Does ‘House of the Dragon’ Recapture the Dark Thrill of ‘Game of Thrones’?

A tide of goodwill carried me into House of the Dragon, the long-awaited—perhaps too long-awaited—prequel series to Game of Thrones. Are we still dreaming of Westeros? Have we forgotten how much of a drag that final season was? Do we long for the hyper-violence, transgressive sex, and genuinely upsetting plot turns of the best seasons of Thrones? I do. I remember how ruthless—in the early going—David Benioff and Dan Weiss’s game-changing fantasy saga could feel, how startlingly dangerous, how impolite. But I also remember how GoT outran the George R. R. Martin source material, how the narrative flailed and sputtered even as more and more expensive dragons filled our screens.

Nevertheless–there’s goodwill. And Martin, who has disavowed the late episodes of GoT, is heavily involved in House of the Dragon—it’s based on his prequel novel Fire & Blood. And the showrunners have hired a band of talented British actors (both series’ calling card), including Paddy Considine, Matt Smith, and Rhys Ifans, all three of whom make a strong impression in the show’s first episodes. (The series premieres on Sunday night.) Fresh millions have been spent (according to Variety, some $20 million an episode) to animate the history of the Targaryen family, a clan of effete, decadent leaders who fly dragons, keep their hair an unfortunate shade of icy blonde, and squabble over a succession plan for the iron throne.

Shades of Succession? I wish. House of the Dragon is perfectly watchable, but through the early episodes at least (six were made available to critics; I watched four), it struck me as dramatically tentative and frustratingly narrow in its scope. The first episode is especially disappointing—a lavish hour of CGI spectacle that smacks of money even as bets are hedged. Viewers’ expectations are met—especially on the hyper-violence front—but the hour is pretty inert. We’re introduced to Viserys Targaryen (Considine), a beta king who is certain his queen (Sian Brooke) is carrying a long-anticipated male heir. We also meet his daughter Rhaenyra Targaryen, played in her younger years by the newcomer Milly Alcock, who pouts and doesn’t say much and generally makes you recall what a strong first impression Emilia Clarke made as Daenerys Targaryen (Alcock gets better and better as the episodes progress). The scenery is crisply rendered and brightly lit. The first season of Game of Thrones looked filthy—dark interiors, gloom everywhere. House of the Dragon seems immaculate by comparison, a fantasy-world spec house.

Thank God for Matt Smith. As the ill-mannered Daemon Targaryen, brother to Viserys, he has a rock star’s swagger, truly awful blonde hair, and kicks life into the first episode whenever he appears. As he and the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Ifans), trade glowering barbs across a royal conference table, I felt a stirring of the old dark magic. A jousting tournament is pretty fun to watch too, until the knights trade head shots and craniums burst like pumpkins.

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