By Zach Hagadone
A little more than three years after Daenerys Targaryen firebombed King’s Landing atop her dragon, got shanked by her erstwhile lover-nephew John Snow and opened the way for King Bran to rule Westeros, the world introduced by author George R.R. Martin’s fantasy phenom Game of Thrones is back on the small screen.
Never mind that the GoT series on HBO ended in May 2019 with Martin having failed to finish his novel series, which is technically titled A Song of Ice and Fire — and never mind that he still hasn’t delivered those final books — the prequel series House of the Dragon arrived on the scene Aug. 21 with its Episode 1 premiere on HBO.
Based on the fictional history book Fire and Blood, published in 2018, HotD (as it’s come to be known) is focused on the dynasty of House Targaryen at the height of the family’s power 172 years before the events of Game of Thrones.
For the uninitiated, almost none of the above, nor anything below, will make much sense. By way of simple explanation: the Targaryens are a brood of incestuous silver-haired aristocrats who alone possess the ability to hatch, raise and ride dragons, making them the superpower of the seven kingdoms of Westeros, which they conquered using their winged weapons of mass destruction.
Where HotD begins, the Targaryens are experiencing a period of transition, with King Viserys I in weary decline while lacking a male heir. His brother Daemon (whose name indicates his personality) is technically next in line, but he’s an arrogant, misogynistic psychopath, and no one but him thinks he’s fit to wear the crown.
Meanwhile, the king’s headstrong, intelligent and brave teenage daughter, Rhaenrya, is more than qualified to ascend the Iron Throne, but she’s a female, and hitherto no queen has been allowed to rule the kingdoms.
This sets up a viper’s nest of competing inter-family interests, loyalties and betrayals, which anyone with even a passing familiarity with GoT will recognize as stock-in-trade for George R.R. Martin’s vision of a feudal Dallas with dragons.
So far, the reviews have been overwhelming in their praise. Imdb gives the show a 9/10, 90% of Google users liked it and Rotten Tomatoes rates it at 83%.
Still, there are skeptics. The New York Times wrote that HotD is “saddled with respectability. It wants to be taken seriously, or at least not give undue offense.” The Times also called it, “Game of Thrones as Masterpiece Theater.” Slant Magazine went further, writing that while HotD may mature into “a good show,” “its current incarnation is a colossal bore.”
As one of those fans who read all the Song of Ice and Fire books, eagerly watched every episode of GoT, bought his wife a copy of Fire and Blood, and still listens to lengthy podcasts about all of the above, it pains me to say that I may be leaning toward House Naysayer.
There is a lot to like about House of the Dragon. It is indeed gorgeous, with each episode reported to cost more than the finale of GoT. The set design, costuming and action — in all their lurid, bloody, opulent glory — are impeccable. The dragons are spectacular, too. Yet, after having watched the premiere twice in as many days, I couldn’t shake it that this vision of Westeros felt flat.
Whereas GoT built its world of power-mad dynastic hustlers on a global scale, jumping across seas and continents to develop rich stories swirling around a massive cast of characters, HotD feels confined by the centrality of the Targaryens to its narrative. Episode 1 consisted in large part of attractive rich people bickering and whispering in low tones. Sure there were some good-old GoT bursts of ultra-violence — a gory jousting match, a limb-chopping raid on criminals in the capital city and a Cesarean birth performed without anesthesia — as well as the requisite brothel scenes, but again, these incidents unfolded with little vim.
Beyond that, a sense of humor seems entirely absent. For all its blood and guts, nudity and essential shock value, GoT was frequently really funny and even emotionally affecting. By contrast, House of the Dragon so far lacks any characters to compare with the likes of Tyrion Lannister, much less side characters like Lord Varys, Davos Seaworth and Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, who chewed up their every scene.
We’re only one episode in — with subsequent installments streaming on HBO every Sunday — and I’m holding out hope for something with more fire; but, so far, HotD often comes off as cold as a midnight trudge around Winterfell.
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