"House of the Dragon" returns but lacks the storytelling fire to make us care who gets burned

The Dance of the Dragons begins, raising the stakes, but the same flaws from the show's first season persist

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 16, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

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

About two years have transpired between the first season of “House of the Dragon” and the second, long enough to either sharpen our hunger for what we've been missing or make us realize we’d forgotten it entirely.

For a lot of us, I suspect it’s a bit of both, much in the way that enough of us watched the first season to make it a gargantuan ratings hit while never precisely landing on why we kept on watching.

Some people are purely in it for the dragons and violence, and if that describes you, rejoice: each new episode this season  is spiked with viciousness, with the fourth finally serving up the fire and blood George R.R. Martin’s prequel book promises. But the same setbacks that dogged the first season haven’t been sufficiently improved enough to revive the heated affection we once felt for its HBO predecessor.

A main complaint about Season 1 concerned its tight focus on court intrigue and slow-motion table-setting to justify its existence. What's the point? From the moment it was announced we knew what the main draw would be: dragons, dragons, dragons, battling to the last wyrm flying.

But the emotional wallop of bloody war is only effective in measured doses. And war is what these chapters of Westerosi history promise. 

Tom Glynn Carney in "House of the Dragon" (HBO) (HBO)There’s also the unruly sprawl of the Targaryen line and its allies and vassals to contend with, requiring a bit of reminding as to who is who and who did what. There are entire Wikis dedicated to purpose, and you'd be wise to have a couple of those resources handy as you watch. (Everything is a multi-screen experience these days, amirite?) Nevertheless, here's a cursory summary for anybody who doesn’t have the time to study or 10 hours to spare on a Season 1 rewatch. 

Some 172 years pre-Daenerys, the Targaryen dynasty ruled the realm more or less peacefully until the death of King Viserys I. Before Viserys grew too frail for his judgment to be disputed, he named his daughter Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’arcy) as his heir. 

Rhaenyra’s ex-best friend Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) married Viserys, bore him two sons, and had a vicious falling out with Rhaenyra. Their rift leads Rhaenyra and her retinue to leave King’s Landing for the Targaryen seat of Dragonstone, which is where she is when she receives news of her father’s death and that Alicent has claimed the throne for her son Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), Rhaenyra’s’ half-brother. 

This world has more dragons to show off, but less of the natural magic that made “Game of Thrones” a satisfying weekly destination.

This divides the House into two factions: the Greens, named for the house color of the Hightowers, and the Blacks, which refers to one of the colors of House Targaryen – although some believe it refers to the dark hair of Rhaenyra’s illegitimate sons.

A few snipes, jabs and bullying sessions later, Aegon’s brother Prince Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) is riding his dragon Vhagar, the largest in the realm, when Vhagar chomps Aemond’s tiny nephew Lucerys and his dragon mid-flight. The news coincides with Rhaenyra miscarrying another child in as grotesque a manner as TV can dream up.

Harry Collett, Emma D'arcy and Oscar Eskinazi in "House of the Dragon" (HBO) (HBO)Nevertheless, a few optimists in the realm (and maybe in the audience) wonder whether peace can be salvaged from this wreckage. That quandary dominates the small councils on Dragonstone and King's Landing. Rhaenyra’s bloodthirsty prince consort and uncle-husband Daemon (Matt Smith) itches to deliver vengeance, while Rhaenyra’s cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best) counsels caution and patience. Alicent and her father Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) do what they can to rein in Aegon, who can't accept that his hold on the Iron Throne is tenuous. 

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Nearly everyone who matters is spoiling for a scrap, the audience most of all. Teasing out that tension leads to a Wagnerian opera’s worth of agonizing about what could, should, might and ought to happen, interrupted by singular, brutal acts that make violence on a massive scale inevitable. 

That portends fiery mid-air conflagrations between legends that show up in “Game of Thrones” as skulls and bones. Provided we can bring ourselves to feel for the people riding those magnificent monsters or dodging their fire, that may be enough to sustain these eight episodes. But that's the weak spot in this show’s arsenal. Since we're never afforded significant views into each of these player's motivations or moral triggers, too many of these Targaryens and Velaryons and Greens and Blacks and Strongs and whatevers are expendable.

The emotional wallop of bloody war is only effective in measured doses. And war is what these chapters of Westerosi history promise. 

A few core performers expend enough energy and heat to make their work worth savoring. Mainly this refers to D’Arcy and Cooke, whose characters' grief and grievance cage them along with their relative powerlessness. 

But despite the palpable ache and regret these actors rip out of themselves, their queens are also relegated to the periphery of the action, ceding domination to one-note figures. Smith's range is limited to the extremes of rage and fuming sadism, although oddly enough his work enabled me to appreciate the dimension Mitchell lends to Aemond's brooding and malevolence. 

Olivia Cooke and Ewan Mitchell in "House of the Dragon" (HBO) (HBO)At the same time, it's still a struggle to care about anyone else. Two very nice and noble men, for example, are drawn into a horrendous confrontation  that ends miserably for both them, with one going out while weeping. But regardless of their efforts the best I could muster at the end of their sweaty, bloody passion play was, "Ouch."

Again: the subpar writing deserves the blame for that, not the performers. This world has more dragons to show off, but less of the natural magic that made “Game of Thrones” a satisfying weekly destination. I’m not talking about the sorcery in Essos, but the extensive dives into the humanity and foibles of each character that strengthened the audience’s bond with them. “Game of Thrones” scripts are also enriched with humor and heart, yet this “House” holds little if any of either. 

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Still, it also spotlights Best making the most of what she’s given by speaking volumes in her restrained expressiveness. But aside from her dragon rider, Cooke’s disillusioned queen mother, and D’Arcy’s disempowered ruler, few of the drama’s most consequential characters carry enough meat on their bones to inspire our investment in their survival. Even Fabien Frankel’s easy-on-the-eyes Criston Cole has little to work with besides sex and anger. You may be shocked at how quickly that combo becomes tiresome. 

Terrible things occur in service of Alicent and the Greens or Rhaenyra and the Blacks, including a barbaric act in the premiere that solidifies a point of no return. But a combination of thinly embroidered character interiority and the assumption that we know where all this is headed makes each encounter feel like a roadside attraction on a precisely mapped highway. 

“House of the Dragon” has already been renewed for a third season, and we may find that the back half of this one finds ways to remedy the diluted storytelling leaving us cold. The fourth episode fuels that hope even as the action within drains whatever dregs of assurances are left for the realm.

Season 2 of "House of the Dragon" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, June 16 on HBO and on Max.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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