House of the Dragon: season 1, episode 1 – The Heirs of the Dragon

“The only thing that could tear down the House of the Dragon was itself.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Roll up, roll up, for the Big Autumn Battle of the Fantasy Epics! In the blue corner, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, reportedly the most expensive TV show ever made! And in the red corner, it’s HBO’s younger upstart, House of the Dragon, a prequel to their ratings juggernaut Game of Thrones!

Obviously both are going to be huge. Tolkien has, of course, a massive fanbase going back decades. But while George RR Martin might be the Johnny-come-lately of the two, the huge global success of the adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire (final season aside) means that House of the Dragon has a guaranteed audience every bit as much as Rings of Power.

The danger, of course, is that such a guaranteed audience might give new showrunner Ryan Condal the temptation to just phone it in. As long as the familiar trappings of Westeros are present and correct, you could probably get away with whatever nonsense you choose to put onscreen. Or not, as Benioff and Weiss found with the final season of the parent show.

Based on the first ep, for me the jury is still out. There are some characters who grab right from the outset – Matt Smith’s vain, ambitious Prince Daemon being the most obvious – and some of the show’s trademark gory medieval massacres. But there’s also oodles of exposition, and the daunting introduction of a massive cast, most of whose functions – and indeed names – are not immediately obvious.

To be fair, the same was true of the parent show, which also took a while to establish its crowds of complex, variously motivated characters. It took a few eps to get a handle on them, as I expect it will here. Smith grabs straight away, unsurprisingly for an actor like him given some deliciously overripe material. But Paddy Considine’s quieter, less showy performance as the mild, unassuming King Viserys I also makes an impact, as does Milly Alcock as his precocious daughter Princess Rhaenyra.

Just as Rings of Power is based on the incomplete jottings of JRR Tolkien as to the ancient history of Middle Earth, House of the Dragon has its source material in similar jottings from Martin as to the history of Westeros. So, we’re back a couple of centuries before the events of Game of Thrones, when the dragon-riders of House Targaryen reigned supreme – until they started to tear each other apart.

Condal (and, presumably, HBO) has apparently taken on board some of the (not unjustified) criticism of the parent show’s misogyny, gratuitous sex and jaw-dropping violence. So, is this a kinder, gentler Westeros? Not based on the massacre perpetrated by Prince Daemon’s City Watch in this opener, with heads and limbs lopped off, and blood spattering gaily everywhere. It appears that the violence is very much present and correct. To be fair, this is an analogue of medieval Europe, which was not a kindly place.

However, it does look like the misogyny and constant sex has been toned down. For starters, it seems like our principal character here, the audience viewpoint, is young Princess Rhaenyra. And that one of the overriding themes of the story is the misogyny of this world itself, where her aunt Princess Rhaenys was passed over for succession to the monarchy in favour of younger brother Viserys. Plainly, Rhaenyra, currently the monarch’s only offspring, is going to have to deal with more of the same.

As with Game of Thrones, a plethora of well-regarded character actors are present onscreen, and easily recognisable. Aside from Considine and Smith, the king’s Small Council includes Rhys Ifans as Ser Otto Hightower, the dour Hand of the King; along with old stagers David Horovitch as the Grand Maester, and Bill Paterson as… well, somebody important presumably. I guess we’ll figure him out as the show goes on.

This first ep has a lot of heavy lifting as far as exposition is concerned, and without the admittedly silly schtick of having it take place during sex scenes, some of it is pretty laboured. “As you know,” characters begin saying to each other, before informing them of things they logically know very well indeed, for our benefit. The parent show’s ‘sexposition’ was indeed very, very silly, but it did enliven this kind of material no end. Perhaps this show will find something else to jazz up the interminable parade of characters informing each other of things they already know.

There is at least one sex scene, involving Matt Smith’s Prince Daemon (to the apparent horror of some Doctor Who fans who apparently can’t grasp the idea that Smith is an actor and not really a Time Lord). But even that is muted – it looks like Daemon has a few… problems in the bedroom department, which will doubtless serve as motivation for his ambition and insecurity. Smith, cursed with a Ridiculous Targaryen Wig, has clearly buffed up for the part; shame, I preferred him skinny.

Indeed, the trademark Ridiculous Targaryen Wigs are everywhere in this show, unsurprisingly for an inbred family who all look basically the same. Thus far, the number of Targaryens shown has been limited to about six – but I have to admit, if more show up, it’s going to get difficult to tell them apart.

Not much actually happens in this first ep – it’s all about scene-setting. That’s a bit of a risk when you want to grab your audience, but fortunately the audience is built in for this one. So we establish the chauvinistic rules of succession, meet some major characters, and set up Prince Daemon as an ambitious pretender to the Iron Throne, with little respect for his milder brother Viserys. There’s an extremely violent jousting tourney, taking place in a stadium far outsizing the muddy field of similar events in the parent show, and Daemon loses to handsome Ser Criston Cole, who plainly Rhaenyra has a bit of a thing for. That’s not going to make Daemon any happier.

Nor will Viserys be exactly cheered up by the death of his wife and son in childbirth while all this is going on. Amid all the violence elsewhere, the graphic depiction of a medieval caesarean birth is undoubtedly the most horrific thing to be seen this ep; but it feels justified given the context and Viserys’ reaction. Plainly this too is setting up much for later.

It’s a solid start for House of the Dragon then, but not really an outstanding one. There again, with that guaranteed massive audience, it doesn’t have to be outstanding, but it does have to do all the setting up. In that, it largely succeeds, though there’s much still remaining to be established. Crucially, unlike the parent show, there isn’t an overarching Unstoppable Supernatural Menace to glue the whole thing together (though there’s a few prophetic mutterings), so it looks like this one will have to stand and fall purely on its characters and their machinations. I always felt Game of Thrones could have done that perfectly well without its White Walkers – let’s see if House of the Dragon can pull that off.

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