‘House of the Dragon’ review: brutal and chilling prequel to ‘GoT’

The violence is just as brutal, the relationships scarier than ever — welcome to “House of the Dragon,” the “Game of Thrones” spinoff that might as well be called “Dated and Related.”

The stakes are high, given that “GoT” was the biggest show in the world during its run from 2011 to 2019, even though it crashed into a widely derided end.

While “House of the Dragon” (premiering Aug. 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO) isn’t a masterpiece, it’s an addictive series to watch full of juicy drama, palace intrigue and… crowd-pleasing “GoT” nostalgia.

Set 172 years before Daenerys was born, it gives us Westeros through “Succession”. We’re steeped in the drama of its ancestors, the silver-haired, dragon-riding, incest-happy Targaryen family – and what led to their decline, with Daenerys and Jon Snow the last of their line.

The main conflict in “House of the Dragon”, which is based on the book by George RR Martin “Fire and Blood”, is a civil war between Princess Rhaenyra and her half-brother Aegon II (who is unborn at the start of this show) over who gets the throne. The Targaryens are the powerful rulers of Westeros at this time, but the current king, Viserys I (Paddy Considine), a sane ruler (a novelty in this world!), must appoint an heir.

Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in
Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in ‘House of the Dragon’. Behind her, Paddy Considine as her father, Viserys I, sits on the throne.
Photography by Ollie Upton/HBO

Fans looking for characters to hold on to and put down roots – like the original series gave us the Starks – will be disappointed. The Targaryens are a bunch of prickly weirdos, and all of the relationships on the show are straight out of Groomers R Us, pairing middle-aged men with young girls they’ve known for years, who are often parents to blood, to boot. Dragons, battles, and politics are all well and good, but those aren’t the only factors as to why “GoT” has landed with such a large following.

The main contender for Viserys I’s crown is his young daughter Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock in early episodes; in later episodes after a time jump she is played by Emma D’Arcy). But it’s against the norm for women to rule, so the king’s advisers fear it will cause chaos. She is mostly seen galloping with her friend, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, and later Olivia Cooke), whose father Otto (Rhys Ifans) is the Hand of the King. Rhaenyra also has an uncomfortably seductive dynamic with her Uncle Daemon (a landscape-chomping Matt Smith, an oozing menace).

The incest between twins Jaime and Cersei Lannister was gross on “GoT,” but at least they were the same age, and the show also offered plenty of nicer romances to counter that. It’s disturbing – and sure to raise eyebrows – to see 40-year-old Daemon flirting with his young teenage niece.

Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in early episodes of
Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in the early episodes of “House of the Dragon.”
Photography by Ollie Upton/HBO
Matt Smith wearing a helmet holding a sword.
Matt Smith as Daemon Prince Targaryen in ‘House of the Dragon’.
Photography by Ollie Upton/HBO
Olivia Cooke as older Alice Hightower, left, and Emma D'Arcy as older Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in
Olivia Cooke as older Alice Hightower, left, and Emma D’Arcy as older Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in “House of the Dragon.”
Photography by Ollie Upton/HBO

As the king’s brother, Daemon is another contender for the throne, but almost everyone (including Otto, who hates him) thinks that would be a disaster, as he’s impulsive, violent, and power-hungry. (Naturally, he delivers plenty of scenes that are sordid, gruesome, or just plain funny.) And, when the king finally has a baby boy, matters of his succession become even more complicated.

Like “GoT”, “House of The Dragon” features many plotting characters in rooms and action scenes steeped in brutality. Sometimes the writing is almost comically heavy. In one episode, a pregnant woman compares childbirth to the battlefield. Later, the scene cycles back and forth between his job going wrong and a battlefield full of men fighting violently. “GoT” wasn’t a subtle show, but it didn’t hit viewers like that. The swapping of actresses for Rhaenyra and Alicent is also shocking – although both pairs offer strong performances, the switch seems unnecessarily distracting, as the age jump isn’t so apparent.

Graham McTavish on a horse.
Graham McTavish as Ser Harrold Westerling in ‘House of the Dragon’.
Photography by Ollie Upton/HBO
A dragon
One of the many dragons in “House of the Dragon”.
Courtesy of HBO
King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and his daughter, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen) chat in front of a dragon skull in
King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and his daughter, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, chat in front of a dragon skull.
Photography by Ollie Upton/HBO

For better or worse, “House of the Dragon” has a smaller reach than “GoT.” If you’re tired of Jon in the freezing cold, you can always count on “GoT” to change the scene to another character or another family. In “House of the Dragon” we only have the grandiose Targaryens, and the main location (with a few exceptions) is King’s Landing.

Besides having questionable wigs, “House of the Dragon” is well done for what it is: a pulpy political fantasy that makes you want to keep watching. And he manages to learn at least one key lesson from “GoT”: his sex scenes are more tastefully filmed, depict both female and male nudity – and the former mostly seem to be having a good time, too.

It remains to be seen if a larger audience can overcome their anger with the “GoT” ending, or if it will be a more niche show for die-hard fans. But it should ignite many viewers.

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