The violence is just as brutal, the relationships creepier than ever — welcome to “House of the Dragon,” the “Game of Thrones” spinoff that might as well be called “Dated and Related.”
Stakes are high, considering “GoT” was the biggest show in the world during its run from 2011-2019, even if it crash landed into a widely derided ending.
While “House of the Dragon” (premiering Aug. 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO) is hardly a masterpiece, it is an addictively watchable series full of juicy drama, palace intrigue and crowd-pleasing “GoT” nostalgia.
Set 172 years before the birth of Daenerys, it gives us Westeros by way of “Succession.” We’re entrenched in the drama of her ancestors, the silver-haired, dragon-riding, incest-happy Targaryen family — and what led to their decline, with Daenerys and Jon Snow the last of their bloodline.
The main conflict in “House of the Dragon,” which is based on George R. R. Martin’s book “Fire & Blood,” is a civil war between Princess Rhaenyra and her half-brother Aegon II (who isn’t yet born at the start of this show) over who will get the throne. The Targaryens are the power players ruling Westeros during this era, but the current king, Viserys I (Paddy Considine), a sane ruler (a novelty in this world!), needs to name an heir.Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in “House of the Dragon.” Behind her, Paddy Considine as her dad, Viserys I, sits on the throne. Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO
Fans who are looking for characters to latch onto and root for — the way the original show gave us the Starks — will be disappointed. The Targaryens are a bunch of prickly weirdos, and all of the show’s relationships are straight out of Groomers R Us, pairing middle-aged men with young girls they’ve known for years, who are often blood relatives, to boot. Dragons and battles and politics are all well and good, but they weren’t the only factors in why “GoT” landed with such a huge audience.
The main contender for Viserys I’s crown is his young daughter Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock in the first few episodes; in later episodes after a time-jump, she’s played by Emma D’Arcy). But it’s against the norm for women to rule, so the king’s advisors fear this would cause chaos. We mostly see her gallivanting with her friend, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, and later Olivia Cooke), whose dad Otto (Rhys Ifans) is the Hand of the King. Rhaenyra also has an uncomfortably flirty dynamic with her uncle Daemon (a scenery-chewing Matt Smith, oozing menace).
The incest between twins Jaime and Cersei Lannister was icky on “GoT,” but at least they were the same age, and the show also offered plenty of more palatable romances to counter that. It’s disturbing — and sure to raise eyebrows — to watch Daemon, who’s pushing 40, flirt with his young teen niece.Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in the first few episodes of “House of the Dragon.” Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBOMatt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen in “House of the Dragon.” Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBOOlivia Cooke as older Alicent Hightower, left, and Emma D’Arcy as older Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in “House of the Dragon.” Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO
As the King’s brother, Daemon is another contender for the throne, but nearly everyone (including Otto, who hates him) thinks that would be a catastrophe, since he’s impulsive, violent and power hungry. (Naturally, he delivers many of the scenes that are sordid, gruesome, or just plain fun.) And, when the King finally has a baby boy, matters of his succession become even more complicated.
Like “GoT,” “House of The Dragon” features plenty of characters scheming in rooms and action scenes infused with brutality. At times, the writing is almost comically heavy-handed. In one episode, a pregnant woman compares childbirth to the battlefield. Later, the scene cuts back and forth between her labor going badly and a battlefield full of men violently beating each other. “GoT” wasn’t a subtle show, but it didn’t hit viewers over the head quite like this. The swapping of actresses for Rhaenyra and Alicent is also jarring — although both pairs deliver good performances, the switch feels unnecessarily distracting, since the jump in age isn’t all that apparent.Graham McTavish as Ser Harrold Westerling in “House of the Dragon.” Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBOOne of the many dragons on “House of the Dragon.” Courtesy of HBOKing Viserys (Paddy Considine) and his daughter, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, chat in front of a dragon skull. Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO
For better or worse, “House of the Dragon” has a smaller scope than “GoT.” If you got tired of Jon in the freezing cold, you could always count on “GoT” to change the scene to a different character or family. In “House of the Dragon,” we’ve only got the grandiose Targaryens, and the main location (with some exceptions) is King’s Landing.
Aside from having questionable wigs, “House of the Dragon” is well done for what it is: a pulpy political fantasy that makes you want to keep watching. And it manages to learn at least one key lesson from “GoT”: Its sex scenes are more tastefully filmed, depict nudity of both women and men — and the former mostly appear to be having a good time, too.
It remains to be seen whether wider audiences can get over their ire with the “GoT” ending, or if this will be a more niche show for hardcore fans. But, it should set many viewers on fire.