House of the Dragon has arrived and with it the expectations of every HBO executive who desperately wants Game of Thrones to transform into a franchise. From an executive perspective, everything is on the line: The future of Thrones as a franchise, an opportunity too good to pass up after the original series had become one of the most successful shows of all time; The procurement of one franchise at Warner that hasn’t fallen off of a cliff; The future of scripted dramas under Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, whose leadership has already butchered a significant amount of scripted programming from HBO Max (itself dying next year).
From a fan perspective, corporate beads of sweat are less relevant. More relevant is the bitter taste left in the mouths of many fans by the Thrones finale, an ending maligned as being one of the worst – if not the worst – in television history. I don’t know if it’s the worst, but the disproportionate attention to Thrones certainly made it seem that way. The mechanics of what had made the show special had been unraveling for some time, but the ending crystalized just how much storytelling potential had been lost to spectacle and hollow spectacle at that.
Is the prequel series House of the Dragon good? Is it worth watching, worth investing in? And the answer to that is yes, with a caveat. The series is juggling a delicate balancing act of establishing its own identity, folding back in the fans who vowed to never return to Westeros, and defeating competition in the age of there-is-so-much-to-watch-on-streaming. And in that balancing act, the audience investment partially depends on what made you love Thrones in the first place.
My love for the series was established with its depiction of a brutal, more realistic realpolitik. George R. R. Martin understanding of humans in a political system is apt and more importantly, how history informs said humans and their actions. His understanding of history may be too heavily based on notions of the medieval era that no longer hold up to scrutiny, however, and those are the parts where Westeros feels like it’s indulging in trauma for shock value.
“Heirs to the Dragon” kicks off the celebration and warning of House Targaryen’s success 172 years before Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). That horrific character assassination is one of the most egregious in television history and one that hopefully is rectified in some fashion in George’s books but until then, the series seems to understand that Rhaenyra (here played by Milly Alcock) needs to be given a more nuanced and carefully constructed story.
The thrust of House of the Dragon is a society in which men make it abundantly clear that they will not suffer women at the head of such a society. Westerosi nobility isn’t just averse to women on the Iron Throne – the men leading each noble house (with the frequent acceptance of my beloved Dornish) are also acutely aware that if women are allowed to rule, then what happens to their own power? (That is all I will say on that for now, but keep that in mind moving forward).
As the adult Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) says in a voiceover, the nobles picked her father Viserys (Paddy Considine) over Rhaenys (Eve Best), the latter of whom had the better claim by order of birth but lost because Westeros hates women. That bitterness and misogyny placed at the head of the realm a kind-ish man who really has no business being king. He is too trusting, he is too foolish, he is a man who really should be with his family running a bakery or something – not being yanked around by clearly selfish men for their own ends.
The largesse of luxury throughout the pilot serves to establish the height of Targaryen power, an empire at its peak. But the largesse in and of itself calls attention to what’s beneath it. Earlier in the episode, Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) drops the mention of the Triarchy, three free cities of Essos who have banded together for some purpose to be revealed later. But there is another Triarchy that forms the crux of this episode, a triarchy of brutal violence. Each form of violence is different, but they together form a much more horrific picture than a society visually established through silks, bright heraldry, and awe-inspiring dragon rides.
As Aemma (Sian Brooke) tells her daughter Rhaenyra, their bodies have a duty to the state. Unspoken in that brief but revealing conversation is the implication that their bodies are not theirs to possess or use or enjoy. They are meant for one purpose and one purpose only and soon after in the episode, Aemma’s autonomy is stolen away from her by her husband, who makes the choice to sacrifice her in extreme pain for the chance to provide the kingdom with an heir. That is happening right now – the kingdom of Westeros may not be at stake – but millions of futures are and that shouldn’t ring so true but it does. That is violence.
Daemon’s (Matt Smith) army of Gold Cloaks, resplendent in their vileness, is essentially a functioning police unit. Law and order, maybe too modern of a phrase, is nevertheless an effective description of what effectively amounts to rule through pure terror. Two carts of dismembered limbs, two full carts and the camera doesn’t shy away from the quantity of carnage, even if thankfully you only see a portion of it unspool. That is violence. Just because it is the state itself enacting that violence and not an actor that “exists outside of the law” is irrelevant. The law itself is violent. Everyone deserves to live in safety, proclaims Daemon in defense, but what is safety if you are living in a constant terror of having your hand chopped off for stealing bread to soothe your childrens’ hunger?
The violence of the tourney. As Rhaenys notes with distasteful judgment, or judgmental distaste if you prefer, the realm has known peace for so long these noble born knights seek out war through wanton, useless violence. White supremacists often like to tout human sacrifice in colonized lands, with or without evidence, as proof of white superiority. But, aside from that nonsense on its face, it’s difficult to see men just bashing in each other’s heads and faces and chests for no good fucking reason. For the bread and circus, the carnage of slaves that gave the Roman Empire tools of entertainment and therefore tools of maintaining power. It is not glory. It is to keep the masses entertained and the nobles assured of their self-importance. It is to maintain the visible legitimacy of the state. It is violence.
So when Rhaenyra is announced as the heir to the Iron Throne, Viserys is breaking a nonsensical norm of Westerosi politics, that is true. But in the same way when we see leaders who are not of a privileged class rise to power, we have to ask ourselves a deeper, more uncomfortable question. The triarchy of violence is required to sustain the sanctity of the state. The state is founded by violence. It expands through violence. It maintains itself through violence. And as we see Rhaenyra’s triumph, we must ask ourselves, if the violence required to maintain the state continues with a Queen and not a King, what are we truly breaking?
– The VFX artists did such a phenomenal job with so many different dragons and I’m looking forward to more of their distinctive personalities coming forward throughout the series. The fire at Aemma’s funeral looked a little wonky, but whatever.
– The Iron Throne wounding Viserys is a beautiful, beautiful touch right out of the books. That one of the wounds is something not even the Maesters can heal is telling.
– I cannot stress enough the horror of the sequence in which Aemma is forced to give birth and even if Baby Baelon had survived, that violation is unforgivable
– Steve Toussaint got so much racist harassment from awful bigots and it’s just really incredible how much shit actors of color get from being in genre fare. His Corlys Velaryon is going to be on the most important characters in this story and already, with so little, he’s crushing it. His chemistry with Eve Best is also a great touch.
– The costume design on the show. Oh my lord, the costume design on this show. Chef’s Kiss.
– Speaking of kisses, if Ser Cristan Cole (Fabien Frankel) wants to call me, my number is available. Cristan was established as being both Dornish and not noble-born, so keep that in mind going forward.
– So many of the characters here are close to characters in the original Game of Thrones, but they’re different enough to be substantial characters in their own right.
– Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) is not just Daemon’s paramour, she is also established in the episode as a dragon rider and will prove to be very, very important.
– So the Targaryens, their dragon dreams, and prophecies. This was arguably one of the most egregious cuts made in the original show and it will prove substantially important in this story.