‘House of the Dragon’: Grandiose Prequel Series to ‘Game of Thrones’ Is a Worthy Heir

When a classic series has a less than impressive ending, it can be a gift for whatever follows. HBO’s “House of the Dragon” is the first major spinoff of “Game of Thrones,” the studio’s massive hit that dominated Peak TV for most of its eight seasons. Infamously, the series finale was a rushed delivery with disappointing climaxes and send-offs. But there’s no denying the show’s impact, particularly on the fantasy genre. Every major streamer has been trying to catch up to it with its own, often subpar offerings. In a bid to continue the franchise and possibly respond to fan disappointment, HBO now unveils this prequel series based on another hefty novel by “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin. An experienced screenwriter, Martin is also the co-creator of the series and it shows. While the story structure differs from the first show, what made it special is still present here. This one is a grandiose family history, full of palace intrigue and debauched ambition. As the title promises, there are plenty of dragons, but the characters are intriguing enough.

The action is set 172 years before the events of “Game of Thrones.” We are now immersed in the saga of the Targaryen clan, famous for being silver-haired dragon riders. In Westeros rules King Viserys I (Paddy Considine) sitting atop the famous Iron Throne. Like most kings ruling from grand castles, Viserys’s concerns are centered on matters of war and heirs. When his wife dies during a rather brutal childbirth, Viserys is left pulled between two choices: His daughter, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and his dark-hearted brother, Daemon (Matt Smith). Other members of the king’s inner circle have their own agendas. The King’s Hand, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) begins to maneuver his daughter, and Rhaenyra’s best friend, Alicent (Emily Carey) to become Viserys’ choice for a new wife. Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) also aspires to see his family ascend to royal prominence through potential marriage arrangements involving his own offspring. Rhaenyra would be a natural choice with her strong character and dragon-riding skills. But she’s a girl and in this society, a woman of royalty is expected to produce more heirs. 

One of the features of “Game of Thrones,” that all of its wannabe heirs miss, from Apple TV’s “See” to Netflix’s “Cursed,” is its sense of politics and authenticity. George R.R. Martin’s creation behaves like a historical epic with fantasy aspects. “House of the Dragon” can feel like a cross between its predecessor and “The Crown.” We’re walking through castle halls where the smartest make it out alive. In the first half of the season there’s not much venturing out into the world of the plebs. All of the drama is contained within the Targaryens and their circle. Like “The Tudors,” a whole world is built around power plays, long family histories and legends. Martin and co-creator Ryan J. Condal are after high brow drama, not a mere swords and wizards entertainment. But this is to our benefit as viewers because “House of the Dragon” is both visually elegant and smart. Knights ride into bloody jousts where your face can get sheared off, but there’s more intensity in conversations where Hightower instructs his daughter on how to play with the king’s widower heart. A deformed rebel takes over an island territory, feeding Westeros fishermen to crabs, but the most unnerving presence in the series is Daemon. Played by Matt Smith of “The Crown,” this is a worthy successor to Jamie Lannister from “Game of Thrones.” Confident, smart but ruthless, Daemon is like the refined member of a biker gang. He rides his red dragon into battle and then lounges at a banquet, as if silently plotting behind his grin. 

“House of the Dragon” also applies a greater emphasis on questions about the role of women. It never pretends this is anything other than a medieval society, yet it emphasizes with sometimes wrenching detail how it feels to be consigned to a specific role because of your gender. Having a child can mean the difference between life and death, while war can break out simply because the king cannot find a male heir. Age gaps mean nothing and Viserys marries the much younger Alicent because duty demands it. The narrative is set within an aristocratic order where love is kind of a joke. You marry for the right bloodlines. This opens the door to scandalous arrangements. Rhaenyra is assigned a handsome guard, Sir Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), who belongs to an order that pledges celibacy, which of course means he will break it with the princess. Daemon seems to love a favorite prostitute, Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), but isn’t above contemplating incestuous moves to get closer to the throne. Lord Velaryon’s son might make a good choice for marrying into the Targareyns. He’s also gay and would accept only for the sake of family honor. Amid all the banquets, dances and cup-clinking that goes on, we also catch glimpses of the other houses that became so famous in “Game of Thrones.” Here come the proud and arrogant Lannisters while the more down-to-earth Starks stay respectful.

Around the six episode mark, “House of the Dragon” surprises us by making a sudden time jump. After building up the drama and stakes with the original cast, we move ahead into a time where Rhaenyra (now played by Emma D’Arcy) is a grown woman, married and producing heirs. The children of Alicent (now played by Olivia Cooke) have the famous Targaryen hair and bully their ginger-haired cousin. We know all these characters will get entangled into an even deeper web of strife for the Iron Throne. Martin imagines this world so richly and vividly that the fantasy elements feel like regular historical details. Placing a dragon’s egg in the cradle of a royal baby or having the adolescents choose their dragon in the castle’s lower depths never feel like hokey moments. There is also thrilling grandeur to the inevitable battle scenes involving the winged creatures spraying fire on doomed enemy troops. It all works well because characters like Daemon are strongly-drawn, as if they were real personalities out of some historical account. Because we’ve seen “Game of Thrones,” the subtle links to that narrative also give this show a richer sense of being part of a larger tapestry. TV and film are loaded these days with endless spinoffs, sequels, prequels and remakes. “House of the Dragon” delivers because it comes from an imagined world big enough to keep expanding. 

House of the Dragon” season one premieres Aug. 21 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.