House of the Dragon, HBO Max’s new Game of Thrones prequel from Ryan Condal and George R. R. Martin, is a series that understands how fascinating it can be when epic fantasies explore the idea of history rhyming with itself across space and time. But in its attempt to enrich the world of A Song of Ice and Fire by echoing the narrative melodies that shaped Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon falls into the trap of retreading ground that’s beyond familiar and mistakenly assuming that its connections to a larger franchise are enough to make it interesting.
Set some 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, House of the Dragon tells the complicated, horrific, and often petty tale of how the Targaryen family’s squabbles over the Iron Throne ultimately led to near-extinction of their entire bloodline and their winged beasts of war. Rather than tackling House Targaryen’s entire genesis in exhaustive detail like Martin’s sprawling novel Fire & Blood, House of the Dragon instead focuses on some of the pivotal moments laid out in The Princess and the Queen, an account of how some of the most powerful families in Westeros became mortal enemies.
While there’s a definite sense of peace and calm as House of the Dragon opens a few years into the reign of King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), it’s the kind of illusion that only the most sheltered, protected people living in the kingdom can really afford to believe in. Despite the King’s eldest heir, Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), being born a girl, with the pregnant queen consort Aemma Targaryen (Sian Brooke) carrying a child believed to be a boy, there’s seemingly little concern about who will inherit the throne when VIserys I dies. It’s easy for those not attuned to the larger context of their historical moment to not clearly see the trouble brewing at King’s Landing. But the exact opposite is true both for the audience, and for those closest to the royal family like Viserys I’s bloodthirsty younger brother Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), the King’s Hand, Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), and famed Lord of the Tides, Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint).
As is always the case in Westeros when it comes to lines of succession and the fate of the realm, the semblance of unity radiating from the throne belies the years’ worth of bad blood, deception, and politicking that put each member of the royal family into their position of power. While Game of Thrones expertly illustrated this reality over the course of multiple seasons, and from many clearly-defined perspectives, House of the Dragon presumes that you understand this about its world, and wastes no time fixating on its characters’ acts of intrafamily treachery. While House of the Dragon’s sense of urgency at first feels like it has the potential to keep the series feeling more nimble and exacting than its predecessor, it starts to feel like something of a misstep once the many players have all been introduced, and their motivations are revealed.
House of the Dragon’s pacing, big, dramatic twists of fate and moments of bombast are often given priority over the smaller, more intricate machinations for power that are some of the most memorable pieces of Martin’s prose. Were House of the Dragon’s characters an especially inspired cadre of fabulists and sociopaths, this wouldn’t be so much of an issue. But within the first episode or two, a surprisingly number of House of the Dragon’s power players are revealed to be so two-dimensional and narrow-sighted that it’s often difficult to believe them as the legendary figures of the past the show wants them to be.
While some of that weird vibe boils down to the simple fact that House of the Dragon’s beats often mirror those Martin wrote into The Princess and the Queen, a significant portion of it stems from how hard the series tries to frame its characters as remixed versions of Game of Thrones’. Despite being a series about the Targaryens before their fall, it’s hard not to see traces of Game of Thrones’ Starks and Baratheons in their characterizations, and not in a way that feels like an intentional nod to how the families are destined to interact in the future.
Almost as if to emphasize how much more extant and apparently unconcerned about haircare the Targaryens and Velaryons were in the past, House of the Dragon’s wigs range from passable to laughable in terms of believability. It’s the sort of detail you’d expect HBO to be a bit pickier about for a show it’s trying to coax into being its next big thing, especially given how much attention to detail is clearly being paid elsewhere like in the development of the High Valyrian language Rhaenyra and Daemon are especially fond of slipping into.
In contrast to the Targaryen family, whose members House of the Dragon does a better job of fleshing out as people just by giving them more screen time, most of the show’s prominent characters of color — the Velaryons especially — are background players presented like an overdue apologia for Game of Thrones’ overwhelming whiteness. It is…nice to see Black people who aren’t enslaved being made a more significant part of this world. But between House of the Dragon’s seeming lack of a quality wig budget and the way the Velaryons factor into this story, it also occasionally feels as if the show’s creative team did not think through some of its iffy-er optics.
Similar to how House of the Dragon doesn’t quite seem to know how to talk about race, the series also struggles with the depictions of sex and violence that punctuate its first season as reminders of the different ways that people can inflict themselves onto each other. In almost every instance of people fighting or bedding one another, there’s a distinct lack of elegance to the way the camera follows the scene’s action. What ends up being more of an issue, though, is how confident House of the Dragon is that it’s being novel as it revisits already-established details like how the Targaryens were known for sleeping with their family members, and how common twins are in the Lannister family.
In choosing to fixate on those sorts of aspects of Westerosi life during this time period, House of the Dragon often feels like it lacks the wild curiosity necessary to make a prequel like this really sing. That could very well change should HBO Max keep House of the Dragon going and push the show to be more of a thoughtful interpolation of the future we know. But for the time being, House of the Dragon’s yet another hyper-violent tale of swords and sorcery that you’ve undoubtedly heard before.
House of the Dragon also stars Emma D’Arcy, Olivia Cooke, Eve Best, Fabien Frankel, Sonoya Mizuno,Ryan Corr, Jefferson Hall, John Macmillan, Wil Johnson, Nanna Blondell, and Theo Nate. The series premieres on HBO Max on August 21st.