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On the Shoulders of Dragons: a review HBO’s ‘House of the Dragon’ Pilot Episode

Because 'Game of Thrones' has left a big impact upon the world, everyone will be critical of 'House of the Dragon.'

There’s no question about the impact that ‘Game of Thrones’ has made globally. It can be argued that it was one of the most impactful and most successful television series of its time with many publications saying it is one of the most ambitious and probably one of the best series ever made for the medium. Despite the backlash it had received over its final season, there are still a lot of people who are searching for the next series that they can invest in as much as they did with ‘Game of Thrones.’

HBO hopes to deliver this was the spin-off ‘House of the Dragon,’ which is set almost two hundred years before the events of ‘Game of Thrones’ during a time when the Targaryens sat on the Iron Throne of Westeros, dragons were not an uncommon sight, and there was a reign of peace over the land. Fans of the world that ‘Game of Thrones’ built may want to return and see its history. The events of this series dramatize what is referred to in ‘Game of Thrones’ when they talk about that world’s past. It promises the same level of intrigue and violence that the first series delivered in droves.

But the expectations are high. After 8 seasons of ‘Game of Thrones,’ the show is now going to ask its viewers to fall in love with a whole new set of characters and reacclimate themselves to a different Westeros. As prefaced in the pilot episode’s opening, the Targaryens have ruled the land with the power of their mighty dragons (I believed ten was mentioned) and peace had reigned over their kingdom.

From the production design alone, everything looks different. While, in the ‘Game of Thrones,’ Westeros just came from a civil war, in ‘House of the Dragon’ it is peacetime. While the architecture looks less refined, it’s brighter and cleaner and there’s less debris. It’s that significant little textures that make this show visually appealing.

And within the first fifteen minutes of the show, you already get to see a dragon or two, which is always going to be a highlight of this show. So that’s crossing out some important items off of the checklist. The hour and fifteen-minute pilot goes straight into the action, comfortable that we already are aware of this setting and the milieu that it seldom slows down for us to really get to know the characters. In a way, the pilot feels more like a movie than an immersive fantasy show and that worries me.

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House of the Dragon - HBO review
Photo Courtesy of HBO

We are introduced to the royal family – King Viserys (played by Paddy Considine), his daughter Princess Rhaenyra (played by Emma D’Arcy), the king’s brother Prince Daemon (played by Matt Smith), and the King’s cousin Princess Rhaenys (played by Eve Best) – and the dynamics of their relationships with each other. Through a prologue, the politics are already a play and the show takes no time to set things in motion. The Iron Throne is still the prize but as the first episode unfolds, it seems this one is fighting for the legitimacy of rulership.

This is a family affair and all signs point to a bloody and messy business in the succeeding episodes.

And while all the elements are there – production design, a strong cast, stunning visuals, and a healthy dose of politics and dragons – the pilot never really stops to settle down and allows us to get to know these characters well. Unfortunately, ‘House of the Dragon’ will be compared to its predecessor and because the first season of ‘Game of Thrones’ didn’t have the budget it did in later seasons, it really focused on character development and world-building. By the time Sean Bean’s Ned Stark brought his wife and children to King’s Landing, we had our favourites and we knew and felt the world fully that the surprise violence (and even deaths) had a powerful effect on us. 

House of the Dragon - HBO review
Photo Courtesy of HBO

By the end of the episode, I’m still unsure of how I feel about these characters. No matter how good the acting is – and I love the casting of Emma D’Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra – I don’t feel attached yet to anyone. I’m following the plot more than I am the characters and, for a television series, that’s a dangerous thing. It’s the characters that get you through to the next episode and the next season.

There are some things that stand out. In a negative way, there’s the gratuitous nudity and objectification of women (and men as well, and while the misogyny is part of the world and it is addressed narratively) it just feels like it’s there because it’s a ‘Game of Thrones’ spin-off. At the same time, one of the lords of the court, Lord Corlys (played by Steve Toussaint), is a black man with white hair. Is he a Targaryen? I’m not sure.

It’s so glaring because in ‘Game of Thrones’ there were no people of color in Westeros (though Dorn was inhabited primarily by Hispanic actors) though there were many in Mereen and Pentos and the lands East of Westeros. While I’m all for diversity, it just stood out so much in the first episode. Maybe it will be addressed? Maybe I’ll just let it go after a few episodes? I don’t know but it’s there.

House of the Dragon - HBO review
Photo Courtesy of HBO

On the other hand, the ‘House of the Dragon’ pilot episode reaches a fever pitch in a wonderfully edited scene during a jousting match and a birth – these two simultaneous events are the catalyst for the main conflict that is hinted at in the preview of the season at the end of the episode – there’s cinematic genius here as the juxtaposing images of violence and childbirth underscores the dangers of this world and that this period of peace is hanging by a thread. 

And with regards to the misogyny, it seems that Princess Rhaenyra’s story would center around her own battle for independence and liberation. There’s talk about a woman’s place in the kingdom and she will have none of that. If the show pursues this and even begins to subvert the gratuitous nudity and sex in the succeeding episodes, then it will start to really veer away from the shadow of its predecessor.

Because ‘Game of Thrones’ has left a big impact upon the world, everyone will be critical of ‘House of the Dragon.’ It’s got tough shoes to fill and can’t afford any mistakes in its first season. The promise is there and it’s off to a shaky start. But if ‘House of the Dragon’ manages to give us characters we can invest in, then it will probably help fill the ‘Game of Thrones’ shaped hole in our regular television viewing habits.

My Rating:

5 stars - Don't Look Up review





House of the Dragon premieres on HBO GO this August 22.

ALSO READ:
Here’s Your First Look at the Cast of ‘Game of Thrones’ Prequel ‘House of the Dragon’
WATCH: ‘Game of Thrones’ Spinoff ‘House of the Dragon’ Drops Trailer

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