It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to count HBO’s Game of Thrones as one of the most divisive TV series in recent memory. Everything from errant coffee cups left on set to poor lighting in fight scenes created weeks of debate and conversation for fans–and it was understandable, all things considered. What had started as a series adapting George R.R. Martin’s beloved, and notably unfinished, fantasy novel series had eventually outpaced the source material, leaving the show to travel without a finished roadmap to an ending all its own. And while Game of Thrones’ mixed results may give many fans pause at the thought of returning to Westeros all over again, the same cannot be said for the network. HBO is all in on Martin and the Game of Thrones universe, as evidenced by their latest prestige project, House of the Dragon. And, based on the first six episodes of the ten episode season provided for review, more Game of Thrones is currently the extent of the game plan.
Set hundreds of years before the events of Game of Thrones proper, House of the Dragon zeroes in on the Targaryens, the platinum blonde lineage of dragon-riding conquerors who were represented almost exclusively by fan-favorite Daenerys in the original series. Now, the Targaryens are out in full force, at the height of their power, galavanting all around Westeros with their dragons in tow–and, well, that’s about all there is to it. House of the Dragon is, by all accounts, just more Game of Thrones–sure, the Iron Throne might look different and the characters all have different names, but the stories are nearly identical to what we’ve already seen. There’s political drama revolving around the succession of a king, competing heirs, incest, secret affairs, plenty of backstabbing, tons of violence and gore–and absolutely no surprises.
To its credit, House of the Dragon’s ensemble cast does a great job selling their respective stories–even if most (if not all) of them are bizarrely paced and confusingly delivered. Each episode of Season 1 skips an indeterminate amount of time confirmed not in title cards or any official notation but in throwaway dialogue between characters that announces how much time has passed between the events we just saw. This gives the whole story a strangely fast-forwarded feeling. Months, sometimes years, pass between the ending credits of one episode and the opening of the next, and arcs that feel like they ought to be the focus of the whole season are abruptly blinked in and out of existence with no time to breathe. Character relationships grow and turn sour at break-neck speed while obviously telegraphed bits of subtext and foreshadowing–like the King’s failing health, for example–drag on and on in slow motion.
Then, in one of the show’s strangest choices, a more significant time-skip happens between Episodes 5 and 6 that sees a handful of characters replaced by (slightly) older actors while others are given slight touch-ups with prosthetics and age make-up. Princess Rhaenyra goes from being played by 22-year-old Milly Alcok to 30-year-old Emma D’arcy while Allicent Hightower gets swapped from 19-year-old Emily Carey to 28-year-old Olivia Cooke. Meanwhile, their on-again-off-again love interest Ser Criston (played by 28-year-old Fabien Frankel) stays the course throughout. King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) are similarly unchanged, save for some make-up age-spots and swapped-out wigs. This isn’t to say any of the actors are bad in their roles–but given the show’s already wonky pacing, and the fact that both Rhaenyras and both Allicents really don’t look all that different from one another, it’s difficult to see what the re-casting actually adds to the show, if anything at all.
Similarly confusing for a show called House of the Dragon is the general lack of, well, dragons. The big fantasy beasts are certainly around, to be sure–but there is a conspicuous lack of emphasis in the front half of the season, with only a few notable exceptions–and the scenes that do feature them are largely forgettable. Perhaps this is thanks to the fact that, unlike in Game of Thrones, Westeros isn’t currently at war–the Targaryens are, by all accounts, pretty comfortable, and no armies are marching on King’s Landing–but that just becomes another problem as the show goes on. There just aren’t any real stakes to be found here–sure, there’s the issue of who gets the throne once Viserys dies, but even that feels like an obvious and forgone conclusion given that we know exactly what Westeros looks like 200 years down the line.
More frustrating still is the fact that House of the Dragon seems convinced that this non-event is not only the most interesting thing it has going for it, but that it’s also making some sort of pointed commentary about women’s rights and feminism within the fantasy society of Westeros. There are multiple moments across the first six episodes where characters all but look straight into the camera and say, “Wow, isn’t our society just terrible for women? Shouldn’t we do something about this?” Only to have the inevitable, cartoonish rebuttal come that no, we can’t, because of tradition and history and the like. Instead of actually engaging with these themes at all, or even attempting to provide any sort of criticism or drama that actually centers or grapples with issues of misogyny, House of the Dragon repeatedly leans on tired tropes and expected beats about unhappy arranged marriages and forced childbirth. We’ve seen it all before, and we know it doesn’t change.
House of the Dragon also never really commits to this surface-level progressivism. It repeatedly sidelines the plots that focus on queens and succession to make time for rooms of men anxiously talking about some short-lived military conflict or an extended fight scene between anonymous knights crushing each others’ skulls with their fists or sword hilts. Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), who was poignantly dubbed “The Queen Who Never Was” after she was passed over in her own claim to the throne by a patriarchal father, feels specifically underused in this regard. She seems like an idea that probably had a ton of narrative weight and gravity in some earlier version of the story that didn’t survive into production and now we’re left with a handful of vestigial ideas and forgettable, spread apart scenes that reference them. And, again, this is nothing we haven’t seen before already with characters like Cersei Lanniser or even Daenerys back in the original show.
Being exactly like Game of Thrones isn’t always the worst thing, however. While it may make for an unsurprising story, the sets, costumes, and production design are all extremely strong. The show has a very polished look, and the familiarity of places like King’s Landing is actually an asset here–love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny that Game of Thrones really knew how to sell an ornately embroidered gown and a craggy, ancient-looking castle. The violence, too, is executed with some great practical and digital effects. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste to watch tiny crabs pick apart screaming sailors bit-by-bit while they’re crucified on the beach, but if you can push past the disgust you’ll no doubt recognize that the gorey tableaus are executed with fantastic attention to detail both in make-up and VFXs.
Strong visuals and capable performances are hardly enough of a selling point for the show as a whole, however. House of the Dragon will likely find an audience but from here, it’s difficult to see who, exactly, that audience will be.