TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews House of the Dragon Season One

Josh Reviews House of the Dragon Season One

As I’m sure anyone reading this is aware, House of the Dragon is the new Game of Thrones prequel series.  The show adapts George R.R. Martin’s book Fire & Blood, which is a history of House Targaryen.  The show was created by George R.R. Martin and Ryan Condal, and this first season was overseen by Mr. Condal and Miguel Sapochnik (who was one of the best directors on Game of Thrones).

I loved Game of Thrones for most of its run.  While I do not share the internet’s hatred of the final season, I did find the ending underwhelming.  (In short: that final season felt too rushed, with too many important events happening too quickly.  Most critically, I felt the show dropped the ball on depicting Daenerys’ turn, which undermined for me the entire endgame of the show, and also did retroactive damage to my feelings about the story of Daenerys that we’d been following all the way through the series.  And there were other major missed opportunities that let me down.  For example, the White Walkers were defeated far too easily to suit me, and I couldn’t believe that Arya didn’t use her superpowers of disguise in order to get to the Night King. Why did we spend so many seasons watching her develop those powers if they weren’t going to play a role in the story’s climax?  Same question for Bran’s seasons-long development of the powers of the Three-Eyed Raven.  How did the show fail to show us Bran warning into a dragon??  I could go on.)  And so by the time Game of Thrones ended, I was ready to be done, and I was not overeager to dive back into this world.

Combine that with my general dislike of prequels, and I didn’t have much enthusiasm for House of the Dragon as I followed the news of its development.  But when the show arrived, I knew that I couldn’t miss a return to the world of Game of Thrones.  I was too curious to see what this new show was all about, and I was cautiously hopeful that this new series would reignite my interest in this fantasy world.

I found the first several episodes to be exceedingly mediocre, and I came very close to bailing on the show.

From start to finish the series looked amazing, as good if not better than Game of Thrones at its very best.  The spectacle of this show was realized on the grandest possible scale.  I can’t imagine how much money this all cost.  Again and again I was blown away by the epic scale of what we were seeing on screen.  Enormous locations, beautiful vistas, spectacular dragons, countless extras, gorgeous costumes and props and on and on and on.  Everything looked meticulous and spectacular.  Here’s a great example: George R.R. Martin has complained vociferously about how lame the depiction of King Robert’s hunting expedition was back in Game of Thrones season one; just a couple of dudes wandering around in the woods.  But here in House of the Dragon, we got an ENORMOUS spectacle: innumerable people and horses and tents all gathered together for a humongous carnival-like gathering when we see King Viserys’ hunting party in episode three.

And that’s all fantastic and impressive… and yet it didn’t stop those early episodes of House of the Dragon from being, for me, enormously off-putting.  First off, I found the show to be far too complicated and confusing at first, with too many characters with similar-sounding names (come on: Rhaenyra and Rhaenys???) all thrown at the audience at once.  Second, the show was far too grim and dour; I missed the fun and humor that Game of Thrones always had, particularly in the form of characters like Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister.  Game of Thrones was violent and gruesome, but House of the Dragon seemed intent on upping the ante, becoming borderline unwatchable for me in moments like the gruesome death of Viserys’ wife in childbirth in the series premiere, when they try to cut her unborn baby out of her.

It felt to me like the makers of the show assumed that we were a captive audience; that we were all going to watch this first season in its entirety, because we all love Game of Thrones.  And so they didn’t feel the need to craft those opening episodes in a way that would bring the audience more smoothly into the world.  In Game of Thrones, the story started at a fairly small scale.  We started with the Starks, who we liked and were rooting for.  The show was complicated right from the bat, and there were certainly nuances and connections that went right over my head in my initial viewing of the GOT premiere episode.  But I understood enough, and because I liked the Stark characters, I was drawn into the world of the show and interested in following those characters into the larger story, which was then able to expand from there.  House of the Dragon just threw the audience into the deep end and expected us to catch up.  Throughout this first season, I kept asking myself: who am I rooting for here?  Do I like any of these characters?  “Likability” usually feels like a stupid studio note, but I do think it’s important that an audience feel there is at least someone they’re engaged with and following through a complicated fantasy story like this one.  (I went through the first several episodes feeling that I didn’t like or care much about any of these characters.  Then, around episodes three and four, I started to feel the show was finally taking an interesting turn, as we were seeing Rhaenyra and Alicent heading on a collision course with one another.  Ok, this felt interesting!  I had started to like and root for both women, which felt like a recipe for strong drama when the story turned the two against one another.  But then immediately they showed Rhaenyra jumping into incest and Otto Hightower’s scheming in a nasty way to position Alicent and his family in power and, ugh, it was back to my disliking everyone on the show.)

This first season was filled with creative choices of that nature that boggle my mind.  I think the most problematic one was the frequent use of time-jumps.  This first season covers decades of history.  The result is that every time I started to feel like the show was building up a narrative head of steam and I was starting to get into certain characters or storylines, the show would jump years into the future and it’d feel like everything would come to a screeching halt, only to slowly start ramping up again… and then the same thing would happen.  Over and over again.  Major roles were recast (sometimes multiple times!!), often leaving my head spinning as to who was who and what the new status quo was.

On the one hand, I applaud the respect the makers of this show clearly had for George R.R. Martin’s source material and their desire to be faithful to it.  And I am tremendously impressed by their ambition; they didn’t take the standard TV adaptation approach but instead decided to do something much bolder and try to tell a vast story taking place across many years.  That’s cool!

The problem is I don’t think it works.  The time jumps hurt far more than they helped.  I feel like they could have still told 95% of the story depicted in this first season, and gained a world of clarity and audience engagement, if they’d condensed the timeline of these events.  I understand the complications in doing that (the show centers on complicated succession struggles, and that means we need to see certain characters having kids of a certain age), but I feel like there had to have been a way to do this.

I mean, the series launched on the shoulders of the incredible performances of Milly Alcock and Emily Carey as friends-turned enemies Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Lady Alicent Hightower… and then after episode five they’re gone from the series, never to return!!  I couldn’t believe it when that happened, and it took me a while to get over the loss of those two actresses.

And yet, despite my frustrations, I was pleasantly surprised that as the show entered the back half of the season, I found myself far more engaged than I’d expected to be.  I think the final four episodes of the season are actually quite strong!!  I thought episode seven, “Driftmark,” was excellent, highlighted by an extended sequence in which moist of the show’s major characters gathered for the funeral of Daemon’s second wife, the Lady Laena.  Suddenly we had all our characters in one place and we got one juicy scene after another, in which everyone’s complicated and conflicted self-interest bumped up against that of the others.  This crackling character drama continued into episode eight, “The Lord of the Tides,” the highlight of which was the tense family dinner called by the ailing King Viserys.  Again we got a tremendously juicy extended sequence, one that gave time to every character and their individual goals and hopes and schemes.  It was tragic to see a moment of hope fall apart.  But I loved the drama and was happy to see the show refocusing itself on the schism between Rhaenyra and Alicent.  (I just wish they didn’t gild the lily in the final moments of that episode, in which a dying Viserys confuses Alicent for Rhaenyra and tells her that her son is destined to be king.  I don’t like when shows/movies use coincidence to create drama.  It felt dumb to me… and also it wasn’t necessary!  The show had spent eight episodes building up the drama between Rhaenyra and Alicent.  We didn’t need this misunderstanding on top of everything else.)

Game of Thrones was often at its best when it stopped jumping all around Westeros and instead focused its storytelling for an episode on one specific location.  House of the Dragon found success in that approach as well in the final two episodes of the season.  Episode nine, “The Green Council,” follows Otto and Alicent and the other Greens in Kings Landing as they scheme and plot in the hours after Viserys’ death.  I loved the tense nature of this episode; I was quite engaged as we followed the careful step-by-step competing plots unfold.  (The episode’s only real weakness was that it needed to do a better job at the beginning explaining that Rhaenyra and her family had left and returned to Dragonstone.  I thought the episode took place the night after the previous episode, so I spent a while wondering just where the heck Rhaenyra and Daemon were when all of this was going down.)  Episode ten, “The Black Queen” shifts the focus to team Rhaenyra, and the result was just as engaging.

So I can see that there is life in this show, and I remain on-board to see where things go from here in season two.  At the same time, I wish this show was much stronger than it wound up being.  I wish they’d made different storytelling decisions and had crafted a show that felt more alive, more engaging, more enjoyable (and easy to follow) for the audience.  I want the storytelling to equal the incredible production values (which, and I can’t emphasize this enough, are absolutely second to none).

Other thoughts:

  • As I mentioned above, I was blown away by the star-making performances by Milly Alcock and Emily Carey as the younger versions of Rhaenyra and Alicent.  At the same time, it’s an impressive testament to how spectacular their successors, Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, were, that by the end of the season I had fully embraced these new actors in these characters.  This is a four-way grand-slam.  A key reason why House of the Dragon works at all is these four amazing women.  (I have to make particular note of Emma D’Arcy, who played the mousy Astrid in Truth Seekers and was totally unrecognizable to me here as the fierce Rhaenyra.  What a tremendous acting performance.)
  • Another hero in the cast is Paddy Considine as King Viserys.  Mr. Considine is magnificent in bringing depth and poignancy to Viserys.  It’s rare to see a mostly good and decent person in a position of power in the Game of Thrones universe!  I enjoyed the way the show explored Viserys and the tightening vice of family strife in which he found himself, and I appreciated the humanity Mr. Considine brought to the role.  That amplified the tragedy of the story told in this first season.
  • I enjoyed Matt Smith’s work as Daemon Targaryen, but I wish the show had better allowed us to understand his character.  Is Daemon just a psychopath, or does he have redemptive qualities?  I wish the show’s storytelling was more clear.  In the middle of the season we see Daemon murder his innocent first wife in cold blood (when he crushes her under her own horse); this feels like the completely unredeemable act of an awful villain; and yet in the second half of the season I felt like the show was trying to get us to like him.  But I’m truly not sure what angle the show was taking, which I think is part of the problem.  Here’s another example: the shocking scene in which Daemon chokes Rhaenyra.  That scene sticks out like a sore thumb because we don’t have the context to understand it.  Had Daemon and Rhaenyra spent the last several years developing a partnership and mutual understanding, which Daemon broke by his violent assault upon her?  Or was this business as usual between the two of them?  This would be important information for us to know!!
  • Also, I wish I understood the show’s decision to not make any attempt to age up Daemon as we move through the decades.  Weird, no??
  • I loved Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, The Amazing Spider-Man, The King’s Man) as Ser Otto Hightower.  It was fun to see Mr. Ifans in such a serious role… and he was so good as the clever and increasingly slimy Otto!
  • Steve Toussaint was very compelling as Corlys Velaryon, “the Sea Snake”.  I wish the show had spent more time with him.
  • Same goes for Corlys’ wife Princess Rhaenys Targaryen, played with tremendous grace and nobility by Eve Best.  This is a great character I wish we’d seen more of.  It was awesome to watch her kick ass atop her dragon at the end of episode nine.  (Though the show totally fails to adequately explain why she didn’t kill newly-crowned king Aegon and Queen Alicent and the other Greens when she had the chance, thus preventing the start of the bloody war I suspect we’re going to spend the rest of this show following.)
  • But speaking of dragons, the show gave us a lot of terrific dragon action this season.  The visual effects were spectacular.  I love how each dragon had a very distinct look.  The dragon-on-dragon action in the final moments of the season finale was stunning and a great way to end the season.
  • I loved seeing Graham McTavish (who was a stand-out as the dwarf Dwalin in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy) as the Kingsguard soldier Ser Harrold Westerling.  I hope we see more of him.
  • I wish the show had spent more time developing twin brothers Erryk and Arryk Cargyll (played by Elliott and Luke Tittensor).  Their divided loyalties were important in the finale; but their split didn’t mean anything to me because I didn’t know who they were.
  • In another twins-related problem, I was surprised to discover after watching the season that the smarmy Lannister character was actually two characters who were identical twins: Lord Jason and Ser Tyland, both played (very well) by Jefferson Hall.  So the arrogant rich dude who wanted to marry Rhaenyra was different from the arrogant rich dude who sat on Alicent’s small council?  OK, I missed that completely.
  • There are many, many, many other characters who I haven’t mentioned.  On the one hand, I love how large this show’s cast of characters is.  I love the ambition of this show’s epic scale and canvas.  I’ve listed a lot of characters in the above bullet points, and yet there are still so many other compelling characters in the show who I have not yet written about; I’m impressed by the work of these actors, who could make me interested in them despite very little screen time.  On the other hand, I wish the show had done a better job in fleshing out these myriad supporting characters… and I also think the show would have been stronger had some of those characters even cut out, so we could have more tightly focused the story-telling on the main ensemble and explored them more deeply.
  • Watching Lord Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) masturbate while looking at Alicent’s feet was one of the more unpleasant things I’ve seen on TV recently.  But that pales among the many other horrific acts depicted on-screen in this show.  I’m not sure I understand why they felt it necessary to depict one horrific and bloody childbirth sequence after another.  Watching Rhaenyra yank her dead unborn child out of her own womb in the series finale was just… I haven’t the words.  Unpleasant doesn’t begin to cover it.  These moments had me asking myself: why am I watching this?  As I have commented many times in this review, I just don’t understand why this show often felt like it was designed to be as off-putting as possible to its audience.

So, as you can see, I have very mixed feelings about House of the Dragon.  Ultimately, I’m glad I stuck with the show because I enjoyed the final four episodes far more than I’d expected.  They left me with a sense that I was glad I had watched the season, and interested in where the show goes next in season two.  (Sadly, it looks like season two won’t arrive until 2024.  I’ve got to say, that is way too long.  I know these shows are epic and hard to make, but there’s got to be a way to not take more than a year to produce ten episodes.  It’s just too hard on the audience when these heavily-serialized shows end on a cliffhanger and then go away for years at a time.  I find this intensely frustrating!!  But I digress…)  I’m surprised by many of the creative choices made in the development of this series, and I feel like they had the pieces in place to have made a much stronger show.  That being said, I got more enjoyment than I’d expected out of this return to the Game of Thrones world.  I hope the second season (whenever it arrives) of House of the Dragon can build on the pieces that worked in this opening season, to take this show to the next level.

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