A few minutes into the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, I thought how nice it was to be back in Westeros, with dragons, jousting, and jostling for power. I imagine it is how people felt when they saw Avatar numerous times: the desire to continue to go back to that world. Or, the way I feel every time I jump back into Harry Potter. Certain in-depth, well-constructed worlds are intoxicating in their return factor. That is why video games with open worlds are quite popular because there is much to mine. For that reason, House of the Dragon had much of that feeling and vibe going for it before the episode even started. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that because of the sour taste the ending of Games of Thrones left in the culture at the time, some have said in the three years since that, “Games of Thrones just disappeared as a cultural powerhouse.” But I’m willing to wager that the interest in House of the Dragon last night will prove that sentiment wrong. With that long prelude out of the way, which won’t be necessary in future recaps, let’s get to it!
Gore, sex, fancy talk and costumes, political intrigue and potential subterfuge, and impressive sets are back on the menu, everyone! House of Dragon’s first episode, “The Heirs of the Dragon,” was surely not lacking in any of those trademarks of Game of Thrones. I’ve already seen some favorably comparing it to the first four seasons of Game of Thrones, and something everyone, myself included, seems to like and hope continues: King Viserys 1’s (played by Paddy Considine, who strikes the desperate king mold well) High Council, consisting of the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (played by Rhys Ifans), Lord Corlys Velaryon (played by Steve Toussaint) and others, sitting around the table … talking politics. That’s interesting! That’s what made Game of Thrones appealing before the blockbuster-level battle scenes. Political plotting makes for television intrigue, and there is plenty of it here, as Viserys 1 is clearly nearing death, and has been unable to make a male heir with his wife, the Queen. I think they’ve tried five times in a decade, and all have died. This time, not only does the baby boy die, but the Queen does, too. Viserys 1 made the choice to allow the mother to die to save the boy, and yet. That was one of the most brutal scenes of television I’ve seen in a while because they did a C-section without anesthesia, of course, and she was screaming as they cut into her swollen belly. Meanwhile, that was juxtaposed with the brutal jousting occurring in the stadium to “celebrate” the birth of the next heir to the Iron Throne. The crowd seemed to swell in its own bloody way with blood lust for the action. As one character notes, it is because they haven’t known war in 60-some years. Blood-letting as catharsis.
One of the cooler production moments, which I think is a microcosm of the new world of House of the Dragon, was a point-of-view shot of one of the knights as they rode the horse down the line in the jousting match, ready to spear their competitor. I see that as a microcosm because unlike Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon is more intimate and inward focused rather than expansive. We are focused primarily on one place and one family, the Targaryen dynasty and its looming civil war, rather than many competing factions across multiple locations. I’m excited about that prospect! Sometimes taking something grandiose and bringing it back to a more intimate setting can be fruitful, and that shows promise here.
I should also punch this point: The costuming is fantastic in this first episode. The blonde/silver/white/whatever wigs will take some getting used to, but I particularly thought Daemon’s dragon-winged helmet while he was jousting was really neat.
Another of my favorite scenes is when King Viserys 1, mourning the loss of his wife and son, and needing to choose between his brother, the volatile and unhinged, Daemon Targaryen (played to perfection already by Matt Smith), and his own daughter, who he ignored for the longest time as a potential heir, Rhaenyra Targaryen (played with poise and yet, also longing, by Milly Alcock), the “Realm’s Delight,” tells Rhaenyra to remember their history. First, that the Targaryens would be silly to assume they actually control the dragons, and secondly, that they must guard against the threat coming from the winter and darkness, aka, “The Long Night,” and the white walkers! Aside from how awesome that tease was, I liked that he was cognizant of the fact that they don’t really control the dragons and it is all an illusion to make the Targaryens seem nearer to gods than men. But it keeps the peace. In fact, dragons are so commonplace in this world that when Rhaenyra flies over King’s Landing earlier in the episode, nobody much notices, like how we wouldn’t take much note of an airplane (I mean, I do because it’s marvelous!).
One note here, I’ve already seen people saying that the costumes and sets are great, which is true, but knocking the dragon CGI as bad. What?! Maybe I’m not good at differentiating bad CGI from good CGI, but I thought Syrax, her dragon, looked awesome.
One of the more brutal scenes in the first episode, which was mostly a vehicle to show how awful Daemon is and would be if given more power, was when he lead the City Guard known as the Gold Cloaks through King’s Landing to restore “law and order” by cutting off an alleged rapist’s balls, a thief’s hand, and so on. At one point during their table meetings, the Otto warns the King about his younger, ambitious brother by saying something like, “The gods have not yet devised a man who lacks patience for absolute power.”
Speaking of Daemon, him and Rhaenyra, have a conversation where he is on the Iron Throne, and he gives her an amulet. They are speaking High Valyrian, so nobody else can understand them. If I had one criticism of the first episode, it is that the yellow subtitles were hard to read, especially when they happened to be overlayed with Rhaenyra’s attire, which was also yellow!
The stage has been set by this episode. We know all of the key players so far (and I will need to keep consulting Google to remember their names for now), the key setting, and the key issue at stake: The rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Hundreds of years of tradition and precedent have been broken, and a younger, power-hungry brother usurped, to place a woman on the Iron Throne in Rhaenyra. I’m sure everything will work out peacefully.