‘Lord of the Rings’ vs. ‘House of the Dragon’: Their Competition Isn’t Each Other. It’s the Future.

While it's tempting to pit the fantasy prequels against each other, they're fundamentally different shows — and, quite possibly, fit for different futures.
"House of the Dragon" and "Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power"
"House of the Dragon" and "Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power"
Ollie Upton and HBO / Matt Grace and Prime Video

Like so many know-it-all bosses, Jeff Bezos didn’t realize what he was asking for when he demanded his Prime Video team find the next “Game of Thrones.” Had his advisors not feared a demotion to the B-team, perhaps one could have explained that the world’s next TV obsession might be nothing like George R.R. Martin’s D&D juggernaut; it could be a depressing teen soap, a different kind of depressing teen soap, or definitively not a teen soap (albeit a bit soapy and more than a bit depressing to some). But when you don’t have time for a bathroom break, you don’t have time to break down what drew millions of viewers to a fantasy show, and that — combined with the multi-billionaire’s reported love for Peter Jackson’s films — resulted in this: “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” Amazon Prime Video’s massive swing for streaming dominance… that’s being released alongside the actual successor to “Game of Thrones.”

Such a juicy twist of fate — and scheduling gamesmanship — has not gone unnoticed. Pitting “House of the Dragon” against “The Rings of Power” has sparked business narratives, critical narratives, and just plain weird narratives, as the world grapples with two monster franchises going head-to-head over the course of seven weeks. With stakes this high, watching networks chase each other’s tails is entertainment enough, so it will always be tempting to pit the Prime Video and HBO mega-prequels against each other. But the less fun, more likely scenario isn’t a a winner-take-all deathmatch, where a single king is crowned come October. It’s a long, drawn-out fight for TV’s future, where each show’s fate ultimately lies with the type of stories they’ve chosen to tell — and if each delivers what viewers will want in the years to come.

Take the battle for first impressions. “House of the Dragon” earned a quick second season renewal after HBO reported a jaw-dropping 25 million people watched the premiere in just over a week. “The Rings of Power” landed a Season 2 order years ago, but Prime Video still broke precedent on Saturday to announce the first two episodes had been viewed by 25 million global users — the first time Amazon has ever reported ratings data on a Prime original series. Taken at face value, that’s a win for Amazon: “The Rings of Power” reached the same weekly viewership as “House of the Dragon” in just 24 hours. But Amazon has more than 200 million global subscribers, compared to more than 77 million for HBO Max. It’s also unclear if Amazon will continue to provide viewership updates, or even explain how they measure “views.” (So far, they have not, and it’s wise not to trust streamers with such metrics.)

Considering these factors — and the bulk of viewership happens in the weeks after that initial drop — it wouldn’t be fair to judge these shows like a box office showdown, where one series tops the other through ticket sales. Success will continue to be gauged as it has for most of the streaming age: Time (and continued renewals) will tell.

But if you’ll allow me to keep playing the buzzkill: “House of the Dragon” and “The Rings of Power” can (and likely will) succeed on their own terms, and the two shows will have little effect on each other. Why? Well, it’s rather simple: These are very, very different shows. When you set aside the battles, budgets, and Bezos of it all, “The Rings of Power” and “House of the Dragon” aren’t trying to scratch the same itch. Despite superficial similarities — based on the blinkered, 1980s movie bully point-of-view that “all fantasy is the same and for nerds” — these stories aren’t just distinct from one another; they’re nearly polar opposites. In her recent assessment for The Ringer, Alison Herman neatly lays out each franchise’s core ethos:

“Game of Thrones” cast itself in shades of gray, both literal and metaphorical; “The Lord of the Rings” depicts a dualist, Manichean struggle between good and evil, a contrast in stark black and white.

And their prequel series follow suit. “House of the Dragon” is vicious, diabolical, and, yes, dark. Violence is both physical and emotional. Graphic nudity is only surpassed by gag-inducing gore. (For the sake of my dinner, let the Crab Feeder get chomped by Syrax, forthwith.) Characters are two-faced, tyrannical, or, at the very least, fallible. Each of the first two episodes ends with a twist that humiliates and enrages one or more of the main characters, to the ascent and delight of others. Such staples are integral, fans would argue, to a candid, cold-hearted exploration of humanity’s relationship to power, as “House of the Dragon” draws pointed parallels between a bluntly barbaric era and that of our own, supposedly more civilized, time. These aspects are also highly engaging — twist after twist, death after death — so long as you can stomach the incest.

But the same descriptors don’t fit “The Rings of Power.” Like the films that preceded them, episodes are bathed in light to the extent that plenty of protagonists actually glow. Violence rarely, if ever, feels excessive, and it’s almost always targeted at entities so evil they’re not even human. (No one has mixed emotions over a dozen dead orcs.) Characters adhere to strict moral codes or follow clear trajectories. Good heroes will not give into Sauron, and those that do will either be punished accordingly or earn back their honor. Viewers needn’t speculate whether Elrond the Elf and Prince Durin the Dwarf are actually friends, or merely feigning friendship to get what they want. This is “The Lord of the Rings.” Loyalty can be trusted.

Ted Lasso Season 2 finale Jeremy Swift Higgins dogs
Two dogs, not dragons, in “Ted Lasso”Colin Hutton / Apple TV+

Of course, plenty of people may like both “HotD” and “TRoP” — franchises that earn these kind of budgets tend to appeal to a wide base — but it’s just as easy to understand why many will respond differently to each show. (Even their abbreviations invite disparate implications.) I might think “House of the Dragon’s” worldview is ugly and sad, while you may find it suspenseful and refreshing. I might argue “Lord of the Rings” is easier to invest in, its characters easy to root for, while you can’t help but roll your eyes at the elves’ unflinching earnestness. Amazon and HBO certainly factored in these kind of reactions, but where it gets interesting is how such opinions will shape a wider acceptance or rejection of each program. How each show sails with or against the prevailing cultural winds could determine its long-term success.

“House of the Dragon” feels at one with the era that birthed its predecessor. “Game of Thrones” thrived in a time of antiheroes, where characters bucked expectations by breaking bad instead of good, or dying when they were meant to live. Shock value is too reductive a term for Martin’s twisty fight for the throne, but “House of the Dragon” still leans into those roots with disturbing plot lines and stunning battles. Given the lingering appeal for such stories, “HotD’s” high ratings make sense. Even if critics are eager to move past the antihero era, audiences still have an appetite.

Meanwhile, “The Lord of the Rings” has proven so popular for enough generations, its appeal could be considered timeless. Tolkien’s novel slowly became one of the best-selling books ever written, and when the movies struck a chord to the tune of nearly $3 billion worldwide, popular culture was primed for more virtuous tales of absolute good toppling undisputed evil. A feel-good fantasy show was even among TV’s top-rated series — “The West Wing” won Outstanding Drama Series in 2001, 2002, and 2003, the same years each “Lord of the Rings” film was released. (A liberal fantasy is still a fantasy, but I digress.) And through a certain lens, that’s true again today. “Ted Lasso” mania is sweeping Hollywood. Perhaps audiences are ready for another fantasy where good and evil are demarcated by a visible shift from black to white.

As a wise man once said (about seven paragraphs back): Time will tell. When Bezos ordered up his own “Game of Thrones,” what he was really asking for was a crystal ball. And since those still don’t exist — at least, as far as we non-billionaires know — he happily paid for a snow globe. Even if what’s inside isn’t what he ordered, even if its core is completely different, it still looks the same. If he believes it’ll work, maybe it will. Maybe “The Rings of Power” is the future. Maybe we’ll be talking about its own prequel or sequel or spinoff in 10 years, after its success ushers in an entirely new TV era. But one thing’s already clear: It’s not “Game of Thrones.”

“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” releases new episodes Fridays on Amazon Prime Video. “House of the Dragon” releases new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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