There are two contrasting opinions held by those who sat through the entirety of HBO’s groundbreaking series Game of Thrones: The first is that the final season was mildly disappointing; the second is that it was the worst televisual abomination mankind has ever seen. Whichever camp you belong to— and really, there are only two— the finale was such a letdown that it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever venture into Westeros again, at least not in the world of TV. (Even the literary future of the property is uncertain, given that George R. R. Martin, annoyingly, seems to have no intention of actually finishing the story he began with the novel A Game of Thrones 26— yes, 26!— years ago.) And yet a spinoff series, to be called House of the Dragon, was announced mere months after the HBO show ended. Was anyone (besides HBO’s accountants) really clamoring for this? And what would the new show even be about? Surely if the creators had a good story, they would already have included it in the original show instead of giving us whatever the hell the final season ended up being. Right?
Wrong. Based on the pilot episode of House of the Dragon, there are still many, many stories left to tell about the fantasy world of Westeros. I am happy to report that the new series features the same top-tier performances, stunning visuals, copious amounts of sex and violence, and political machinations that made Game of Thrones so popular in its heyday. (Oh, and there are also more dragons in this show— and that’s always a good thing.)
Still, it’s not all good news.
(Disclaimer: The proper, the correct, the honorable thing to do in a review such as this would be to judge the new show on its own terms rather than to compare it to the original; but the new show itself is so beholden to its predecessor that it’s almost impossible for me to do that. Oh, and there are also massive spoilers in this article. You have been warned.)
Some of the main characters are so underdeveloped that it’s difficult to determine whose story this is ultimately supposed to be. Granted, Game of Thrones had a similar issue; but in that show that was a good thing: It was hard to pick a favorite protagonist simply because there were so many interesting ones! In the present show, there are very few standout characters— although this is more a function of the seemingly rushed script than of the considerable skill of all the actors in the cast. Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) and Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), for example, are both such compelling characters they could carry two separate spinoff series on their own.
It is a credit to House of the Dragon that it is different from Game of Thrones… but it is not different enough. Ramin Djawadi’s music, for example, suffers in comparison to the original because it tries so hard— and often fails— to balance being an homage to the composer’s own iconic score and being its own thing. It’s almost as if the creators said, “Let’s do something new… but not too new.” Hence, a story that focuses on the Golden Age of the Targaryens… by showing the exact same violence, lawlessness, and debauchery that we’ve already seen before. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to begin the series with the Targaryens at the height of their power, just like the marketing promised, and then slowly reveal how it all went wrong?
But the main flaw of this show, at least based on this pilot, is its inability to sustain tension. So many intriguing plot points are set up, only to be resolved or completely forgotten moments later: Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best) loses the Iron Throne to her brother Viserys (Paddy Considine)… and doesn’t really do anything about it. Viserys suffers a personal loss so tragic he storms out of a council meeting, leaving an important matter hanging… only for that same matter to be resolved in a later scene. Prince Daemon and Ser Criston Cole (Fabian Frankel) nearly kill each other in a tournament… with no apparent consequences whatsoever for either one of them. Lady Alicent (Emily Carey) is sent by her father Otto Hightower to the King, apparently to seduce him… but nothing comes of it, and it is never commented on again. The King shares a secret prophecy with his daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock)… but given that we already know (from watching Game of Thrones) that the prophecy will not actually come to pass, the revelation offers no emotional impact at all. Even the final scene of the episode, which is normally where one might put something exciting to entice viewers back for the next chapter, shows Princess Rhaenyra elevated to a position fraught with potential danger… but since the danger is never defined or even hinted at, it’s not really a cliffhanger at all.
And yet, despite all these shortcomings, the show still somehow manages to be entertaining. It will almost certainly improve as the cast and creative team find their footing, perhaps reaching or even surpassing its predecessor in a few episodes, or perhaps a season or two. As it stands, House of the Dragon pilot is just gorgeous enough, its characters just sympathetic enough, its plot just interesting enough, for me to come back for more.
(3 out of 5 stars)