House of the Dragon review – this Game of Thrones prequel is gorgeous, opulent television
George RR Martin’s world struts its way back on to our screens with utter confidence and brio. As captivating as it is gruesome, it’s like a greatest hits playlist of Westeros at its meatiest
The opening episode of House of the Dragon (Sky Atlantic) is simply spectacular. For an hour, it rattles through everything that made its predecessor, Game of Thrones, such a titan of the small screen, especially when it was in its prime. It is a greatest hits playlist of Westeros at its meatiest. Family members make promises they cannot keep as they connive and betray each other, in secret and in plain sight. There is jousting, romping and fighting. There are dragons, of course. There is a drunken orgy, an axe to the face, a caesarean without anaesthetic, seeping wounds, severed limbs and severed organs, too. George RR Martin’s world struts its way back on to our screens with utter confidence and brio.
It is as captivating as it is gruesome. A prequel to Game of Thrones, it begins 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, and it chronicles the fall of the Targaryen dynasty, though after watching the first six episodes of squabbling and scheming, the real question is how it can possibly take two centuries to collapse. It opens with the Lear-esque prospect of a failing king choosing his heir, and though the people shift slightly over the course of the series, succession is the thread that keeps it all together.
Episodes one to five centre on young Princess Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock), the only child of King Viserys I (Paddy Considine). Rhaenyra is a strong, ambitious and courageous teenage girl, and would be an ideal heir, were it not for the fact that the Lords have already made it clear, in very recent history, that tradition demands a king, and not a queen, on the Iron Throne. In this world, royal women are breeding machines and bargaining chips. “I am glad I am not a woman,” says one male character, later in the series. It could be the tagline for the whole thing.
Amid much grumbling about Rhaenyra, Viserys’s brother steps forward. Daemon is a hotheaded peacock who refuses to play by any rules he considers beneath him. The political wheel turns on a rumour, and as Viserys begins to appear frail, there is a growing sense of urgency about where the wheel will stop. I’d argue that Game of Thrones thrived on the strength of its villains, far more than the virtues of its heroes, and Matt Smith plays Daemon as a vain and bitter man who nevertheless cannot quite betray his family name. He is a nasty piece of work, for sure, a misogynist and a sadist, but until episode six, he is the only truly despicable main player in King’s Landing. House of the Dragon takes its time to drip-feed the down-in-the-dirt baddies that are so enjoyable to rail against.
‘It opens with the Lear-esque prospect of a failing king choosing his heir.’
‘It opens with the Lear-esque prospect of a failing king choosing his heir.’ Photograph: HBO/2022 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved. HBO® and all related programs are the property of Home Box Office, Inc.
Partly this is because it is a more grownup version of this world. To mangle the words of Elvis Presley, it is 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” might sound cute, though wait and see how that works out), but after the opener, much of this is about whispered conversations and heated discussions over loyalties, betrayals, allegiances and which children should be joined in matrimony in order to minimise the political fallout. There is a lot of dialogue.
There is a specificity that both works in its favour and occasionally weakens its impact. It is incredibly rich, and it has a narrative focus that is necessary, considering the huge cast of characters. Obviously, it is about the Targaryen dynasty, and though other familiar names are mentioned – a Tully here, a Stark there, an arrogant Lannister dropping by – this is the Targaryens’ story. With such detail, if it had darted between Houses and their various seats of power, then I am not sure I would have been able to keep up. Even so, I did miss the breadth of Game of Thrones, and its ability to move between locations, each so vivid in their own different ways.
Having skipped forward a few years here and there, it jumps forward another decade for episode six, during which time everyone has a lot of children. (There is as much childbirth in this as an episode of One Born Every Minute, though oddly enough, it lacks that warm fuzzy feeling.) A handful of the characters are recast as adults, and the action is reset, though not as definitively as it first seems. This leap might have been jarring, but this is so elegant and proper, so obviously well-made, that there was no real chance of a misstep like that. House of the Dragon is gorgeous, opulent television, cinematic and big, pushing at the edges of what TV can do. It is just that little bit less fun than its predecessor.