Three years after the (widely derided) finale of this series, Westeros, the European-like land mass on which the Seven Kingdoms are located, returns in a new, scaled-down form. Created by book author George RR Martin and Ryan Condal, “House of the Dragon” (premiering Sunday) is set 200 years before the original show, and on a relatively small scale. Based on parts of Martin’s “Fire & Blood” novel, the initially rocky prequel series delves into the history of the Targaryen dynasty – and the family civil war that precipitates its end.
Like the series that overtook “Game of Thrones” as HBO’s hottest show, “House of the Dragon” is a succession drama. The Targaryens – the dynasty famed for their flying fire-eaters, madness-inducing inbreeding, overuse of vowels and unfortunate icy blonde hairstyle – ruled the Seven Kingdoms for a century, but the untimely deaths of its princes continue to plague disrupt plans for patrilineal continuity. (Remember: “Game of Thrones” opened with the Targaryens already ousted from Westeros by King Robert Baratheon, and an orphaned Daenerys plotted for eight seasons to reclaim the crown she believed to be her birthright.)
After ascending the Iron Throne not as the son of the previous monarch, but simply as the closest male relative, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) knows he must produce a male heir to provide stability. future. His conniving and all too aptly named younger brother, Daemon (Matt Smith) – the scar of Mufasa de Viserys – spends his days hoping he will never uncle a nephew. But Daemon doesn’t anticipate the next sentimental step for a grief-stricken Viserys after the death of his beloved wife (Sian Brooke): naming his stubborn, tomboyish, slightly spoiled teenage daughter Rhaenyra (played as a daughter by a charming Milly Alcock and wife of Emma D’Arcy), who, if granted the throne, would become the first female ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.
Why doesn’t Viserys just take a new wife who will give him all the male heirs he could want instead of leaving his daughter to risk being murdered by her power-hungry uncle? Well, he ends up opting for this incredibly obvious solution, awkwardly marrying and impregnating Rhaenyra’s best friend, Alicent (played in her youth by Emily Carey and her older ones by Olivia Cooke). A student of history, Viserys dreams of being the kind of heroic conqueror whose exploits are sung about half a millennium after his death. But he will probably be remembered as the fool who should have foreseen that he pitted his daughter against his eldest son, while their conscienceless uncle plots the death of each of the king’s last children. Tired of the endless politicking between his advisers, Viserys is further undermined by a disease that necroses his body.
The question that every prequel should answer in the affirmative is: is there a reason to look beyond the ties to the franchise starter? “House of the Dragon” gets a yes, but not immediately. Despite a mind-boggling (and jaw-dropping) amount of hyper-violence – especially in the grueling pilot – the first three episodes are uniquely generic in their storylines and turgid in their pacing, with some characters displaying maddening naivety given the outpouring of brutal blood they often witness first hand.
An Illustrated Guide to the 6,887 Deaths in ‘Game of Thrones’
But showrunners Condal and Miguel Sapochnik gradually find their way to their character specifics by hour four, where it finally begins to feel like the “Game of Thrones” universe beyond the literal wheelbarrows of amputated body parts. It still takes a few more installments to finish getting all the pieces on the board, but once the game is finally set up for play, things quickly turn to good. The barbed relationship between former friends Rhaenyra and Alicent becomes particularly fascinating, the stakes of their seething but potentially deadly competition heightened by motherhood. D’Arcy and Cooke’s performances also stand out easily from those of a largely lackluster cast.
Despite a few battle scenes, frequent sightings of dragons, and occasional forays into the brothels of King’s Landing, the series is essentially a sometimes claustrophobic royal court drama, rather than an epic “Game of Thrones”-style saga. There’s an effort to expand the scope of the narrative with regular time jumps, with a decade separating two episodes in the middle of the 10-part season. (Six episodes were screened for review.) The time jumps rob us of the intimate characterizations that were so integral to the original series’ appeal, but they provide a necessary background for Rhaenyra’s self-satisfied softening, hardening paranoid Alicent and many junctions. where they will inevitably clash.
For better or for worse, “Game of Thrones” has made it harder and harder to shock us with its gore, cruelty, gratuitous sex displays, and twists. The scenes where “House of the Dragon” strives to surpass its predecessor in this respect rarely succeed; this is where the prequel most looks like a cheap knockoff. The original series’ most exciting or disturbing surprises were rooted in character, and the same goes for the new series. It’s a shame that “House of the Dragon” takes so long to define and shade the Targaryens and those in their orbit. But once it is done, their wickedness shines all the more against the darkness.
Dragon House (one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max.