that these are the ancestors of Daenerys “Stormborn” Targaryen from Game of Thrones, and seeing how well all that went don’t be surprised if the wheels come off here too!
After losing his wife and newborn son in childbirth, King Viserys is left without a male heir. He knows he is past his prime, and the question of who shall inherit the Iron Throne is looming. There are two potential heirs: his first-born daughter, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (played by Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy when older) and the king’s younger brother, the brash, brutal and aptly named Daemon Targaryen (played by Matt Smith). But when Daemon insults the king and his dead son, he is sent away from the capital. He soon takes over the family’s ancestral seat at Dragonstone, from where he wages war on the family’s rivals. And as we know from Game of Thrones, people tend to get hurt when a Targaryen gets angry. Often lots of people.
Watching the six episodes I had access to for this review, the first thing that struck me when compared to Game of Thrones was how much tighter and more streamlined the series is. House of the Dragon focuses on intrigues and conflicts of the realm capital King’s Landing, instead of skipping around to the various noble families of Westeros.
The cast too shines, and I was especially fond of Paddy Considine’s portrayal of King Viserys. A tired and broken man after his queen’s death, he still cares deeply for his family and comes through as multi-layered and complicated as he clings to the last shreds of happiness in his life. On the opposite side of the coin is Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen, keeping to the grand tradition of mustache-twirly mutilations, power-mongery and frequent visits to the local brothels. Fair warning: there is plenty of sex and nudity, especially in the early episodes. This is Westeros, after all.
In the early episodes, Milly Alcock is also great in her role as teenage Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. Extremely likable, she feels like a kind of proto-Daenerys from the early seasons of Game of Thrones. House of the Dragon is, in many ways, her story and the story of her relationship with her father and uncle. A tense family relationship, to be sure, with scenes that can be real nail-biters!
Luckily, there is plenty of character development, especially for our three primary Targaryens, which all have strong story arcs. They all grow and change to become better or worse than where they started.
So let me answer my own question from the beginning of this review. Whether you loved or loathed the later seasons of Game of Thrones, why would we want to return to Westeros for a prequel series? Why not? House of the Dragon provides a great story, context, and insight into the tales and legends that run through the original show. Of course, there are the typical prequel nods and references to Game of Thrones. The show primarily takes place in King’s Landing, a city that will be familiar to fans of the setting. But House of the Dragon doesn’t go overboard with it. The series assumes that you’re familiar with Westeros and have watched Game of Thrones, but it doesn’t give you the constant “remember this?” or “look at this!” kind of references.
House of the Dragon is a much-needed return to form for the franchise. The narrower perspective on the Targaryens lets the show focus on tighter storylines that matter instead of becoming bloated with too large a cast and plots that go nowhere. There are plenty of intrigues, drama and a couple of terrific battles. And dragons, of course. If you liked the dragons from Game of Thrones, this is the show for you.
If this is a taste of the quality of upcoming Game of Thrones spin-offs, count me in!