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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

House of the Dragon // Pilot Review

What was the point of Game of Thrones?

I don’t mean this as a disgruntled fan; I never signed the petition, though there were times I was tempted. Thrones was such a sprawling epic, weaving together tales of heroes spanning continents facing struggles great and small, but as the series went on it became increasingly difficult to say for sure what tied it all together.

The most popular argument was always to frame Thrones as an allegory for climate change; the long night of Winter is coming, yet civilisation is too busy warring with itself to anticipate and fight this inevitable catastrophe. The reading fits, but it also oversimplifies a lot of the human stories within the world of Westeros The tragedy of Cersei Lannister has nothing to do with environmental ignorance, for example, and everything to do with systematic misogyny.

What is the first season of Thrones if not the story of Cersei’s rise to power in a kingdom that tried to make her docile, all while Disney princess Sansa Stark learns a cruel lesson in the realities of her supposed fairy tale prince, while Catelyn reckons with her powerlessness to protect both her husband and children. If Thrones was any one story, it was that of women taking power from the patriarchy to ensure a better future not doomed by tradition. It was the story of one teenage girl stranded on a continent far away without any resources or allies to her name, who became a global superpower so feared by the men of the Small Council that they schemed to have her throat cut.

And then it went another way.

The final season of Game of Thrones argues that climate change can be solved with a last minute knife flourish and that neither of its Queens are fit for leadership. The world burning until both Cersei and Daenerys are put back in their place, and even Sansa only wins by quitting the game entirely and closing herself off in the North. The only way to maintain order, it seems, is through tradition, with Bran Stark taking the Iron Throne as, in Tyrion's own words, a symbol of Westeros' history. The history of man. So what was the point? Was Game of Thrones always going to end up so toothless and averse to change, or did it simply buckle under the pressure after years of subversions and revolutions. For the longest time, it seemed we would nevler know, with all debate confined to petty Internet arguments between the keyboard warriors of /r/freefolk and the stan culture of Game of Thrones Twitter.

And now we have House of the Dragon.

This new series comes from writer Ryan Condal, handpicked by book author George RR Martin, and director Miguel Sapochnik, who was responsible for all the best episodes of Thrones (‘Hardhome', 'Battle of the Bastards' and 'The Winds of Winters' - no, I will not be taking questions at this time). It’s a stacked creative team, and especially exciting is the fact that this time the ending already exists; the source material, Fire & Blood is a finished text, which means that at the very least, they have a completed outline to play with. So far, so good.

The big question left on the table then, is whether House of the Dragon can exist in a world that ends with the eighth season of Game of Thrones. Can it bring something new to a story that ended with such a cynical misfire that Martin has had to spent the past few months of press distancing himself from it? Luckily, albeit after only a single episode, it seems that the answer is a tentative ’yes.’

The biggest change from Thrones to House is in its sense of scale. While the pilot of Thrones offers us at least 4-5 protagonists from the offset spanning three cities over two continents, House is rooted in the journey of Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock), the princess under King Viserys (Paddy Considine) who can only scowl as her father boasts endlessly of his soon-to-be-born son and heir, Baelon. Rhaneyra believes the Throne belongs to her, and she’s not the only one, with uncle Daemon (Matt Smith) and aunt Rhaenys (Eve Best) also vying for this infant's birthright.

Where Thrones opened with full immersion, dropping us into an action scene and slowly contextualising its story over the first four episodes, House differentiates itself from the offset with a gorgeous prologue drawing from Lord of the Rings in more ways than one. Narrated by Emma D’Arcy (who will be playing Rhaenyra in episodes to come) with text appearing over a black screen to provide context which Thrones had never felt the need to provide, this opening sees the Seven Kingdoms assembled in one hall to witness King Jaehaerys announce his heir. Rhaenys (Eve Best) is the most eligible choice for the position, but Jaehaerys chooses Viserys instead, largely for what hangs between his legs. The Targaryen dynasty is rooted in tradition at the expense of good leadership, and as D’Arcy’s voiceover solemnly confirms, this is precisely what will bring on its doom. Now that sounds more like Game of Thrones.

We learn two things from this prologue. Firstly, House of the Dragon is interested in playing with time instead of space, rooting its political intrigue largely within the walls of capital city King’s Landing over a span of several decades, emphasising the ripple effects of tiny decisions across generations instead of continents. It’s a clever shift, as it allows House to replicate the immense scale of Thrones without having to match its ensemble and web of storylines, some of which were always better received than others.

The bulk of this pilot, “Heirs to the Dragon” is set nine years after King Jaehaerys' ruling, introducing us to Viserys as an inept, if affable king, to the frustration of his Small Council. The stand-out here is Lord Corlys Valyeron (Steve Toussaint), the Master of Ships and the only man not convinced that Viserys’ reign is one of peace. Dangers boil on the horizon, and only he seems to be aware of it. Again, plenty of common ground with Thrones here, which might not help anyone still washing out that bitter taste.

The Targaryens here are generally a lavish and well-fed sort; the furthest possible position from where we find the filthy and starved Daenerys Targaryen a little further down the line. Rhaenyra may desire the Throne, but she is also content to enjoy her privileged childhood with friend Allicent Hightower (Emma Carey), while pining over the various knights competing in the King’s Tourney. Even Daemon, with his loudspoken aspirations towards becoming king (starting with his phenomenal introduction scene sat in shadows atop the Throne), is content for now to spend his days in brothels and his nights castrating criminals in the city streets. After eight seasons of Thrones, this is the most at leisure we have ever seen Westeros. Could these be the fabled golden years, the age of harmony before House Targaryen succumbed to madness and tyranny?

Tragedy inevitably strikes, with the sudden deaths of both Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke) and the newborn Baelon, driving Viserys’ into a dishevelled depression. A vividly terrifying image late in the pilot sees Viserys sitting by a candlewax model replica of King’s Landing, with a chandelier of blazing fire hanging just above it. It’s time for fire and blood, but what makes this any different to the pointless brutality of Thrones? It is hard to forget that the doom of Daenerys Targaryen is still our endgame, down to the same warring families, dated laws and even musical motifs (that’s not a knock at Ramin Djawad, whose work is as impeccable as ever, but it is much the same sound).

And then House of the Dragon does something incredibly clever. It’s a strong pilot, full of characters we want to spend time with and conflicts that promise brutal and sudden consequences, but the real clincher comes right at the episode’s end with a few simple words:

“He called it a song of ice and fire.”

A Song of Ice & Fire, for those of you unaware, is the overarching title for GRRM’s seven Game of Thrones books, canonised in the show’s finale as a history book written by self-insert character Samwell Tarly (John Bradley). It was a sweet, if overly cute touch in a finale that needed the levity. What Condal and Sapochnik have done here, however, is transform those same words from a knowing wink into a countdown to Judgement Day.

Viserys confides these words to Rhaenyra in the depths of the crypts, clarifying that this is a secret passed only from kings to heirs. Viserys knows that the Night King is coming, and that his arrival marks the end of the world unless a Targaryen sits on the Iron Throne. What we know from Thrones is that this does not happen; the Night King is defeated, but House Targaryen is destroyed along with him, the themes of feminism, patriarchy and progress abolished for a twist ending. The showrunners behind Game of Thrones put an end to climate change with a knife, but what Condal and Sapochnik have more or less done here is replaced the crisis of The Long Night with the crisis of Game of Thrones: Season 8. Thrones is reframed here as a world-ending apocalypse that our characters are powerless to prevent. The only thing that matters is our the present, which is the one thing Viserys can change in the hope of a better future.

Rhaenyra is the first woman heir to the Iron Throne in its history, and the question that comes with her announcement is whether she can hold onto that power for long enough to make a difference. The world is ending, and the wheel of history must be broken. If Rhaenyra can take the Iron Throne and become the heroine that Daenerys was destined to become, then perhaps the themes of Thrones can be salvaged.

And if we want to get especially cheeky; should it transpire that Daenerys was never banished to the badlands and Cersei driven to madness, maybe King's Landing doesn't have to burn at all. Maybe the boy king with the power of time travel could lend a helping hand? That's the beauty of fantasy; there's always more time for a happy ending.

Maybe that petition wasn’t for nothing after all...


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