Review: House of the Dragon, season 1

The Age of the Dragon

HBO Max is betting big that the prequel series to Game of Thrones will lift the streaming service to new heights. We think it will!

Published 2022-08-19 - 10:01 am
House of the Dragon, season 1
Tor Aavatsmark

The biggest series success of all time, the epic fantasy drama Game of Thrones, will of course be built upon. The saga of power struggles, bloodshed, intrigue, bloodshed, conspiracies, bloodshed and sex orgies in the seven kingdoms of Westeros became one of the most popular series ever in terms of viewership; the final episode of season 8 was the most watched episode of any HBO series ever.

It has been known since October 2019 that the (former?) series master was working on the prequel series House of the Dragon, and next Monday you can judge for yourself whether HBO Max has succeeded in expanding the GoT universe while preserving the essence of the original series – as well as hopefully adding something new to the series franchise.

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Milly Alcock, House of the Dragon, season 1 (Photo: HBO Max)

There’s no avoiding the fact that House of the Dragon will be compared to its more famous ‘big brother’, because in effect we get the origin story of Game of Thrones, with the same setting, location and family clans. And HBO Max makes no secret of that. Even the iconic music track has been reused.

Our short verdict (after watching six out of 10 episodes) is crystal clear: Game of Thrones fans can breathe a sigh of relief – if you were euphorically entertained by Daenerys & co, House of the Dragon is likely to evoke warm, almost nostalgic feelings!

The beginning of the end

Both the series creators and screenwriters have changed. This time around, Ryan J. Condal (Colony) in the driver’s seat; he’s also the lead writer on the series (as, incidentally, he was on Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules, which is based on author George R.R. Martin’s book Fire & Blood. Martin also appears as an executive producer and thus has a significant hand on the wheel.

In terms of time, we find ourselves some 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, but the setting, plot and intrigue are similar. We are taken back to the fascinating fantasy universe with the familiar family names (Targaryen, Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tully, Martell) and to the same exotic locations.

Where Game of Thrones was about the incredible journey to the pinnacle of power for the “Mother of Dragons”/Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, here we see her family at the top of the hierarchy and the brutal beginning to the end of the Targaryen family’s reign.

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Steve Toussaint and Eve Best, House of the Dragon, season 1 (Photo: HBO Max)

The Targaryen clan has control of the fire-breathing dragons, and thus Westeros. The reigning king of King’s Landing is the kind-hearted, slightly naive, Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine, Informer). Visery’s greatest tragedy is that he has never had a son – a fact that splits the family and threatens the fragile balance of power.

As long as the king is without a male heir, it is taken for granted that his brother, the power-hungry and cynical Daemon (Matt Smith), will inherit the throne. But Viserys has a daughter …

Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock / Emma D’Arcy) has been second in line her entire life, but due to a family tragedy, the king is forced to choose between naming her crown princess or allowing his untrustworthy brother to succeed him.

But behind his back there is constant intrigue, and one of those pulling the strings is the King’s right-hand man, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), who has big ambitions for his beautiful daughter, Alicent.

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Rhys Ifans, House of the Dragon, season 1 (Photo: HBO Max)

The battle for the Iron Throne

It was the Targaryens who united the seven kingdoms of Westeros under one king, and it was the battle for the Iron Throne at King’s Landing that was the main focus throughout the eight seasons of Game of Thrones. Here, family clans took turns fighting each other, new alliances were formed, conspiracies were hatched and deals were broken across the board; with huge battles on the battlefield, murder and animal slaughter in the aftermath.

And if you can’t fight your enemies, you can always achieve peace by marrying your children into the family.

Don’t think for a second that the desire for power and position was any less under King Visery’s rule. Like savage bloodhounds, his enemies and so-called allies circle the kingdom, constantly looking for opportunities to strengthen their own position.

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Matt Smith, House of the Dragon, season 1 (Photo: HBO Max)

The fact that the king is without a son is exploited to the fullest, and at the head of the ranks of plotters is Lord Corly’s Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), known as ‘The Sea Snake’. Corlys is of Valyrian lineage, supposedly as old a family as the Targaryens. He and his power-hungry wife (‘the Queen who Never Was’) believe the only way to keep the peace is for the Targaryen and Velaryon families to ally – and so offer their 10-year-old.

Meanwhile, Daemon is busy building his power base, using his control of the city’s police as a stepping stone to the throne. Like Tyrion, he has a penchant for prostitutes, and his mistress is former prostitute Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno).

The sadist certainly doesn’t shy away from breaking eggs to make his omelette. When the outcast Celtigar family rebel in their seaside paradise, Daemon sees his way to forming new, dirty alliances; where he can simultaneously stymie his brother.

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Matt Smith, House of the Dragon, season 1 (Photo: HBO Max)

Well executed!

The stunning special effects, the lavish costumes, the props and all the details maintain the same impressive high level as in Game of Thrones. There are also bigger budgets for magnificent battle scenes and beautiful CGI effects than in Game of Thrones’ first seasons. The scaly dragon skin is literally there for all to see and feel.

It’s been claimed that the sex scenes would be toned down somewhat in House of the Dragon, but after watching over half of the first season, we can (thankfully) debunk that rumour. Bare nipples, visits to brothels and characters mating in all sorts of variations abound. It never comes across as salacious, though, but more as a natural part of a society of vanity and norm dissolution, where the richest can do what they want, with whom they want, when they want.

The scenes of violence are at least as explicit, and human life is at a premium. Brutal and violent, but again fitting into the medieval universe we find ourselves in.

As we have pointed out in our previous reviews of Game of Thrones, the creators of the series downplayed the fantasy elements compared to the books. In the first six episodes of House of the Dragon, we saw nothing supernatural (apart from dragons). There’s no witchcraft here, no bringing back from the dead, no supernatural creatures – which may actually give the series a slightly broader appeal.

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Steve Toussaint, House of the Dragon, season 1 (Photo: HBO Max)

Women’s position

The cast of characters is smaller and the side stories fewer than in Game of Thrones, making the narrative more manageable while allowing for more in-depth exploration of the Targaryen family.

A 2022 series that promotes gender equality and the position of women in society is a natural fit for the streaming market. Topics that are definitely not as prominent in the fantasy community R.R. Martin’s fantasy universe.

That is the power of the Targaryen clan and the ultimate fall (known as ‘Dance of the Dragons’), at the centre of the action, but the central character of the series is Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen – and her life and struggles are definitely an epic about the place, treatment and power (or lack thereof) of women in Westeros.

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Milly Alcock og Emily Carey, House of the Dragon, sæson 1 (Foto: HBO Max)

A hardened dragon rider of pure Valyrian blood, she knows what she wants and is headstrong to the point of rebellion. Often at odds with her father, but gradually gaining his recognition and respect. Much to her father’s chagrin, however, she is less concerned with politics and alliance-building, preferring to marry for love. And if there’s one person she has a good eye for, it’s the respectable, sword-wielding knight Criston (Fabien Frankel).

Young Milly Alcock, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same subtle presence as Emilia Clarke; at times she becomes a little unnaturally anonymous and grey. The character knows what she wants, but Alcock doesn’t always manage to convey it.

Devilishly good

As usual, the most intriguing roles have gone to the most evil and cunning characters. An easily unrecognisable Rhys Ifan is damn good as the king’s most trusted. A man who always supports his boss, but behind his back has his own utterly private agenda. But the topping on the cake is the role given to Matt Smith (The Crown).

Smith is devilishly good as the black sheep of the family, and his lines suit his psychopathic/narcissistic traits. The way he elegantly manipulates his family, friends and enemies is a pleasure to watch, only from small movements and facial expressions do we sense Daemon’s real agenda. Here Paddy Considine appears much more anonymous, as the man who really has the power.

Throughout, the dialogue isn’t always as sharp, pointed and liberatingly ironic as in Game of Thrones, and we’ve noticed that we miss the more distinctive characters like Tyrion, Varys and Littlefinger. But then, we’re only at the first season of a universe that has many characters to build on.

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House of the Dragon, season 1 (Photo: HBO Max)

At times, House of the Dragon feels inexplicably rushed. The storyline leaps a little too much, and suddenly we’re two or three years ahead in time. Here we suspect budget constraints as well as uncertainty about how many seasons the series is (tentatively) scheduled for.

In episode six, a significant leap in time and pace is made, moving us over 10 years into the future. The child characters have now grown up and been replaced by older actors, and new main characters are introduced. Solid Emma D’Arcy (Truth Seekers) replaces Milly Alcock in the lead role of Rhaenyra. She now emerges as a much more mature and confident future leader. At the same time, the mood in the family is at an all-time low.

The plot tightens, far more is at stake, and things are heating up (for some of the characters more literally than others) under the intrigue. We also now sense the contours of a considerably dirtier game, in which all morality and ethics are thrown overboard in an increasingly intense struggle for The Iron Throne.

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House of the Dragon, season 1 (Photo: HBO Max)

All in all, House of the Dragon is a very worthy successor to the Game of Thrones universe, and not least a series that stands firmly on its own two feet. In addition, the (pre-)history of the characters we have become so familiar with over eight seasons is fleshed out.

We’re not sure it will draw many new viewers to George R.R. Martin’s adventurous fantasy world, but the many millions who already adore his writing will probably happily plunge back into the flamboyant, vain life of Westeros. 5 stars.

This review is based on the first six episodes. Season 1 will have its world premiere on HBO Max on August 22. And the gods (old and new) should know that the streaming service needs a blockbuster series now). On Monday, the first episode (of a total of 10) will air, followed by one episode per week.

House of the Dragon, season 1

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