The horrors of the ending of the Game of Thrones franchise still invade my mind like an intrusive thought. I think this may be the case for many of us, for it was a letdown so epic that it killed the spirit of Westeros. So much so that I don’t think that the creator, George R. R. Martin, will have much of an apatite to finish the last installment(s) – despite what he may suggest.
That being said, HBO have attempted to rekindle the dragon fire with House of the Dragon. What follows is my review of the first two episodes of House of the Dragon.
House of the Meh
What made Game of Thrones great? Battles? Sexposition? Dragons? It seems that the showrunners figured it was the latter. So, lets have two or three dragons in the first two episodes.
I love fantasy and I absolutely geeked out with the dragon riding scenes! What’s not to like? Sure, the perspective and the size of the winged lizards aren’t entirely consistent and the interactions with them seem slightly wonky, but there certainly is a coolness factor here. They each have names and a link to their owners.
How strong is that bond? Do different dragons do different things? Who is a better dragon rider? These are just some of the questions that the show isn’t interested in answering. This, to me, is a red flag already: the dragons are set-dressing. There is a thing with a dragon egg in episode two which had the potential of turning the dragons into a plot-point, but this canceled itself out (more on that later).
Now, besides the dragons, there is a lot of walking around and talking politics. Which is fine, I guess, but there isn’t enough jeopardy here for me to hang on every word. This is usually an issue with setting stories in the past (e.g. in Obi-Wan they put Leia in danger, hoping we would forget that she is alive in the next five and a bit movies). The Targaryen bloodline will be okay. There will be a mad king on the Iron Throne in 150+ years, so why worry?
House of the Dragon, unfortunately is trying to fabricate conflict in a space we struggle to care about. It all feels meh. Sure, either the king’s daughter or the king’s brother may eventually take the throne, but why should we care?
House of the Dragon tries to create conflict in two areas: brother vs. brother and gender. Personally, I find the latter to be an interesting locus of conflict in a high fantasy story, but we will get to that shortly.
It is clear that we are meant to focus on the battle between the power-hungry, cool uncle, Daemon and predictably hard-headed, I-don’t-want-to-be-a-princess-princess, Rhaenyra. Look how power hungry they are – oh, conflict! The potential is there, certainly, but it is missing that quintessential GoT grittiness.
The same goes for the king, Viserys I. After the first episode, I thought of him as an interestingly layered, grey character filled with inner conflict. After the second episode, he showed himself to be a bit of wet blanket who falls in love with the girl who fixed his table top mini. Even when his daughter, Rhaenyra openly defies him, his ire is short-lived and ultimately meaningless.
I would have preferred if they strained relations between father and daughter slightly (which I think they try to do with who the king eventually marries). If they do this down the line, I will eat my hat. But for now, the “oh no, but it’s okay” Downton Abby approach to conflict turns my heart cold. This is not the Game of Thrones we know.
The second locus of conflict is the gender issue. This is more exciting to me. However, things are off to a wobbly start. The show wants to make it clear that there are obstacles in Rhaenyra’s way and this is a story about her overcoming them and rising to power. This would make for a compelling story (at least, for me), but let’s hold up a minute. Are there obstacles? Sure, everyone tells her there are. Yet, she is made heir, she can interrupt important meetings by flying in on a dragon, and so forth.
We need to see the obstacles. We need to see the struggle. This will make us vouch for her as a character instead of being annoyed by her poutiness. The strong female characters in GoT captured our hearts because they overcame hardships and unfair odds. There is nothing at stake for Rhaenyra other than maybe playing second fiddle to her smirking uncle.
On the topic of feminist narratives…
Failing the Bechdel Test
Below is a video that explains what the Bechdel Test is better than I can.
House of the Dragon fails this test over and over in the first two episodes. Should it pass it? Does it matter? I think in this case it does. They are (maybe) trying to tell a story about a woman trying to rise to the highest station in the realm.
Perhaps you could argue that the society is so patriarchal that they cannot talk about anything other than men. I don’t know about that. It still feels off – as if we are still meant to see the female characters through a male gaze (which never, ever works). The fact that Rhaenyra has to take on “male” traits to be taken seriously is a red flag for me. I really hope they balance this out somehow.
Also, the brewing tiff between Alicent and Rhaenyra already feels old. Personally, I was hoping that there would be romantic tension between the two – something that would have lent the king’s affections an edge of jeopardy. Imagine that: not only is Rhaenyra a woman who covets power, but she also has to balance this with her own desires (desires which might be at odds with the establishment).
Okay, but maybe that’s just me. Rhaenyra is probably going to fall for her YA cover model of a bodyguard (yawn).
I Hope X Doesn’t Die!
Remember your favourite characters from GoT? Remember who you went into each episode at the edge of your seat, hoping that they will be okay? Or at least, not too maimed? Is there anyone like that in the House of the Dragon?
For me, it’s a resounding no. There is no one to root for. Where are the little people? Little people make the world seem real. Where are the underdogs? Where are the antiheroes? I really struggle to find them.
On that note, there hardly are characters to properly hate. Where is the Joffery of this setting? Someone we love to hate. Seriously, tell me in the comments below, because I am at a loss.
All of the characters feel meh (literary critic terminology there). Perhaps, I am being unfair, it is only two episodes after all. Maybe. But, remember episode 1 of GoT ended with Bran falling to his death… Just saying.
What Made GoT Great
Earlier I asked what made GoT great. For me, it wasn’t any of the things I listed. Not the battles, the dragons, nor the rumpy-pumpy. It was that it was surprising. We tuned in every week because we didn’t know what was about to happen. These moments fueled discussions and watercooler debates.
That was the secret sauce.
House of the Dragon, however, plays it too safe.
In episode 2, Rhaenyra swoops in to confront her uncle. In the end, the scene was meant to show how much of a bad-ass she is. Oh, look, she saved the day, she’s such a bad-ass! But, you know what I thought? When she challenged her uncle by saying something along the lines of “okay, kill me now”, I thought: do it. We were expecting her to be okay – and that is the problem. OG Game of Thrones would have let Daemon kill his niece and deal with the moral implications later. We would be shocked – all things they set up, everything is ruined! The Red Wedding did this.
Instead, we are left with the expectation that Rhaenyra will pretty much succeed at everything. This is boring.
Final Score: 4/10
Do you agree? Am I being too harsh? Please let me know below.
Check out my other reviews here.