‘House of the Dragon’ review: ‘Game of Thrones’ is back and better than ever
Chicago - Maybe it’s fitting that HBO’s original show about dragons ended with nothing but scorched Earth. After reaching unprecedented levels of culture domination over its eight-season run, "Game of Thrones" somehow managed to burn all that goodwill with a disastrously received final run of episodes. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the new spinoff "House of the Dragon" is back to remind fans what they loved about the series to begin with — and perhaps even win over a whole new audience in the process.
What’s remarkable about "House of the Dragon" is the way it manages to feel like both a continuation of what "Game of Thrones" did well, and a complete reimagining of the potential of George R.R. Martin’s fictional world. Based on Martin’s 2018 companion book "Fire & Blood," "House of the Dragon" is a prequel series set roughly 200 years before the events of "Game of Thrones." Yet this age-old tale is fresher, sharper and more nuanced than its predecessor, with richer character work and an even greater sense of confidence about how it can use the TV format to explore its compelling central themes of power, gender and loyalty. Who needs the threat of winter when you have storytelling this good?
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About "House of the Dragon": A new generation of Targaryens
Given that "Game of Thrones" and "House of the Dragon" are ultimately both stories about who should sit on that coveted Iron Throne, the shift here is by a matter of degrees: While "Thrones" was an epic high-fantasy series, "House of the Dragon" plays more like a historical drama with casual fantasy elements. Creators Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik have cited "Succession" as a point of comparison, but the even closer parallel are royal period dramas like Cate Blanchett’s "Elizabeth" or any of Philippa Gregory’s Wars of the Roses novels Starz has been adapting for years.
Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen. Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO
Sure, dragons are casually flying around (17 of them in fact). But where "Thrones" was a sprawling, kingdom-hopping ensemble piece, "House of the Dragon" is an intimate family drama — one predominantly centered on peace-minded King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), his headstrong daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D'Arcy as an adult, Milly Alcock in her youth), his hotheaded younger brother Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) and Rhaenyra's best friend Lady Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke as an adult, Emily Carey in her youth). Just four main characters who swirl around each other in complex, ever-shifting power dynamics over who will succeed Viserys on the throne.
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Which doesn’t mean that "House of the Dragon" is lacking in scope. For one thing, it has the sort of impressive per-episode budget that "Thrones" didn’t get until well into its run. (In other words, expect lots of dragon action.) And for another, what it lacks in physical sprawl, it makes up for in its unique use of time.
Emily Carey, Milly Alcock. Photograph by Ollie Upton
While "Thrones" mostly followed its characters through every step of their respective journeys, "House of the Dragon" takes greater leaps through Westeroi history — including a 10-year time jump halfway through the season, in which some of the young cast are aged up into brand new actors.
It’s another choice that adds to the historical drama feel, as if "House of the Dragon" were charting a real multigenerational story a la "The Crown." Indeed, Martin’s "Fire & Blood" book is written as a historical account of the Targaryen family’s prosperous 300 year reign over Westeros, from the early days of Aegon the Conqueror uniting the realm to the downfall that eventually led to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) fleeing to Essos in exile. And while "House of the Dragon" only covers a middle sliver of that story, you feel the weight of everything that came before — and the foreshadowing of everything to come after — in its deeply immersive storytelling.
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"House of the Dragon": Westeros revisited
In other words, where "Game of Thrones" often came off as about half as smart as it thought it was (there’s a reason actor Ian McShane once referred to the show as "only tits and dragons"), "House of the Dragon" is twice as smart as it needs to be — particularly when it comes to exploring the gendered power dynamics of medieval society. The premiere features a stunner of a sequence that juxtaposes the bloody battles of a jousting tournament with the bloody battles of childbirth, savvily highlighting that men weren’t the only ones expected to face harrowing odds for the sake of the realm.
Olivia Cooke, Emma D'Arcy. Photograph by Ollie Upton
And while Considine and Smith both shine in their roles as two very different Targaryen men, "House of the Dragon" is refreshingly rooted in a female perspective. On the one hand is Rhaenyra, a fierce dragon-riding princess who most obviously echoes Daenerys but equally calls to mind elements of both Arya and Sansa Stark as well. And on the other, is Alicent, a gentle courtly beauty in the Margaery/Cersei vein, who wields a different kind of power altogether.
What’s most impressive about "House of the Dragon" is the way it manages to compare and contrast these two women without simplistically pitting them against one another — even when their life paths position them as rivals. There’s a humanism to "House of the Dragon" that was missing from the far more cynical "Thrones," which tended to sort its characters into hero and villain camps, even while claiming to operate in shades of grey.
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In "House of the Dragon," however, those divisions aren’t so neat. There are no archetypal heroes like Jon Snow and Arya Stark, and no one-note Ramsay Boltons either. Instead, each character is sympathetic and flawed in equal measure, incredibly intelligent in some areas of life yet riddled with blindspots in others. And while "House of the Dragon" has its moments of brutality, sexuality and assault, they’re always there to service the show’s themes rather than merely titillate or shock — even when they are quite shocking. (This being the Targaryens, expect both figurative and literal incest.)
Emma D’Arcy as "Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen" and Matt Smith as "Prince Daemon Targaryen" Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO
In fact, what stands out most are the unexpected moments of kindness and respect that emerge in this years-long power struggle among members of a family who, on some level at least, really do love one another. And the top-notch cast clearly relish the chance to sink their teeth into roles in which nearly every character is granted the complexity of a Cersei or Tyrion Lannister. It’s hard to pick a favorite performance among the stellar offerings, but Milly Alcock and Emma D'Arcy do excellent work shading in the rich interiority of Rhaenyra, and Matt Smith's particular brand of scary/sexy energy has perhaps never been put to better use.
Though "House of the Dragon" might prove a little too slow for those who came to associate "Game of Thrones" with massive spectacle, it gets back to the roots of what first made the original series such a cultural sensation. (It helps that George R.R. Martin is more involved here than he has been since the early seasons of "Thrones.") This is a chess match, not an open war. Yet the moves are just as shocking, unpredictable and riveting to watch.
10-episode medieval fantasy series. Six episodes screened for review. "House of the Dragon" debuts Aug. 21 on HBO and HBO Max. New episodes arrive weekly through Oct. 23. Featuring: Milly Alcock, Paddy Considine, Emma D'Arcy, Matt Smith, Emily Carey, Olivia Cooke, Steve Toussaint, Eve Best, Fabien Frankel, Sonoya Mizuno, Rhys Ifans.
When does "Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon" premiere on HBO?
"House of the Dragon" premieres on HBO on Sunday, Aug. 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. New episodes air weekly through Oct. 23..
When is "Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon" streaming?
The premiere of "House of the Dragon" will begin streaming on HBO Max on Sunday, Aug. 21 at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT — so West Coast fans can watch along simultaneously. New episodes stream weekly through Oct. 23.
Binge while you wait: "Firefly," streaming free on Tubi
Firefly (2002): Need a cult classic sci-fi series you can cross off your list in just 14 episodes? Then look no further than "Firefly," Joss Whedon’s space western follow-up to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Though "Firefly" was cancelled after just one season, its impact still looms large in the sci-fi canon. (It even got a big-screen continuation five years later.) Set aboard the spaceship Serenity, "Firefly" combines the gritty tangibility of the "Star Wars" universe with the sweet workplace family dynamics of "Star Trek," all filtered through Whedon’s unique comedic voice. So pour yourself a glass of Mudder's Milk and enjoy. Rated TV-14. One season, 14 episodes. Featuring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau.
"Firefly" is streaming free on Tubi — get the app
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she spent four years lovingly analyzing the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her column When Romance Met Comedy for The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
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