Heavy is the head that wears the crown. The opening moments of HBOsee how Viserys Targeryen inherits a huge responsibility when he is crowned Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. This is fitting for much of the show’s first season, which , revolves around a king who struggles to live up to his predecessor. This is the exact burden shared by House of the Dragon itself, which is to follow Game of Thrones, .
Only time and the subsequent seasons it brings will tell if House of the Dragon can leap over that wall. But after watching the first six episodes, it’s clear that House of the Dragon at least has a chance. This is excellent TV, a fantasy drama that doesn’t require Game of Thrones fans to enjoy.
Just as importantly, House of the Dragon gives Game of Thrones fans, burned out by that show’s controversial final season, a reason to love the world of Westeros all over again.
House of the Dragon airs on HBO from Sunday 21 August. The show begins 172 years before the death of “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen and the birth of Daenerys. Chronicling the height and subsequent fall of the Targaryen dynasty, House of the Dragon is based on Fire and Blood, a volume of fictional history written by George RR Martin for the Targaryens. Yes, Martyn wrote a 900 page book about the Targaryens. No, we are.
Much of Game of Thrones centers on the warlike houses of Westeros fighting to become the dominant clan. In contrast, House of the Dragon is all about the internecine conflict generated by the various Targaryens all claiming the same Iron Throne. It begins with such a competition. In the opening minutes of House of the Dragon, after Jaehaerys’ death, the Great Council holds a succession vote that pits Prince Viserys against his cousin, Princess Rhaenys.
Viserys wins because the lords of Westeros do not accept a woman as ruler. This does not prevent him, later in the opening episode, from naming his daughter Rhaenyra Targaryen as his heir. Viserys was clearly a progressive man for his time – but the situation was complicated when he remarried and his new wife gave birth to a son, Aegon. Viserys says his son’s arrival doesn’t change anything, but an ominous question arises: if Viserys dies, who in Westeros will support a woman’s claim to the throne over a man?
The relationship between Viserys and Rhaenyra is a highlight, largely due to the actors portraying them. Paddy Considine is strong in his role as a dignified man turned ordinary king, a man struggling to balance the needs of his family and Westeros at the same time. But the shining star of the opening episodes of House of the Dragon is certainly Millie Alcock as Rhaenyra. She has a charmingly expressive face – a mere narrowing of her eyes or a pursing of her lips can betray the range of emotions that accompany the politics of the royal court.
You’ll notice if you look at the House of the Dragon Wikipedia page that Alcock plays “the young Rhaenyra Targaryen” – she’s one of the two playing the character. Where Game of Thrones expanded, spreading its focus to different families across the continent, House of the Dragon goes long. There are time intervals between episodes that vary from months to years. This makes sense, since the book it’s based on spans 300 years of history, compared to the much shorter period covered in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels.
Even after six episodes of the show, the scope of House of the Dragon is still mysterious. It obviously builds on the Dance of Dragons, a Targaryen civil war that is famous in the legend of Ice and Fire. But when it gets there, and how much further the show goes in the 172-year history that separates it from Thrones, is extremely unclear.
The faster pace of House of the Dragon helps it feel different from Game of Thrones, which is helpful. Comparisons to Game of Thrones are unfair. Thrones was known for complex characters, heartbreaking surprises and extravagant battles, each of which took years to build up. Fans who weren’t disappointed by the show’s controversial final season will have high expectations for House of the Dragon, and fans who were the disappointed will demand something extraordinary to win them back.
But as unfair as these comparisons are, they are also inevitable. When the first episode of House of the Dragons ended, I wondered if it was as compelling as the first episode of Game of Thrones. I wondered if any character was as compelling as Ned Stark, or if the politics in the small royal council would reach the levels of intrigue like Littlefinger vs. Varys.
That changed midway through the second episode. Instead of thinking about Stark and Lannister, I focused entirely on Targaryen. House of the Dragon may never be the next Game of Thrones, but from the six hours I watched, it seems poised to at least step out of the giant shadow cast by its predecessor. It’s an achievement any king – or queen – could crow about.
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