House of the Dragon Review: Game of Thrones Prequel is a Thing of Beauty

House of the Dragon — premiering August 21 on HBO Max and August 22 on Disney+ Hotstar — is in an odd position. Through no fault of his own, a cloud hangs over the Game of Thrones prequel spin-off. The eighth and final season of Thrones left a bad taste in almost everyone’s mouth, due to a series of weird and rushed creative decisions. At the same time, the massive success of Thrones over the years – it was arguably the biggest TV show of the 2010s – is why House of the Dragon even exists. It would never get the chance, and there wouldn’t be more spinoffs in the works, if its big brother didn’t pave the way for epic fantasy series on television. (In fact, Thrones is also to thank for Amazon’s Lord of the Rings TV show, which is due to arrive in about 10 days.)

But beyond that rationale, House of the Dragon has nothing to do with Game of Thrones. It’s still set in Westeros, but it’s set roughly two centuries earlier. This means that no characters from Thrones will appear, although there are many family dynasties that you will recognize. Although there is no continuation in front of the screen, the individuals behind the scene continue. Don’t worry, Thrones creators David Benioff and DB Weiss, who were rightly blamed for Season 8’s mess, aren’t involved.

Ramin Djawadi, the composer of Game of Thrones, returns to this title on the prequel series, riffing his own themes. House of the Dragon earns your love and respect before rolling out a modified version of the GoT theme at the end of the first episode. (I haven’t seen the title sequence, so I can’t say if it’s that epic.) Most importantly, Miguel Sapochnik – who directed memorable episodes of Thrones, including Season 5’s “Hardhome” and Season 6’s “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter” – is co-showrunner alongside Ryan Condal (Colony).

Everything you need to know about the House of the Dragon

And luckily they know what they are doing. House of the Dragon is a thing of beauty from the very first episode, as it delivers a gripping and fascinating pilot that I wanted to revisit by the time it ended. Sure, the prequel to Thrones benefits from existing world-building – Westeros, King’s Landing and the Red Keep are no stranger to us now – but the writing, directing and performance elevates it even further. It nails the construction of the scene, the narrative momentum and the moment-to-moment flow. It may seem like small things, but they can make or break a TV show. Plus, there’s a better understanding of female characters that pays off instantly. Sure, Game of Thrones had a female cast at its forefront, but its most frequent complaints also stemmed from their manipulation.

The prequel to Thrones is more mature in this regard from the start. Set in an even more patriarchal Westeros than we remember – and which has many more dragons – House of the Dragon begins with a high council summoned by ailing King Jaehaerys Targaryen to vote on a successor, as he survived both of his sons. (Why aren’t the other powerful houses of Westeros vying for the throne? Because obviously no one wants to go up against a family with dragons.) The choices are his eldest son’s daughter Rhaenys (Eve Best) and his younger cousin Viserys (Paddy Considine). Even though Rhaenys has the strongest claim, the council votes for Viserys. Simply because he is a man and there is no precedence for a woman on the Iron Throne.

Nineteen years later, King Viserys finds himself in a similar mess. With his wife Aemma (Sian Brooke) unable to “provide” him with a male heir, Viserys must choose between his daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock/Emma D’Arcy) or his younger brother Daemon (Matt Smith). Naturally, because he is male, Daemon is considered the heir apparent. But Daemon is also reckless and capricious, warns Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King. Viserys makes the bold choice to name Rhaenyra as his heir, which upsets many in King’s Landing as it goes against tradition. Otto, who despises Daemon, begins to enact his own plans, maneuvering his daughter Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey/Olivia Cooke) into places of power.

Inside House of the Dragon, the Fiery Game of Thrones Prequel Spin-Off

The friendship between Rhaenyra and Alicent is one of the main goals of House of the Dragon. Or rather, how friendship falls apart because of patriarchy, what they want and what is expected of them. That’s why there are two actresses playing them, because unlike Game of Thrones, the prequel deploys time jumps to portray its story. While Alcock and Carey play them as teenagers, D’Arcy and Cooke take over as the season progresses. The time jump brings us to the precipice of Targaryen’s famous war of succession, the Dance of the Dragons – alluded to in Game of Thrones – although it’s unclear how long Condal and Sapochnik plan to stay there. ‘stretch. (Sapochnik hinted at an anthology format, for what it’s worth, which would mean even more time jumps.)

While House of the Dragon undoubtedly has a narrow focus, as its title clearly indicates, it was also Game of Thrones in its early days to be fair. The first season largely revolved around the Starks and the Lannisters, with other characters introduced piecemeal. House of the Dragon gives us a few non-Targaryen characters, though they’re all related to Dragon Riders in some way. There’s the King’s Council, which includes Otto, Daemon, and famed sailor Lord Corlys “Sea Snake” Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), who is also the husband of Rhaenys, the Queen That Never Was. Dornish swordsman Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) is also part of the main cast, as is dancer Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) who grows closer to Daemon as the show progresses.

As you would expect from a TV show that costs less than $20 million (roughly Rs. 159 crore) per episode, House of the Dragon is well filmed, appropriately epic and has excellent production values. . That’s more than HBO spent on Game of Thrones’ final season ($15 million per episode). While Thrones had to prove itself before it got the big budgets – the first season was made at $6 million (about Rs. 48 crore) per episode – HBO is comfortable giving big money to a fantastic show from the start, because it belongs to a proven universe. (Also, there are giant dragons from minute one here, and I hear those tend to be expensive to create.) Although I imagine it should also work spectacularly, for that HBO justifies these investments in House of the Dragon.

She-HulkHouse of the Dragon and more on Disney+ Hotstar in August

Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon
Photo credit: Ollie Upton/HBO

While Game of Thrones could have ended in ashes and flames, at its peak there was no spectacle quite like this. It was not only gripping with its twists and turns and violence, but it also delivered stories that could only be done on television. Characters you despised at first redeemed themselves years later, while those you idealized or respected paid a heavy price for their values. Thrones was also very (darkly) funny, a trait that many tend to overlook, especially those trying to emulate it. And Benioff and Weiss were great when they had George RR Martin’s books to fall back on.

Condal and Sapochnik have none at all. Yes, technically speaking, House of the Dragon is based on (a section of) Martin’s 2018 book “Fire & Blood”. But it’s not a novel like the ones that were adapted into Thrones. It’s an encyclopedia at best, a dry history of the Targaryen years from Aegon I’s conquest of Westeros to the reign of Aegon III. Like GRRM, Fire & Blood is the first of two planned volumes, and the second is undated, just like “The Winds of Winter”. This fact might be alarming to some interested viewers, considering how it all ended with Thrones.

But House of the Dragon shows that we are in good hands. In fact, there are flashes here that suggest we could reclaim the best of Game of Thrones, unlocking our collective terrible memories of Season 8. By dragons, do we deserve it.

House of the Dragon will air Sunday, August 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO Max wherever available. It will premiere on Monday, August 22 at 6:30 a.m. IST on Disney+ Hotstar in India.


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