With the outlier powers and territories flexing their muscles and eyeing the Iron Throne, ailing monarch King Viserys Targaryen is being pressured to take another Queen and consolidate his powerbase. There is no shortage of suggestions from his lords and ladies as to whom that bride should be and the various advantages and disadvantages each will bring. But though Princess Rhaenyra remains unhappy that her father must move on so quickly, she is just as stymied by the fact he will not take any of her strategic suggestions seriously. After all, she is – at least for now – the heir to the Iron Throne itself and has an interest in facing off challengers to the position.
Viserys’ announcement will make him some friends but likely far more enemies…but as his decision is made, events inside and outside Kings Landing begin to shift and some people already planning on how to react, ready to strike up unlikely alliances…
The opening titles – missing from the opener – are fine, but arguably a slightly inferior imitation of the original show: the familiar music having a slightly askew new arrangement and instead of an unfolding map, we have an obviously trickle of blood flowing around a collection of moldings, cogs and pivot points of some ancient machine or sigil. And then we’re into the story…
For much of the second episode of House of the Dragon it feels like a more traditional dark, medieval show with castles, battlements, dining halls and stone corridors but few of the more fantastical elements of the title and which have otherwise decorated the franchise. People plot, brows are furrowed and complications ensue… the familiar and familial building blocks and foundations for future back-stabbing that are at least half the reason for Games of Thrones‘ existing success story. It’s really only in the last act – where Daemon (Matt Smith), Milly Alcock’s Rhaenyra and their respective dragons face-off on a vertigo-inducing bridge – that the more obvious CGI comes in to play, the presence of the fire-breathing beasties curtailing the possible bloodshed that’s about to otherwise happen but drawing a line in the sand that you know will end up being crossed as the various duplicities come home to roost. Those dragon VFX are good – perhaps not as stunning as the originals, but it’s hard to not be mesmerised by dragons merely by their screentime, their scaley visage possibly only diluted by familiarity.
King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) understands his royal duty to take another wife and consolidate the powerbase that some see weakening in King’s Landing, but takes no joy in the matter. Rhaenyra, still missing her mother, tries to understand, but feels torn when her father won’t even take on any of her ideas of how to handle their challengers. It’s genuinely uncomfortable as a viewer to watch Considine, the nearly fifty year old actor, walking through his gardens and discussing a marital union with a twelve year old (who looks even younger) who speaks of her understanding of what that will entail. At least Viserys himself looks equally ill-at-ease. In the end he decides that even he can’t agree to such a marital bonding and he instead announces his plans to wed young (but old-enough) Alicent Hightower (played for the moment by Emily Carey), his handmaid and Rhaenyra’s best friend. That goes down as well as you’d expect with the princess and heir to the throne and most likely to draw a wedge between them.
There’s no doubt that Matt Smith as Prince Daemon has some menacing presence here, though with a similar accent and sometimes the cadence/delivery as his eponymous Doctor Who, there are moments when you have to shake off memories of that iconic role to remember this is a much darker individual with far fewer attributes and morals. But other strong performers such as Rhys Ifans and Steve Toussaint barely hide their machinations which serve the king for the moment but also their own interests – both wanting their daughters to become royalty and part of the Iron Throne’s lineage. In many ways, these early episodes and drawing of divisional loyalties all feel like set-up and with the knowledge that a time-jump of some sort looms ahead (with Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke to take over the Rhaenyra and Alicent roles respectively), we’re likely to see things picking up speed and the crows and dragons of outrageous fortune coming home to roost.
On a quality-level, House of the Dragon is good and almost on a par with many of the recent ambitious cable/streaming offering that speak to a new Golden Age of creativity… and probably essential viewing for those who stuck with the original. But it has also yet to define itself as something new and distinct in its own right and the comparisons (in almost all departments – production design, VFX, writing and world-rebuilding) result in a verdict of ‘almost as good’ comments which is a high benchmark in and of itself but also a double-edged, blood-soaked sword of its own making. Almost isn’t quite good enough to recapture the lightning. All signs say it could be very slowly building to something that could ultimately challenge Game of Thrones – which after all, only established its dominance in later seasons – but it’s too soon to tell… and should it rest on its franchise laurels too much or fail to produce the breadth (and depth) of new iconic and distinct characters of its own, it could just as easily switch from King’s Landing to ye olde Knots Landing.
However, so far, so good…
- Production Design / VFX9