It's been three years since Game of Thrones bowed out with a truncated final season that, its harshest critics would have you believe, went so badly off the rails that it sorely diminished the legacy and reputation of what was, unquestionably, one of the biggest television shows in the world.
It's unclear if HBO truly felt the sting of any backlash ("It’s a take that reads well but probably doesn’t fully reflect viewer feelings," HBO content chief Casey Bloys suggested last month when addressing the alleged negative reaction to Thrones' swansong) but all the same, it's obvious from the final product that a lot of thought and careful consideration has gone into House of the Dragon, the first of what's set to be several spin-offs from the original series.
The show has recruited Miguel Sapochnik – familiar to Game of Thrones fans as the man who helmed the acclaimed episodes Hardhome (in season 5) and Battle of the Bastards (in season 6) – as both lead director and co-showrunner, while it uses George R R Martin's fictional history tome Fire & Blood as its source material, in what feels like a deliberate attempt to not only reassure a wary fanbase but also recapture the best of the original show's early seasons.
The good news is that it worked. However you feel about where Thrones ended up, House of the Dragon strongly evokes its parent show's beginnings – in terms of quality, yes, but also style and structure. Where its predecessor over time grew increasingly expansive and populous, with some characters faring better than others as the cast grew and grew and the show struggled to properly serve them all, this new prequel has – so far – a smaller cast and so a sharper focus which benefits it hugely.
It helps too that the series has enlisted an absolutely top-flight cast to bring Daenerys Targaryen's ancestors and their associates to life. In the series premiere, it's Matt Smith who commands your attention, the Doctor Who star clearly having heaps of fun as Prince Daemon Targaryen, heir presumptive to the Iron Throne and a violent tyrant who you can't help but enjoy watching wreak havoc thanks to Smith's innate charisma.
Milly Alcock is another standout as the young Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen – the Australian star brings both a steely resilience and a quiet vulnerability to the role of King Viserys's overlooked offspring, who finds herself at odds with her uncle Daemon when the line of succession is questioned. House of the Dragon will enact a number of time jumps throughout its first season, with Alcock giving way to Emma D'Arcy, and while we're yet to see the latter in action, it already seems a shame that young Rhaenyra's time on the show will be limited. Hopefully there'll be a flashback or two.
As Viserys, Paddy Considine has perhaps the hardest job, playing a monarch who's just a little too soft to rule the Seven Kingdoms effectively, kowtowing to a council of advisors who each have their own agenda and refusing to face the threat that his unpredictable brother presents. Considine being Considine though, he manages to inject a magnetism and fire into a character who, in the hands of a lesser actor, might've come off as simply bland and uninteresting, making his perhaps the canniest bit of casting.
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Across its 65-minute runtime, the opening episode of House of the Dragon delivers almost everything a Game of Thrones fan could want – those captivating characters but also rich mythology, stunning vistas, scheming, and, yes, both sex and bone-crunching violence. There might be nothing in the series premiere to challenge the goriest Thrones moments, but there are certainly severed limbs (and other appendages) aplenty, while one lengthy sequence is up there with the best of the original when it comes to inventively-staged bloodshed.
If there's one thing missing at this stage, it's the wit and occasional dash of camp that made Game of Thrones so entertaining and often served as blessed relief amidst all the brutality and backstabbing. Bar one well-placed insult from Smith's Prince Daemon, laughs are few and far between – to put it simply, House of the Dragon is missing a Tyrion Lannister.
But it's early days and those impending time jumps offer the opportunity for the show to introduce many new characters (and it will, if Martin's source material is anything to go by) and explore different tones, while hopefully not losing the sense of drive and purpose that zeroing in on a single family feud as opposed to a battle for absolute power across several continents has afforded it so far.
So while it's perhaps too early to make a prophecy, the signs are certainly good that House of the Dragon will take flight and burn bright. HBO – and fans – can breath a sigh of relief.
- Matt Smith says “daunting” Doctor Who prepared him for House of the Dragon
- House of the Dragon planned to last three or four seasons
- Meet the cast of House of the Dragon, the Game of Thrones prequel series
House of the Dragon is available from 22nd August exclusively on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW. With an Entertainment Membership, fans can currently bundle together NOW Entertainment and Cinema Membership for £14.99 p/m. All episodes of Game of Thrones are also available to stream on NOW.
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