NOTE: Spoilers ahead for the first episode of House of the Dragon.
You cannot overstate House of the Dragon’s importance.
Three years after Game of Thrones’ controversial end, its prequel arrives with tons of expectation-filled baggage. Will House of the Dragon win back the fans turned off by Thrones’ divine finale? Can the series stand on its own as an extension of the world of Westeros? For the penny-pinching executives at Warner Bros. Discovery, will it help increase and maintain HBO Max’s subscriber count?
House of the Dragon knows what it’s up against. Rather than shy away from comparisons to its forbearer, the first episode firmly grounds us in what is familiar. The opening prologue closes with a direct reference to Daenerys Targaryen, a descendant of this era’s rulers. The episode closes with a mention of “a song of ice and fire,” a prophecy critical to the Game of Thrones universe. Neither of these bookend acknowledgments seems crucial in House of the Dragon‘s story. (The latter does seem like it will recur through the season.) However, it isn’t afraid to leverage Thrones’ extensive world-building to re-establish a tangible connection with audiences.
Less tangible but more satisfying is how House of the Dragon reflects some of early Thrones’ storytelling strengths. This season’s conflict – the Targaryen dynasty’s precarious position – is grounded in family dynamics, political maneuvering, and cultural mores. After the repetitive dialogue and political ineptitude that plagued Thrones‘ final season, hearing compelling lines hint at fraught interpersonal connections is disarming. The characters’ decisions feel consequential and grounded in social, political, and cultural realities in a way that makes sense. King Viserys (Paddy Considine) sacrificing his wife Aemma (Sianna Brooke) to save his son is horrifying but stems from the pressures of producing a male heir. The child’s stillbirth only magnifies the story’s tragedy and urgency.
At the center of that story are Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and Daemon (Matt Smith), Viserys’ heirs at different points in the episode. Daemon is Viserys’ brother and the initial heir, a brutal, ambitious commander of the City’s Watch who orders them to uphold the law violently. No one wants Daemon to rule Westeros, but Viserys supports him until Daemon makes a callous remark about his deceased nephew. Viserys ignores tradition and names his daughter and firstborn Rhaenrya as his heir, cutting Daemon out of the line of succession.
Rhaenrya being the first-ever sitting queen of Westeros will indeed cause problems for a society that regularly discounts women. (Aemma explains to Rhaenrya that “the child bed is our battlefield.”) The question is, how and by whom? There are several characters with motivations that could either bolster or disrupt Rhaenrya’s eventual reign. Will Daemon align himself with his niece, for whom he genuinely cares? Or will he betray her? Will Rhaenys (Eve Best), passed over for the Iron Throne herself, conspire with Corlys (Steve Touissant) to re-assert her claim? The possibilities are endless and all the more exciting because of it.
The thrills don’t end there. House of the Dragon wouldn’t be Thrones without the jaw-dropping, often shocking, visuals. The violence and sexuality are plentiful but purposeful. The City Watch’s late-night assault underscores the nation’s fragile peace and Daemon’s vicious ruthlessness. The horrifying, peek-through-your-eyes childbirth of Viserys’ male heir is a devastating coda to Aemma’s warning about a woman’s place in Westeros society. Daemon’s sexual escapades bear a whiff of dysfunction that, when taken with his utter disinterest in his off-screen spouse, suggests something more is going on with the erstwhile prince. (I guess Daemon either has an incestuous interest in his niece Rhaenyra or might be asexual.)
Even how the episode deploys the titular dragons under the Targaryens’ care is thoughtful. Aemma and her son’s funeral ends with the cremation of their bodies. Rhaenyra, apparently the only dragon rider in Viserys’ direct line, must give the order to her dragon Syrax. “Dracarys,” a word usually spoken with power and authority, has never sounded more solemn. (Even Syrax appeared shaken by the circumstance.) We see how vital the dragons were to Targaryen culture and how their subjugation and eventual distinction could lead to the dynasty’s ruin. Broader implications aside, it is also one of Thrones’ most emotionally affecting moments.
House of the Dragon has a lot riding on its fledging shoulders. So far, the series carries the weight well. It is a much-needed palate cleanser for the Thrones franchise, reminding viewers why they latched onto the sprawling landscape in the first place. It also introduces a spate of new, intriguing characters for people to love and loathe in due time. (Daemon, played with a poison-tipped smirk by Matt Smith, has “fan favorite” written all over him.) If the series holds tight to its momentum, House of the Dragon could remind everyone that the Iron Throne reigns supreme in the world of television. (Or at least that it’s not as forgettable as once feared.)