And you may ask yourself, “Is this TV’s next big thing?” And you may ask yourself, “Will this be my next obsession?” The minute you turn on HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” you may wonder, “Is this a show all my friends and I are going to spend years micro-analyzing and macro-loving?”
Such is the weight of being a “Game of Thrones” spinoff; you and your dragons can’t just quietly wend your way into the hearts of millions. You’re doomed to be compared with your older sibling, the fabulous one who won a ton of gold and broke viewership records as it ushered fantasy into the mainstream.
So: The “Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” is promising, and I thoroughly enjoyed the five episodes of the 10-episode season that were released for review. Is it the next “Game of Thrones”? I wouldn’t dare to predict, even if HBO is banking on it. It is less sprawling and dense, and there is no wit-spouting equivalent to fan favorite Tyrion Lannister. But the confident storytelling and the epic setting may be immersive enough to sway even those still bitter about the “Game of Thrones” finale. Is it as good as “Thrones”? It’s too early to say, but the first episodes are compelling in their own way — think “Succession” with sharp swords instead of sharp words.
The show — based on George R.R. Martin’s “Fire & Blood” — has been crafted in the manner of “Thrones.” It’s definitely of a piece with its mothership. Set about two centuries earlier, it uses the “Thrones” theme music, but in a new way, and it similarly runs on juicy multigenerational family conflict played out in candlelit stone rooms. Like “Thrones,” it also favors the kinds of violent action sequences — dismemberment, horse stomping, and, you know, death by crab bites — that assail your eyes and ears as they move the story line forward. Fittingly, one of the “House of the Dragon” showrunners is Miguel Sapochnik, the director responsible for some of the most celebrated “Game of Thrones” battle episodes, including “Battle of the Bastards.” Oh, and it, too, contains sexually explicit debauchery and incest.
But “House of the Dragon,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max, offers a more compact story than “Thrones,” at least at first. The cast is not as big — it took me weeks to figure out who was who on “Thrones” — and the characters’ relationships to one another are easier to pick up. The focus is primarily on the Targaryens, the white-blond ancestors of Daenerys (and Jon Snow) who bond with dragons, as well as their internal fight over who’ll be heir to the throne of King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine). Since the series opens with fewer characters, we spend more time with each of them in the first episodes than we did with the “Thrones” folks.
There are 14 Targaryen succession claims, but only two are serious. One is Viserys’s only child — the teenage Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock and, later, Emma D’Arcy), whose independent spirit recalls that of Daenerys — but she is a girl and, traditionally, only boys can rule from the Iron Throne (which is even more formidable and pointy than the one we know). The other is Viserys’s autocratic brother, Matt Smith’s Prince Daemon, a rogue who is trying to build his own army of thugs. He’s bloodthirsty and twisted, but he’s a man so …
In this way, “House of the Dragon” at moments made me think of the ever-popular Victorian and Regency period dramas that depend on inheritance for their conflict. Certainly the setting is far more primitive, and it does include a death pyre ignited by a dragon — but still, the rules involving primogeniture are the same: The inheritance and the title go to the firstborn son, and the daughters are married off for profit and not for love. The amiable Viserys thinks highly of Princess Rhaenyra, as he should; she’s smart and loyal and a natural when it comes to war strategies. He trusts her more than his brother, whose hot-headedness and envy make him a wild card. But she is a girl so …
There are other players in this game, of course. King Viserys has a Hand, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), and Ser Otto has ambitions of his own that don’t necessarily overlap with those of his boss. He is eager to use his daughter, Alicent (Emily Carey and, later, Olivia Cooke), to forward his scheme, which appears to put Alicent in a bad spot. Rhaenyra is her best friend, and she wouldn’t want to undermine her, would she?
Meanwhile, the wealthy Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), also known as the Sea Snake, is hoping to place one of his family members on the Iron Throne in the future — and he has control of the largest navy in Westeros to help him accomplish his desire. He also has a family connection: His wife is Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best), Viserys’s cousin, known as The Queen Who Never Was for having lost the throne to Viserys because he’s a man …
Will “House of the Dragon” draw in viewers with its more centralized narrative and its many dragons? Where’s the Three-Eyed Raven when you need him?
HOUSE OF THE DRAGON
Starring: Emma D’Arcy, Matt Smith, Paddy Considine, Olivia Cooke, Rhys Ifans, Eve Best, Tom Glynn-Carney, Steve Toussaint, John Macmillan. On: HBO and HBO Max. Premieres Sunday, 9 p.m.