The dragons are set to nest again in HBO’s (and HBO Max’s) bunk at 9 p.m. Sunday night after a three-and-a-half-year absence. “House of the Dragon,” based on the (thankfully completed) section of George RR Martin’s fantasy history textbook “Fire & Blood,” brings back the Targaryens and their rather ferocious pets in a story set 180 years before the original. And there is more good news. While the final season of “Game of Thrones” disappointed many fans, the new series is actually an improvement over the original in crucial ways. And while it still makes a few vital mistakes, the series is overall competent enough to resurrect a franchise that seemed ready to burn out.
There is only one catch. It’s definitely not the long-sought “Next” Game of Thrones.
Major streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have been scrambling to replace HBO’s gargantuan success, since the final season was announced. But “Game of Thrones,” a big-budget fantasy based on a series of (as yet!) unfinished novels, seemed more likely to go the way of “Rome” than outshine the ratings of “The Sopranos.” Over the past few seasons, the production had spent too much time breathing in its own hype and rolled up an oxygen-starved shell of its former self.
Nonetheless, the showrunners are obsessed with recreating that sense of cultural phenomena. “Game of Thrones” has created an entire ecosystem of content to satisfy the endless gaping maw of the eyeball economy. But a lot of what made this ecosystem thrive had to do with showrunners’ inexperience. They created a show (and started an odious trend in prestige TV) that got rid of simple TV episodic storytelling, creating an open space filled with fan theories and speculation. The websites were happy to give the show premium coverage for the clicks. Today’s television content has changed tremendously as a result; not content with recaps, each show is now followed by explanations, fan theories, and little details you missed.
“House of the Dragon” easily replaces its predecessor when it comes to balancing a one-season arc and satisfying episodes with real beginnings, middles, and endings. It helps that the showrunners are experienced this time around; Ryan Condal previously co-created the “Colony” series and Miguel Sapochnik was the most imaginative and effective director “Game of Thrones” has ever had. The series premiere deftly features nearly a dozen and a half characters (not including dragons). Even more impressively, over the six episodes provided for review, “House of the Dragon” manages to keep all the characters straight, as well as their relationships with each other by summarizing convoluted machinations in easy palace intrigue drama. to follow on the impending succession crisis. That’s no small feat, given that the Targaryen family tree is really more of an incestuous endless loop with names intertwined – Rhaenyra, Rhaenys, Aemon, Aegon, Laena, Laenor. (Indeed, the characters are most easily identified by the way the extraordinarily unflattering silver-platinum wigs wreak havoc on their skin tones.)
These wigs are one of the few major duds in what is otherwise a visual feast. Nobody looks good in them, and they make everyone start to mix. Guess we can blame “Game of Thrones” in part for that, given how established the Targaryen aesthetic has become. But still, someone should have tried to do… something.
The other big mistake “House of the Dragon” made was trying to replicate the shock value of the original. The traumatic moments of “Game of Thrones” — especially in the first season — worked because they upended the expectations of fantasy viewers. A kind-hearted boy is pushed out the window by a handsome knight desperate to hide his sex life; the ostensible hero is thoughtlessly decapitated by a selfish child; the gentiles are massacred in full marriage. “House of the Dragon” tries to horrify in its first episode with some gruesome moments of violence, but it doesn’t upset any fantasy tropes in the process. It’s just violence for violence’s sake, inserted so people can say “‘Game of Thrones’ is back and as shocking as ever!” Thankfully, that dynamic seems to be dissipating quickly, as if, having ticked that box, the showrunners felt freed from having to start over.
That being said, there’s a lot to enjoy about the new show, which is also surprisingly free of sexual violence, but no sex. (The brothels are back, albeit much smaller.) Matt Smith, in particular, stands out as the dark sheep of the Daemon Targaryen family. (We know he’s a black sheep because of his different name.) Paddy Considine brings serious gravity as King Viserys, the kind of thoughtful ruler Westeros is always looking for. And the four actors who play the two women at the center of the story, Princess Rhaenyra and Lady Alicent (Milly Alcock and Emily Carey at the start, Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke once the show hits the Targaryen Civil War” game of Thrones” that are so often alluded to) are fantastic, though Carey and Cooke both benefit from being able to have normal hair color.
“House of the Dragon” won’t immediately create the kind of buzz that catapulted “Game of Thrones” to societal notoriety. The series probably won’t create endless volumes of speculative bait. Even if it wasn’t so frankly simple, the landscape has simply evolved (again). It also has immediate competition in the form of big-budget Netflix and Amazon series “The Sandman” (which released a bonus episode this weekend) and “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” which arrives in less than fifteen days. . Even if “House of the Dragon” has half the juice of its parent series, it probably wouldn’t be able to top all comers. However, if you’re just looking for rich fantasy TV with lots of dragons and drama, I’d cancel all recurring Sunday night plans.