HBO’s Devout ‘Game of Thrones’ Prequel Rarely Comes To Life

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“And the day gets ugly.”

Halfway through the premiere of “House of the Dragon,” Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best) wearily utters the above proclamation to no one in particular. A group of young knights have begun fighting each other, spoiling the festive mood of House Targaryen’s anniversary day festivities. Considering the inflated egos of men who, as the princess shrewdly notes, have never seen real combat but are burning for the chance to prove they are true warriors, this was just a matter of time before a sanctioned tournament of scored jousting turns into swords drawn and cut. members.

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Could such savagery have been avoided? Arguably yes, but why would anyone try, when the crowd roars its approval and the royal court scrambles to get a better look at the bloodshed? This is how things are, as Princess Rhaenys knows very well. Dubbed “The Queen That Never Was”, the rightful heir to the Targaryen throne has been passed over in favor of her younger cousin, Viserys (Paddy Considine), with no mystery as to why: Rhaenys is female and Viserys a man. Men have long ruled House Targaryen, just as they have long ruled Westeros. To change such customs would require an act of courage; a king willing to risk war not only in his kingdom, but in all seven kingdoms. And Old King Jaehaerys was not so brave.

“House of the Dragon” is also not. Co-showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal, along with co-creators Condal and George RR Martin, make the destructive influence of misogyny the series’ central theme, but it’s more of a practical shield than a dagger. piercing. After all, this is a prequel to “Game of Thrones”; where Westeros ends has already been defined. Learning that his past isn’t far removed from his future is both part of the problem – pretending to care about how the patriarchal power structures of medieval fantasy and the boastful baby-men mirror the similar problems of modern times – and a safe path for the network’s first spinoff of its most profitable franchise. The first six episodes set up an intimate but epic tale of how ill-begotten pride, outdated customs and an obsession with power have burned a long-thriving kingdom… while enjoying the ensuing ugliness more than ever. they do not examine its unnecessary proliferation. Pure spectacle and (often disgusting) soap opera make television intermittently absorbing. However, the new “House” is mostly sticking to the “Game” that preceded it, rather than fighting for meaningful change.

The prequel series picks up during the ninth year of King Viserys’ reign, 172 years before Daenerys Targaryen was born. Although peaceful and prosperous for decades, the king’s tenure was marred by his failure to produce an heir. Of course, he has a crafty dragon-riding daughter in Princess Rhaenyra Targaryan (first played by Milly Alcock before a mid-season time jump, when Emma D’Arcy takes over). But it’s a daughter. Regardless of her qualifications, she is practically useless. (She can’t even fill the council’s wine goblets without daring talk. Out loud!)

Fortunately, the king is optimistic. He and his wife, Aemma (Sian Brooke), may have lost five children in labor, but Viserys sees in a dream that their impending offspring will grow into a healthy boy. Prince Daemon Targaryan (Matt Smith), the heir apparent, if his brother is unable to raise sons, strongly opposes his king’s foresight. To call Daemon the black sheep of the family would be an affront to sheep, as a species, and Daemon belittles woolly crooners enough already, while bashing his estranged wife in the same breath. “I’d rather sleep with a sheep” is perhaps the most polite way to paraphrase Daemon’s oft-repeated flippant grudge, which should make it clear how he’s made enemies of everyone in the royal council, at the except his faithful brother.

But Daemon has one thing many of his ilk don’t: he’s battle-tested. A fierce member of the City Watch – essentially a corrupt cop who doesn’t need to hide his sadistic abuse of power – the King’s brother can ride dragons and win sword fights, giving him an outrageous confidence that transforms in a devouring right. Seeing Smith roam the halls of Harrenhal, a sneer spilling between his hanging white locks, is one of the creepy pleasures of “House of the Dragon.” He’s the character you love to hate, and as vexing and gruesome as his behavior continues to be, the threat he carries – whether he’s emerging from desolate dungeons or at grand banquets – makes him an exciting addition to every game. stage. Daemon, almost by himself, brandishes the “anything can happen” side that could often galvanize “Game of Thrones”.

Matt Smith in

Matt Smith in “House of the Dragon” – Credit: Ollie Upton / HBO

Ollie Upton/HBO

Too many other characters move with the stiffness and precision of chess pieces. Rhys Ifans is handcuffed as the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, whose single defining trait – his loyalty – is also his dullest. (An actor capable of such charm should never be relegated to six hours of brooding deference.) Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon gets the best look (the salt-and-pepper beard ties his dashing pirate ensemble together) and the best nickname (“The Sea Snake”), but “the most famous nautical adventurer in the history of Westeros” has his biggest off-screen impact, for some reason.

Then there are the women. Rhaenyra is an imposing presence whether Alcock or D’Arcy plays her. The princess’s best friend, Alicent Hightower, takes a little longer to fire up, but Olivia Cooke soon wields her character’s experience with sharp expertise. Yet the most prominent women in the cast grapple with typical arcs, as written by men, and the interiority within them that is explored often seems premeditated, as if their main goal is to encourage men to fight. By Episode 6, there are signs that Rhaenyra and Alicent could see more serious exploration, but so far they’re out of control for a story that demands more varied perspectives. (Meanwhile, “Devs” star Sonoya Mizuno will adjust her lineup on HBO Max soon enough…in the Sundance acquisition, “Am I OK?”, not in her thankless role here as Daemon “so common that she must categorically repeat that she is not a “courtesan.)

Like its predecessor, “House of the Dragon” is the kind of show that chooses to illustrate a character’s softer side when they literally go soft, half-orgy. Frequent nudity is accompanied by quota-filling violence, such as a cart stacked with body parts rolling across the screen or a graphic plan unveiled in the very first frame of an episode, so there’s no no choice but to catch a bloody, burning eye. Incest abounds. Those who watched ‘Game of Thrones’ because, after Sean Bean, anyone could die at any time may miss the frequent outings within a large ensemble, but ‘House of the Dragon’ makes sure to provide enough taboo titillation to keep fans familiarly uneasy.

Genuine excitement, even elegance, can surface. Keeping the focus on House Targaryen may reduce the body count of big names, but it helps turn the castle walls into a pressure cooker, where every interaction and explosion carries added weight. Adding to the noticeable weight are the looming sets (courtesy of production designer Jim Clay) and tactile costumes (by Jany Temime), which blend seamlessly with real-life locations across Europe. Dragons are a constant presence that provides a reliable rush. (Their intros are always slick and invigorating, though the yet-to-be-finished CGI shown in advanced screens leaves questions about how polished their looks are.) Time jumps are deployed to avoid too much downtime between feuds. family relationships and having a largely honorable king at the helm (guided by Considine’s gentle eyes and fragile fury) invites true investment in the overall health and happiness of his kingdom.

“House of the Dragon” – Credit: Courtesy of HBO

Courtesy of HBO

Of course, seeing the Unstable Realm can also be satisfying. No matter how many trials come out in the weeks to come, the Targaryens aren’t the Roys, and “House of the Dragon” isn’t “Succession” (just like “Succession” isn’t “Game of Thrones”), but the hits of each HBO drama are at least somewhat utilized by what follows. Here, that means an intense, unwavering focus on one family (rather than multiple homes) as well as the lingering question, “Who will get a kiss from Papa Viserys?” Sadly, that doesn’t mean Princess Rhaenyra literally spits on her brother’s plans or marries a jovial Midwestern cuckold who unleashes her pent-up fury on their lanky jester of a cousin. “House of the Dragon” has no time for jokes, because “House of the Dragon” has almost no time for fun. Matt Smith makes the most of it, bless his soul, and it’s his melodramatic exploits that prove most memorable to date, whether it’s a 10-minute blitzkrieg or just walking into a room he’s in. not welcome.

Given the pressure on “House of the Dragon” to expand “Game of Thrones” into a proper TV franchise, it should come as no surprise that the series is quite watchable. (Unless, of course, you don’t like watching things like torture and incest, which, in the show’s defense, you have to expect.) HBO is pretty good at all that TV stuff, knowing what makes their shows work as well as how to make Martin’s dense world of weird names easily digestible. Giving fans what they want has never been the network’s only priority, but they won’t hand over the keys to their most profitable property to Condal, Sapochnik, or even Martin without believing they can do it. (In trusting them so much, it must be said, that HBO scrapped a $30 million pilot directed, written, and starring women for an alternative to the self-destructive terror men feel at the mere thought of a woman in power.)

Yet what an audience wants and what an audience thinks it wants are often two separate things. If the prequel series satisfies the franchise’s loyal and expansive fanbase, well, it’s designed to do just that. If not, there will undoubtedly be other attempts. Perhaps enough distinctive creativity will emerge in later episodes to let this “House” stand tall, or perhaps such bravery can only be found as a last resort. Time will tell, but it always takes courage. Otherwise, all there is to do is sit and watch, as the day gets ugly, once again.

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“House of the Dragon” premieres Sunday, August 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be released weekly, with the Season 1 finale scheduled for October 23.

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