Even Dragons Can't Save This
House of the Dragon: Pilot Episode
If you're reading this site then you likely know that the Game of Thrones finale was straight up terrible. Plenty of Internet commentators have written long rants about how bad that final season was, and even more went out of their way to write ideas to "fix" the finale (myself included). For the nerdy among us that was an abysmal season of television.
We like to think that the last season killed Game of Thrones, that there was no way interest in the franchise (at least on TV under the care of HBOThe oldest and longer-running cable subscription service, HBO provides entertainment in the force of licensed movies along with a huge slate of original programming, giving it the luster of the premiere cable service.) could ever recover from that. But then that of us that are plugged in to the Internet aren't the average TV watchers. Among the general public, while the finale was less than well received it didn't kill the series. That or all the nerdy types are willing to hate watch a series they used to love. Whatever the case, HBO has another hit on their hands as the premiere of House of the Dragon was a smash success, drawing in over 10 Mil viewers in its initial debut.
Viewing numbers, of course, aren't everything, but it is fair to say that many Online critics have found things they could like in the Pilot episode for House of the Dragon. There's action, there's drama, there's politics. If what you're looking for is people having fraught, pensive discussions about the fate of Westeros, this show has that for you. Still, in my eyes, it lacked a umber of key ingredients to make it a winner, things like characters you like or anything to care about. When it comes to actually making a compelling story you want to see episode after episode for eight straight seasons, House of the Dragon doesn't quite hit that mark... yet.
Opening with a lengthy monologue to explain the history of House Targaryen, we learn that when the old king, Jaehaerys I, was nearing the end of his life, a counsel of nobles selected his successor: grandson King Viserys I (Paddy Considine) over Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), the old king's granddaughter. Essentially the nobles of Westeros did not want to follow a woman, no matter how good she might have been as a queen. And so Viserys ruled, a fair and kind king.
There is just one issue with Viserys's rule: he has no male heir of his own. He has a daughter, the young Princess Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy), a kind and fair woman herself, but Westeros won't follow a woman. Instead his natural heir is his brother, Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), a cruel and power-hungry man who loves torturing for sport. The nobles of the High Counsel don't want to see Daemon take the throne, but when Viserys's wife and newborn son both die within hours of each other (due to complications during childbirth), it seems like Daemon will take the throne eventually. When Daemon pushes things too far, though, even his brother turns on him. The kind appoints his daughter as his successor, to the groans of some nobles, kicking off what is sure to be a bloody run for the various members of House Targaryen as they'll soon battle for the Iron Throne.
There are a number of thoughts I had during this pilot for House of the Dragon, but the biggest was, "man, I just don't care about this." Let's not undersell all the things the show does right -- it has a killer cast that do what they can with the material, and the production values of the franchise continue to be great in this prequel series. But, as far as actually giving us a compelling reason to come back to the world of Westeros, House of the Dragon fails. This is a story we've already seen once before and it feels like the show is just going through the motions now.
Think about the characters we had previously and how they line up with this new cast. We have King Viserys I, a good and kind leader who has a "behead me" sign strapped on his back as if he were the ancestor to poor Nedd Stark. There's Rhaenyra, a kind and sweet girl who is clearly going to get bulldozered by the machinations of others, just like Sansa Stark. There's Daemon, the mad Targaryen who loves nothing more than violence and watching people squirm. he's a button-pusher just like Geoffrey, only he's managed to make it to adulthood. Certainly little details are different but we can already see the show slotting characters into know archetypes.
Beyond that we have a story that's all too familiar. A good man has to choose an heir over the one "born" for the role, instead trying to do what's "best" for his kingdom. As much as he might be right he's still going to kick off a battle for the throne that will drag in every other faction and lead to years of endless war. You can already see how it's all going to play out, especially as ancestors of the houses are named and political lines are quickly drawn. If anyone thinks Daemon isn't going to tear the world apart to get his ass into the Iron Throne they clearly haven't seen even a single episode of the previous show. This is just more of the same.
Of course, then we have to acknowledge the biggest issue with the series: it's a prequel to a story we already know, dictating history we were already told. We know where this is going to lead, long term: one bad Targaryen leader after another until the whole house has to be deposed in a war 172 years from this point in history. All we're watching are various people battle over a throne that, eventually, won't even be in their hands anyway. We already know Westeros survives all of this, and all the great houses mentioned so far continue existing, so what, exactly, is the goal of this series? Is it to show us another bloody time in the history of Westeros?
I mean, jeez, at this point we just have to assume everyone on this planet exists to fight, fuck, and die, all of which we witness in this first episode. If that's all House of the Dragon has, well then someone needs to mention to the producers that we've seen plenty of this before. The shock value of it all simply doesn't exist at this point. Everyone was floored when Need was beheaded at the end of season one of Game of Thrones; not a single person will be shocked when Viserys bites it (and if his daughter follows suit that's only to be expected).
The franchise at this point can't pull off any of the big moves like the Red Wedding or the Purple Wedding (or any other bloody wedding or other affair) at this point because we've seen every one of those things before. If this show had given us a more civilized era then maybe, just maybe, if could have lulled us into a sense of security before it shocked us. Instead this pilot gives us Daemon dolling out gory street justice in one scene, and then we get to witness a cesarean birth in the next (all while a bloody jousting match goes on). The show only knows how to try and up the ante, it can't seem to find quiet moments for us to enjoy.
That, right there, is why this show doesn't work for me so far. Maybe the producers can get things ironed out and find a way to give us a solid story before launching into carnage, but I seriously doubt it. This is the pilot, the episode that gives us the baseline and, one would expect, it's only going to get amped up from here. Assuming that's the case (which feels like a safe assumption) all we're in for is more blood and fire and death. We had plenty of that before, and we're getting more of it now.
What we don't have on display here are characters to care about or a story to give a damn about while watching. Viserys but he's clearly going to die. I wouldn't be surprised if Rhaenyra is slaughtered by season's end. And then what? Who here can we care about? It's just a battle for a throne that, 200 years from now, will be a melted puddle of iron in a kingdom that hardly exists anymore (at least not as a single unified set of countries). Why are we here? What is the point of House of the Dragon? Until the show can answer that this is just another ho-hum entry in the Game of Thrones universe.