Succession politics? Check. Violence? Check. Nudity? Check. Gratuitous sex? Check. Incestuous vibes? Check. Dragons? Double check. And that’s just in the very first episode of Game of Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon that premiered this morning.
But, somehow, despite checking most of the boxes — good, bad and ugly — that went into making GoT television at its best (at least for the first five seasons), HOTD’s debut episode feels slightly sketchy, confused and somewhat underwhelming. Not that the episode doesn’t have its moments, which makes me hopeful for how the show might grow through the rest of the season with nine episodes to go. But if I have to rate it solely by this one episode, it is definitely a meagre 2 out of 5.
At the outset, let me spell out my bias, which I will attempt to keep under wraps for the rest of the article — I am not a fan of the Targaryens (and the eventual character arc of Daenerys in Game of Thrones made it even worse) and there are lots of them with really, really bad platinum wigs. There. Now let’s move on.
The episode opens with a voiceover that sets the context, time and place for the audience — “172 years before the death of the Mad King, Aerys, and the birth of his daughter, princess Daenerys Targaryen” — establishing, unnecessarily, its connection with Game of Thrones. One by one, we get introduced to some of the key players of the show and only two stand out — princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock), King Viserys I’s daughter; and Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), the king’s ambitious and throne-hungry brother.
Matt Smith’s innocent face makes him more loathsome
While both have shades of characters we’ve seen before — Rhaenyra could easily be the person Daenerys grows into as the show progresses and Daemon has very Joffrey vibes — each manages to make it their own. Alcock is impressive as the feisty and fiery, dragon-riding princess who waits on the sidelines as her father Viserys (Paddy Considine) keeps trying for a male heir. Smith’s innocent face actually makes his character’s villainy even more loathsome.
Aemma giving birth is the most disturbing scene
The stronghold of patriarchy is effectively established with a scene where Aemma, Viserys’ very pregnant wife, tells Rhaenyra, who professes her desire to be on the battlefield, that “childbirth is their battlefield”. A statement that comes true in one of the most disturbing scenes as Aemma is sacrificed on that battlefield just to make sure the heir survives. What makes that scene even more impactful is the cuts to show the jousting tournament the king had held to celebrate the expected birth of his heir. Even as Aemma is sliced open in a primitive c-section, the men and women outside cheer jousters who become increasingly violent (the jousting scene is spectacular).
But apart from that one moment, nothing in the episode really stays on once it is over. Which is so different to how you feel even after you rewatch the first episode of Game of Thrones. Yes, one can’t forget one’s first brutal onscreen beheading, bared breasts and incestuous sex — and there is plenty here as well, including a glimpse of goo that is a man’s chopped balls, several severed limbs and a beheading — though here there is a hint of, rather than full-on, incest. But there is so much more that is missing. Which is disappointing, given that it is adapted from (completed!) written material by George RR Martin (Fire & Blood) and Martin is one of the executive producers of the show!
Lack of variety in character
One of the things that feels most amiss is the variety in character (and I am not saying this because of my above mentioned bias). Each of the Starks had distinct personalities; this is sorely missing here. Even in the King’s Council, you know that most of them are just vying for the Iron Throne, now that Viserys’ wife and heir are both dead, even if is by offering up their daughter to king to bed (don’t worry, the king is too grieved to take up the offer). Another offers up an alternative — Rhaenys, who was bypassed as heir for not being a male when her cousin Viserys was chosen as king.
The stakes just don’t seem that high
The episode sorely lacks the presence of wit and humour and profundity that Tyrion Lannister brought in the very first episode of Game of Thrones. Given that most of the episode is a lot of talking and meetings, that just makes it boring. And the stakes just don’t seem that high. Yes, a civil war amongst the Targaryens for the Iron Throne is imminent, but even though Viserys tells Rhaenyra of Aegon’s vision of the fall of the world of men that “begins with a terrible winter” that brings with it “absolute darkness” and what comes with it will destroy the world unless a Targaryen sits on the throne (an absolutely unnecessary reference to GoT, especially given that Daenerys was hardly on the throne when the White Walkers were defeated), it fails to evoke any emotions since we know it is not happening for at least 200 years.
I don’t want to write the show off just after one episode, especially when the said episode has some sparks that could fan a flame worthy of House Targaryen, but I’ll definitely be cautious with my expectations of what’s to come.
Here’s what’s to come in the weeks ahead: