"I'm not going to stop the wheel, I'm going to break the wheel," Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) told Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) on Game of Thrones, referring to her intention to put an end to the great families of Westeros' constant jockeying for power at the expense of everyone else. She had dreams of doing things differently. We know how that turned out. So for the era-defining megahit series' first spin-off, HBO decided to not stop, break, or reinvent the wheel. House of the Dragon is more Game of Thrones. And it turns out Game of Thrones still works. Watching British actors talking quietly about high-stakes politics in well-appointed rooms still has the power to thrill, even if it does feel a bit too safe and over-familiar.
When I say House of the Dragon is Game of Thrones again, I mean it pretty literally: It's another story about people fighting over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne. Set "172 years before Daenerys Targaryen," according to a title card in the first episode, House of the Dragon covers a period of time known as the Dance of Dragons, where a civil war among the dragon-riding Targaryen ruling family tore Westeros apart. The players are King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), an ineffectual ruler who was named to the throne over his cousin Princess Rhaenys Velaryon (Eve Best) after the death of their grandfather primarily because he was a man and she was a woman. After the death of his wife Aemma (Sian Brooke) during childbirth and their baby boy a few hours later, Viserys bucks tradition and names his firstborn and only surviving child, Princess Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock as a teenager and Emma D'Arcy as an adult), his successor. As much as he believes Rhaenyra would be a good queen, Viserys is also trying to keep his dangerous and unpredictable younger brother Daemon (Matt Smith) away from the Iron Throne.
Later, Viserys marries Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey as a teenager and Olivia Cooke as an adult), Rhaenyra's best friend and the savvy daughter of his self-serving Hand Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). Alicent gives birth to sons, and she believes her eldest, Prince Aegon Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney), not Rhaenyra, will be the next ruler when Viserys dies. Because, as Rhaenys tells Rhaenyra in one of the series' key lines, "Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne." So the question of succession becomes a political battle, with the shifting alliances and complex dealmaking and interpersonal conflicts becoming issues of national consequence. The political drama is what made Game of Thrones great, and it's what makes House of the Dragon riveting, too. The action is not as big as it was in Game of Thrones' later seasons, but it's up to par.
House of the Dragon was created by A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin and Colony creator/Martin superfan Ryan Condal, and it's showrun by Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, director of some of Game of Thrones' biggest and best episodes. The series does not change much about brutal world built by Martin in his novels and by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss on the show (the much-resented Benioff and Weiss are not involved with House of the Dragon). On a story level, the biggest change is that it's smaller and tighter, focusing on the Targaryens and their immediate orbiters instead of following a sprawling conflict across continents. On a cultural level, the biggest change is that House of the Dragon has evolved on how it depicts things Game of Thrones courted controversy and criticism with.
It's tempting to, in a cheeky way, call House of the Dragon "Woke Game of Thrones," but that sobriquet really only works as a joke, because it's still Game of Thrones. House of the Dragon is fundamentally about patriarchy, and it grapples with structural misogyny in a more direct way than Game of Thrones ever attempted to. The show pointedly shows the destructive effects of a society run by selfish men who make decisions for women without their input. It also has people of color in the main cast who are not depicted as socially inferior savages, but rather as nobles who are equals to the Targaryens in every way except dragons. There's not as much nudity as there was in Game of Thrones, and the sex scenes are less titillating. In the first six episodes, at least, there is no sexual violence. There's even a scene of police misconduct. It's almost progressive.
But, again, it's still Game of Thrones. It's still a story with rampant incest and no heroes. Middle-aged men marry teenage girls and people have sex with close relatives and that's the way it is. Like Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon doesn't moralize about the things it depicts. It's a world where the morals of contemporary America are not taken into consideration, which is one of the things that makes the franchise so interesting to watch. It puts you into a setting that isn't allegorical to modern times, but rather a faithful artistic rendering of 15th-century social mores — with dragons. It transports the viewer to a truly different world. House of the Dragon does that successfully. The people who posted abusive, racist stuff about Steve Toussaint being cast as nobleman Corlys Velaryon are wrong for a lot of reasons, but one supposed reason that House of the Dragon puts to bed is that being inclusive somehow makes it less authentic. The only moment when any reasonable person would say, "This isn't Game of Thrones," while watching House of the Dragon is the info-dumping voiceover that sets the stage in the first episode.
For all the good ways House of the Dragon is a continuation of Game of Thrones, it's still hard to not wish the show took a few more risks. The shock of something new that Game of Thrones provided for much of its run is not present, and it is missed. House of the Dragon hews so closely to the Game of Thrones template that it feels pretty cautious, almost timid in a weird way. And the decision to play it safe is one HBO consciously made; the previous prequel pilot, Bloodmoon, was scrapped because it was too different from Game of Thrones. It was set much earlier and didn't have any of the recognizable families from the show. Having not seen Bloodmoon— no one outside of HBO probably ever will — I can't say for certain that the safe choice was absolutely the right choice creatively. But hopefully if House of the Dragon does numbers that satisfy bottom line-obsessed new Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, other spin-offs will be allowed more room to experiment.
House of the Dragon won't be as big as Game of Thrones. It's not really trying to be. What it is trying to do is win back people who feel betrayed by the way Game of Thrones ended. It did it for me, but I admittedly disliked the last two seasons less than most people, and while I don't think the ending was good, I wasn't personally upset by it. House of the Dragon will have a harder row to hoe with many viewers. And that's fine. It's perfectly understandable to be all the way out on Game of Thrones. And maybe you'll decide if you want to watch Game of Thrones again, you'll just watch Game of Thrones again. But if you're even a little bit open to getting burned by dragonfire, House of the Dragon is willing to meet you where you're at.
Premieres: Sunday, Aug. 21 at 9/8c on HBO and HBO Max
Who's in it: Paddy Considine, Emma D'Arcy, Matt Smith, Olivia Cooke, Rhys Ifans, Steve Toussaint, Eve Best, Fabien Frankel, Sonoya Mizuno
Who's behind it: Creators Ryan J. Condal and George R.R. Martin, executive producer Miguel Sapochnik
For fans of: Literally just Game of Thrones
How many episodes we watched: 6 out of 10