Spoiler alert: this recap is for people watching House of the Dragon. Do not read on unless you have seen episode one.
‘The only thing that could tear down the House of the Dragon … was itself’
And so it begins. After at least seven series pitches (several of which are still officially in development), endless scripts, one failed pilot, countless millions of dollars and an interruptive pandemic, we finally have a Game of Thrones spin-off. It’s probably fair to say that never in the history of television has so much been riding on the shoulders of one show – at least until Amazon’s even pricier The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power makes its streaming debut in about a fortnight.
So has it been worth it? Will this elaborate prequel – set roughly 200 years before the death of Ned Stark and all the bloodshed that ensued – manage to thrill the hardcore fans, entice new ones, restore the reputation of Westeros and reassure those who hated the way Game of Thrones ended, while in the process establishing its own place as a classic of fantasy television? On the strength of a single episode, let’s just say it’s looking complicated.
But nearly everything about House of the Dragon is complicated – if you are not a GoT deep-diver, you may be flummoxed. We start with a brief prelude set in the year 101, during the reign of the Targaryen kings, those statuesque blonde outsiders who, some centuries before, had conquered Westeros thanks to their possession of the most powerful weapon known to man: dragons. But King Jaehaerys Targaryen is dying, with no sons to sit on the Iron Throne. Following a council of noble houses, the decision is made to skip over his most direct living heir, his granddaughter Rhaenys (Eve Best), in favour of her cousin, Viserys (Paddy Considine), thereby reaffirming a masculine lineage.
But skip forward a few years, and that precedent is about to be tested. For Viserys himself has no sons, only a high-spirited teenage daughter, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock). Which means that, by tradition, if he were to die unexpectedly, the throne would pass to his brother Daemon (Matt Smith) – who is, in noble parlance, something of a git. The only thing that can save the realm from a potentially destructive power struggle is the impending birth of Viserys’s second child. If it’s a healthy boy, everything will be fine. If not – let there be blood.
Fittingly, the episode proper opens in the company of dragons: a cloudbusting flight over King’s Landing in the company of Rhaenyra and her great wyrm Syrax, so giddy and swooping that Limahl wouldn’t seem out of place on the soundtrack. It is to be our last glimpse of freedom for some time, as we move indoors to a lengthy, gloomy conclave of the King’s Small Council, entering midway through a debate between King Varys, Hand of the King Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), Lord Corlys Valeryon (Steve Toussaint), a renowned seafarer and husband of the aforementioned Rhaenys Targaryen, and assorted Masters and Maesters.
Small Council meetings were, of course, a highlight of the original Thrones, but they tended to be enlivened by the spiky sibling banter between Tyrion and Cersei, or the bickering schemes of Littlefinger and Varys. There is no such fun to be had here – from the browbeaten Viserys on down this is a terse and brooding bunch, dropping enticing hints of happenings elsewhere (pirates in the Stepstones! Power struggles in Essos!) but focusing most of their attention on how to solve a problem like Prince Daemon.
‘King’s Landing will learn to fear the colour gold!’
That is where things start to get a bit more lively, because Daemon is one of those characters that Game of Thrones thrives on: a preening, scheming, bloodthirsty shitbag with a lust for power and zero scruples. Matt Smith’s appearance is, at first, a little disconcerting: with his platinum tresses and prominent ears he looks like a rogue elf who has somehow magicked himself into the wrong universe. But his behaviour soon serves to dispel any such concerns: Daemon is the sort of full-blown psychopath who would send Elrond and Galadriel away screaming.
Following a brief glimpse of him squatting on the Iron Throne – a seat he would clearly love to occupy full time – we follow Daemon to his day job as Commander of the City Watch, a role that has allowed him to indulge his penchant for violence while also building up a private army of hooligan warriors loyal only to him. With a tournament looming to celebrate the birth of the royal babe, Daemon spots a chance to knock some heads, dispatching his ruffians to clear the scum off the streets and haul them back for a spot of extremely rough medieval justice. Thieves lose hands, and rapists lose … well, let’s just say the torture meted out to poor Theon Greyjoy turns out to have a precedent.
The jousting itself forms the episode’s big set-piece, reminding us how far this franchise has come, at least in terms of scale. In the cash-strapped first series of GoT, the great festival attended by Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark consisted of approximately 20 overdressed actors perched on benches next to a field. Now we’re treated to the sight of hundreds of whooping digital extras, epic crane shots and smash-cut bouts of bloody violence, as the realm’s mightiest heroes come to waggle sticks at one another. It’s also an excuse to introduce some more new faces, notably Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), a pretty boy with a steady lance and a yearning for young Rhaenyra, and Lady Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), daughter and, it would seem, pawn of the aforementioned Lord Otto.
But there’s trouble back at the palace: the queen has gone into labour, and all is not well. Cue an operatic sequence of cross-cut brutality, as knights and their mounts fall screaming while a few hundred yards away doctors fight to save the lives of the queen and her son. The unplanned caesarean section that follows is by far the episode’s heaviest moment, a scene of medieval horror guaranteed to make any mother and/or midwife wince. And the outcome is – who guessed? – equally awful, as neither mother or baby prove strong enough to last the night.
One of the most notable things about this opening episode is how geographically claustrophobic it is: while the first instalment of GoT took us north of the wall and across the Narrow Sea, this takes place almost entirely within the walls of King’s Landing. Following the tournament there’s an enticing cut to a storm-tossed sea – are we finally going to find out what’s happening elsewhere in the Seven Kingdoms? But no: the camera pans, and there are all the same characters standing by the Queen’s pyre as the Red Keep looms on the horizon.
And how will the pyre be ignited? By dragon fire, of course, summoned from the snout of Syrax when his mistress speaks a single word: dracarys, the memorable catchphrase of another plucky heroine (with, we should note, an extremely similar hairdo). So will Rhaenyra go down the same dark path as her descendant Daenerys, or will she manage to cling to the last scraps of her innocence? Well, this is Westeros …
The episode draws to a close with another bout of furious scene-setting: Daemon shoots his mouth off in a brothel about his dead nephew, the “heir for a day”, and how that affects his own chances for promotion. Word gets back to King Viserys and he goes understandably ballistic, stripping his brother of his claim to the throne and handing it instead to Rhaenyra, shattering that aforementioned precedent. By the time the credits roll – soundtracked, inevitably, by Rahmin Diwadi’s beloved theme, with additional choral chanting – there’s a feeling that after a rather austere, chatty and backstory-laden intro, all the pieces are finally in place. Let the games commence!
It’s a source of both pride and regret to find myself writing these recaps: the Guardian’s original Game of Thrones expert was, of course, the great Sarah Hughes, who passed away in March of last year. I’ve decided to keep to the format she used (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), and will do my best to live up to her witty, insightful recaps. In the meantime, I urge you all to read Sarah’s essay collection, Holding Tight, Letting Go.
While I have read Fire and Blood – George RR Martin’s densely detailed history of the Targaryen dynasty, from which House of the Dragon is more or less directly drawn – my memories of it are sketchy, and I decided not to revisit it for these recaps. I’d rather be surprised, along with everyone else, by the inevitable twists and turns.
Speaking of which, who do we think is going to be this season’s sacrificial lamb – the character who seems central to everything until they suddenly get knocked off, thereby proving that absolutely no one is safe? King Viserys seems too obvious – he’s already got some kind of weeping, healer-proof sore on his back, and his death is surely necessary for the plot to really kick in. So who else is in the frame? Ser Otto? Daemon? Rhaenyra? Now that would put the cat among the dragons…
While we’re on the subject of Rhaenyra, the scene in which the young princess had the entire plot of the original Game of Thrones (or “song of ice and fire”) recounted to her in capsule form by her dad was an odd one. Yes, it served to link the prequel more securely to its progenitor, but it did also have the slight drawback of making all this feel like the appetiser for a main course we have already eaten.
Another memorable moment for all the right reasons was that queasy scene between Otto Hightower and his daughter, as the Lord sends Alicent to comfort the dying king – presumably trying to set them up, just hours after his wife’s death. Slyly played by Ifans, something tells me this Hightower is every bit as dangerous as his rival, Daemon – he is just less barefaced about it.
As with The Rings of Power, the producers have clearly taken a determined stab at diversity: there were more faces of colour in the tourney crowd than there would have been in the original GoT, while Lord Corlys and his kids do seem set to play a fairly central role in the wars to come.
Lastly, those flaming chandeliers have to be a health and safety nightmare. I would not be able to relax at work with half a ton of burning steel suspended directly above my head.
Anyone who expected #MeToo to have altered the nudity landscape in Westeros will be sorely disappointed: once again it is just the ladies baring all, unless you count a sweaty shot of Matt Smith’s heaving chest and a pair of bloody bollocks on the chopping block. If they have to shoehorn gratuitous rumpo into every single episode – and let’s face it, they probably do – is it wrong to demand a smidge of equality?
The massacre of the miscreants proved a fine excuse for some good old limb-lopping: hands tumbled into baskets, several new eunuchs were created and absolutely no one got to speak to his lawyer. The tournament, too, was awash in gore, though nothing to rival the (original) Mountain chopping his own horse’s head off in the first series.
Random Brit of the week:
It was nice to spend a moment in the relaxing company of lugubrious Scot Bill Paterson, playing Viserys’s Master of Coin, Lord Lymon Beesbury. With a film and TV career stretching back to Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and The Singing Detective, Paterson is probably best known currently as the long-suffering dad in Fleabag.