House of the Dragon Premiere Recap: A House Divided

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Daemon Targaryen lounges on the Iron Throne and its sea of swords as his niece Rhaenyra looks on.

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

There’s something particularly apt about the first episode of House of the Dragon, the much-anticipated prequel series to Game of Thrones, being about the indecisiveness of King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) regarding who will succeed him on the Iron Throne. Like its lead character, House of the Dragon is clearly a show trying to figure out what it is, because it can’t figure out the answer to this question: Exactly how Game of Thrones-y should the series be?

To be fair, it’s not exactly an easy question to answer. Millions of people watched and loved Game of Thrones, until they didn’t. House of the Dragon is trying to remind people of what they loved about the original while simultaneously not reminding them of Thronesflaws (many of which, not coincidentally, started occurring when the show ran out of author George R.R. Martin’s published material). The result is that Dragon simultaneously tries to be both familiar and new, and the effect often ends up disconcerting.

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Honestly, the beginning of the premiere is disconcerting enough on its own. It begins with a lesson about Targaryen history and a flashback scene when the late king’s nephew, a young Viserys, is chosen to rule the Seven Kingdom instead of the king’s daughter and direct descendent, Rhaenys. Then it cuts to another bit of prologue text catching up to the present day, mentioning Viserys’ long, peaceful reign and that the show begins exactly 172 years before Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen was born. Centering the show in relation to the original is a wise decision, but everything else is a lot to take in, especially when—after an introduction to the current-day Viserys’ daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and her friend Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey)—House of the Dragon immediately heads into a meeting of the King’s Small Council, full of characters you don’t get enough time to identify, let alone figure out their place in the story.

Image for article titled The House of the Dragon Premiere Is a House Divided

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

The gist of that story, however, ends up this: King Viserys has no clear successor. There’s his brother Daemon (Matt Smith), the next man in line for the throne, but a cruel, arrogant man who would obviously be a terrible king. There’s also Rhaenyra, who is young, kind, and unfortunately also a woman in a deeply patriarchal medieval society. Viserys has a potential third option that he’s holding out for; his wife Aemma (Sian Brooke) is just about to give birth, and a son would settle the question entirely. (Yes, sans potential baby, this is basically the same issue seen in the flashback, which isn’t necessary to understand the current story and could have been inserted into the episode much more organically later.)

Viserys is so confident Aemma will give him a boy that he’s announced a massive tournament (and I do mean massive, House of the Dragon clearly has its predecessor’s budget) in celebration, which brings Daemon home to King’s Landing. He’s introduced sitting smugly on the Iron Throne, already awaiting his ascension, but then has a tender moment with his niece Rhaenyra that reveals he’s not entirely awful… which then gets slightly creepy as Smith puts out a small vibe that is disturbingly prurient. Daemon is easily House of the Dragon’s most fascinating, or at least interesting, character. In his next scene, he’s leading his newly formed city watch, the Goldcloaks, into the slums of the city to chop off crime-appropriate body parts of thieves, rapists, and murderers, filling two entire wagons with them. When some members of the Small Council complain about it later, others have to point out crime was rampant, and it needed to be cleaned up before all the lords and ladies arrived for the tournament. Later, he’s at a brothel, but also openly shows his vulnerability and anguish that he might not sit on the throne he’s wanted for so long.

But the most compelling storyline in the premiere is undoubtedly Aemma’s, which manages to depict the horrors of being a woman in a medieval patriarchy without being nearly as salacious about it as Game of Thrones. The pregnant Aemma tells Viserys that this baby must be her last, and not because of her age but because of her heart. Since Rhaenyra, Aemma’s had one child who died in infancy, two stillbirths, and two miscarriages, and she simply can’t take anymore. And yet, early she tells her daughter that giving birth is how women “serve the realms. The childbed is our battlefield.”

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Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

This statement sets up the most powerful scene in the premiere. When the tournament starts, Queen Aemma goes into labor; it’s beyond difficult, and seems like it will end up another stillbirth. Then it gets worse. When the fetus won’t turn properly, the Maester tells Viserys that he has can improve the odds of saving the baby via a medieval C-section which will definitely kill Aemma, or simply risk losing them both. Viserys, putting the stability of the realm over his love for his wife, makes the impossible decision and stays by her bed as she bleeds and screams.

I’ll admit, at first, I thought this was another one of the Game of Thrones franchise’s salaciously brutal depictions of violence towards women, especially as the scene continually cut back and forth to the tournament, where knights were maiming and killing each other for fun. But as the gore in the tournament got more and more obviously gratuitous, it dawned on me that this was the point: These men were bleeding and dying for a game and some nebulous idea of honor, while Aemma was bleeding and dying to prevent the Seven Kingdoms from going to war. While the knights did it for entertainment, Aemma was doing her duty as deemed by the patriarchy, which included being sacrificed at her husband’s hands. The childbed was a battlefield, upon which Aemma gave her life. The men were in a goddamned sports arena.

It’s this scene, this careful crafting, and this sensibility, where House of the Dragon outshines Game of Thrones and showcases its potential to do better. As is the scene where Aemma is on her funeral pyre, wrapped in bandages… and the camera slowly pans down to reveal a much smaller body in bandages lying next to the queen, then quickly cuts away. Yes, the child—a boy—has died as well, a devastating realization for the characters and audience alike, but Dragon doesn’t linger on or wallow in the horror. The effect is powerful without feeling like the “misery porn” that Thrones was often accused of being.

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Image: HBO

And yet, in some ways, House of the Dragon clearly feels the need to be a GoT cover band. Is there a gratuitous sex scene? Yes. Is there a gratuitous orgy scene? Of course. Does a seemingly good guy and Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), send his young daughter Alicent to “comfort” the king in his grief? Unfortunately, yes. Does a rapist have his balls cut off and are those severed testicles thrown onto something and then graphically shown as a pile of bloody goo? That’s a very weird question, but yes.

But in that sex scene, the only nudity is Matt Smith and his consort’s butts. Even the more graphic nudity of the orgy felt toned down compared to Thrones. Despite Otto’s clear attempt to make his king fall for his daughter, the scene amounts to nothing because Viserys is still grieving and not at all licentious. And for the balls… look, it’s definitely gross and a weird decision for the show to make, but at least it happens to a nameless rapist who’s never seen again and isn’t one of the main characters.

Image for article titled The House of the Dragon Premiere Is a House Divided

Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

That orgy scene, by the way, is where Daemon messes up. Surrounded by partying, sycophantic Goldcloaks, he dubs the infant “Heir for a Day,” which Otto, a noted Daemon-hater, reports to Viserys with impressively concealed satisfaction. Furious at and disgusted with the brother he’s defended for so long, Viserys banishes Daemon from King’s Landing and formally names Rhaenyra as his successor to all the attendant lords. It’s extremely clear not all of those lords swearing fealty to a woman are happy about it. Oh, and remember Rhaenys (Eve Best)? She has to watch her niece receive the prize she lost despite them being in essentially the same position, and her expression is inscrutable.

All in all, House of the Dragon has a great premise for a medieval fantasy political thriller. The king is miserable and has a mysterious but obviously infected wound that could end his reign much earlier than expected. The heir apparent is his daughter—who’s young, inexperienced, and quite literally threatening social and political norms. And the king’s brother, who openly wants the throne, has his own supporters, including a small but incredibly loyal army inside the capital. And then there are all the other lords and ladies, some merely pawns, but many who see an opportunity to rise in power… and maybe even rule.

Time will tell if House of the Dragon will emerge fully from Game of Thrones’ shadow, retreat totally into it, or continually straddle the line. But there’s one great advantage that House of the Dragon has that Game of Thrones didn’t—George R.R. Martin has already finished this story.

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Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Assorted Musings:

  • That story, by the way, is told in Fire & Blood, which is basically Martin’s history textbook of Targaryen rule in Westeros, including events before and after those being told in House of the Dragon. If you want to read it, just know it’s also written like a history textbook and not a proper novel, which means it can occasionally be dry or throw so many people’s names at you without context your head will explode.
  • I apologize for not sorting out all those aforementioned other characters and their places in the story, but they play very minor roles in the premiere and this recap went longer than long anyway. Their time will come both in the show and the recaps, presumably.
  • I don’t quite get the tournament rules in this premiere, which seems like the knightly version of “no holds barred.” I’m used to knights jousting with firm rules about where lances can strike, and when one is unseated and wants to fight, his opponent also gets off his horse. But Daemon straight-up murders a dude’s horse, someone gets suplexed off his horse by another guy, and hitting people when they’re down and unconscious is apparently fine, even if you’re caving their face in.
  • I love that Viserys is making a giant model of King’s Landing as a hobby. It’s basically those massive train sets some people make, except before trains.
  • Viserys is unable to sit upon the Iron Throne without cutting himself, which is an obvious metaphor for his weakness as a king. However, the dude managed to sit on that throne for decades while maintaining peace. That should earn him some respect.
  • Okay, I have to talk about the other part of the episode’s ending, but I don’t want to because it’s dumb. Viserys tells Rhaenyra the secret of the Targaryens, namely that Aegon, the first king of Westeros, didn’t cross the ocean just to conquer it. Instead, he had a dream of White Walkers invading the world of men, and that all the people of Westeros would need to be united against them with a Targaryen in charge. It needlessly connects House of the Dragon to the events of Game of Thrones, and it’s just really stupid and also only a few of the Houses of Westeros banded together to stop the Walkers and Daenerys wasn’t even sitting on the Iron Throne at that point anyway so the dream is dumb and wrong and if somehow this nonsense becomes an important part of the series I will be extremely disappointed.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

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