House of the Dragon (Season 1)
While HBO’s epic fantasy drama “Game of Thrones” ended in 2019, there had been constant news about various prequels and spin- offs to be in development. It seems many rejected pilots never saw the light of the day and it was ultimately in October 2019 that a prequel series for “GAME OF THRONES” that “tracks the beginning of the end for House Targaryen” was greenlit by HBO. The series begins 172 years before the events of the Game of Thrones during the reign of King Viserys I Targaryen, ultimately leading to the Targaryen civil war known as the “Dance of the Dragons” which is based on George R.R. Martin’s book by the same name. The show has completed its first season now and is all set to renew for the second and maybe more. After an unimpressive end to hugely fan favorite fantasy series, the initial word of mouth about the much-hyped prequel has been pretty positive. Let us dig deeper. A big spoiler alert for those who haven’t watched the show, yet.
Set 172 years before the events of its sequel “Game of Thrones”, “House of the Dragon” describes the story of the mighty Targaryens and an impending civil war that is likely to consume the whole of Westeros in the coming days. The show begins with the ending of the first century of the Targaryen dynasty, where the Old King, Jaehaerys who has reigned for over 60 years is having succession concerns with both of his sons having passed away. He calls up for a Great council meeting to choose an heir and the succession claim boils down to two- Princess Rhaenys Targaryen, the King’s eldest descendant and her younger cousin, Prince Viserys Targaryen, the King’s eldest male descendent. It’s left for the Great council to take a call and they chooses Viserys over Rhaenys. This sets the groundwork for one of many conflicts to arise because of one fundamental belief that rests in the minds of the people- a woman would never inherit the Iron Throne. The makers ensure they remind us of this at every crucial juncture thereon.
Years pass and now it’s the turn of Viserys to face the dilemma of succession as he is unable to produce a male heir with Queen Aemma Arryn who dies during childbirth. With tough competition from Viserys’ brother Daemon, Viserys announces his only living child, Princess Rhaenyra as the heir to the Iron throne. This is where the conflict solidifies its presence, and the tension resurfaces to signify a potential unrest that will destroy everything in days to come. The show takes several time leaps signifying the birth of Viserys’ sons with his new queen, Lady Alicent, the daughter of the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower. Rhaenyra is also grown up now and she has wedded Ser Laenor, the son of Viserys’ cousin, Rhaenys and Lord Corlys. She is a mother to three sons now, but it is clear that Ser Laenor is not the father as they lack the typical Targaryen/ Velaryon attributes. After Ser Laenor dies in a staged setup, Daemon and Rhaenyra have a private wedding in the old Valyrian tradition. There is another six-year time leap and now, Daemon and Rhaenyra visit a dying Viserys, who is completely disfigured and bedridden now. Otto and Alicent have taken over the reins of the Kingdom and the family seem to have a brief reunion before there is an attempted scoff by Aemond who challenges the illegitimacy of Rhaenyra’s three sons. On his death bed, Viserys whispers Aegon the Conqueror’s dream to Alicent, who assumes he meant their son Aegon to be crowned as the next King. This sparks a chain of events leading to a partition within the Targaryens that will set off the civil war that is set to destroy the families.
The show manages to establish its ensemble cast and create their character arcs, clearly allowing the audience to choose between the good and the bad. But as a viewer, I found it pretty difficult to choose sides because almost all the core characters have an agenda and lust for power and control. Unlike “Game of Thrones”, you do not have someone like the righteous Starks to side with. The show also managed to lay the bricks for the potential civil war that is going to be the end of the Targaryens. It also introduces the audience to the world of the dragons which I feel could materialize better in the coming seasons (there are way too many of those big lizards out there). Showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik set the ball rolling with the first episode which had a bit of everything- politics, drama, angst, despair, violence, rage and revenge. The catch however was to cover almost two decades of the Targaryen journey in 10 episodes. A lot of the time leaps felt disjointed with new actors replacing Rhaenyra and Alicent’s characters, but credit goes to the actors who kept the intensity alive because these two characters are quite pivotal to the entire story. As fate would have it, these two are now pitted against each other and are likely to be at loggerheads for quite a while. Unlike “Game of Thrones”, you don’t get a character to sympathize with, barring perhaps King Jaehaerys (who features for one scene and has no dialogue) and King Viserys who is perhaps the most grounded, practical, and reasonable of all characters you get to see.
Paddy Considine breathes life into Viserys’ character, the actor brings about a restrained, nuanced performance that keeps you invested. Matt Smith plays Daemon, the evil, conniving Prince heir to his elder brother Viserys and his is one of the most complicated characters of the lot. Matt portrays a certain lack of self-control brilliantly that leads to frequent violent outbursts resulting in some menacing, yet terrific scenes. A young Rhaenerya played by Milly Alcock hardly comes across raw and eventually it is Emma D’Arcy who plays the elder version of the same character. Emily Carey plays the young lady Alicent while Olivia Cooke plays the grown up and now Queen Alicent. Both actors have done remarkably well to bring in a more restrained performance that suits the character. Eve Best plays Princess Rhaenys Targaryen and Steve Toussaint plays her husband on screen, Lord Corlys Velaryon and both actors while at it give some of the most impressive scenes as their characters are mostly at the receiving end with the Targaryens in power. They have a few notable exchanges between these characters which signifies the stark differences of opinions they have when it comes to power. A special mention for Welsh actor Rhys Ifans playing Otto Hightower, a character that you find tough to resonate with and Rhys gives a strong spirited performance. Also, Fabiel Frankel who plays Ser Criston Cole comes up with an impressive performance especially in Episode 5, during Rhaenerya and Ser Laenor’s betrothal celebrations where he brings his acting chops to the forefront. Matthew Needham stays true to his character and plays the scheming, foot fetishist Larys Strong who we might see more of in the coming season(s).
“House of the Dragon” is a worthy prequel to “Game of Thrones”. It has its fair share of issues with an underdeveloped plot point for the dragons and their relationship with the riders; the pace of the show might not sit well with everyone either. But what makers Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik have been able to do is build enough for an exciting season ahead. This might have impacted the pace of the show but let me warn you this is as immersive an experience as “Game of Thrones” was (at least in first few seasons). The most difficult task for any spin- off or sequel/ prequel to “Game of Thrones” would be to come out of its shadow- “House of the Dragons” has done remarkably well at that. With impressive performances from a stellar cast, and a well-crafted story that peels layers at every step, “House of the Dragons” is an impressive outing for the Westerosi fans. I am going with 3.5 stars out of 5 and am super excited for the coming season(s).