Thus far in HBO’s Targaryen-centric Game of Thrones spinoff House of the Dragon, we have already seen powers rise and fall, grow and sicken, bloom and fester. After a brief prologue, Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) arrives on her golden she-dragon Syrax with an unfiltered joy on her face as she dismounts. This joy is fleeting, but she does not know that yet. She cannot possibly know that, in mere days, her father King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) will make the choice to sacrifice her mother in his desperation for a male heir. She is beautiful and sweet in that moment, but her world is about to crumble.
In the aftermath of that death, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), best friend to Rhaenyra, is persuaded by her father Otto (Rhys Ifans) to go to the much-older Viserys in his grief and comfort him by whatever means necessary. She does as he asks while Rhaenyra mourns alone. Later, despite all things, Viserys somehow proves not to be the worst father and proudly presents Rhaenyra as his heir. He expresses wholehearted confidence in his daughter, telling her that he feels she was born to rule. The Kingdoms kneel at her feet and pledge their fealty. It is somber and deeply affecting.
Later, Viserys decides he will marry Alicent, who is just barely old enough. The unexpected marriage cracks a deep fissure into Alicent and Rhaenyra’s friendship, a fissure that widens when Alicent begins to have children and her father schemes to place his grandsons on the throne. Viserys’ cousin Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) reminds Rhaenyra that the Kingdoms had their chance to choose a queen less than a decade ago when she was a candidate for succession but they refused. However, Rhaenyra believes it will be different for her. This is a beautifully done conversation between the two: the queen who never was and the queen-to-be.
While all of this is happening, Viserys’ exiled, outcast younger brother Daemon (Matt Smith) indulges himself in near-constant bloodshed. He is very much the more flame-tempered of the two and is quick to reach for the blade. The King’s marriage results in a further loss for him when his affronted cousin-in-law Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) — who had offered the King his and Rhaenys’ daughter Laena’s hand in marriage — approaches Daemon and offers him his allegiance.
With everyone conniving for their own power, the show’s political threads are intricately woven and tangled together. Every action and choice teems with manipulation and deceit, and everyone is convinced of their own self-importance. Conflict begins to reach new heights in the fifth episode when Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) confesses his sexual exploits with Rhaenyra to Alicent and Viserys collapses from his illness just before the wedding of Rhaenyra and Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nate).
The show pulls from the prequel novel Fire & Blood — which traces the Targaryen history in the Seven Kingdoms — but it also takes its own path in some respects. In this regard, there are frustrations with the show that are similar to those of its forebearer, like its insistence on grounding itself so frequently in violence against women and queer characters, more so than in the source text. In episode five, for example, there is an immensely violent scene in which Ser Criston beats Ser Joffrey Lonmouth (Solly McLeod), a gay man, to death. It is awful to a nauseating degree: his face is entirely smashed in, corroded by heavy-handed fists. This is a complete divergence from the book, in which Joffrey dies due to his injuries after a tournament, with his companion Laenor comfortingly at his side. It is, frankly, a disturbing choice, and so viscerally violent.
From a technical standpoint, this series excels in some areas and falters in others. Again, it shares some problems with its predecessor: namely, an attachment to lighting dark scenes in a manner that keeps them so dim and shadowed that they are barely visible and require squinting to fully see. There are also some moments in which the pacing feels clunky or off but, overall, the show transitions from scene to scene fairly well, and there is a great balance between politics and more physical conflict.
The costuming is breathtakingly well-crafted, from the intricacies in armor detailing to the lush fabrics that swathe and caress Alicent and Rhaenyra. However, given that House of the Dragon takes place almost 200 years before its predecessor, an opportunity for a more interesting deviation from the costuming in Game of Thrones is somewhat missed. The show gets partially there — particularly with the gowns worn by Rhaenyra and Alicent — but it would have been neat to have seen it taken further.
Alcock and Carey have, thus far, given career-blossoming performances as Rhaenyra and Alicent. It has been delightful to watch them tend to and create their characters beneath their fingertips. Their scenes together have been consistently brilliant to watch as they play out the intricacies of their characters and their ever-mercurial relationship. Rhaenyra is a particularly thrilling character: she has a great, witty intellect, a daring sensibility that edges on ruinous, and a bitterness already settled into her heart. It will be such a gift to see what the characters become throughout the season when the equally skillful Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke take the helm as Rhaenyra and Alicent, respectively.
As Viserys, Considine is powerful and conflicting. Smith is fantastically dreadful as Daemon, who is truly the worst. His character is riveting to watch, despite his poor decision-making and appalling morality. Best is a treat as Rhaenys, the wondrous and beautiful counterpart to the Sea Snake, Corlys Velaryon, played by the especially great Toussaint. The two pose a fierce couple.
The show is most certainly made by its characters and their dynamics, who breathe a necessary life into it, thanks to the actors and some great script-writing moments. Despite its flaws, this has been a thrilling season so far, which bodes well for what the concluding episodes will bring. In any case, it has been rather epic to see the Targaryens and their dragons back on the small screen.