SPOILER ALERT: This review contains details of Game of Thrones spinoff House of The Dragon, which debuts August 21 on HBO and HBO Max.
Besides being bawdy and fire spewing, HBO’s House of the Dragons is no Game of Thrones.
That dissimilarity actually might be the saving grace for the sword and regal struggle spectacle prequel inspired by George R.R. Martin’s writing. Yet, capturing lightening in a bottle twice is quite a rare feat, even with a return to King’s Landing and a massive built-in and braying fanbase.
Underneath all the wails of hype, if ever there was a series set up to fail no matter how much it succeeds, it is House of Dragons. The Ryan J. Condal and Miguel Sapochnik-showrun series will only be gauged by one criteria openly or not , and GoT is a standard HoD can’t meet.
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So, spoiler alert, House of the Dragon smartly sidesteps the supposition for the most part.
The first in a plethora of GoT spinoffs in the pipeline for the Warner Bros Discovery-owned premium cabler and streamer HBO Max, House of the Dragon is much more a straightforward family drama than its predecessor.
Well, straightforward if you are the violently dysfunctional and dragon-commanding Targaryens, rulers of the Seven Kingdoms in one era of Martin’s dense books. Add to that, a war of succession that is known in Martin lore as the “Dance of the Dragons” and things get a little bit more heated than the usual awkward Thanksgiving disagreements most families endure. In that vein, the streamlining of the plot lines serves HoD well as the investment in characters over scenarios bares fruition in successive episodes of its first season.
Catapulted onto the Iron Throne over his steely cousin Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) a.k.a. the “Queen Who Never Was,” 24 Hour Party People vet Paddy Considine’s weak willed King Viserys I loses heirs, a wife, the loyalty of his villainous and ambitious brother Prince Daemon
(Matt Smith) and eventually his surviving offspring to a temerarious duty of continuing the line. Fleshing out the near textbook approach of Martin’s Fire & Blood, Condal and Sapochnik place Emma D’Arcy’s Princess Rhaenyra as the presumed Regent Queen, which pleases almost no one except the character herself for a while. Viserys’ remarriage to Rhaenyra’s BFF and daughter of Hand of the King Ser Otto Hightower (a consistently scene-owning Rhys Ifans) Lady Alicent (Olivia Cooke) rearranges the power flowchart when the decades apart couple have a son.
Whether you’ve read Martin’s work or not, it is no mystery that civil war is where this is all going in the $200 million budgeted 10-episode first season. Being that the Steve Toussaint, Fabien Frankel and Sonoya Mizuno co-starring HoD is set almost 200 years before the forthcoming winter of GoT and the ultimately murderous mission of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) to reclaim the throne, we also know how this is going to end – at least until the Snow spinoff hits the screen in a couple of years. A reality that is another testament to Condal, Emmy-winning GoT director Sapochnik and Martin’s decision to roll up hard on their players and less on overarching affairs of state – though there is a lot of sex and the high definition dragons do fly pretty high in their frequent appearances.
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Still in the noticeable absence of the sweeping spirit and hearty ensemble of the David Benioff and D. B. Weiss EP’d multiple Emmy winner, Dragon succeeds best by monopolizing the more modest narrative. Already in a leg hold trap of expectations and certain to get another season, the securely self-aware show almost leisurely slices its way through, bringing a traditional tale of palace intrigue to life. Knowing the primary purpose of HoD existing is to recapture the HBO glory days of GoT, the show avoids the ticker tape parade and saying much of the quiet thing out loud and gets on with establishing its own footing.
It’s a deft move. Deft on its own artistic merits, but also because this is not 2011, and there is no Jon Snow (Kit Harington) here.
In a 2022 small screen environment of streamers galore and genre offerings pouring out of almost every device, handheld and otherwise, the shock, awe and awards haul of GoT has historical relic spray painted all over it nowadays. Despite a colossal campaign by the debt burdened David Zaslav-run WBD to flood the public awareness zone with House of the Dragon in search of a hit, the odds are not great of dredging up that huge zealot audience again. The global reach of Squid Game, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Boys, or Stranger Things are individually impressive, and reflect the array of stories in a worldwide market. Yet, none have the viewership nor consistent cultural preponderance that Game of Thrones grasped, even in a final season that many found seriously lacking.
Now, seeking to display greater representation and male nudity than Thrones ever did, House of the Dragon tops Amazon Prime Video’s $1 billion The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series to market by about two weeks. Even in an era of splintered audiences, the timing is impressive. What could also maybe work in Dragon’s favor is the contrast for mature audiences to the traditionally starchy tone of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work in what looks to be an epic effort from the House of Bezos. As Neil Armstrong and Ned Stark could have told you, nobody beats being first.
But this battle with the ghost of Game of Thrones and all other contenders, is about legacy. To that, House of the Dragon corroborates that sometimes the apple does fall just a little farther from the tree – and that’s the best place for it to be.
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