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A bloody good prequel

HBO’s 'House of the Dragon' does its best to live up to its predecessor, 'Game of Thrones'

Emma D'Arcy and Matt Smith in HBO’s new series, 'House of the Dragon.' Photo credit: HBO

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We've just finished celebrating the finale of one of the great spinoff series of all time in Better Call Saul, and now the gods of television once again smile upon us with another potentially memorable prequel: HBO's Game of Thrones precursor House of the Dragon, which gets off to a bloody good start in the first six episodes and holds the promise of becoming must-see Sunday night TV. 

It's going to take a while to recognize all the new players without a scorecard (which is why we've provided a scorecard - see below), but I'm pretty sure we're not going to have to worry about a time-jumping storyline in Dragon a la Saul. Jaime and Cersei Lannister, Arya and Sansa Stark, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen - their exploits lie ahead, in the distant future. As we're told in the series premiere, we are in ...



Got it? Good! Now off we go on a spectacularly entertaining adventure, with showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik (who directed a number of GOT episodes, including the Emmy-winning "Battle of the Bastards") bringing to vibrant life the characters and events created by George R.R. Martin in his dense and sprawling 2018 book Fire & Blood

With each episode clocking in at approximately one hour, House of the Dragon features Emmy-worthy production design in the interior sets at Warner Bros. Leavesden Studios in Watford, England, and beautiful and lush location shots in Caceres and Trujillo, Spain; Monsanto and Penha Garcia, Portugal, and Cornwall, Surrey and Derbyshire, England, among other spots.  With quality direction and cinematography, strong writing that combines political intrigue, family melodramatics and some impressively nasty twists and turns, and powerful performances from a cast that includes a number of familiar and well-decorated and mostly British veterans along with some greatly talented relative newcomers, House of the Dragon has the gravitas and visceral gut-punch effectiveness of a series that could be with us for a very long time. (The score from Ramin Djawadi, who did GOT as well as Westworld, is also nomination-level great.) 

Will it ever match the pop-culture zeitgeist heights of Game of Thrones? Will any series ever do that? Dragon is filled with fantastic callbacks, e.g., when a ruler says of a wayward subject, "What would you have me do, send him to the Wall?" or when there's talk of a long winter coming, or when it's said of a cocky member of the Lannister clan, "His pride has pride," but the storylines work even if you've never seen a single episode of GOT. (However, if that's the case, once you're finished reading this review, thank you very much, you should work your way through Game of Thrones, because you really missed out on something. House of the Dragon will be waiting for you when you're done.) 

Battle lines are drawn - in more ways than one - in the series premiere, when the benevolent and peacekeeping albeit sometimes ambivalent and wavering King Viserys (Paddy Considine) is left a grieving widower and without a male heir after his wife dies in childbirth, with their infant son passing the next day. 

The Small Council and virtually everyone in the Seven Kingdoms assume Viserys will name his brother, Prince Daemon (Matt Smith, seen recently as Prince Philip in The Crown), as the heir to the Iron Throne - but Daemon is a ruthless, ambitious, bloodthirsty and nefarious sort, and Viserys passes him over and shocks everyone by naming his dragon-riding daughter, Princess Rhaenrya Targaryen (Milly Alcock and later Emma D'Arcy) as his successor. 

A queen in charge? Blasphemy! The male hierarchy throughout the Seven Kingdoms is troubled, and sure that a woman seated in the Iron Throne will lead to rancor and rebellion, and the inevitable outbreak of war. 

Daemon works out his frustration by teaming up with the powerful Lord Corlys Velaryon, aka "The Sea Snake," to wage war against a creepy masked admiral known as the Crab Feeder, so known because this guy nails victims to posts and then commands an army of crabs to chew them up. Meanwhile, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the loyal but perhaps not-to-be-trusted Hand of the King, maneuvers things so that his daughter Alicent (Emily Carey and then Olivia Cooke in later years), marries the widowed King and delivers him a son, further clouding that whole heir to the Iron Throne deal. 

In the early episodes, we alternate between scenes of political machinations and double crossings with gruesome battle sequences, a couple of orgies and scenes of dismemberment, castration and beheading. This IS your great-great-grandfather's Game of Thrones, though there are moments when the material is more self-aware of how some of the traditions of the time are so very wrong, e.g., when a subject to the king says that a potential bride for him has the wealth, the bloodlines and the proper standing to be his next wife, so what's the problem? To which the king replies: "She's TWELVE." (The king marries someone else.) 

As the King grows sicker and weaker, everyone around him makes their play for power, and we begin to see that even characters who initially came across as noble and true are capable of grand deceptions and unspeakable sins. House of the Dragon features a number of elaborate and well-staged set pieces, as when the ailing king hosts a reception for his daughter and her betrothed - a night that goes from celebratory to intriguing to blood-soaked. The dragons flying in the skies above the Seven Kingdoms aren't necessarily the most dangerous inhabitants of this world.

Thirteen stars of the Seven Kingdoms

Your guide to some of the major players introduced in Season 1 of House of the Dragon ...

  • King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) is widely considered to be a wise and kind ruler - if a bit too vulnerable to persuasion and hampered by a reluctance to exercise his power.
  • Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) is the king's younger brother, a sadistic and cunning sort who plots all manner of revenge after he's passed over as heir to the throne.
  • Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock as the teenager princess, Emma D'Arcy a decade later) is the king's firstborn daughter and heir to the throne. She is independent, strong and a fine dragon-rider, but is plagued by her own rash decisions.
  • Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) is the loyal Hand of King Viserys and a staunch opponent of Prince Daemon.
  • Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey in the early episodes and Olivia Cooke in later chapters) is Otto Hightower's daughter and Rhaenyra's best friend.
  • Ser Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish) is the Commander of the Kingsguard and the moral center of our story.
  • Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) is a common-born knight who finds himself in a dangerously close relationship with Princess Rhaenyra.
  • Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) commands the world's largest navy and is arguably the king's most valued ally.
  • Princess Rhaenys Velaryon (Eve Best) is married to Lord Corlys and is cousin to the king. When she was passed over for the Iron Throne at the Great Council, she became known as "The Queen Who Never Was," and you can imagine how that sits with her.
  • Mysaria (Sonoyo Mizuno) is a former sex worker who becomes Daemon's romantic interest and his most trusted adviser.
  • Lord Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes) is the head of House Strong and Master of Laws for King Viserys.
  • Tyland Lannister (Jefferson Hall) and Lord Jason Lannister (also played by Hall) are the Master of Ships and the Lord of Casterly Rock, respectively. They are the ancestors of Jaime, Cersei and Tywin Lannister.

House of the Dragon

Three and a half stars

STARS: Paddy Considine, Matt Smith and Emma D'Arcy

A 10-part series on HBO and HBO Max with a new episode premiering each Sunday through Oct. 23.

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