Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review House of the Dragon each week in a series of letters.
First things first, I want to congratulate House of the Dragon for distilling the entire fate of any and all poor people in the extended Song of Ice and Fire universe into a single scene at the start of episode three, “Second of His Name.” I’m talking about the guy getting eaten by crabs who is absolutely thrilled to see Prince Daemon riding in and torching the Triarchy with his dragon, utterly convinced that he’s staring at his salvation. And then, the dragon lands on him and kills him, and neither the dragon nor Daemon nor anyone with any power in Westeros or the Free Cities or anyone will ever think about him again. It reminds me of the scene in the GoT finale when Sam suggests democracy for the seven kingdoms and everyone has a good laugh. The peasants and paupers and peons are grist for the mill, no matter what qualities they like to project onto their betters, and nowhere is that shown more succinctly than a man going from a slow death to a fast death as power changes hands.
Okay. Time to focus. This episode is largely about a hunt for the second name day of young Aegon, and the underlying drama behind it all is whether this child will one day be king, or if Viserys will stick to his guns and pick Rhaenyra. Otto Hightower and the rest of his allies are doing their utmost to convince Viserys that all the omens point to the boy, and it almost works—as he admits later, he “wavers.” And yet, it all culminates with the promised white stag appearing before Rhaenyra, and Viserys giving her his full endorsement, with the caveat that she really needs to just marry someone and have kids already.
I only have one question for you, Josh, and it’s this: Do we care?
I mean that sincerely. This is not a question we would ever ask of Game of Thrones, at least in the beginning, because it was so incredibly well made and well told that yes, of course we cared. HotD, on the other hand, is in its infancy, and is cursed with some very big shoes to fill. The story around which it revolves is all about succession (the dragons are just ornamentation), and for that story to succeed, we have to care about the people involved in the succession.
So do we? Are they human enough? Relatable? Compelling? I have to admit I’m a little bit on the fence. I still very much enjoyed watching this episode, but one question I kept coming back to was this: Is there any character that meets the Ned Stark gutpunch standard? In other words, is there anyone who, if they died suddenly in the next episode, would leave us all devastated? Would this guy be cursing the writers’ names (language not at all safe for work)?
For me, right now, the answer is no. That’s the price HotD is paying right now for being a little bit too broad in its character depictions and actions; I like watching it a lot, but I could name probably 10 GoT characters I cared about more within a few episodes. That, I think, is going to be the ultimate problem here, but I also don’t think it’s a fatal problem. I still want to see how this all plays out, and it’s definitely intriguing enough, but so far, I just don’t see the same emotional investment happening. Curious to hear what you think, though.
To take a more microcosmic view of this episode, it all felt very menacing, like something terrible was going to happen in those woods, but in the end it was mostly cementing things we knew about certain characters. Viserys is a more or less good man with some critical weaknesses, and it was painful to watch him have to kill the stag held by his attendants. He didn’t want it, the people watching didn’t want it, and the stag didn’t want it, and it was a very good metaphor for how he operates as a king. He gets the job done, kinda, but he’s not especially suited for it, and you get the sense that deep down, he’d probably rather be anywhere else.
Rhaenyra is very sympathetic to me, just because of how confused and uncertain the world seems to her. The fact that she lost her best friend Alicent, and now that best friend is becoming her mortal enemy and her dad’s bedmate, is especially messed up, and a little bit painful to watch. You want this girl to just be taken to somewhere where nobody knows her name, where she can have a normal life and not be a pawn in this horrific game that feels like it’s going to end badly for all involved. I know I said that no character passes the Ned Test for me, but Rhaenyra comes closest, and watching her emerge from childhood amid this nest of vipers is particularly sad.
Finally, of course, we have Daemon finally disposing of the Crabfeeder, and here again I think the show succumbs to a style of resolution that feels particularly un-GoT-like. I’m probably forgetting something obvious, but one great thing about that show is that the combat always felt realistic, and perilous for literally everyone involved. This, on the other hand, was just your average Hollywood heroic fantasy schlock, with one guy doing a desperate trick to take out all his enemies. I didn’t like the scene, and it felt lazy to me, and I feel I understand Daemon even less after it.
So Josh, I’ll kick it to you with those thoughts, eager as ever for your take, and I’m also curious how you find the more minor characters whose houses become much more prominent later. IN particular, what do you think of Jason Lannister? Would Tywin look back with pride on him?
Over to you!
How high do dragons fly? Five-thousand feet? House of the Dragon is starting to feel like Westeros at the 5,000-foot view—a retelling of the royal story where only the names that make it into the history books matter. You’re right in that we never get the name (or if we did, I’ve forgotten) of the poor sap who thinks Daemon and his dragon are his salvation only to be pounded into sand. And it suffers in that comparison. Even The Ring of Power gives us some Harfoots (Harfeet?) and village folk to care about. Every single character who’s been developed at all in this show is a Westerosi VIP, such that the heir to the Lannister house seems like someone we may never need to see again. I mean, he doesn’t even have dragons.
I certainly care enough to keep watching but no, I don’t care about these characters the way I cared about Bran and Arya and Jon Snow and Daenerys after those three episodes. And yes, it’s not fair to keep comparing these shows but it feels impossible not to. And while the set-pieces and battle scenes might be impressive to look at, the emotional impact is almost completely missing. This is like reading a dry history of intriguing events. The plot holds me but the characters are just moving from A to B. Neither the boar scene nor the suicide mission held any kind of real danger, even though we know George R.R. Martin isn’t afraid to kill off characters. The problem is there aren’t any characters aside from the always-impending death of Viserys that feel possible. When everyone is important to the plot, no one can feel that important to the audience.
Fortunately, as you’ve pointed out, Martin knows how to make political intrigue intriguing, and that’s what I’m holding onto for now. Viserys has the weight of Westeros on his shoulders, and Paddy Considine is mostly carrying House of the Dragon on his back, although Milly Alcock has been terrific as Rhaenyra Targaryen so far. I may not fear for the princess’s safety, but I will miss her when she’s swapped out for an older actress.
I’m trying to think of enough minor characters to have opinions about. I mostly enjoyed watching Viserys wipe the floor with proud Jason Lannister. Tywin would have felt that slight as a gut-punch, while Tyrion would just have chuckled. Alicent at least has some kindness, and I can’t really fault her for seducing the king—it’s hard to fault the choices of any women in this patriarchal world, unless, of course, they choose to burn down the Sept of Baelor with wildfire. But Emily Carey’s Alicent seems like she actually still cares for her friend and looks after her wellbeing. Apart from them, Daemon’s new wife Mysaria is probably the most interesting minor character we’ve seen so far. Especially since Ser Harrold Westerling seems to have disappeared.
But maybe all this backstory will provide for a better payoff once we’ve moved forward enough in time for the show to slow down. Is it fair to expect any kind of investment in the stories of the small folk when their part in this history is fleeting at best? These episodes are snippets in a grander story and until there’s some immediacy to the events, it’s going to feel more textbook than novel. But is that okay? Can House of the Dragon succeed on its own time-jumping terms? Assuming you enjoyed reading the book this was based on, what was great about this story in print?
It’s a great question about why the book Fire & Blood was a fun read, and I think there’s probably an apt comparison to The Silmarillion by Tolkien, which I have never read but which GRRM himself alluded to, calling his book the “GRRMarillion.” Basically, the really good books have already been written, they establish an unbelievably thorough and compelling world, and because of that, reading a history of that world is going to be super interesting to the real nerds like me. I would compare the experience to reading a really good book about the history of the War of the Roses, in the sense that it’s fascinating to find out what really happened before the relative “present” in a world we already know and are fascinated by. I did not care about any of the old Targaryen rulers as much as I cared about the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire, but it was still cool to read about them.
However, that book was meant to be a history, and was written in that style, to be enjoyed in that context. House of the Dragon can’t really hide behind that; this is designed to be a TV show, not some kind of fictional documentary. It’s on them to take that history GRRM has laid out and turn it into a Game of Thrones equivalent. You’re right, the constant side-by-side comparison is probably unfair but most definitely inevitable. However, we can also just ask “is this a great show?” without referring to its predecessor at all. And the answer for me right now is, “no, but it’s worth watching.” If that feels like tepid praise, so be it; it was on the creators to make something that could stand out and thrive on its own merits, and they’ve only had a middling success. Nevertheless, the history is still cool.
I’ll say again though that this show didn’t have to feel broad and a little cliche. There was nothing inevitable about that, but they chose to tell the story in such a way that it frequently reverts to some very unsubtle machinations, like Daemon going full Leroy Jenkins at the Crabfeeder and somehow succeeding. Even the choice to make Rhaenyra and Alicent friends, which is a revision from the text, feels a little hollow in hindsight. You can see why they did it, to heighten the impact when Alicent married Viserys, but wouldn’t it have been more tense, more suspicious, and ultimately more interesting if there was some mystery between them when it all went down? There’s a reason GRRM didn’t choose to make them best friends, and as with the later seasons of GoT, you just wish they had trusted him a little more.
I think your point about the flatness of the minor characters is a good one, and fits right into this. I too thought Mysaria is the best potential character we’ve seen so far, but she feels like a poor man’s Shae, and Shae was maybe the 35th best minor character in the original (though still a very good one). When you really care about the major characters, the minor characters too take on a major importance, but the opposite is also true; if you don’t care that much about even the principles, a Jason Lannister type isn’t going to raise many eyebrows.
Josh, the plot makes it clear we’re on the verge of the actor switch you mentioned. How do you see that going here? We’re going to lose Emily Carey and Milly Aycock, who I agree have been very good in their roles, and who knows how long we’ll have Paddy Considine as Viserys before that character dies. If we’re already struggling as viewers to bond with these people, will it be a fatal blow to replace everyone? Or is it a chance to reset?
In other words, how do we get that immediacy? I’m in for the season at the absolute least, but I wouldn’t say I’m representative of the broader public. Is it too early to think this show needs some full-scale changes, or are we being a little impatient three episodes in. Back to you, and happy Labor Day, which—considering our thoughts on the poor people of Westeros—I’m pretty sure was never celebrated in the Targaryen age.
I think you’ve summed up what worries me most about this show. The three actors who’ve been carrying it could depart at any time, and right now I think I care more about them than the characters. That, along with the fact that it embraced the most ridiculous elements of its predecessor with that final battle scene where Daemon fights a horde who conveniently lines up for him one at a time. If they’d have, say, made us care about Corlys’s son Ser Laenor—who’d just been mentioned as a possible suitor for Rhaenyra—and had him facing peril in the battle, we might have felt some sense of danger. But again, we’d have to spend more than an episode to cover three years to have the space and time to do that.
So the history book feels like a history book, and so far we’re left with beautiful set pieces, talented actors and a plot that has me hooked—and that’s not nothing. It’s just not everything, either. But House of the Dragon has seven more episodes to make its case, and maybe by the end we’ll be more invested. The ratings have been strong, and I’m not going to stop watching.
So happy Labor Day and see you next week!
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