Has there ever been a season of television quite like the final outing of HBO’s blockbuster, Game of Thrones? After 73 episodes, it came to its conclusion in 2019 with a storyline that broke both the monopoly of praise from critics and, seemingly, the sanity of viewers.
At the time of writing, a petition entitled “Remake Game of Thrones season eight with competent writers” has 1.8 million signatories, but while fans won’t be getting a do-over any time soon, they are getting a handsomely mounted, Targaryen-centric prequel, in the form of House of the Dragon.
Miguel Sapochnik, the British director who cut his teeth in Game of Thrones’ two biggest fight episodes, “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Long Night”, is handed the showrunning reins for House of the Dragon, alongside Westeros newcomer, Ryan Condal.
Sapochnik’s promotion should indicate the direction House of the Dragon is headed: bigger, bolder, bloodier. And it’s immediately clear that, even in the just over 11 years since Thrones first aired, the scale of the world on display has increased.
Where its predecessor opened with an introspective, family-focused look at life in the dour North, House of the Dragon swoops onto our screens with beating wings, urban panoramas and, quite literally, fire and blood.
And fans of breasts, bums and dismembered penises need not worry – for all the talk of toning down Thrones’ notorious nudity, there’s still plenty on display here.
It’s not just the world that’s inherited from Game of Thrones, it’s the primary consideration: succession (obviously a hot topic for prestige TV these days).
At the show’s heart is Princess Rhaenyra (played in this opening episode by Milly Alcock), eldest child of Paddy Considine’s King Viserys I. Viserys’s wife is heavily pregnant and the realm is anticipating a son and heir (“There’s a boy in my wife’s belly,” Viserys announces solemnly, “I know it”).
But for the time being, his feckless, violent brother Daemon (Matt Smith) holds the coveted spot. And that – in a spoiler-free nutshell – is the set-up for House of the Dragon, with the Targaryen dynasty on the verge of an internal crisis.
The highest compliment I can pay House of the Dragon is to observe how much it feels like Game of Thrones.
I remember eagerly awaiting the first Hobbit movie in 2012, nine years after the end of Lord of the Rings, only to find a dizzying film stripped of all the earthy charm of its forebear.
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House of the Dragon looks and feels like Game of Thrones. At times, that veers perhaps a little too close to pastiche: “I’d rather serve as a knight,” Rhaenyra tells her mother when the subject of marriage is broached, and it’s clear she’s come out of a focus group looking to serve fans of both Daenerys and Arya.
But the dynamics of court, and the characters within it, are well drawn. Smith, in particular, gives a satisfyingly ambivalent performance as a slightly creepy uncle with a tremendous bloodlust. But, in the world of Game of Thrones, you never know who’s going to end up as hero or villain.
Game of Thrones was not a phenomenon after one episode. Indeed, its first episode is rather po-faced, right up until the moment Bran Stark is pushed out of a window.
It remains to be seen whether House of the Dragon can utilise those same, almost serpentine, twists and turns, and become a show that’s discussed in fevered terms at whatever the Work From Home equivalent of a water cooler is.
This first episode, then, is a taste of things to come. “These knights are as green as summer grass,” Eve Best’s Princess Rhaenys observes, “none of them have seen real war.”
The same, I suspect, is true of the audience. Real Westerosi war, with all its shadowy deals and tenuous pacts, back-stabbings and head-choppings, is on its way.