Known for their platinum hair and association to the dragons which they tame, ride, and use to conquer, the mighty Targaryen family ruled over the mythical continent of Westeros for hundreds of years, maintaining their lineage through the practice of incest and the might of their draconian army. At least, in the fantastical world of George R. R. Martin.
The long-awaited Game of Thrones prequel series, House of the Dragon premiered in August of this year and has been airing weekly on Sunday nights on HBO. Similar to how its predecessor was based on George R. R. Martin’s (still unfinished) A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the 2022 series finds its source material in a Martin book called Fire & Blood, written as an in-universe historical saga of the royal Targaryen family of ASOIAF. An adaptation of the genealogical epic, House of the Dragon concerns the period of Targaryen history known as the “Dance of Dragons,” a civil war fought over the succession of King Viserys I just 200 years prior to the events of Game of Thrones.
King Viserys (Paddy Considine) names his strong-willed daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock & Emma D’Arcy) as his heir, a controversial decision amongst the court. However, her claim is made unsound by her much younger step-siblings, namely the eldest Aegon. Aegon was born to Viserys from his second wife, and Rhaenyra’s childhood friend, the spiteful Allicent Hightower (Emily Carey & Olivia Cooke), who vies to bolster her family’s own political influence. Being the series’ first season, much of the narrative serves to set up the eventual conflict that will arise when Aegon becomes of age and can formally challenge Rhaenyra at the Dance of Dragons. Supporting Rhaenyra is her haughty uncle (and lover) Daemon (Matt Smith) and sheepish cousin/husband Laenor; while, Allicent, Aegon, and his siblings have the unwavering support of patriarchal tradition to denounce Rhaenyra’s proposition as queen. And, not to mention, the legion of fire breathing monsters helmed by each side.
The series is fraught with striking visuals of the Westerosi landscape and biting dialogue of political negotiation in the kingdom’s court, keeping in line with the elements of high-fantasy that had been established in Martin’s imagined world with Thrones. The costumes are intricate, the architecture complex, and the language flowery; it’s clear a hefty budget was ordered to fund such an expensive production.
However, in House of the Dragon, scale is not as heavily emphasized as with Game of Thrones. While the original series was famed for its
grandiosity—or its utter rejection of any reluctance to “go there,” beyond what had been acceptable for television standards in the early 2010s—Dragon relies on a smaller cast of characters that must drive the plot with precision. The Targaryen’s political machinations at the capital, rather than the unrest of an entire continent, must control the narrative, intentionally leaving out much of the geographic expanse and cultural diversity of Westeros that had been featured in Thrones. It’s hard for a show that has already pushed every boundary to maintain the stakes and keep viewers invested, but the shift in scope focuses the plot and narrows the tone. Still, the sparseness of magnificence can make each episode feel a bit droll for those who expect a Thrones-level viewing experience.
House of the Dragon does indeed maintain a hefty amount of graphic violence and gore that is characteristic of its predecessor, with over-the-top battle scenes of strung limbs and crimson-stained armor, but the spectacle of war is not the primary focus of discomfort. Instead, the most unsettling moments come from depicting violence that is intimate, local, and seething: a forced Cesarean section; a threaded needle stitching a gash on a forearm; a carnivorous crab piercing into a dying sailor’s lips, bloodied and cracking from the salt and sun. The sensory elements are dull rather than dramatic, but the visceral effect is the same.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the show concerns the passage of time. At the series’ beginning, the characters Rhaenyra and Allicent are in their later teenage years, and each episode catalogs months, even years, of action in the kingdom. Because each season of Thrones took place over the course of a roughly year-long period, the younger actors were able to age alongside their characters with the season’s premiere each year. However, House of the Dragon entirely recasts their underaged characters just five episodes into the first season, where
there is a decade-long time jump from the previous episode.
Certain characters even receive multiple recasts over the course of the show to further demonstrate the sheer amount of time that the series is aiming to cover, which can be troubling for the audience. It is often difficult to relate to these characters when their appearance, and thus the general aura brought by each actor playing them, changes so frequently.
In all, the jarring nature of the time jumps between episodes is offset with an otherwise slow-paced, compounding story arc that keeps its core audience in mind. The final season of Game of Thrones in 2019 was heavily criticized by fans for being rushed, shoddily written, and unsatisfying. It seems that the House of the Dragon’s status as a prequel, or that which has already happened in the context of the broader ASOIAF universe, has allowed the showrunners to toy with expectations in a way that remains loyal to the source material (we would then only have Martin to blame for an unlikeable plot).
But this is the foundational strength of the show: the audience already has a general idea of where the story is going to end up, so the show chooses to focus on the journey without any kind of expectation to reach a certain plot point before it is necessary. We revel in garden musings and castle weddings, sit wide-eyed at dragon races in the clouds and jousting tournaments of the knights of the court. Important historical moments during the reign of the Targaryen family feel like gifts on screen, easter eggs for devoted fans rather than shocking twists to ensure social media engagement (#RedWedding).
The world of Game of Thrones turns inward with House of the Dragon, and with the announcement of a third sequel series centering on the surviving characters of the original show, Martin is itching to expand his universe further. And so, for fans of Thrones who have missed waiting each weekend to explore the captivating world of Westeros, House of the Dragon is an admittedly worthwhile production, even if it does contribute to the franchise oversaturation of the television market. Tradition predicts that Dragon will end on an explosive note with a cliffhanger into next year, where it is sure to continue its trajectory as a strong addition to what aims to be the most ambitious, extensive fantasy universe ever created. Take that, Tolkien.
Everett Bonner is a senior in the SFS studying International Politics with minors in International Development and Japanese. He is the INDY’s Commentary Editor.