In the shadows of Westeros, dragons loom. Riding on the back of “Game of Thrones,” — which broke the record for the most-watched television program in network history — “House of the Dragon” has entered as HBO’s latest effort to adapt one of George R.R. Martin’s multifarious novels. The series opens with the fire and fury one might expect from a show with “dragon” in its title, yet it grows into something wildly unpredictable. It is, in many ways, one of the most triumphant debut seasons of a television program in recent memory.
Set 200 years before the events of “Game of Thrones,” the series follows the Targaryen dynasty as it becomes embroiled in internal conflict. As Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) is named heir to the throne over the children of her father (Paddy Considine) and rival Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), it becomes increasingly clear that challenges to her succession will rise upon her father King Viserys’ death. The house subsequently splits into two opposing factions; both of which begin to prepare for an impending civil war.
While the rivalry between Alicent and Rhaenyra is certainly at the core of “House of the Dragon,” much of its first season is spent building their feud rather than showcasing its effects. In fact, the show gives ample reason to root for the pair, even reinforcing their friendship years after they’ve fallen out. What makes their relationship interesting and aptly subversive is creators Ryan J. Condal and George R.R. Martin’s complete rejection of the traditional antagonism between characters. In essence, Rhaenyra and Alicent’s relationship does not exist in a binary. Instead it is built upon layers of love and resentment which meld into an on-screen dynamic that feels deliciously tangible.
Aiding this austerity are some of the most powerful small screen performances this year, with Considine being an undeniable standout among the series’ talented ensemble. His performance as King Viserys demands full attention in each and every scene, culminating in a career-defining appearance in “The Lord of the Tides,” an episode that will be remembered as a masterclass in building tension. Similarly, D’Arcy and Cooke continually carry the series forward with chemistry that is intentionally brooding and uncomfortable; this is especially effective in scenes that they share, but still omnipresent in moments when they are apart.
Much of what made “Game of Thrones” great — political intrigue, gruesome action and bold plot decisions — is carried over into “House of the Dragon,” but is presented with a much more intimate lens. Its predecessor often maintained a certain narrative distance from its characters, while “House of the Dragon” refuses to shy away from becoming deeply rooted in the minds of its characters. Alicent and Rhaenyra are typically the subjects in this case, and are seen at their most vulnerable many times throughout the season. Not only does this build empathy, but it avoids the narrative trap that would present these two characters as simply evil or heroic, instead finding them placed somewhere in-between.
Though at times the series’ frequent time jumps and cast swaps can feel jarring, its climactic payoff would be fruitless otherwise. It’s to the show’s benefit to present audiences with a wide-scoped narrative in order to build the complex, nuanced relationships that the story requires. Furthermore, with such skilled and meticulous casting, it feels more like a gift than a curse to see many diverse portrayals of these captivating characters.
By the time its finale rolls around, “House of the Dragon” has already established itself as a compelling mainstay in television. Visually, the show traverses new artistic heights which only amplify the talent exuding from its incomparable cast. Thematically, it explores new ideas and perspectives all while maintaining the intrigue and fantasy that captured audiences during the reign of its predecessor. It’s no doubt that, for as long as these characters have stories to be told, “House of the Dragon” is sure to sit on the Iron Throne.