The first episode of House of the Dragon (Sky Atlantic) is truly breathtaking. For an hour, it goes over everything that made its predecessor, Game of Thrones, such a television colossus, especially when it was at its peak. It’s Westeros’ greatest hits playlist at its meatiest. Family members make commitments they cannot keep while conspiring and betraying one another, both in secret and in plain sight.
Jousting, romping, and fighting take place. Of course, there are dragons. There’s an ax to the face, a cesarean without anesthesia, leaking wounds, amputated limbs, and severed organs, among other things. George RR Martin’s world returns to our screens with full assurance and brio. It’s as engrossing as it is awful.
It begins 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen and chronicles the fall of the Targaryen dynasty, albeit after viewing the first six episodes of feuding and scheming, the real question is how it can possibly take two centuries to collapse. It begins with the King Lear-Esque prospect of a failing king selecting his heir, and while the people change slightly over the series, succession is the thread that holds it all together.
Episodes one through five focus on little Princess Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock), King Viserys I’s only child (Paddy Considine). Rhaenyra is a strong, ambitious, and fearless adolescent girl who would make a perfect heir if the Lords hadn’t already made it obvious in recent history that tradition expects a king, not a queen, on the Iron Throne.
Royal women are breeding machines and bargaining chips in this world. “I’m pleased I’m not a woman,” a male character comments later in the series. It might serve as the campaign’s tagline. Viserys’ brother steps up amid much muttering about Rhaenyra. Daemon is a haughty peacock who refuses to follow any rules that he considers beneath him.
The political wheel is turning on a rumor, and as Viserys becomes frailer, there is rising concern about where the wheel will stop. I’d argue that Game of Thrones thrived on the villains’ strength far more than the virtues of its heroes, and Matt Smith plays Daemon as a vain and bitter man who can’t quite betray his family name.
He’s a nasty piece of work, a misogynist and a sadist, to be sure, but until episode six, he’s the only truly despicable main character in King’s Landing. House of the Dragon takes its time introducing the down-in-the-dirt villains that are so entertaining to slam. This is due in part to the fact that it is a more mature version of this planet.
To paraphrase Elvis Presley, it’s “a little more conversation, a little less action.” There are sprawling fights and bloody beatings, and one particularly epic battle scene (for the uninitiated, the “Crab Feeder” may sound cute, but wait and see how that works out), but after the opener, much of this is about whispered conversations and heated discussions about loyalties, betrayals, allegiances, and which children should be married in order to minimize political fallout.
There is a lot of conversation. There is a characteristic that both helps and hinders its effectiveness. It is extremely rich, yet it has a narrative emphasis, which is crucial given the large ensemble of individuals. Though other recognizable names are mentioned – a Tully here, a Stark there, an arrogant Lannister dropping by – this is the Targaryens’ saga.
With such precision, I doubt I could have kept up if it had darted between Houses and their many centers of power. Nonetheless, I missed Game of Thrones’ breadth and flexibility to wander between settings, each of which was vivid in its own unique manner.
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After a few years here and there, it skips forward another decade for episode six, during which everyone has a lot of kids. (This has as much birthing as an episode of One Born Every Minute, albeit it lacks the pleasant fuzzy feeling.) A few of the characters are recast as adults, and the action is reset, though not as completely as it appears at first.
This leap may have been startling, but this is so exquisite and proper, so plainly well-made, that there was no way a misstep like that could have happened. House of the Dragon is sumptuous, cinematic programming that pushes the boundaries of what television can do. It’s only a tad less entertaining than its predecessor.
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