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Rhaenyra herself is as petulant as she is sympathetic in her frustrations, though there’s little sense of why she wants to be queen, other than spite. (Relatable.) A woman in a man’s world, she seeks independence and freedom from the royal family, but falls back on her authority when it becomes convenient, and ultimately revels in being able to use her family name as a way to flout the conventions of polite society. Like her descendant Daenerys, Rhaenyra is becoming a queen, and she has plenty of people willing to teach her how to be a cold, cruel ruler.
As the young Rhaenyra, Milly Alcock is phenomenal, steely enough to court a viewer’s admiration, and adept at emanating a princess’s self-possession and calculation. Her Rhaenyra is also prone to flashes of rage, which occasionally reads as teen flightiness, and is capricious enough to remind us why, by the time Game of Thrones is set, the people of Westeros often say that when a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin.
On paper, there seems to be little urgency in dramatizing this era. If you want to, you can go to the source material or the fan Wikis and look up which side the coin lands on: what happens to Rhaenyra, who eventually takes the throne, how her relationships with the other characters change. We already know that House Targaryen is on the road to collapse.
But the dramatic irony in knowing House of the Dragon has to get from point A to its inevitable point B — a Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of Dragons — is one of the show’s strongest assets. The series flies through time, jumping ahead a few months here, a year or two there, largely (though not entirely) discarding the uninteresting bits to furnish a set of interlocking stories. When the series transitions from Rhaenyra’s youth to her adulthood (and Emma D’Arcy takes over the role), it breezes past several years in which little of note seems to have happened.
It’s a refreshingly efficient approach. House of the Dragon wants to get to the good parts, and stay there. There are moments when the show feels like it’s losing steam, only to skip ahead and introduce an altered political landscape, growing families, and new feuds. Throughout all of this, Viserys reigns supreme, and King’s Landing remains shockingly stable. House of the Dragon is the Westerosi end of history: Everyone simply assumes things will go on as they are, forever, with the same set of Houses and a Targaryen on the throne.
While there are a couple of awkward attempts to explicitly set up the events of Game of Thrones, for the most part, House of the Dragon is more interested in its characters as characters, rather than how they connect to a TV show we watched 10 years ago. How the players respond to the status quo, and the schemes they use to try to hijack it, say interesting and compelling things about them — they aren’t pieces in a puzzle that needs to eventually fit together to show Arya stabbing the Night King.
The performances and characters are highlights, but there are plenty of other reasons to watch House of the Dragon. Sapochnik and the series’ other directors Greg Yaitanes and Clare Kilner make good use of being mostly confined to King’s Landing to inject flash and style into the proceedings — the show’s budget is only a bit higher than the final season of Game of Thrones’, but the production team has more than enough experience creating Westeros to do it confidently. A few locations have been reimagined (including the infamous Dragonpit, which lies in ruins by the time of Game of Thrones), and the production design manages to evoke memories of the original series while conjuring a whiff of staleness as the Targaryen empire crests past its prime. There are even a few full-on battles that range from sieging caves to storming beaches and flyby dragon attacks. Oh, yeah — there are a lot of dragons.
All this spectacle is a lot of fun, but it’s far less interesting than what Thrones excelled at all along: petty, powerful people sniping at each other. And House of the Dragon aces those scenes, so much so that I feel comfortable paying it a substantial compliment: You could probably enjoy this prequel without having watched the original series.
It’s possible that, as time goes on, House of the Dragon will tip its hand and start gesturing more obviously toward Game of Thrones. But for now, it has more punch, more depth, and more self-awareness than you might expect from a series spun off to capitalize on the success of Thrones, and deserves to win over its skeptics. I’m still weary of the drive to mine successes for more and more content. But oddly enough, House of the Dragon proves that big TV franchises don’t have to fit into something bigger. They can just be good stories. ●