HBO's "House of the Dragon" is the first of many in-the-works "Game of Thrones" spinoffs.
The new series successfully brings the excitement, grandeur, and grimness of Westeros to life.
Book readers and show-only fans alike will find the storytelling approach compelling.
Showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik signed up for a daunting task with "House of the Dragon," the first prequel series greenlit by HBO after the undeniable success — and divisiveness — of "Game of Thrones."
If this new show is meant to be a litmus test for the viability of author George R.R. Martin's fantasy world beyond the story set out in his "Song of Ice and Fire" novels, which formed the basis of the earlier HBO show, then in my opinion it's an undeniable success.
The first six episodes of "House of the Dragon" (provided by HBO for press reviews) wind creatively through more than a decade of Targaryen rule starting in the year 101 A.C. — just about 175 years before Daenerys Targaryen was born.
That means there are no familiar actors or characters to rely upon for attachment. Fans will be introduced to an entirely new set of kings, queens, heirs, traitors, consorts, smallfolk, and of course, dragons.
'House of the Dragon' has marked story differences from 'Game of Thrones,' but the soul of Martin's character writing is still at the heart of everything
Beginning at the peak of Targaryen rule after decades of peace and prosperity, "House of the Dragon" expertly threads together political ambitions, familial rifts, and devastating instances of betrayal and cruelty that lead to an increasingly unstable realm.
Unlike with the sweeping map of "Game of Thrones," this show stays close within the geographical confines of King's Landing — the country's capital and home to the Red Keep — and Dragonstone, which "Game of Thrones" fans will remember as the seat of power first established by Dany in the seventh season of the show. The tighter world brings a really great sense of intimacy to the story of dragonriders and prophecy.
For many, the appeal of Martin's storytelling lay in his ability to place dynamic, complex characters into dire situations that pit their emotional drives against duty or survival. That approach carries over beautifully into the new storylines of "House of the Dragon." Even people who have already read "Fire and Blood" or "A World of Ice and Fire" (the fictional histories of Westeros) and are somewhat familiar with the historical events the new prequel series will depict are likely to delight in seeing these characters so intriguingly embodied by a stellar ensemble cast.
Whether it's the dastardly antics of Prince Daemon Targaryen (a general menace to Westerosi society, played by Matt Smith) or the understandably complicated bonds of girlhood friendship gone awry with Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock as a child and Emma D'Arcy as an adult) and Alicent (played by Emily Carey as a child and Olivia Cooke as an adult), the series has a slew of characters that seemed fated to become fan-favorites.
Unlike the later seasons of "Game of Thrones," which were encumbered by the pressure of revealing the endgame of a story with no canonical book ending written yet, "House of the Dragon" isn't here to reveal what happened. Instead, the story gets to linger over the reasons why it happened — a task that Condal and his team appear to have taken great care with.
While there are absolutely heart-thumping dragon scenes and intricate battle moments that "Game of Thrones" fans will appreciate, the new series excels when it slows down. You're drawn in by two people talking or scheming behind closed doors, political ambitions laid bare, just as often as a dramatic or bloody confrontation occurs in the public eye. "House of the Dragon" nails the underlying draw of Westeros as a backdrop for oppressive political systems, murder plots, and familial power struggles.
We see the pomp and circumstance of the kingdom (encapsulated perfectly in one instance by a grandiose animal hunt) and how the actions of a ruler can often swing back around to smother them. The writing team clearly knows how to deploy each complex character for the right firebomb of a satisfying barb or public humiliation or epic display of power on the battlefield.
The success of 'House of the Dragon' may hinge on how fans feel about seeing visceral violence and brutality
The new series is likely to stir heated fandom debates and analysis, just as its predecessor did. A lot has changed in the world since millions of people tuned in to watch the pilot episode of "Game of Thrones" on April 17, 2011, and saw a young boy witness two adult sibling having sex in a tower, resulting in said boy getting shoved unceremoniously out the window and presumably to his death.
Over 11 years later, "Game of Thrones" fans will now ferociously debate whether said boy (Bran Stark) was the logical endgame of an eight-season series that eventually ran out of Martin's detailed book material and ventured into the dark woods of plot invention.
But it's not just the shift in fandom feelings around "Game of Thrones" that "House of the Dragon" is up against. The TV landscape has also benefited greatly in the last decade when it comes to important conversations around diversity in storytelling and the sensitivity required when a series has frequent scenes that include nudity and violence.
"House of the Dragon" doesn't include the visceral sexual violence found from the very start in the original show's pilot, when young Daenerys is molested by her older brother Viserys and then assaulted by her new husband on their wedding night.
But it absolutely includes gory violence, and scenes of women having their autonomy stripped and undermined by the controlling men around them who claim to care about their wellbeing during moments of vulnerability, like childbirth. So people who are at a point of preference where they don't want to see skulls bashed in or middle-aged men lusting over teenage girls may want to approach the show with caution.
Ultimately, "House of the Dragon" seems set to recapture a significant portion of the same people who fell in love with "Game of Thrones" all those years ago. The gorgeous set designs, beautiful cinematography, stellar acting performances, and magic of Ramin Djawadi's signature score all add up to a welcome return to Westeros.
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