Show: "House of the Dragon"
Release Date: August 21, 2022
Genre: Fantasy, Drama
More than three years after it aired its final episode, "Game of Thrones" has come to be seen as a prime example of a TV show jumping the shark. A show that had gained its popularity by avoiding conventional fantasy tropes in favor of intricate political drama and complex characters had, by the end, devolved into a series of action setpieces strung together by a barely coherent plot.
With "House of the Dragon," showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik seek to recapture the aspects of George R. R. Martin’s work that attracted audiences in the first place, and they have succeeded with flying colors.
The show is well on its way to repairing the tarnished reputation of the "Game of Thrones" franchise, and if it maintains its current pace for the rest of the season, it will easily be one of the best new shows this year.
The show follows members of House Targaryen as they reign over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, nearly 200 years before the events of "Game of Thrones". King Viserys I (Paddy Considine) presides over a shaky peacetime, made even shakier by his struggle to produce a son whom he can name as his heir. Sensing an impending power vacuum, various members of Viserys’ court start vying, directly or indirectly, for the throne, including Viserys’ own brother, Daemon (Matt Smith).
Meanwhile, Viserys’ daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), faces her own struggles as a woman in a brutally patriarchal world. When Rhaenyra's mother dies in childbirth, her father names her as heir. Despite this apparent boon, Rhaenyra now finds herself fighting fiercely to retain her independence, unable to trust anyone around her. Her isolation only deepens when her father takes her only friend, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), as his new wife, pitting the two childhood friends as political rivals.
In the first four episodes, the show has already tackled some heavy themes. The most recent episode, “King of the Narrow Sea,” juxtaposes several different sex scenes together and invites the audience to contemplate the emotions and power dynamics at work between the different characters.
Throughout the episodes, Viserys has been forced to make many difficult decisions. His penchant to choose inaction over action often results in more difficulties further down the line. Perhaps the most apparent consequence of Viserys’ inaction is displayed on his own body. What starts in episode one as a small cut he receives from the Iron Throne (a rather on-the-nose metaphor in its own right) gradually becomes more infected as the show progresses, to the point where he has multiple festering sores on his body and loses two fingers.
Despite its dark subject matter, the show manages to balance the dark with light, thanks largely to some top-notch acting. Paddy Considine transforms an impotent king into a warm and caring, if often misguided, father figure. Matt Smith steals every scene he’s in with his swaggering, cocksure portrayal of Daemon. Milly Alcock and Emily Carey have wonderful chemistry together, making it all the more heartbreaking when they are forced apart.
The show also paces itself incredibly well. While most scenes are centered around the political machinations of the court, the showrunners know just the right moments to take a break for an action scene. But even these scenes often serve to flesh out the characters and deepen our understanding of them, like Daemon’s underhanded tricks in the tournament, or Viserys’ struggle to kill a captured stag.
The most impressive of these action scenes so far was Daemon’s man-versus-army showdown at the end of episode three. It may require a bit more suspension of disbelief than is usually needed for the show, but the war movie-like spectacle coupled with Smith’s charisma help to smooth over slightly odd blocking and editing.
At the time of writing, only four of the planned ten episodes of the season have aired. The preview for episode five promises to deliver a thrilling mid-season climax before the show jumps several years forward, a skip long enough to require new actresses for Rhaenyra and Alicent.
With record-breaking ratings and a second season already confirmed, the future is looking bright for "House of the Dragon." Its huge success is paving the way for HBO's other planned "Game of Thrones" spin-offs and restoring the franchise to the cultural juggernaut it once was.