“House of the Dragon,” the spinoff of “Game of Thrones” which concludes its first season on Sunday, can sometimes feel like “Oops! All ‘Baelors.’”
“Baelor” was, after all, the first-season “Game of Thrones” episode that reset fan expectations and made the show’s legend. In it, the seeming hero of the series, Ned Stark (Sean Bean) waited for his execution, a fate that seemed unthinkable to fans who hadn’t read the books. That it ended up carried out, cutting short the life of the person for whom we’d been rooting, meant that not only this was a world in which no one was safe, but in which morality was irrelevant.
The achievement of “House of the Dragon,” the first nine episodes of which have been largely creatively successful, has been to continue in this vein, intensifying the level of surprise and tension for a viewership that already knows the “Thrones” mode and playbook. And the challenge it will face, more and more as it goes on, will be in delivering interesting and engaging plot twists without throwing so much at the wall that viewers eventually go numb. For now, its first season has stayed on the right side of that line.
Consider the most recently aired episode, “The Green Council,” which occupies the same position in the “Dragon” inaugural season as “Baelor” did in its own. Here, Alicent (Olivia Cooke) is relentlessly careening and operating, having assumed the position as our point-of-view character after the death of her husband, King Viserys (Paddy Considine), and the marginalization of her onetime best friend, the rightful heir Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy). In scope and scale, Alicent’s perennially veering journey wildly outdoes anything its predecessor series was up to at this point in its run, but it retains a “Thrones”-y moral neutrality. On “Thrones,” Ned lost his life, but there remained characters pure of heart (though fewer and fewer as the game wended on, played among multiple families). Here, hundreds of years earlier, we’re entirely within the world of the doomed Targaryen dynasty, one we already know from its extant members on “Thrones” to be hot-blooded when it comes to matters of royal hierarchy.
What matters, somehow more than ever before, is how characters play the game, a realization that haunts the wily Alicent in the moments she allows herself to register it. In “The Green Council,” Alicent is at once horrified at the idea of violence befalling the rightful heir Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and stoic about keeping her relative (Eve Best) imprisoned in order to ensure that Alicent’s son ascends the throne. Alicent, presenting her feet to be worshipped by an ally despite seeming discomfort with the ritual, is forced to be reactive to an endless buffeting of events, up to and including a dragon interrupting the declaration of her son’s usurping the throne. (Often, the show seems to reflect learnings from the fan response to ‘Thrones,’ including that dragons, generally, are popular. There is a lot — a lot — of dragon flight on “House of the Dragon,” which is not unwelcome!)
There are ideas not far beneath the surface here, about the manners in which women, particularly, are subject to fate in ways they too often lack the power to change. On “Thrones,” Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen wanted to “break the wheel” of history; on “Dragon,” D’Arcy’s and Cooke’s characters are endlessly getting spun by it.
This focus on the ways in which the women of Westeros face different challenges is familiar from “Thrones,” and a welcome wrinkle. But the team behind “Dragon” seems anxious that fans who recall the high points and the low points of “Thrones” with great clarity, too. As if to counter the perceived dithering of the last couple of seasons, there’s a singleminded focus on the politics of succession. This means the show has clean narrative lines but also, at times, little undergirding the drama. Daenerys’ quest for the throne was bolstered by her perceived birthright but given ballast and weight both by the potency of her opponents and by the fact that she faced challenges at times unrelated to her claim. Rhaenyra and Alicent are a compelling pair of frenemies: One passionate, one icy, with diametrically opposed claims that both have the ring of truth. And yet, over two major time jumps, basically nothing has happened to the characters that is not related either to sex (in Rhaenrya’s case particularly) or, often relatedly, to their relative position in the race to claim power.
The show may yet broaden out, but this narrowness of intention — telling a story in which rollicking twists and turns exist within a single clan, with only pinhole views of the world beyond the family tree — makes for a show with a fun quotient that is unmatched on TV right now, but with storytelling that can feel blunt-force brutal when considered for more than a moment. My hope for a second season, and beyond, of “House of the Dragon” is the possibility of a breath, a pause in the rapid-fire plot developments to allow repercussions to sink in, and other corners of the world to be explored. We’ve now established the world of the Targaryens as one in which years pass in awkward stalemates before reality upends itself in a moment. Now, at least for a beat, viewers deserve the chance to savor one episode’s chaos before the next’s cascades upon us.
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