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”). At the episode’s opening, Viserys’s feckless, violent brother Daemon (Matt Smith) holds that coveted spot, but things swiftly unravel for him. “The prince cannot be allowed to act with this kind of unchecked impunity,” Rhys Ifans’s Otto Hightower (the Hand of the King) declares after Daemon’s gold-cloaked Kingsguard go on the rampage, dismembering petty criminals by the dozen. But Dameon’s real offence comes later, when he insults the memory of his brother’s wife Aemma (Sian Brooke) who has died in childbirth, along with their newborn son, Baelon.
Daemon’s disinheritance sets the series up nicely, and next week’s episode, titled “The Rogue Prince”, will further establish his position as the Targaryen alternate. But it’s not just Daemon who threatens the stability of the realm: Viserys’s cousin, Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), was passed up during the last succession crisis but is married to Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), head of the next most powerful family in the Seven Kingdoms. “Rhaenys – a woman – would not inherit the Iron Throne,” a portentous voiceover from Princess Rhaenyra announces in the opening moments. Will Rhaenys and her husband – nicknamed the Sea Snake – have another tilt at the Iron Throne?
One thing is clear: Viserys, for all his cuddliness, isn’t strong. He is, quite literally, falling apart. “It’s a small cut from sitting in the throne,” he announces, of an oozing pustule on his back which physicians announce is, rather ominously, growing (could this be Chekhov’s wound?). If Viserys dies or is incapacitated, the realm will surely plunge into chaos. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also the question of the king remarrying: Hightower is determined to pimp out his daughter, Alicent (Emily Carey), to the king, though other suitors will surely emerge. All these tessellations and permutations, these wranglings for crowns present and future, feel rather like a game. A game, you might say, of thrones.
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. 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.