in ,

House of the Dragon S1E1: “The Heirs of the Dragon” (Series Premiere)

King Viserys in the background, seated on the Iron Throne, Rhaenerya standing in the foreground facing away from him
Photograph by Ollie Upton

The following contains spoilers for House of the Dragon S1E1, “The Heirs of the Dragon” (written by Ryan J. Condal & George R.R. Martin and directed by Miguel Sapochnik)

I’ll be honest: the series premiere of House of the Dragon has left me feeling more conflicted than any episode of television I think I’ve ever watched. This new series (a prequel to the once legendary Game of Thrones) about the civil war that would be the beginning of House Targaryen’s decline, comes with a fair amount of baggage right out the gate. This isn’t just a question of what the future of the Game of Thrones universe might look like, it’s a question of whether or not Thrones is an IP that even has a future, following the show’s almost legendarily catastrophic final season.

On the one hand, House of the Dragon easily soars past its predecessor in terms of set design and sheer spectacle—HBO has clearly given the new showrunners a budget that not even Game of Thrones could have ever dreamed of, and it shows. This first episode is full of awe-inspiring, downright breathtaking moments: the opening sequence at Harrenhall, the sight of dragons towering over the humans around them, the much bigger Iron Throne that seems to engulf whoever sits on it, the dragon skull serving as a centerpiece of the crypt below the castle. 

It’s in these moments that we get a glimpse of House of the Dragon‘s potential, of the chance to breathe life into some of the near-legendary events and figures that would shape the world we would see in Game of Thrones, ones that we would previously only know through the stories told of their deeds and the ruins in which the world we knew would be built. Even knowing how that story ultimately ends, there’s easily a great story or several that could be told of how things got to where they were, how the once mighty House Targaryen could ultimately wind up in ruins, with nothing to its name but tales of glory long past and the seemingly insane dream of recapturing that glory.

But it’s when you get down into details that you realise the truth: no amount of spectacle and production value can elevate a premiere that—to me at least—feels at best underwhelming and at times downright ugly (and no, I’m not just talking about those godawful long white wigs that everyone is wearing). The first issue, the one at the heart of the episode that seems to weigh down every other element, is how just about everything in regards to the story, characters, and world-building feels like a lesser version of something we’ve already seen, either in the original Game of Thrones or in one of the many, many epic fantasy shows that came in the wake of that show’s success. 

Viserys and Rhaenyra embrace in front of a dragon skull
Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO

Character-wise, everyone feels like a slightly remixed version of one or more characters from the original Thrones: Rhaenyra Targaryen is basically “what if Arya Stark was a Targaryen?”, her best friend Allicent Hightower feels like a cross between Sansa Stark and Margaery Tyrell, and her parents feel like ghosts of the well-intentioned but decidedly not politically savvy Starks. This wouldn’t be as glaring of a problem if anyone was nearly as compelling or had as much depth as the characters they’re reminiscent of, but here it’s almost impressive how the show can go a whole hour and leave me caring so little about any of its characters—with one glaring exception.

From the very first moments of House of the Dragon, the show makes it perfectly clear that it intends to take a direct look at the misogyny often present in historical fantasy and especially in the original Game of Thrones: Rhaenyra’s aunt, despite being the only living child of the current king, is passed over for the Iron Throne in favor of her cousin by a council of lords gathered to deal with the suddenly sticky question of succession. But despite going out of their way to address these issues head on—and even having two female characters set up to be its leads—the show seemingly can’t help but fall into the same problem that plagued Thrones of subjecting its female characters to some truly awful fates. 

Violence and gore are one thing, but it’s genuinely discomforting to watch a woman be given a C-section against her will. It’s genuinely disgusting to watch a man recommend to his teenage daughter that she comfort the newly widowed king in his chambers—and that she should wear one of her mother’s dresses. This might be a case of Thrones induced PTSD on my part—and something that I ultimately have to grit my teeth on and wait to see what comes next—but my stomach is already churning at the thought of what horrors await the women of House of the Dragon at the hands of writers once again seemingly unable to find ways to empower their female characters or move their storylines forward in a way that doesn’t have them be victims of often sexually charged violence. 

Prince Daemon, seated left on the Iron Throne and Princess Rhaneyra standing right
Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO

Speaking of which, the violence on display here is framed in a way that makes it overwhelmingly tied to masculinity and deliberately framed against female…something—the tournament held in celebration of the king’s heir cuts back and forth between the queen’s difficult labor and the event turning ugly at the hands of knights “sent by their kings with fists full of steel and balls full of seed,” and the show of force by the newly empowered City Watch is highlighted by an impromptu castration complete with bloody, mangled…parts. Add to that some genuinely groan-inducing lines—the highlight of which is Rhaenyra’s mother explaining to her that producing heirs is how they were meant to serve the realm and that “the child-bed is our battlefield”—and House of the Dragon winds up having a premiere that feels in desperate need of a female voice in the writer’s room. 

Getting back to that question of succession, it comes to rear its ugly head once again when the death of both the king’s wife and his newborn (and only) son means that the choice of who is next in line winds up being between Rhaenyra or her violent, sadistic (at least, as much as I can buy Matt Smith as “violent and sadistic”) uncle Daemon, now with what is functionally a fiercely loyal army two thousand strong. This is the note the premiere leaves us on, and it’s certainly the basis for something compelling: a family drama spiraling into civil war, one in which both sides of the conflict have their world’s equivalents of walking, flying nuclear bombs, but it also feels disappointingly safe when compared to Game of Thrones’ sprawling mix of high fantasy, apocalyptic horror, and palace intrigue with the occasional murder mystery or odd couple road trip thrown in for good measure. 

I only bring up Game of Thrones as often as I do because House of the Dragon so clearly wants you to remember how great the show once was, how at the height of its popularity it grew from simply being a show into something more closely resembling a pop culture event. Several moments in this show deliberately feel like callbacks to the original series—Rhaenyra’s line of “Dracarys” might as well have been dubbed over by Emilia Clarke, and her father tells her of a prophecy passed down from one Targaryen ruler to the next that the first king called “The Song of Ice and Fire.” There’s a noticeable sense of irony one finds here: House Targaryen in the original Game of Thrones was a house seemingly engulfed by the shadow of its past, while the prequel series about the Targaryens finds itself largely in the shadow of its predecessor.

Still, despite its flaws, the first episode of House of the Dragon largely does what it’s supposed to do, setting us up for the conflicts to come throughout the season while for the most part delivering an entertaining hour of television. But it remains to be seen whether the show can come into its own and soar—and whether or not it can avoid the worst mistakes of its predecessor. House of the Dragon‘s premiere is certainly able to satisfy whatever itch people might have had for more Game of Thrones, but the question now is whether or not it can be anything more than that. 

Written by Timothy Glaraton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *