“Game of Thrones” made its reputation by conjuring the politics of an entire world. And for all the grandeur of its spinoff, “House of the Dragon,” its creators’ most surprising decision may be to start small.
I mean that in a very particular sense. The visuals, here, are certainly grander than those of “Game of Thrones” in its early going; anyone impressed by Daenerys Targaryen’s trio of dragons will have plenty to feast on here. And when it comes to the ways in which “Game of Thrones” weaponized HBO’s willingness to broadcast the grotesque, “House of the Dragon” goes still further, with sequences of genuinely nauseating violence unlike any this critic can recall. But where the action — the dragon flights, the carnage — on HBO’s former hit was in service of the intrigue among a group of clans, here we’re watching a feud consume a single family. That’s the choice that gives “House of the Dragon” its charge, and the one that may allow it to exist outside of the “Thrones” shadow.
And what a shadow it is. “Game of Thrones” was the last decade’s defining television hit, one whose 2019 endgame met criticism from some fans, particularly for the character Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finally making the full shift from robust self-belief to messianic madness. And now “House of the Dragon,” co-created by George R. R. Martin and Ryan Condal and based on Martin’s book “Fire & Blood,” examines how she got that way. Set some 200 years before the action of its forerunner series, “House of the Dragon” is certainly concerned with how one becomes king or queen. But the real question the show asks is what it takes to do the job poorly or well.
Discovering that the incumbent is doing a bad job takes a beat; as played by Paddy Considine, King Viserys Targaryen is surprisingly sweet-natured, an appealing trait in just about any job other the one he holds. His accession especially galls Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best) and her husband Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint); Viserys had been elevated to the throne over Rhaenys’ more direct claim by dint of his sex. The troubled question of women’s right to inherit plays itself out in the next generation, as Viserys’ only heir is his headstrong, dragon-riding daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock as a teen and Emma D’Arcy as a young woman).
Other players in this court include the king’s brother Daemon (Matt Smith, in full control of his charisma), fearless on the battlefield and heedless in his personal life, and the young, acutely politically-minded Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, then Olivia Cooke), whose surname suggests just how close to the lofty heart of power she’s been since birth. All are frustrated by Viserys’ fecklessness; one senses his adversaries would respect him more if he governed with a firmer hand, even if it meant a worse outcome for them.
This sort of dithering is not something we’ve seen much of in a creative universe where rulers — virtuous and cruel and everything in between — rule by might. And it’s not merely played well by Considine, who convinces us at every turn that Viserys believes he is doing what is proper, but weaponized effectively within the story. There’s a vacuum at the throne that allows various operators to plan for the future or to sin with what they believe is impunity.
The early plotting is well-captured, and — once she’s of age and played by Cooke — hinges most crucially around Alicent. While I’m reticent to go too far down the road of describing where her character ends up, suffice it to say that she begins the series as a good friend to the king’s daughter and is by Episode 6 pitted against her in uncivil war, using Rhaenyra’s Targaryen-ish taste for indulgence as a cudgel against her in a whispering court that at least pays lip service to propriety. (The four actors playing Rhaenyra and Alicent are to a one excellent, depicting as they do the shading and evolution of a relationship over time even when the script doesn’t always deliver nuance.)
There’s much to praise in this show’s telling a new story that still chimes familiar themes, a succession drama that’s of Westeros but not reheated. (I’d also note that its inclusivity of casting, unfamiliar from “Game of Thrones,” is certainly a welcome change.) But the show can, at times, be more easily admired than watched. We are meant to care about the fate of the throne because it is the seat of power of Westeros, future home of Daenerys and Cersei and Jon Snow, and less because the challengers present cases that compel as anything other than academic questions about what is fair. As if to compensate, “House of the Dragon” can feel jaggedly amped-up: We see exposed intestines and a face caved in as a result of various conflagrations. Scenes tend toward the short and pointedly written, giving us much data but only the general contours of characters. And we learn in frank detail about Rhaenyra’s and her betrothed’s (Theo Nate, then John Macmillan) cravings, with a treatment that “Game of Thrones” used to reserve for the hedonist Lannisters. Both partners want something the other cannot offer; we see the pair address their future together, and the compromises they are willing to make, in a breezy conversation. The veiled allusiveness with which “Thrones” could otherwise address matters of sexuality is gone.
Which is only a bad thing inasmuch as the show seems to be at times straining for effect; Rhaenyra’s pull toward a forbidden love is charged and thrilling, while her visit to a brothel is an overstatement that indicates just how clearly we’re meant to understand her as a rebel heart. But elsewhere, there is a freshness of approach here that can surprise, given that the show takes place in Westerosi history; the show feels less like olden times than a depiction of when the world was new, before the social order ossified.
In this, the directness of approach — the “Game of Thrones”-RedZone treatment of episodes as all trysts, killings, or portentous conversation, with little filler — achieves its purpose. Daenerys Targaryen, after all, viewed herself not merely as a rightful queen in exile but as a catalyst for seismic change. It’s fitting that the show depicting her family’s history depicts just that: Its characters surf the tides of changing times. History is often moving so rapidly they can’t quite keep up. So, too, is HBO evolving its approach to meet viewers — those who have seen all of “Thrones” and remember the highlights best of all, or just all of us living in an era less apt for subtlety and symbolism — where they are. This follow-up series is louder, more direct about what it wants to say and how it wants you to respond. It elicits that response, and it will keep you wondering what will happen next to a family about whom, it turns out, there was still more to say. But it’s a blunt object, not a honed sword.
“House of the Dragon” will premiere Sunday, Aug. 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.