‘House of the Dragon’ Lived Up to ‘Game of Thrones’ After All

HBO’s Game of Thrones was sent to the Wall in disgrace after the final season’s drunken stumble to the finish line, but the promise of House of the Dragon, the franchise’s first spin-off, was that the prequel would come without the baggage of controversial Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Instead, A Song of Ice and Fire superfan Ryan Condal would take the helm to tell the story of the notably depressing Targaryen civil war known in the lore as The Dance of the Dragons. That the first episode was the highest-rated premiere in HBO history made it abundantly clear that people were once again ready and willing to spend more time toiling in the Seven Kingdoms.

And now that the first season has ended, we can decisively say that the new series is…pretty good!

In the early seasons of Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss were gifted with an embarrassment of riches: thousands and thousands of pages of source material from both the novels and assorted Westeros side-projects such as The Hedge Knight series. But Game of Thrones suffered when the showrunners literally ran out of Martin’s words to adapt.

Condal was also working without a clear literary blueprint. Dragon’s source material, Fire & Blood, isn’t a novel: George RR Martin made a salacious court chronicle “written” by three unreliable narrators with their own agendas: a Septon, a Maester, and a dwarf jester named Mushroom (who finds time in his telling of events to recount how large his penis is). So Condal and his team had the unenviable task of adapting a grim pile of Westerosi historiography into a coherent story with thematic resonance and a plot that went beyond a bunch of freaks in white wigs going nuts. Plus, unlike GoT’s sprawling War of the Five Kings (which was loosely based on England’s Wars of the Roses), Dragon’s central conflict is a violent, brutish family feud—far less epic in scope, and, steeped in misogyny and imperial entitlement. It’s a real bummer, basically. And yet, the showrunners carved just enough humanity out of the ether to make a compelling season of (incest-friendly) television.

In contrast to GoT, Dragons succeeds largely because of the changes the creators implemented, not in spite of them. For example, the re-imagining of Rhaenyra and Alicent Hightower as childhood besties was a stroke of cleverness that elevates relatively simple power-hungry lady caricatures into legitimate tragedy. This choice is a bit soap opera-y , but it does the required job of sublimating the story with just the right amount of psychic pain. Spending years with Rhaenyra and Alicent’s younger selves (Milly Aycock and Emily Carey, respectively) and watching that friendship slowly disintegrate in adulthood (and motherhood) makes the anguish and betrayals and the massive kill-count to come feel more earned than clumsy sexposition could achieve.

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