How the “Game of Thrones” follow up stacks up against its predecessor (Spoiler free)
Jakob Eiseman, Former Editor-in-Chief
The Entertainment Monarch of Yore
When “Game of Thrones” ended, in 2019, the juggernaut series had been on television for just under half of my entire life, and I must be honest: at the time I couldn’t care less about the series. “GoT” was the biggest property in television entertainment for so long, its fans were insufferably disciplic about it, fantasy just wasn’t really my thing, and I swear there was about a four or five year stretch where I couldn’t watch a talk show, listen to a podcast or even just converse with friends without hearing the names Targaryen, Stark or Lannister, and couldn’t go on social media without seeing the “Winter is coming” meme and I absolutely despised it. HBO, and the rest of the media, put “GoT” on an iron throne, and I hated watching a tyrant try to tell me what I should like.
Then the show ended, and almost unanimously the fanbase turned on a dime to hating the show with me, and in that I found a weird sense of camaraderie. After the embers had burned out from the dumpster (dragon)fire that was the final season, and I went a few years without having “GoT” shoved down my throat, I decided to give it a shot.
You all were right and I’m kicking myself for that. I loved “GoT” and binged it over the span of a few months, learning everything there is to know about the world of Westeros and all of its crazy families and lore. I even read (most of) the first book in the series it was based on. So, when HBO announced that there would be a prequel series centering around the lineage of one of the show’s main characters, not only was I sold, but I was salivating and chomping at the bit to get more.
Enter 2022, I’m proud to say that although this wasn’t exactly the return of the king… it is a decent start.
The Second of Their Name
“House of the Dragon” is a prequel series to “Game of Thrones” set 170 years before the events of the original series, and, like “GoT,” is based on the literary work of George R. R. Martin. While “GoT” follows his series of fantasy novels “A Song of Ice and Fire,” “House of the Dragon” follows a supplementary work written in the style of several accounts of history titled “Fire and Blood.” Martin is known for his excellent use of worldbuilding and character development to drive forward complex political plots using convincing and endearing character moments. Time skips between episodes of the show could be a few days or they could be a few decades as the source material skips in this manner, recounting important moments of history rather than the whole of it.
Set in the fictional land of Westeros which is ruled by a long standing family of dragon riding monarchs, the Targaryens, “HotD” stars Emma D’Arcy (“Hanna”) as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, the first female heir to the Iron Throne, and Olivia Cooke (“Ready Player One”) as Queen Alicent Hightower, Rhaenyra’s childhood friend… and also step-mother…. yeah, show gets a bit nutty.
I have no problem with this casting — in fact I think that while D’Arcy’s performance thus far leaves a bit to be desired, and I think that Cooke is nailing her role and I am thoroughly impressed with what she has brought to the table — the showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan J. Condal made the daring choice to run the first five episodes of the series with a younger actress playing the childhood counterparts of these two main characters. And, I have to say, I think that Milly Alcock, who played a young Rhaenyra, and Emily Carey, the young Hightower, were so much better in their roles.
Maybe it was because I was introduced to them first, but I felt so much more attached to their characters and seeing them grow and change as the show went on felt real and earned in opposition to their adult counterparts that I felt were stuck in their ways and somewhat stagnant through the final half of the season.
The show also features the devilish Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”) as Prince Daemon Targaryen, Rhaenyra’s uncle with eyes for the throne and fire in his blood, and Paddy Considine (“The World’s End”) as King Viserys Targaryen, Rhaenyra’s king-father that wants nothing more than to just be a normal nine to five dad, but is forced to uphold the peace of the realm by his seat on the Iron Throne.
I could list the rest of the main cast but as this is, indeed, a “Thrones” show, there is approximately 1 million names and factions to keep track of so I will leave it at this: The casting team at HBO is excellent, but when there are frequent time jumps that span more than 10 years at a time, no one is going to be perfect at finding actors to play older or younger versions of an established character, and I commend the actors for doing their best. They sell it, but I wish it were better.
Serving the Realm
I really did enjoy the politics in this show. There was action, there was sex, there was violence and there was even comedy, but above all else, the inner workings of characters wants, needs, betrayals, interactions, secrets and all of that great drama really set the tone for how this show is going to proceed moving forward.
The seeds of what teams will form, who will hate or love who and who is plotting their next move are planted so well that it does not seem like ham-fisted foreshadowing, but tasteful, realistic-to-character displays of what the characters are thinking without explicitly stating it. The characters were smart, emotional, endearing, truly evil, truly innocent, funny, warm and caring or cold and vengeful, and all of this was revealed through their interactions with each other, not so much through their own performance.
Beyond that, the worldbuilding, inspired by R. R. Martin, never ceases to impress me, with callbacks (call forwards?) to the original series in all sorts of types such as location names, family names, customs or plot points only ever discussed before now being seen, I did get a lot of enjoyment out of the season because I had seen the original, but these names and places are introduced in a way that makes them feel like a part of a real, living world. So, if you have never seen “GoT” that is perfectly fine. The world feels lived in, the cultures are distinct and stick to their rules and above all, the Targaryen family gets a chance to truly shine, one that is endlessly discussed in “GoT” but rarely seen, and one that new viewers will quickly attach themselves to as the most deliciously dysfunctional family of deadly dragon riders that is sure to draw most people in.
And speaking of dragons, the budget for this series must be astronomical because the CG dragons that appear far more often than I ever thought they could genuinely look great. Whether I watched on a 4K TV or on my phone, they looked, animated and sounded terrifying, real and believable. The world itself was also incredibly stunning, while there were several parts that really took me out of it, generally the set design, green screening and choreography of extras made every landmark distinct, memorable and in many cases, breathtakingly beautiful. Revisiting lands from the previous show was fun, and they changed them up significantly and exploring new parts of Westeros always triggered my interest and curiosity. I cannot commend them enough for their visual world design.
Also, shoutout to the theme song. Yes, it is exactly the same as before. Yes, it is still incredibly dope and deserves its flowers.
“I Did Not Wish for This!”
The politics, characters, worlds and visuals are about where my praise for the series ends and my criticism begins.
The plot is needlessly messy. As I mentioned, time skips are a common trend between episodes, and while that works sometimes, getting us through some months of downtime to get to the action, it often is incredibly confusing, even as someone who knows what to expect. When I was able to piece together what happened, the characters would discuss events that I would have wanted to see, and act as if those events were severely important to their current character makeup. I am a big proponent of “show, don’t tell,” and that is the opposite of so much of this show. If they were driving toward something so amazingly intense or exciting that we needed to fit these many decades into one season of television, I would understand, but to be honest the season finale was exciting, but it just wasn’t all that.
The whole season builds us up to expect one character to turn on another, and in the finale, that is what we get, nothing more nothing less, just what was expected. Yes, next season is going to be bombastically action packed based on where we left off, but in comparison to the excitement of nearly every moment of the first season of “Thrones” and the dramatic cliffhanger that left people questioning, this first season just kind of ramps up and then plateaus, and I think filling in some of those time skip gaps could have gone a long way to continuing that ramp up, building excitement and further delivering on character interactions to support the plot, not constitute it.
Beyond that, the constant recasting of characters made them feel inconsistent. While I felt that at every phase, the characters interactions’ themselves were compelling, the characters alone were not, and I believe that is because the actors all brought a unique take to the characters due to time being passed. Without one consistent throughline for most of them, they kind of went off the rails. Their emotions and motivations came through well when interacting with other characters, but their decisions that affect the plot often do not feel earned.
I know I have made a lot of comparisons to “GoT” in this review, and while I feel that is warranted, I know a lot of people will be tuning into “HotD” with no background with the show, and I feel as though the series does a good job at dropping people into the mix. The problem is that I have built up that visual and storytelling language from watching the original that lets me pick up on what is coming next or what expectations of mine were subverted. I feel as though newcomers to the show may have some difficulty taking everything in because the series does no hand-holding whatsoever when it comes to the actual dynamics of the world. Just an added layer of confusion that may hinder the experience, but certainly not the end of the world. As a standalone series, I still think that “HotD” is very good with many flaws, but as a successor to “GoT” I think it is excellent, just with some notable drawbacks.
We Light the Way
I want to talk spoilers but I know the season finale just debuted so I’ll wrap this up by saying that if you have any interest in “HotD” or “Thrones” in general, I think you should give it a chance. I won’t firmly say that it is for everyone, but I know that it is very compelling and that the way it presents its world and characters is still the best of the best. Despite my criticisms, I did really enjoy “House of the Dragon” and I am really looking forward to season two. I can’t wait to find out how the line of succession in the Targaryen family will continue, and I think it is a real sign of the show’s quality that even though I had issues related to the events we skipped, I am still completely ready to see how the showrunners will present the future events to me and have full faith that they will blow me away.
The world is just so enjoyable to live in for an hour at a time and the interesting characters, once they are established and re-established, do interact with each other in such satisfying ways that I am on the edge of my seat the same way for a hallway conversation as I am for a massive battle, and that is the magic of “HotD” that I hope to see more of moving forward.
I’m going to ding the show for its issues and messy use of plot and pacing, but for everything else it is fantastic and absolutely worthy of a binge. “House of the Dragon” season one earns an 8/10 for me, and I am hopeful for the show’s future.