"House of the Dragon" is a slow ride back to Westeros that takes its time in lighting our fire

In a reminder that dragons aren't the whole show, this "Game of Thrones" prequel takes a while to find its momentum

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published August 21, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Milly Alcock in "House of the Dragon" (Courtesy of Ollie Upton/HBO)
Milly Alcock in "House of the Dragon" (Courtesy of Ollie Upton/HBO)

House Targaryen is known by a handful of traits, including their silvery hair; their spiky tempers; their relaxed attitude concerning incest; their tendency toward madness; and, of course, their dragons. Popular thinking may suppose that we could do without everything else but those fire-breathing terrors, but "House of the Dragon" tests that theory.

When the "Game of Thrones" prequel begins, the land is lousy with Targaryens, whose house has 10 dragons under their command, securing their dynastic rule for a century. But having a herd of flying tanks doesn't make them especially exciting to be around. Not that the realms have much to complain about under King Viserys I (Paddy Considine), the Iron Throne's current occupant, and, in an off-brand twist, a reasonable (i.e. boring) guy.

That doesn't mean his rule is unassailable. His brother Prince Daemon (Matt Smith, "Doctor Who") is impetuous, violent, and self-serving, believing himself to be many times more the dragon than his sibling. Within the space of one episode Daemon checks nearly all the boxes on the Evil Targaryen list of qualifications save for the gross family lovin' – but stay tuned.

His cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best) was passed over by the old king despite being well-liked and married to Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), head of the wealthiest house in Westeros. Rhaenys' unofficial title, the Queen Who Never Was, is a backhanded acknowledgment of her suitability to rule – and she accepts it, albeit with a tight smile, knowing her husband has the largest Navy in the world.

HBO's first adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Westeros sagas held off introducing its dragons until the last moment of the first season. Since "House of the Dragon" is set 172 years before the Mad King's overthrow and the birth of Daenerys, sightings are far more common; when one screeches over King's Landing in the opening episode, the commonfolk barely blink.

House of the DragonEve Best in "House of the Dragon" (Courtesy of Ollie Upton/HBO)

This matches the prevailing energy of the first few episodes, as Martin and his co-creator and showrunner Ryan Condal restock a familiar stage with new players. But they also rewind the clock to the slowest version of simmering palace intrigue, requiring us to acclimate to new stakes. In the past, the Night King is a shadow and a myth, and the Lannisters are a family of try-hards. The whole of King's Landing looks fresh and, to be honest, a bit basic; the visual effects budget appears to have taken a hit. On the plus side, the show's wig game is an improvement over where "Game of Thrones" began.

Other elements of the producers' approach improve on the original as well, paramount being the narrative focus on Rhaenyra Targaryen, Viserys' firstborn and a dragonrider like her father and cousins. Rhaenyra is younger when we first meet her (and played by Milly Alcock), with a slight build and quietude that belie a ferocious worthiness to rule.

Her point of view informs the more balanced way the writers present women in a society programmed to write them off. She is as much of a royal as she is a would-be general, skilled at riding her dragons and standing up to her dangerous uncle Daemon, who appreciates her willfulness.

All the measured table-setting is preparing the way for a fiery future.

Rhaenyra's ability to reason with him and her father demonstrates  the steady demeanor required to rule the realm. She's also courageous without being reckless and has vision and a steel will. But she's a woman, and as the Queen Who Never Was tersely reminds her, men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend to the Iron Throne.

Alcock presents Rhaenyra as a living ice fortress with a molten heart that only her closest confidantes like her handmaid Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, in her younger version) are allowed to see. The rest of the world views her as a currency her father can exchange for a strategic alliance with a powerful house.

But Rhaenyra knows she deserves to take her father's place. This is a pressing concern since Viserys has no male heir. Trusting the throne to the wrong person could spell doom for the realm and their house's supremacy. 

It shouldn't escape anyone's notice that Martin and Condal chose to introduce this "Game of Thrones" prequel with a plot that kicks off with the question of succession. (HBO loves rich and powerful relatives who cannibalize one another, doesn't it?) As that other popular drama teaches us, there's no juicier cut than pitting siblings against one another in a bid for power.

"House of the Dragon" is based on Martin's "Fire & Blood" which, in addition to tracing the Targaryen family tree back to its roots in old Valyria, explains what led to the devastating internecine war known as The Dance of the Dragons. That means all the measured table-setting is preparing the way for fiery future.

House of the DragonHouse of the Dragon (Courtesy of HBO)

But this also requires a tremendous amount of faith in the writers and the actors to settle into the story and the roles that bring it to life. That's the part that hasn't quite clicked into place.

The opening season of "Game of Thrones" also introduced its royals and knights as trained political animals before they began ripping each other apart, along with the realm. But its writers injected riveting personalities into the story from the start. Sansa's and Arya's vitality leaped off the screen; Tyrion's deadpan wit and intellect announced Peter Dinklage as the show's great star.

Lena Headey let us know that Cersei Lannister was no mere woman – she was a mood. An elegantly dressed, wine-swilling mood. And Ned Stark was, well, Sean Bean.

"House of the Dragon" relies on Smith's Daemon and Alcock's Rhaenyra (for the first five of the season's 10 episodes) to stoke our fire. Considine is a wonderful actor, but Viserys' duty fatigue is wearying, and everyone else in his court holds their emotions too close to the vest to add much spice.

House of the DragonMatt Smith in "House of the Dragon" (Courtesy of Ollie Upton/HBO)

That leaves the ambitious princess and her beastly uncle to goose our adrenaline, which is an easier proposition with Rhaenyra. She has a wild streak tempered by principle. In contrast, Prince Daemon's predilection for extreme, random violence makes him a deeply questionable contender for the audience's favor.

Cersei Lannister was a mood. An elegantly-dressed, wine-swilling mood.

Then again, Daemon's horrible petulance is a product of a performance Smith mines from the darkest bowels of his id and sculpts with a sense of scorn and hunger. His prince is the wrong man for the realm but he may be the right one to keep us interested in what happens to Westeros once it slides into chaos,

In the same way that we can assume certain behaviors of men like Daemon, a viewer may come to "House of Dragons" expecting the writers to resume their predecessors' glamorization of rape and exploitative sexposition. But if its early episodes indicate the tone Condal and his co-showrunner and director Miguel Sapochnik are going for, they seem to have dialed that back.

Granted, this is still a G.R.R.M. joint, meaning there's little to no chance of an hour passing without some nudity, sex, violence, and a level of gore that would make the floor of a slaughterhouse look as average as a T.J. Maxx clearance bin.

Daemon delivers on all fronts in the premiere when he spins up the City Watch into a frenzied rampage before unleashing them on King's Landing's citizens, following that bloody action by scooting on over to the local pleasure house for a bit of stress-relieving slap and tickle. But the writers don't excuse his atrocriousness by humanizing him, which makes one wonder what this show endeavors to say about the undeniable charisma of monstrous people.

"House of the Dragon" takes about five episodes to warm up, which corresponds to the amount of time that we spend with the younger actors playing key roles before a time jump necessitates a casting change, with Emma D'Arcy becoming "adult" Rhaenyra and Olivia Cooke as Alicent. Only one of the six episodes provided for review features their performances, but their takeover doesn't impact the story as sharply as the change in their characters' respective fortunes.

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Citing specifics would spoil the surprises in upcoming episodes, but it's sufficient to know that their friendship in their younger years is presented with a level of import similar to, if not on par with, the bond shared by Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon.

The difference is that Rhaenyra may never see a battlefield – although that's not a certainty – and Alicent definitely won't. But her ring of influence is no less intimidating since, as the daughter of Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King, Alicent was raised to placidly navigate the King's court and listen to its whispers.

This is one of the many ways "House of the Dragon"  better emphasizes the double standards society applies to women and their relationship to power. Alicent accepts her duty without fuss, following the steps set for her by a father that assures her that if she obeys the men in her life, she'll be rewarded with an elevated status.

Young Rhaenyra lacks that complacency. Although the small council views her as little more than a cup bearer, she reminds them that she's a dragonrider who doesn't wait for permission to accomplish what men armed with nothing more than their assurance of their authority can't.

The last time we saw a Targaryen that confident ride a dragon, she ended up dashing our hopes. But Rhaenyra is not Daenerys. She doesn't have a hype squad cheering on her murderous inclinations – yet – or an unearned sense of destiny. She's learning the price of capability and lessons about what it means to be a Targaryen, and a woman, from noble sources and unseemly ones. That combination of influences makes her an enigmatic guide back to a land we haven't forgotten, yet aren't entirely sure we've missed very much. She may make it worth our while to stick around and watch her flame grow into a mesmerizing blaze.

"House of the Dragon" premieres Sunday, Aug. 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max. Watch a trailer, via YouTube.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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