House of the Dragon Season 1 Episode 1 Review: The Heirs of the Dragon
The Game of Thrones prequel sticks the landing with a gripping series premiere.
It’s been three years since Game of Thrones concluded, but the wounds of Season 8 have yet to heal. When showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss opted to rush the biggest pop-culture phenomenon to its scurried conclusion by presenting fans with a truncated, tantivy season, they ignited a storm that sparked heated debates, petitions and fan-hate galore. The fire that Daenerys, the Khaleesi, unleashed over Kings Landing also ended up burning a lot of fan theories to the ground, leaving behind a fandom that remains sour to this day.
Naturally, the prospect of a Game of Thrones prequel remains a risky endeavor. Prequels by their nature, result in reduced stakes, seeing as they’re set before the major events of the original show have occurred. This robs them of the curiosity element, suppressing the desire to find out what happens next. And given the divisive, anticlimactic end of Game of Thrones that practically lost the series its rewatch value, this becomes an even bigger issue. “In the end, does any of it even matter”? Even as fans had some hope due to George R. R. Martin’s involvement, which mimics the role he played in the early GoT seasons and Ryan Condal being appointed as showrunner alongside Westeros veteran Miguel Sapochnik, fans maintained a healthy dose of skepticism even as anticipation steadily kept building for the prequel series.
The TLDR of it is that House of the Dragon delivers in a big way. In all the right ways. The series strongly evokes memories of the Game of Thrones we all used to love, as opposed to what it eventually became. It’s powerful, visceral, competently directed, boasting of top-notch production values and feels right at home with Martin’s world given all the scheming, double-crossing and flawed characterizations that are hinted at in the premiere itself. It strikes a fine balance between jumping years / days and yet, progressing slow enough to allow fans to soak in all the Westerosi goodness. And in true Thrones style, it delivers a sequence that is simultaneously a hallmark of filmmaking while being utterly unwatchable.
Martin’s world has often been a complicated one, spanning loads of characters with the same or similar sounding names. It took us a while to get acquainted with the numerous worlds, traditions and lore when Game of Thrones premiered at the turn of the decade. Condal understands the massive challenge that lies in drawing audiences in and writes a neat prologue that lays out the central theme upfront. Set almost a decade before the episode’s events, the cold open deals with Jahaerys Targaryen, the king that kept the realm peaceful for over 70 years, appointing a successor in light of the tragic turn of events that left him with dead sons. He finally nominates his grandson, Viserys, to succeed him over Rhaenys, his granddaughter, setting in motion the powerplay for the Iron Throne, while also reinforcing and driving home the patriarchal nature of ascension.
The core theme continues to rear its ugly head. Viserys himself is diagnosed with a wound that I suspect, looks awfully similar to the greyscale condition that inflicted Jorah Mormont. If true, it should be incurable in this century, leaving Viserys in a precarious positon. Deep down, Viserys himself is worried about his successor, his wife Aemma’s multiple pregnancies resulting in stillborns or miscarriages. The child she carries is the last hope and Viserys is confident that it’s a boy. Of course, things don’t turn out quite right as Aemma and the boy pass away in labor. Subsequent turn of events convinces Viserys to appoint his own daughter, Rhaenyra Targaryen, as the heir to the Iron Throne, shattering the years of patriarchy in place and setting in motion a chain of events that will begin the real Game of Thrones. In true Targaryen fashion, Viserys broke the wheel.
Game of Thrones lured us in not necessarily with spectacle but with political intrigue. And we see that aplenty in House of the Dragon, most noticeable in the King’s council. The council itself is made up of the show’s key players. There’s Otto Hightower, the Hand of the King, who swears loyalty to Viserys and advises him on key matters. We have Corlys Valeryon, Master of Coin, nicknamed the Sea Snake, also the richest man in Westeros, who brings grave threats to the attention of the King. And there’s Daemon Targaryen, the King’s own brother, who sways between being volatile, unpredictable and unstable on one end and seeing the true nature of the King’s backstabbers in another. He gets passed on for the Iron Throne over Rhaenyra, due to his violent and brutish urges as he raises a toast to the King’s dead son in a brothel, mere days after his cremation.
The council table makes for an interesting mix of characters that are written with adequate complexity. As such, you’re always unsure which one to root for, which makes the proceedings enthralling. Otto for instance, comes across as a staunch loyalist on first glance, someone who will lay down his life for the King. Subsequently though, we see his true colors when he sends his daughter Alicent to tend to the King Viserys soon after the death of Aemma and her child. Deep down, he detests Daemon and uses tragedy as an opportunity to get closer to the King. Daemon sees through Otto’s snakery and unabashedly points it out, but his own misdeeds prevent anyone from taking him seriously. Daemon himself frequently visits brothels, and leads the army of Gold Cloaks to spread terror across town, in hopes of keeping people in check. He often disrespects Viserys and rubs him the wrong way, something that Otto is quick to point out. So is Otto in the right here, or Daemon? And who is the bigger threat? The fact that there are no clear answers to this is precisely what House of the Dragon gets devilishly right.
The series may be set in a time of widespread patriarchy, 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen (as the cold open states rather coldly), but that doesn’t prevent the women from shining through. At the forefront is Rhaenyra Targaryen and her friendship with Alicent Hightower, a relationship that’s going to turn quite weird should Alicent end up with Rhaenyra’s father. For now, they hang around as besties, exchanging history lessons and gossping about who is sporting a pregnancy around town. All that changes with the tragedy of course and Rhaenrya is suddenly forced to confront a much bigger responsibility than she may be prepared to handle. And let’s not forget Rhaenys who stays behind the scenes but should unarguably have a much bigger role to play down the road.
In casting these characters, House of the Dragon brings forth actors that can not only evoke memories of Game of Thrones scribes, but also the dramatic depth needed to convey the said nuances. Paddy Considine portrays a noble, rightful, King Viserys who has to make a complicated decision to decide the fate of his wife and child. Sian Brooke absolutely slays in her brief role as Aemma Arryn, delivering a gut-wrenching performance during the childbirth sequence. Rhys Ifans is charming and conniving as Otto, nailing both shades to make him calming, yet untrustworthy. The series will undoubtedly rest on the shoulders of Matt Smith’s Daemon and Milly Alcock’s Rhaenyra, both of whom lose themselves into their roles. Coming off Doctor Who, Smith put fan concerns at ease as he wholeheartedly embodied the Targaryen demeanor and locks. And Milly already carries the grace and poise that comes with royalty, yet seethes with anger and sadness within as she cremates her mother and brother. It only helps that she bears an uncanny resemblance to Emilia Clarke from certain angles and I found her rendition of Dracarys to be far better than what Clarke managed in the original show.
Having Sapochnik helm a more subdued premiere was an interesting choice, seeing how he’s known for the more spectacle-laden stuff that Game of Thrones offered. But Sapochink is up for it, and handles the quieter, emotional moments confidently. He manages to use his signature cross-cutting narrative to rachet up the tension and suspense even in scenes with decidedly predictable outcomes. Most notable is the intercutting between the jousting tournament and childbirth, where Sapochnik wisely draws parallels such as the tourney ground shaped like a vagina, to make the scenes connect. Condal also writes excellent arguments into Aemma’s character believing childbirth to be battlefield of women in the Targaryen dynasty. The connection then, draws on both men and women fighting their own battles in preparation for the inevitable war that lies ahead. His direction is aided by Fabian Wagner’s splended cinematography throughout which uses magestic, steady and well-composed shots to contrast the magnificence of the battlefield with the horrors of childbirth.
Sapochnik employs this style yet again when depicting Rhaenyra’s coronation ceremony. Instead of choosing to hold off and show the ceremony at the end, Sapochnik understands that merely seeing Viserys walking up to Rhaenyra is proof enough to convince audiences that she will be Queen. As such, he subverts the scene so that the true reveal is not Rhaenyra being throned but the prophesized emergence of the White Walkers – A Song of Ice and Fire, as he calls it, shoehorning Martin’s book series as a line of dialogue. Of course it loses some of its sheen given that we know the prophecy won’t come true for another 172 years, but the episode drives home the point that it’s more about passing the prediction on to succeeding rulers than the prophecy itself. At some point then, it’s bound to get lost in translation, which explains why the Targaryens in Thrones were not concerned by it.
HBO generally blows it out of the park in their big-budget shows and House of the Dragon generously exceeds that expectation on all counts. Evoking late seasons of Game of Thrones as opposed to the earlier seasons that were strapped of cash, the production has spared no expense in rendering the locations and dragons convincingly. A few shots of the dragons do look off but it’s utterly convincing getting to see dragons this early in the series, a natural expectation as dragons were fairly common in the Targaryen era; it also explains why no one looks up at a dragon in amazement. Much praise has already been showered on the exquisite costume design and I’ll be surprised and displeased if it doesn’t land an Emmy nomination on the strength of the premiere alone. And how amazing is it to have Ramin Djawadi back! The guy lended Game of Thrones one of the most recognizable modern-day scores there is. So not only is it exciting to have him return, it’s fabulous that he’s treading it cautiously and keeping the core GoT theme score alive in this show, instead of going all out with different sounds entirely. I’m also waiting to see what they do with the intro and opening credits, if at all.
With the budget of late seasons and the storytelling quality of early seasons, House of the Dragon delivers a compelling premiere that, while proceeding a bit slowly, sits squarely with the series lore and occupies its place as a fitting companion to the original phenomenon. If I were to point out any drawbacks, is that at this point, the dialogues seem a bit less sharper compared to Game of Thrones. Yet again, it’s expected given that the original show’s source material was written from the point-of-view of its characters, in contrast to Fire & Blood which is written from the perspective of historians, leaving Condal with little to know dialogue to adapt from the book. So far though, if the prequel keeps up its quality, it could help erase the scars of the original’s climactic seasons, reintroduce Westeros to fandom as a force to reckon with, and bring back the excitement of speculating and anticipating a new Game of Thrones episode every week.
House of the Dragon Season 1 Episode 1 Rating: 9 out of 10