TV Review: ‘House of the Dragon’ Season One Episode One: ‘The Heirs of the Dragon’
Series Plot: Set approximately 200 years before the event of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon chronicles the events of The Dance of the Dragons, the Targaryen civil war that nearly tore the entire Seven Kingdoms apart.
Episode Plot: Ten years into his reign after being selected by a Great Council, King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) draws together the great lords of the realm to King’s Landing for a tournament to celebrate the upcoming birth of his son and heir. But despite the festivities, all is not joyous for the Blood of the Dragon. Viserys brother Daemon (Matt Smith), though loved by the commoners, is ambitious and brutal, with a virtual army in the City Watch (known as the Goldcloaks) at his command. Viserys’ only daughter Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) though a dragonrider, feels largely ignored and overlooked by her father, finding comfort in the companionship of her best friend Lady Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey). Meanwhile, Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King, seeks to gain more influence and distance Viserys from his brother. When tragedy befalls Viserys’ wife Queen Aemma Arryn (Sian Brooke) the question of succession once again sets fire to the House of the Dragon.
Review: Well, no need to send a raven because it’s finally here. After three years and a decidedly mixed reaction to the end of Game of Thrones, the prequel series based on George R.R. Martin’s book Fire and Blood has come screeching from the sky like Drogon hunting for an aurochs. The questions on everyone’s mind however are can House of the Dragon live up to the hype and will audiences want to return to Westeros after an admittedly divisive ending to Game of Thrones?
Well if House of the Dragon’s opening episode “The Heirs of the Dragon” is any indication, I think audiences are in store for a fiery time.
Since it’s been three years since we last saw Westeros, director Miguel Sapochnick and writer Ryan Condal rightly start out with a short prologue to bring audiences up to speed in both time and circumstance. House of the Dragon begins approximately one hundred years into the reign of the Targaryens with the conclusion of King Jaehaerys reign, also known as the Old King. With both of his eldest sons dead, a council is held to determine the next heir, with the succession passing to Viserys rather than Jaehaerys’ eldest granddaughter Rhaenys (Eve Best). This act is significant in that it establishes male primogeniture.
The episode then makes a time jump almost ten years into King Viserys reign. His daughter Rhaenyra is precocious, proud, intelligent, willful, and rides a magnificent dragon named Syrax. Make no mistake, Alcock is the standout of this episode, with her Rhaenyra being instantly likeable yet possessing the strength of Dany in the middle seasons of Game of Thrones. It’s important to note as well that the majority of this episode takes place almost entirely in King’s Landing. But it’s a King’s Landing that’s at its peak, it’s somehow cleaner and brighter and the Targaryen presence is plastered all over the city, everything from dragon statues to the awe inspiring Dragon Pit where the fiery beasts themselves are kept. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that the cinematography and production value on House of the Dragon are once again at an elite level.
We then cut to the small council where a minor war appears to be brewing in the Stepstones. It’s important to note here that Rhaenyra serves as cupbearer during small council sessions, so its clear she’s learning the politics of the realm firsthand. The two strongest members of the council are Otto Hightower, Hand of the King, and Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) Master of Ships. The latter is one of the richest people in the kingdom and known commonly as the Sea Snake. Velaryon comes off as the most sober and logical of the council whereas Hightower is clearly the most ambitious, although he hides it well. Ifans seems naturally suited to the role, as his Hightower outwardly supports the King’s interests while simultaneously and subtly advancing his own.
What’s fascinating about this scene is that you also get a sense of the type of king and person Viserys is. Though ostensibly concerned with pleasant events like tournaments, he’s not a wasteful glutton like Robert Baratheon. Considine’s Viserys comes across as a man interested in balancing temperaments but isn’t afraid to make difficult decisions when he has to, although his amiability makes him subject to easy influence. Unlike Robert Baratheon, Viserys is also a man clearly devoted to his wife Aemma as an early intimate scene between the two demonstrates. Aemma even goes so far as to tell Viserys that after several miscarriages and stillbirths, this will be their last attempt at a child, something Viserys accepts with understanding.
Much talk has been made of the casting of Matt Smith as Viserys’ younger brother Daemon. After all, he was the quirky Doctor Who at one point, could he really have the verve and viciousness to portray one of the most infamous Targaryens in history? The answer is a resounding yes. We know all we need to know about the character of Daemon within the first five minutes of meeting him, where Rhaenyra finds his sitting on the Iron Throne. (Incidentally the Iron Throne looks vastly different, and much more in line with some of the original images by Martin). It’s clear Uncle and Niece have a distinct connection and Alcock and Daemon possess a clear chemistry. Smith’s Daemon also comes across much more brutal and ruthless as his Goldcloaks establish order in a criminal city. On the first night of their existence rapists are castrated, thieves lose their hands, liars have their tongues cut out, and murderers are beheaded. It’s a scene that reminds you this is a show very much set in the world of Game of Thrones.
It’s a situation that sparks debate in the high council and shows the hatred between Hightower and Daemon as the two trade barbs with each other. This relationship is clearly going to be volatile, and blood is sure to flow.
The tournament for King Viserys’ heir begins in earnest as Queen Aemma begins her labors. While we’ve seen some excellent tourney displays in the past, this stands head and shoulders above anything that’s come before. The tourney grounds, the jousting, the colors, the pageantry—they are all top-notch. Director Sapochnik also makes the excellent decision to cut back and forth between scenes of the tourney and scenes of Aemma’s labors. It’s a nice juxtaposition between grown men playing at war and a woman facing her own war in childbirth. The highlight of the tournament comes in a heated exchange between Daemon and Ser Criston Cole (Frabien Frankel), a common-born knight from Dorne. There’s clearly no love lost between the two and that relationship bears watching.
As harrowing as the tourney battle scenes were, the most heart-wrenching is when Viserys must choose between saving his wife or his unborn son. It’s a terrifying scene where a King is forced to choose the possibility of a male heir over his own wife and we see a woman completely stripped of her own body autonomy. In the end it is all for naught as both son and wife die and are then burned by the fire of Syrax in a true Targaryen funeral.
If any of you were concerned that the political intrigue and machinations wouldn’t be up to snuff you can put those notions to bed. On the very night Viserys’ son and wife are laid to rest, the small council meets to discuss the topic of succession with both Hightower and Velaryon making their thoughts known. Daemon is again at the center of the debate with clearly only the King wanting him as the heir presumptive. Otto wants him far away from the court and unbeknownst to any of them, Dameon listens in to this meeting the whole time. People are even planting the seeds that Daemon might murder Viserys and that perhaps Rhaenys should be named heir. The King, as you might expect, stomps off in disgust, sick of his council’s ambition. Despite this, Otto wastes no time in ingratiating himself even further with the King. Knowing that his daughter is beautiful and that the King will eventually need to take a new wife, he sends his daughter Alicent to King Viserys’ chambers to read to him. This guy has ambitions and balls the size of dragon eggs.
Unfortunately, familial strife rears its head again when Daemon makes the unconscionable decision to rent out a whorehouse and “celebrate” his nephew’s demise, calling him the “The Heir For A Day.” Of course, Otto Hightower immediately brings this to the attention of the King who calls Daemon to task. In an intense confrontation, Daemon calls Viserys weak and easily influenced, while Viserys thunders at Daemon that he’s his only ally at court. Furious, Viserys declares Rhaenyra his new heir and orders Daemon back to the Vale with his “bronze bitch” of a wife.
In a truly unprecedented move, King Viserys calls his daughter in front of the skull of Balerion the Black Dread, the last dragon to see Valyria before the Doom fell. There he discusses the history of the Targaryen family and the two acknowledge that the truth is that without dragons the Targaryens are just like other people. Viserys even apologizes for wasting all of his years pining after a son when his true heir was right in front of him. Viserys even goes so far as to say that dragons never should have been trifled with. Moreover, he reveals a long-held Targaryen secret handed down from Aegon the conqueror. It’s a prophecy of the Long Night and the White Walkers from the original series and that a Targaryen must be on the throne when that Long Night comes to vanquish the forces of darkness. The secret is even passed along via a certain Valyrian steel dagger Game of Thrones fans will be sure to recognize. The episode closes with all the Lords and Ladies of the Seven Kingdoms swearing fealty to Viserys and Rhaenyra.
On the whole, all the elements of a successful Game of Thrones sequel are present and accounted for. The writing and performances are on point with excellent set pieces, costuming, and special effects. The political intrigue, violence, backstabbing, and sex are still there and the fact the story is contained almost exclusively in King’s Landing is a nice touch. However, while I really liked the opening episode, I wasn’t fully enamored with it. It’s too early to say if House of the Dragon will be a Better Call Saul situation but what I’ve seen so far is promising and I’m definitely hooked. If the show plays out anything like the actual book Fire and Blood, Game of Thrones fans have a lot to forward too.
My rating system:
1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
House of the Dragon Season 1 Episode 1 Heirs of the Dragon: 8/10