Editor’s Note: Loved House of the Dragon? Read on. For a different take, here’s an argument for why it lost out to Rings of Power in the clash of fantasy prequels. It still makes for a great D&D campaign, though.
When House of the Dragon was announced as HBO’s continuation of the Game of Thrones franchise, I was skeptical. It was victorious after many warring Game of Thrones spinoff and sequel series were defeated during development but I struggled to see the allure. Game of Thrones was such a lightning-in-a-bottle show by combining the rich complexities of George R. R. Martin’s series with the dark character-driven narratives that defined the HBO era of TV. Would viewers really stay interested in a whole new cast of characters set hundreds of years before the story we spent eight years watching?
Nothing delighted me more when the answer was a resounding yes. House of the Dragon is not just an excuse for HBO to reuse all those expensive sets it built. It’s Game of Thrones, but faster and more furious. Season 1 cemented its place as a true event show to pick up the torch Game of Thrones threw into an abyss.
House of the Dragon succeeds by not exactly recreating what made Game of Thrones so engaging to watch. While Game of Thrones felt like watching a sprawling epic told from a multitude of perspectives, House of the Dragon feels like being in the room during a historical event. Part of this is due to the difference in source materials: A Song of Ice and Fire was told chapter by chapter by the main characters. House of the Dragon is based on Fire and Blood and the novella The Princess and the Queen, both of which are written as histories researched by an in-universe character. An outside point of view gives greater weight to more memorable and important events.
Making House of the Dragon as a historical epic gives it one large advantage over Game of Thrones: stuff is constantly happening. The thing about history is no one remembers conversations between two people in private. House of the Dragon is built with gargantuan building blocks of major in-universe historical events. Quiet and impactful conversations between two characters are inserted into the story by the writers of House of the Dragon rather than fundamental parts of the source material.
With Game of Thrones, each season would have a handful of major events. Colorful weddings, dramatic deaths, maybe a battle or two. House of the Dragon Season 1 felt like something big was happening every single episode. Entire wars could be fought off screen (and indeed were, as Corlys Velaryon revealed in the finale that the Stepstones issue was solved— twist!) We didn’t know when time jumps would happen and what characters would become major fixtures of the story. This unpredictability made Season 1 one of the most fun viewing experiences I’ve had in a long time. Rhaenyra and Daemon getting married, plotting to fake Laenor’s death, actually going through with the plan, and Laenor sailing away all happened in the last five minutes of Episode 7. What a feat!
This isn’t to say that moving fast is always a positive. Game of Thrones fans do not look fondly on Seasons 7 and 8 for good reason. Suddenly this slow moving game of 12 player chess was a sprint to the finish line, all because David Benoiff and D.B. Weiss were in a hurry to make a Star Wars trilogy that never happened, and showrun Confederate—an idea for a TV show so bad that its announcement also served as its cancellation. Game of Thrones went fast because many in the cast and crew wanted off the boat; House of the Dragon goes fast because they have a whole lot of ocean to cover.
I will admit, though, that House of the Dragon is also not as good as Game of Thrones. A Song of Ice and Fire’s characters were so intricately written and brilliantly adapted to the screen that House of the Dragon can’t help but be somewhat lacking. House of the Dragon’s characters are not as complex in their actions, and are often inconsistent or with unclear motivations. It’s a show based on stark dualities rather than an ever-turning wheel. But the show’s combustive narrative energy manages to push its characters past their nonsense as they become swept up in history. There is a force that can be as equally powerful as being clever: being delightfully insane.
House of the Dragon is weakest when it leans too hard on its predecessor. Everyone loved the Game of Thrones opening theme song, but reusing it felt like a cop-out instead of building something new. The show best succeeds at differentiating itself when it explores themes and realms Game of Thrones barely touched. The throne as a physically poisonous force, the lore of dragons and dragon riders, the recent histories of a conquered Westeros. Best of all, House of the Dragon introduces the concept of peace. The show begins at the end of a long time of harmony, while Game of Thrones starts with a world that has only recently calmed down from turmoil and rebellion. As the war starts in House of the Dragon we understand that everything is about to break.
Game of Thrones was great (for a while at least) as well-made television, but it was excellent as a conversation piece and fixture in pop culture. It broke open “fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy,” a term that I may loathe but held a lot of power in uniting the world around one program. People flocked to the sexy violent dragon show and stuck around to see some incredibly well told seasons of TV.
House of the Dragon Season 1 felt like getting in on the ground floor as a growing conversation piece. The viewership numbers don’t lie: House of the Dragon’s viewership consistently rose throughout the first half of the season. It has been averaging 29 million viewers per episode, not too shabby compared to Game of Thrones’ 33 million. People are telling their friends and family to give the show a watch and viewers are staying hooked. Having an eventful show filled with unpredictability that everyone you know is watching is a powerful force to cut through the pile of content that is Peak TV.
Now it’s up to House of the Dragon’s team to keep the fire burning. The war is starting and the show needs to keep its insanity in high gear. So many viewers have become attached to these characters already. Prince Daemon is the internet’s new favorite evil boy, and the excellent charisma of Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy have created two incredibly watchable characters and an unexpected rise in negroni sbagliato orders at bars. Ultimately, House of the Dragon Season 1 pulled off its hardest task: getting people to enthusiastically come back to the Game of Thrones world.
If House of the Dragon has proved anything it’s that there’s enough slow burn TV out there. Even if you weren’t a fan of Season 1, you can’t deny it’s been a thrilling ride. The world has united again around the trial and tribulations of the residents of Westeros. Game of Thrones’ end left a vacuum for a new show to take its throne as TV’s most recognizable show, one viewers want to endlessly gush about over what happened on this week’s episode. House of the Dragon was either going to win the game of thrones or die, and I’m not seeing any funeral pyres being built anytime soon.
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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