A bunch of flying lizards can’t distract from bad writing in ‘House of the Dragon’

The highly anticipated ‘Game of Thrones’ spinoff offers a realm that feels smaller, but no more intimate.

Culture

It is perhaps impossible, fair or not, to consider a show like House of the Dragon without reckoning with the gargantuan legacy of its predecessor, Game of Thrones. The highly-anticipated HBO show is a spin-off of a series that is almost suffocated with superlatives: many would, with the help of some contained amnesia over its final season, tout it among the best of all time and the most beloved and the most expensive and the most ambitious, and on and on. One could say that the new series is almost set up for failure (although, buoyed by the massive and intense Game of Thrones fandom, it will result in a sure success by most metrics for HBO), and it is indeed hard to watch without reflexively seeing how it matches up, or falls short, of the original.

This is all to say that in its first season, House of the Dragon is a perfectly decent show, but is hampered by an inherent inability to mirror the power of the original, and also by a crucial gamble that severely limits one’s ability to be reimmersed in the Westeros universe. Fans will nevertheless find, broadly, a similar DNA here — a story about the interlocking schemes of power and paranoia that shroud the Iron Throne — with some key changes, for better or worse.

It takes place some 200 years before the events of the Game of Thrones, following the Targaryen family, empowered by the dragon blood that enables them to commandeer a fleet of dragons, as they worry about their grip on the crown. The show is first set in motion after King Viserys (Paddy Considine), without a son, names his daughter, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcott/Emma D’Arcy) his heir, a controversial decision that, in a patriarchal society, threatens potential chaos when Rhaenyra eventually assumes the throne. Naturally, this unpredictable future makes everyone near the throne whisper, hand-wring, and scheme.

This basic premise is laid out well, setting up a grand saga in a strong pilot episode. But by the end of the six episodes that were made available for review, the show ultimately and abruptly reads as an uneven set-up. Much of this has to do with the bold decision to aggressively hop forward in time across the episodes: the first half of the season or so takes place across some 15 years. It’s a creative decision that was undoubtedly considered by showrunners Ryan J. Condal, who co-created the show alongside author George R.R. Martin, and director Miguel Sapochnik, who directed some of the best episodes of the original show, as a major risk they were taking. But it makes for jarring shifts in a season in which it feels impossible to gain a foothold or establish narrative momentum.

The jumps also render some of what came before in the earlier episodes as suddenly pointless fluff: a storyline for Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), Viserys’s wayward younger brother who is passed up for the throne, in which he wages war with a mysterious villain of the Stepstones, comes and goes like anticlimactic filler, despite what was initially teased as a captivating plot. It also suffers from one of the more glaring mistakes of the much-maligned final season of Game of Thrones: a contrived battle solved by a deus ex machina (and even more confounding, a skipped-over fight with the compelling villain).

There is a specific ambition here — a sort of longitudinal and focused study of Targaryen rule — that is intentionally distinct from the ambition of Game of Thrones, but it’s a difference that only highlights what exactly makes House of the Dragon a rocky ride. The murkiness of time, dropped storylines, or certain inconsistencies were massaged away in the original show by its sheer scope — even from the first season, the show was bold for introducing a caravan of characters, plots, and distant lands. The show was great at spreading its narrative tentacles and constantly sprouting new ones, resulting in a rich engine of political intrigue and arguably the most immersive fantasy world-building in television history. At least early on, House of the Dragon is confined to just that, the titular family and a few other characters within its immediate orbit. This in itself is not an issue, but the tightened focus renders the time-skipping all the more destabilizing, and worst of all, its flat and unsure writing and character development ever-glaring.

A strong cast does only as much as it can. Matt Smith, for instance, the most high-profile actor to join the House of the Dragon, is confusingly sketched: it is unclear if we are ever supposed to see him as just a cruelly smirking nuisance or someone we actually hate to love. This is not a misreading of character that, as is custom with a palatial drama, deals in moral grays: it’s a character that the show is confused about what it wants to do with. Considine’s Viserys is cast as a benevolent and well-meaning father and ruler who wrestles with self-doubt; what we’re ultimately left with is a character who dominates the screen time but fills it with almost nothing genuinely stirring (compare this to another leading father, Ned Stark, who was also a good man caught at grave political crossroads, but lent his world an infinitely more dramatic weight).

Presumably, the show is built up to be driven forward most of all by the tension between Rhaenyra and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey/Olivia Cooke), formerly Rhaenyra’s closest friend who is essentially pushed by her father Otto (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King, into becoming Viserys’s new wife. Within this focus, there is a change somewhat for the better: the show is clearly determined to avoid the sexual violence from Game of Thrones and at least partly orienting its story around women who are reckoning with the patriarchal realities of the world, though there are questions about how well these themes are handled. There are graphic and perhaps gratuitous childbirth scenes. And at times, the show’s repeated parroting that female rule will make the realm devolve into an anarchic revolt loses its way, turning from a matter-of-fact confrontation with patriarchy into a kind of uninspired idea that the show is a little too eager to hammer away at.

But amid the focus on Rhaenyra and Alicent’s torn relationship, the show flounders in actually developing the pathos within that conflict — once again, the time jumps erase its ability to flesh this out. Even so, the quadruple team behind the characters are among the standouts of House of the Dragon; Alcott is easily the bright spot of the first half of the season, and the show nevertheless bears rich dramatic potential in what Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke will bring together to the screen.

Condal and Sapochnik might see all this bumpiness as necessary. If the engine of Game of Thrones looming in the background was always the dreaded Winter and the rise of the White Walkers, then the Dance of Dragons, the civil war within the House Targaryen, is the centerpiece event that this show is leading towards. This perhaps means that a long-arc view of the relationships and the fissures that lead up to the Dance is integral to the drama, and that a shaky first season laying out that groundwork is a necessary sacrifice.

Any creator making a spin-off is practically required to say that the new creation is its own thing. And House of the Dragon should be and decidedly is. The problem is that it has shed much of what it needed to retain from its predecessor. There are more dragons, and far less gripping characters and developed relationships — a realm that feels far smaller, but no more intimate. The result is an expensive but so-so show that makes you wonder what it’s missing from the original that made it the last vestige of appointment television. The shadow of the throne looms too large.