In hindsight, it’s obvious why Game of Thrones went off the rails so spectacularly in its final season. HBO’s full adaptation of George RR Martin’s best-selling fantasy novels had begun as a political thriller in medieval wigs. As his popularity grew, he became addicted to show business. In the end it was an empty bacchanal of ice dragons and zombies.
House of the Dragon, the lavish, long-awaited and rather dazzling sequel/prequel to Thrones, which hits Sky Atlantic on Monday, seems determined not to repeat that mistake. Here the dragons are on screen from the start (contributing to a reported budget of $16 million per episode). But so is the ruse. And it is within its many smoke-filled rooms, with their many, many candles, that the plot thickens and the series fully comes to life.
The details are important for fans of Thrones, so let’s record that the action begins 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, Jon Snow’s girlfriend and aspiring overlord of the Seven Kingdoms.
Daenerys was officially the last Targaryen left alive. In House of the Dragon the dynasty is in the pomp of it. They have their dragons and their magnificent platinum wig, both instilling deadly terror in their enemies.
As in Game of Thrones, absolute power is the ultimate corrupting influence in Westeros. Where that earlier saga was loosely informed by the Wars of the Roses (House of Stark/York vs House of Lannister/Lancaster), the inspiration here is King Lear and the archetypal story of a weak-willed monarch who has a complicated relationship with the women. in his life.
Paddy Considine is King Viserys I Targaryen, the well-intentioned but malleable ruler of Westeros. He is desperate to have a male heir, to secure his legacy and fend off his psychopathic younger brother. Fortunately, his wife is pregnant again. What could go wrong?
Daemon, the Targaryen prince, is played by Matt Smith, and what inspired the casting is: he reeks of right rogue (and he’s got a wonderful wig). It’s like seeing Crown Prince Philip as the main character in the Witcher video game. Every time he’s on screen, House of the Dragon gets a little more fiery and goofy.
As the familiar notes of the theme tune play, it’s hard not to feel a flutter in your chest. Suddenly, the terrible ending of Game of Thrones is a fading memory and we’re back in the Seven Kingdoms.
Daemon isn’t the only one looking at the throne. Likewise, covetous glances emanate from the regent’s second-in-command, Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). And of the ambitious power couple Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) and Rhaenys Velaryon (Eve Best).
Rhaenys was once a candidate to succeed her father, the previous king. But because the patriarchy was very much alive and screaming in historic Westeros, she was overlooked by her cousin Viserys. Her thirst for power endures.
There is also Viserys’ strong-willed daughter, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. She is a fan of dragons like her scheming uncle and a princess determined to become the first woman to sit on the Iron Throne (the iconic position much larger and more pointed than in Game of Thrones). She is played early on by Milly Alcock, with Emma D’Arcy taking over the role later in the series, which is apparently a time jump.
Smith has complained that House of the Dragon contains too much sex for his liking. He is, in fact, loaded down with a shallow bonkalong in the opening installment, while the viewer enjoys the graphic removal of a criminal’s frontal appendage as Daemon soldiers rampage through the capital of King’s Landing.
Despite the occasionally unstable Willy, House of the Dragon is quite beautiful, its dragons and mysterious castles shimmering in the mist. One thing the franchise has shed is the otherworldly Celtic feel, as production moved from Belfast to the Warner Bros complex in England.
However, it is an exciting return to Westeros. There is no Jon Snow, no Ned Stark, no oversexed Lannister twins. But there is still a Harrenhal and a King’s Landing while a plot bubbles in the background about pirates wreaking havoc in the Narrow Sea.
They even kept that swooping theme tune, though alas, the swooping opening credits and their clockwork map have gone the way of poor Ned’s head. As those familiar notes roll in, it’s hard not to feel a flutter in your chest. Suddenly, the terrible ending of Game of Thrones is a fading memory and we’re back in the Seven Kingdoms. If you’re a die-hard believer, and there are still a few out there, it’s a homecoming to cherish.
House of the Dragon begins on Sky Atlantic at 2am, and again at 9pm, on Monday, August 22; will also be available to stream on Now