Roush Review: Same Throne, More Dragons in a Grim ‘House of the Dragon’

House of the Dragon Olivia Cooke and Emma D'Arcy
Review
HBO

Basically Succession in chain mail and armor, but substituting wicked wit with fiery displays of force, HBO’s House of the Dragon — the much-anticipated follow-up to Game of Thrones — is lavish and engrossing, though rarely surprising.

The series delivers much of what made Thrones popular: an epic scale that redefined fantasy storytelling on TV, with grueling and gory battle scenes, debauched orgies, torture, endless amounts of intricate palace intrigue. And dragons. Oh, those dragons. You can often hear them coming before we see them emerge from the clouds, adding to our anticipation. And they live up to their billing, belching fire and cowing mortals with their fearsome wings and forked tail.

House of the Dragon Matt Smith

(Credit: HBO)

If only the humans made such an impression. Though the acting remains exemplary, a hallmark of the original series, this grim, glum prequel set nearly 200 years before Thrones sorely lacks a Tyrion, an impish jester to puncture the portentousness. (I begrudge Peter Dinklage none of the four Emmys he won.) The closest we get is Matt Smith (Doctor Who, The Crown) as Targaryen black sheep Prince Daemon, bad-boy younger brother to wimpy King Viserys (a poignant Paddy Considine), whose troubled reign occupies the first season. (HBO made six of the 10 episodes available for review.)

Snarky and swaggering, obviously unfit to wear the crown he covets, Daemon lights up the Red Keep, otherwise an awfully gloomy tomb atop Kings Landing. This is where the Targaryens, the silver-haired dragon-riding dynasty, have ruled for more than a century as the series begins. Unlike Thrones, which scattered its action all across the seven kingdoms of Westeros, Dragon largely stays put in and around the palace, where gossip about succession is everyone’s favorite hobby.

House of the Dragon Eve Best

(Credit: HBO)

You may need a flow chart (and spelling glossary) to decipher just who’s who in the sprawling cast. Princesses have names like Rhaenyra and Rhaenys. Two princes are named Aegon and Aemond. It might help if you’ve read the source material, George R.R. Martin’s turgid tome Fire & Blood, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. (He wrote this instead of completing his A Song of Ice and Fire series, but that’s another story.) Happily, the series is much livelier and more focused than the book. But it also suffers from a lack of distinct personality.

The primary conflict in the new series involves gender, given that Westeros is a chauvinistic nightmare land where females are used as political pawns and regarded as little more than brood mares to pump out heirs. (Childbirth is often fatal and always agonizing.) Let the king’s cousin, Rhaenys (Eve Best), also known as “The Queen Who Never Was,” explain further: “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.”

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The king’s firstborn, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy as younger and older versions, both excellent), begs to differ. She’s determined to break tradition and someday take over from her weak-willed father, the realm be damned. Which it probably will be. As we learn from the introduction: “The only thing that could tear down the House of the Dragon was itself.”

Stick with this through the fifth episode (Sept. 18), and you’ll be treated to a royal wedding — never a peaceful occasion in Westeros — where the tensions during a feast and dance run so thick you could cut it with any number of the blades upon that infamous Iron Throne. It may not equal Thrones’ Red Wedding for shock value, but there’s no doubt the game is on.

House of the Dragon, Series Premiere, Sunday, August 21, 9/8c, HBO