House of the Dragon premieres less than a week after the season finale of Better Call Saul. Both shows are prequels to two of the twenty-first century’s most critically acclaimed, award-winning, and popular television series. Aside from the dragons (don’t worry, we’ll get to them), the main difference is that, following the unexpected success of Breaking Bad, AMC was playing with house money with Better Call Saul. If it worked, that’s fantastic. If it didn’t, no one expected the show about the Lionel Hutz-ass lawyer from Breaking Bad to be any good in the first place. (The fact that Better Call Saul is arguably better than Breaking Bad was a surprise to no one.) Meanwhile, HBO requires the “very large, very expensive” House of the Dragon to function. The Game of Thrones is to Warner Bros. Discovery as Marvel and Star Wars are to Disney; if the prequel is a flop following the unsatisfactory (to put it mildly) reaction to the Game of Thrones series finale, the franchise’s reputation is jeopardized, as are the 43 other spinoffs.
So… how good is House of the Dragon? Yes, I’m happy to report!
House of the Dragon is set 172 years before the birth of the Mother of Dragons and revolves around the “Dance of the Dragons,” a civil war that pitted the Targaryen family against each other after King Viserys (Paddy Considine) names a woman, his dragon-rider daughter Rhaenyra (the younger version is played by Milly Alcock; the older version is portrayed by Emma D’Arcy), as his heir. Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) believes he is the rightful heir to the throne, while Rhaenys (Eve Best), the so-called “Queen That Never Was,” is bitter about being passed over for the throne.
There are non-Targaryens in the show’s orbit, including “Sea Snake” ally Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), king’s hand Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), and his daughter, Alicent (Emily Carey/Oliver Cooke), who is described as the “most comely woman in the Seven Kingdoms,” but they are also influenced by the succession decision. (If House of the Dragon creator Ryan Condal’s pitch to George R.R. Martin wasn’t “what if Game of Thrones plus Succession,” it should have been.)
Rhaenyra is very Daemon. Alicent Rhaenys Corlys. Maria Jacaerys. Rhaena There are a lot of names (and wigs) to remember in House of the Dragon (it doesn’t help that the Targaryens frequently reuse or only slightly tinker with first names), and there’s also a time-hopping element in later episodes. But it’s not as perplexing as it appears. Is it worth keeping this character guide handy while watching the first few episodes? I certainly would. However, House of the Dragon patiently introduces the main players in the game of thrones, and because the action is largely centered on one family rather than an entire continent, it’s easier to keep track of everyone’s schemes.
So far, the biggest letdown, if that’s the right word, has been the lack of a Tyrion Lannister-like breakout character. Game of Thrones had a robust ensemble of scene stealers, whether it was the small but fierce Lyanna Mormont, the audience surrogate Samwell Tarly, or the stoic Davos Seaworth. The House of the Dragon is well cast, but no one stands out with the same charismatic zeal as, say, Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell. (To be fair, I’ve only watched the first four episodes.)
Otherwise, the House of the Dragon does not break the wheel, but it is more correct than incorrect. There’s a lot of lore for die-hard book readers, but it’s not so dense that casual Game of Thrones fans will get bored (yes, other familiar families pop up here and there). The show looks like a million dollars — or, more precisely, 20 million dollars per episode — and it’s not short on violence. There’s less sex than in Game of Thrones, but there are more dragons, so it’s a tie. I can’t imagine enjoying House of the Dragon if you haven’t seen Game of Thrones, which I assume exists. Otherwise, if you enjoyed Game of Thrones, particularly the talkative wheeling and dealing scenes in large rooms, you’ll enjoy House of the Dragon as well. It may not match the highs of Game of Thrones, but given the show’s structure, it’s unlikely to fall to the lows.
According to Olenna Tyrell, the world is full of horrible things, but House of the Dragon is not one of them.
House of the Dragon premieres on HBO and HBO Max on August 21 at 9 p.m.