‘House of the Dragon’ Review: HBO’s Devout ‘Game of Thrones’ Prequel Rarely Roars to Life

A tale of ruinous misogyny (nevertheless shaped by its men), the Targaryen-led spinoff leans hard on "GoT" customs without forging much of its own fire.
A teen girl in a medieval red dress and cloak stands in front of a man sitting atop a throne made of melted swords; still from "House of the Dragon."
Milly Alcock and Paddy Considine in "House of the Dragon"

“And the day turns ugly.”

Halfway through the “House of the Dragon” premiere, Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best) wearily utters the above proclamation to no one in particular. A gaggle of young knights have begun beating the hell out of each other, thus spoiling the celebratory mood of House Targaryen’s birthing-day festivities. Given the outsized egos of men who, as the Princess shrewdly notes, have never seen real combat yet burn for the chance to prove themselves true warriors, it was only a matter of time until a sanctioned tournament of scored jousting devolved into unsheathed swords and severed limbs.

Could such savagery have been avoided? Arguably, yes, but why would anyone try, when the crowd roars its approval and the royal court scrambles for a better look at the bloodshed? This is the way things are, as Princess Rhaenys knows all too well. Dubbed “The Queen Who Never Was,” the rightful heir to the Targaryen throne was passed over in favor of her younger cousin, Viserys (Paddy Considine), with no mystery as to why: Rhaenys is a woman, and Viserys a man. Men have long ruled House Targaryen, just as they’ve long ruled Westeros. Changing such customs would require an act of courage; a king willing to risk war not just within his realm, but throughout the seven kingdoms. And the Old King Jaehaerys was not that courageous.

“House of the Dragon” isn’t either. Co-showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal, along with co-creators Condal and George R.R. Martin, make misogyny’s destructive influence the series’ central theme, but it’s more of a convenient shield than a piercing dagger. After all, this is a prequel to “Game of Thrones”; where Westeros ends up has already been set. Learning its past isn’t far removed from its future is both part of the point — feigning interest in how the medieval fantasy’s patriarchal power structures and boastful man-babies mirror modern day’s similar problems — and a safe path for the network’s first spinoff of its highest-grossing franchise. The first six episodes set up an intimate yet epic tale of how misbegotten pride, outdated customs, and an obsession with power burned down a long-thriving kingdom… all while enjoying the ensuing ugliness more than they examine its unnecessary proliferation. Pure spectacle and (often icky) soap opera make for intermittently absorbing TV. Mainly though, the new “House” sticks safely to the “Game” that preceded it, rather than fight for any meaningful change.

The prequel series picks up in the ninth year of King Viserys’ reign, 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen. Though peaceful and prosperous for decades, the King’s tenure is blighted by his inability to produce an heir. Sure, he has a whipsmart, dragon-riding daughter in Princess Rhaenyra Targaryan (first played by Milly Alcock before a midseason time-jump, when Emma D’Arcy takes over). But she’s a girl. No matter her qualifications, she’s practically useless. (She can’t even fill the council’s wine goblets without daring to speak. Out loud!)

Luckily, the King is optimistic. He and his wife, Aemma (Sian Brooke), may have lost five children during labor, but Viserys sees in a dream that their imminent offspring will grow to be a healthy boy. Rooting very much against the clairvoyance of his king is Prince Daemon Targaryan (Matt Smith), the heir apparent — if his brother is unable to raise any sons. To call Daemon the black sheep of the family would be a slight to sheep as a species, and Daemon already belittles the wooly crooners enough when disparaging his distanced wife in the same breath. “I’d rather sleep with a sheep” is perhaps the most polite way to paraphrase Daemon’s oft-repeated spite, which should make clear how he’s made enemies of every royal council member, save for his loyal brother.

But Daemon has one thing many of his fellow men do not: He’s battle tested. A ferocious member of the City Watch — basically a corrupt cop who needn’t hide his sadistic abuses of power — the king’s brother can ride dragons and win swordfights, giving him outrageous confidence that’s morphed into all-consuming entitlement. Seeing Smith stride through the corridors of Harrenhal, a sneer spread between his dangling white locks, is one of the creeping pleasures in “House of the Dragon.” He is the character you love to hate, and as vexing and awful as his behavior continues to be, the threat he carries — whether sauntering out of desolate dungeons or into grand banquets — makes him an exciting addition to every scene. Daemon, almost by himself, brandishes the “anything can happen” edge that could often galvanize “Game of Thrones.”

House of the Dragon Game of Thrones prequel Matt Smith Daemon Targaryen
Matt Smith in “House of the Dragon”Ollie Upton / HBO

Too many other characters move as stiffly and specifically as chess pieces. Rhys Ifans is handcuffed as the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, whose only defining trait — his loyalty — is also the dullest. (An actor capable of such charm should never be relegated to six hours of glum deference.) Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon gets the best look (the salt-and-pepper beard ties his dashing pirate ensemble together) and the best nickname (“The Sea Snake”), but “the most famed nautical adventurer in the history of Westeros” makes his greatest impact offscreen, for some reason.

Then there are the women. Rhaenyra is a commanding presence whether Alcock or D’Arcy is playing her. The Princess’ best friend, Alicent Hightower, takes a little longer to spark, but Olivia Cooke soon wields her character’s experience with pointed expertise. Still, the cast’s most prominent women are saddled with typical arcs, as written by men, and what interiority within them is explored often feels premeditated, as if their main purpose is to stir men to battle. By Episode 6,  there are signs Rhaenyra and Alicent’s may see more earnest exploration, but so far they are not in control of a story begging for more varied perspectives. (Meanwhile, “Devs” star Sonoya Mizuno will flex her range on HBO Max soon enough… in the Sundance acquisition, “Am I OK?”, not in her thankless role here as Daemon’s “so common she has to emphatically repeat she’s not” courtesan.)

Like its predecessor, “House of the Dragon” is the kind of show that chooses to illustrate a character’s softer side when he literally goes soft, mid-orgy. Frequent nudity is matched by quota-filling violence, like a cart stacked with body parts being wheeled across the screen or a graphic shot unveiled in an episode’s very first frame, so there’s no choice but to catch a bloody, brain-burning eyeful. Incest abounds. Those who watched “Game of Thrones” because, after Sean Bean, anyone could die at any minute may miss the frequent offings within a large ensemble, but “House of the Dragon” makes sure to provide enough taboo titillation to keep fans familiarly queasy.

Real excitement, even elegance, does surface. Keeping the focus on House Targaryen may cut down on the big-name body count, but it helps turn the castle walls into a pressure-cooker, where each interaction and outburst holds extra heft. Adding to the discernible weight are the looming sets (courtesy of production designer Jim Clay) and tactile costumes (by Jany Temime), which blend seamlessly with real locations across Europe. Dragons are a consistent presence that provide a reliable rush. (Their introductions are always stylish and invigorating, even if the yet-to-be-finalized CGI shown in advanced screeners leaves questions of how refined their appearance ends up.) Time jumps are deployed to avoid too much downtime between family feuds, and having a largely honorable king at the helm (guided by Considine’s soft eyes and fragile fury) invites genuine investment in the his realm’s general health and happiness.

House of the Dragon Game of Thrones prequel dragon
“House of the Dragon”Courtesy of HBO

Of course, seeing the kingdom unsettled can be satisfying, as well. No matter how many essays emerge in the coming weeks, the Targaryens aren’t the Roys, and “House of the Dragon” isn’t “Succession” (just as “Succession” isn’t “Game of Thrones”), but the successes of each HBO drama are at least somewhat utilized by what’s next in line. Here, that means an intense, unflinching focus on one family (rather than many houses) as well as the lingering question, “Who will get a kiss from Daddy Viserys?” Sadly, it does not mean that Princess Rhaenyra literally spits on her brother’s plans or marries a jovial Midwestern cuckold who unleashes his pent-up fury on their lanky jester of a cousin. “House of the Dragon” has no time for jokes, for “House of the Dragon” has almost zero time for fun. Matt Smith carves out the most of it, bless his soul, and it’s his melodramatic exploits that prove the most memorable so far, be it a 10-minute blitzkrieg or simply walking into a room where he is not welcome.

Considering the pressure on “House of the Dragon” to extend “Game of Thrones” into a bonafide television franchise, it should come as no surprise the series is watchable. (Unless, of course, you do not like watching things like torture and incest, which in the show’s defense, you had to expect.) HBO is quite good at this whole TV thing, knowing what makes their shows tick as well as how to make Martin’s dense world of weird names easily digestible. Giving the fans what they want has never been the network’s sole priority, but they’re not going to hand over the keys to their highest-grossing property to Condal, Sapochnik, or even Martin without trusting they can do just that. (Trusting them so much, it must be said, that HBO scrapped a $30 million pilot directed, written, and starring women for an alternative about the self-destructive terror men feel at the mere thought of a woman in power.)

Yet what an audience wants and what an audience thinks it wants are often two separate things. If the prequel series satisfies the franchise’s loyal, expansive fanbase, well, it’s built to do just that. If it doesn’t, there will undoubtedly be further attempts. Perhaps enough distinctive creativity will emerge in later episodes to let this “House” stand on its own, or perhaps such bravery can only be found as a last resort. Time will tell, but courage is always needed. Otherwise, all there is to do is sit and stare, as the day turns ugly, yet again.

Grade: B-

“House of the Dragon” premieres Sunday, August 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be released weekly, with the Season 1 finale set for October 23.

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