Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been three years, three months and two days since our last series of Game of Thrones letter reviews, when we somehow managed to see past the many sins of that unfortunate final season and look back at a truly groundbreaking show that did for fantasy in the 2010s what Star Wars did for sci-fi four decades earlier. We may still be waiting for The Winds of Winter, but we’ve got another way to return to Westeros in HBO’s new prequel House of the Dragon.
I know you’ve already watched the first six episodes, but I’m here for another throw-back—the week-to-week episodic recap—so I’ll be consuming these like the rest of the world, one measly episode at a time. In this first episode of House of the Dragon, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s fictional history book Fire & Blood, we encounter a Targaryen on the Iron Throne—King Viserys, first of his name, played with all the weariness of a head supporting the Iron Crown by Paddy Considine. Like another great HBO drama, this one is all about succession, with his brother Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) and his daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) the likely heirs.
The dragons are still the Targaryen’s source of power in this age, and with two dragonriders vying for the throne, I can only imagine the brutality of the pilot’s many jousting battles and dismemberments by Daemon’s cruel City Watch are but a taste of the death and destruction to come. “The Heirs of the Dragon” feels like a brief introduction to this older generation of the rulers of Westeros, and I’m mostly left with the impression that we’ve been given plenty more talented British actors to populate King’s Landing. And with our favorite former GoT director Miguel Sapochnik—the man who brought to life many of the most memorable episodes, like “The Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome”—now ascended to the iron showrunner’s seat, we can count on fantastically choreographed drama.
None of the characters are quite fleshed out enough yet to deliver the kinds of tension-filled scenes that made quiet conversations in Game of Thrones as potent as full-scale battles. There’s no wily Littlefinger, guileless Samwell or grizzled Davos—and certainly no one as delightfully compelling as Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister. But even if the source material is by many reports a dry history (I never read Fire & Blood for that reason), I trust Martin to give this new cast complexities often absent from epic fantasy.
At any rate, I’m glad to have this chance to settle back into more palace intrigue via our letter reviews and to hopefully let Martin and HBO redeem those maddening choices of Season 8. So, without spoiling anything past episode 1, what’s your take on the characters we’ve been given so far?
First off, pleasure to be doing business with you again. The great news is that we’re here writing about another show in the GoT universe, and the bad news, as you mentioned, is that somehow we still don’t have Winds of Winter. I’m not going to dwell on that, though, at least in writing. I’m going to pause, pace around my room for an hour or so, then come back and never mention it again.
[one hour passes]
Can you believe we don’t have Winds of Winter yet?
Okay, so, House of the Dragon. First things first, we should acknowledge that comparing this show to Game of Thrones is inevitable. I did it in the review you linked, you did it in your first note, literally everybody is going to do it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is worth noting, though, that GoT was in many ways two separate shows; the good one of the early days, and the sad, overwrought, chaotic mess that limped to the finish line. And one thing I want to say right off the bat is that the conclusion of that show was sufficiently rough to make a lot of people forget about the heady origins, and the sheer breathtaking quality of those first few seasons.
House of the Dragon, in my opinion, does not live up that standard, but really, what could? The more interesting news to me is that, at least so far, it’s better than the worst version of its predecessor.
That’s not damning with faint praise, I promise. The two wise moves the creators made with this show were to pick an era of Targaryen drama from among the various contenders HBO was considering, and then to put an emphasis on the political intrigue within King’s Landing, rather than resorting to broad world-spanning storytelling that would too quickly get bogged down. So you’re right, we absolutely do not have a Tyrion or Jaime Lannister here, or a Littlefinger or Lord Varys, or even a Ned Stark or Jon Snow. We might not get one, in fact. What we might have, and I think we do have at the start, is a very enjoyable and well-cast spinoff that Ice and Fire nerds like us can eat up, even if it’s not going to ring our bells like the original.
One thing I absolutely loved in the first episode was that they started the action not with a dragon (though that came soon enough), but with a scene that introduces a theme that will recur again and again: the unwillingness of these people to tolerate a female leader. Josh, I don’t know about you, but I didn’t expect to come away from the prequel thinking, “huh, Cersei Lannister’s Westeros was actually pretty progressive.” And let’s be clear—it wasn’t. By then, more than 100 years after the action of House of the Dragon, at least there’s an inkling that it’s possible, and even though Cersei’s short reign was thrust upon Westeros, we end with Sansa as Queen of the North. Here, in the very first scene, we see Rhaenys passed over in favor of Viserys I (a slight simplification of Martin’s actual history, but close enough), and by the end of the episode, we understand that Viserys’ own heir after he skips past Daemon and his “heir for a day” comedic material, his daughter Rhaenyra, is going to face a lot of the same obstacles (read: bullshit). All I can say is that if you were a Hillary Clinton fan who agonized over how close she came to becoming America’s first female president, this show is going to put you through the same metaphorical wringer.
All of this takes place, of course, after the longest and most peaceful reign in Westerosi history, that of Jaehaerys I, and like a pressure cooker that has been simmering too long, the principal figures in the succession dramas seem determined to make up for 55 sanguine years in the space of a few months. The three characters that matter the most are the ones you singled out: Viserys, Rhaenyra, Daemon. With them, and with many of the secondary characters, we see some familiar archetypes: the tomboy daughter (hello Arya), the semi-evil semi-intriguing uncle (hello Jaime), the ineffectual king (hello Robert), the scheming Hand (hello Petyr Baelish), the ponderous grandmaester (hello Pycelle). They are the classic poor man’s version of each, but again, I don’t mean that quite as harshly as it may sound. Considine, Smith, and Alcock are all extremely solid, and the characters alluded to above, plus Corlys Valeryon, do yeoman’s work in making the action go.
So Josh, back to you with a few questions. Did you find the pregnancy scene affecting, particularly as it contrasted with the jousting? Did the emotional impact of Viserys’ decision hit you the way the writers intended? Who are you pulling for in the Daemon-Otto Hightower rivalry, and did your opinion change at all when Hightower pimped out his own daughter? And do you agree that it’s a shame that Daemon had never viewed A, pro wrestling, or B, the future Oberyn Martell-Clegan fight, to know that you never celebrate a fight victory before it’s actually over?
Last, what do you think of Viserys and Rhaenyra so far? There’s part of me that’s sympathetic to the king, even though he’s bumbling and often deluded, and I find myself wanting to shout at Rhaenyra, “go do anything else with your life!”
The pregnancy scene was rough, but the woman at the heart of it—though she seemed nice enough and grounded in a way that most nobles of Westeros aren’t—was a stranger. We didn’t really get to know poor Queen Aemma. And while Viserys seemed to genuinely love her, he was a little too quick and stoic with his impossible choice. So yes, that powerfully constructed scene was affecting and effective in showing us the flaws of our new king, it won’t make it into the Westerosi Death Scene Hall of Fame (located in The Twins, of course) simply because there was no time for us to get to know the deceased.
As far as Otto Hightower… gods, its hard to find a good man in this kingdom. Of course, we already learned what happens when a good man is Hand of the King. We hadn’t found out much about him other than that he really didn’t trust Daemon before finding out that he’s a terrible father. So no, I’m obviously not on Team Hightower. But I look forward to discovering whatever decent qualities Daemon has that earned him at least some affection from his niece. I’d wager a dragon egg, though that he gets his revenge on young Ser Criston Cole in some brutal fashion before all is done.
What’s interesting to me about Rhaenyra is that she begins with no ambition for the throne. She’s a dragon rider and that’s enough for her, though the lack of attention from her father simply because she’s a girl has left a mark. I imagine that will be the driving force for wanting to take her place on the Iron Throne. I hope there is real familial love between her and her uncle to give a deeper complexity to everything that’s about to follow.
One question for you: Who did we meet briefly with potential to become a favorite going forward? I’ve got my money on Ser Harrold Westerling, Rhaenyra’s guard played by the great voice and film actor Graham McTavish.
I will recuse myself on that one for the time being since I’ve seen six episodes, but I think you’ve made a solid pick, and it was another example of great casting in HotD. In fact, let me give you my top five casting rank, not based on which of these is the best actor, but simply based on how well they seem to “match” their characters:
5. Otto Hightower – Rhys Ifans. Appropriately arch, slippery, and above all else very considered in his mode of behavior. It’s easy to see how he’s risen so high in the king’s court—he’s very good at disguising the true breadth of his ambition.
4. Lyonel Strong – Gavin Spokes. Just workmanlike stuff from him, constantly, as the king’s advisor, only the first of which is apparent in episode one. It seems like Spokes is a relatively new name, at least for a lot of us Americans, and I hope this role lets us see more of him.
3. Rhaenyra – Milly Alcock. As you noted Josh, she starts out seeming very un-ambitious, and that’s partly because Daemon starts out as the heir to the throne. That all changes when the prospect of being queen is dangled before here, and Alcock seems extremely good at being by turns an innocent kid, an aspiring queen, and a whiny teenager…all of it eventually blossoming into something of immense magnitude. You feel bad for her, but you also sense that she’s going to be the victim of her own impulses. Alcock is phenomenal.
2. Grand Maester Mellos – David Horovitch. Not sure I even actually believe this ranking, but you know what? A good maester deserves some recognition. He’s like the offensive lineman of a GoT universe show, and Horovitch is perfectly solemn, stuffy, irritable, and vain here. He’s the one character here where I can see liking him even better than his equivalent, Pycelle.
1. Viserys – Paddy Considine. One of the great things about GRRM is that even though he’s writing in a genre known for black-and-white depictions of characters, he refuses to succumb to that kind of Manichean thinking. The question of “is Viserys I a good king?” is one that it’s very difficult to answer definitively, because like a real historical figure, he’s occasionally wise, occasionally dumb, and a victim to circumstances he can’t control. Considine nails this, in my view, and I find my opinion on the character changing from one moment to the next because he’s so good at playing that nuance.
I’ll call it there for now, but I’m looking forward to next week, because pacing is another thing this show does quite well, and there will be plenty to talk about as the new Daemon-in-exile reality sets in at King’s Landing. Until then,
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