House of the Dragon: spectacle over substance

Favouring historical exposition over character, and pointedly Big Themes over compelling drama, this Game of Thrones prequel feels blunter, less artful and more predictable than its forebear.

Emily Carey as Alicent Hightower in House of the Dragon (2022)

Game of Thrones (2011-19) towers over its own realm, that of TV ‘high fantasy’, like a colossus. Its influence has bitten deep into The Last Kingdom (2015-22), The Witcher (2019-), The Wheel of Time (2021-), has even made itself visible in the battling heroine of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022-). It looms unhelpfully large over the franchise’s long-awaited prequel, a handsome but plodding family saga, liberally seasoned with the requisite sex and violence, tracing the vicious Targaryen succession struggle nearly 200 years prior to the events in Game of Thrones. Their Westeros enjoys a decadent but secure dynasty (a dozen dragons are their nuclear arsenal), until events conspire to bring teenage Princess Rhaenya (Milly Alcock) close to power.

You can feel showrunners Ryan J. Condal and George R.R. Martin reaching for a new tone here; the internecine conflict is still there in full force but the story is now more intimate, its first few episodes carefully unspooling family jostlings and betrayals as widower king Viserys (Paddy Considine) struggles with a frustrated Rhaenya, while the scheming noble houses of Hightower and Velaryon shove child brides under his nose. With spiky exchanges taking place in the Red Keep’s courtyards and council chambers, things are kept claustrophobically tight, but the hardened Game of Thrones fan might pine for the confident, kingdom-sweeping scale of yore. There’s no denying that House of the Dragon is a lush, good-looking show, strikingly shot and thick with dragon-emblemed medieval production design, but the series’ attempts to step out from its predecessor’s shadow while also honouring its heritage fall flat. The focus on castle politicking means significantly fewer of the prized crowdpleasing blood-and-mud battle sequences, while a dragon-fuelled side-plot involving a piracy row with rival kingdoms feels like fan service. There’s no existential threat to the kingdom here; it’s just a chance for Viserys’s ambitious brother Daemon (Matt Smith) to demonstrate his talent for violent death-or-glory grandstanding.

The show goes long on dragons but short on fun, often too busy ploughing through the compendious Martin-penned Westeros history on which the show is based. Compelling characters are also short on the ground. Amid a pleasingly (and overdue) multicultural cast, Rhys Ifans’s manipulative Lord Hightower and Steve Toussaint’s blustering ‘Sea Snake’ Velaryon lack both heft and juicy, earthy dialogue. And when a mid-season ten-year time jump brings key cast changes and a teeming cohort of feuding Targaryen offspring, it makes the show lurch, further loosening the characters’ grip on us. The now-older, marriage-hardened Rhaenya, played by Emma D’Arcy, has to grab our attention all over again. The simultaneous introduction of Game of Thrones tropes like psycho-eyed princelings, a wrecked wedding and a handicapped plotter also fuel the feeling that the show isn’t finding its own voice fast enough. There are, however, saving graces: Matt Smith’s swaggering troublemaker Daemon electrifies his scenes with transgressive threat, sowing promising seeds of chaos, and Considine, making believable Viserys’s guilt-ridden parenting and anxious, fear-and-fury rule, brings the thoughtful shades of grey that the show needs more of to deepen its melodramatic clashes.

It is also fascinating to see the plight of royal women as political pawns and brood mares centred for once in Westeros, as Rhaenya and her ex-bestie and new rival Alicent (Olivia Cooke) fight to protect their increasingly opposed interests. The female body, with its lusts, shamings and fatal risks, is key to the first six episodes. Surviving the birthing bed is vividly, perhaps crassly depicted as the female battleground, as early on Queen Aemma undergoes a brutal Caesarian section against her will, intercut with the vicious blood-soaked clash of tournament knights. Patriarchal scheming at Rhaenya’s expense forms the season’s narrative spine. But as it slogs dutifully through her turbulent coming of age (those regal Daddy issues, that HBO-obligatory first brush with incest, a treasonous first affair) it feels smaller, slower and significantly less playful than its predecessor. Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss constructed an epic narrative switchback from the original books, putting their own wittily transgressive spin on a show that constantly upended our expectations. House of the Dragon feels blunter and less artful than its forebear, predictable where Game of Thrones was laid with startling snares and eruptions. Six episodes in, it seems a gorgeous but brittle confection (rather like the vast tabletop model of Old Valerya which obsesses Viserys) that favours spectacle over substance, historical exposition over character, and pointedly Big Themes over compelling drama.

► House of the Dragon is available to stream on a range of digital platforms now.