House of the Dragon Episode 1 Review: The Heirs of the Dragon
House of the Dragon’s first episode is satisfying historical fiction about a fake history.
This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.
House of the Dragon Episode 1
Westeros isn’t real.
George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire novels and the HBO series upon which they’re based are works of pure fantasy fiction. Though Martin occasionally borrows from real life Medieval history, there is no such thing as a Targaryen dynasty, dragons, or a land of always winter.
Still even with all the ice zombies and red witches, a big reason for Game of Thrones’ success was how seriously it took itself as a pseudo historical document. It wasn’t a depiction of our history, but it may as well have been a depiction of someone’s history. Somewhere out there in the multiverse there’s a modern version of King’s Landing where schoolchildren learn about Aegon the Conqueror and how he settled a continent that would give way to the nation of capitalistic creature comforts they now enjoy.
Enter Game of Thrones’ first prequel House of the Dragon, itself based on Martin’s prequel book Fire & Blood, which is written from the perspective of Westerosi historian maesters. In its first episode, this HBO series takes the faux historical fiction elements of George R.R. Martin’s writing and brings them even further to the forefront. Despite an increased budget that allows for many more shots of CGI dragons, “The Heirs of the Dragon” may as well be a lost pilot of a royal period drama like The Crown or The Tudors.
And you know what? That’s pretty cool.
It’s hard to say how casual Game of Thrones viewers and non-A Song of Ice and Fire book readers will respond to House of the Dragon’s first episode. ASOIAF nerds, however, have to be happy like pigs in dragonshit. George R.R. Martin hand-selected his friendly acquaintance and uber ASOIAF-fan Ryan Condal to serve as showrunner on this first post-Thrones project. Right now that is looking like a shrewd, necessary decision rather than a byproduct of writerly hubris or cronyism. The alternate history Martin has created is so detailed and rich that only a collection of true die-hards like Condal and co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik could make sense of it all.
Though the Game of Thrones premiere, “Winter is Coming,” will likely always have the sentimental edge for most people as it served as their introduction to Westeros, “The Heirs of the Dragon” is in many ways better as it’s a far more focused experience. Save for a pre-credit flashback in the ruins of Harrenhal, the story focuses solely on King’s Landing and Viserys I’s royal court within it.
That opening Harrnehal scene is an immensely important one as it establishes the historical context (see, here we go talking about history again) for what’s to come. It is King Jaehaerys I’s 60th year upon the Iron Throne. Though “The Old King” or “The Conciliator” as he is sometimes called is arguably the best monarch Westeros has ever seen, there is an unfortunate question of succession that must be addressed near the end of his reign. Both of the king’s sons are dead and there are no fewer than 14 individuals who feel they have some claim to be his heir. Enter the Great Council of Harrenhal, where all of the great lords of Westeros gather in the ruined castle to debate and ultimately vote on the issue. In the end, Westeros’s lords select Viserys, the son of Jaehaerys’s fourth son, over Rhaenys, the daughter of Jaehaerys’s third son.
So much about Game of Thrones concerns itself with the past. Even with the existential threat of white walkers looming beyond the wall, all the lords of Westeros could care about was their own history. Who went to war with who? Which house had the most heroic deeds to its name? What precedent was established by what obscure royal act and when? In a world without a widely published book of laws, precedent is what truly matters. And it’s in this first scene that we see the unfortunate precedent of primogeniture get established.
The memories of that Great Council in Harrenhal hang over the rest of the episode like a dark shade. This gives “The Heirs of the Dragon” a useful sense of clarity that grounds the central themes and plot of the episode, even as viewers are presented with another overwhelming influx of George R.R. Martin characters with confusing names. Sure, the average Thrones viewer might not fully know who Viserys I (Paddy Considine), Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), Daemon (Matt Smith), Alicent (Emily Carey), or Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) are just yet. But they do know how they feel about the most important issue at play: succession.
The Viserys I we meet in this episode at first seems like a solid all-around dude. He doesn’t have the political savvy of his grandfather Jaehaerys I but he’s also not the unhinged monster that Daenerys’s father Aerys II a.k.a. “The Mad King” was. He has gathered an impressive small council to guide the realm, led by Hand of the King Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) and featuring his generation’s most impressive man Lord Corlys Velaryon a.k.a. “The Sea Snake” as Master of Ships. One gets the sense that Viserys is more happy to crack jokes around the Small Council table rather than listen to Lord Corlys’s well-sourced reports about military alliances in the east.
But hey! That’s not so bad. The realm is still enjoying the peace of the Jaehaerys years and Viserys hasn’t done anything to screw that up just yet. Not only that, but Viserys appears to be legitimately respectful of and deferential to his lovely wife, Lady Aemma Targaryen neé Arryn (Sian Brooke). He even listens to her when she tells him sternly that the child she is currently pregnant with will be her last. Her labors have been rough and she can’t bear to lose any more children. The problem, of course, is that unbeknownst to them all, King Viserys has already pushed Lady Aemma one pregnancy too far.
One of the sublime joys of Martin’s writing and understanding of the human condition is that most, if not all of his character’s are fortune’s fools. Even for the most well-meaning of Westerosi individuals, it is often external forces like family, honor, and duty that take the reins of their lives…and often end their reigns. If Viserys and Aemma were simple shopkeepers in Flea Bottom, Viserys may have recognized that his wife’s body was at its limit and not have pushed her into another pregnancy. But he’s not a shopkeep, he’s a king. And a king needs an heir, particularly in light of the Great Council of Harrenhal just nine years ago that established a preference for the king’s male children.
Viserys’s impatience is somewhat understandable and if we want to be immensely charitable, could be read as selfless. As we know, when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. And Viserys has to win for the good of his family and for the good of the realm. Still, all those decisions lead to destruction all the same.
Simply put: Queen Aemma’s death in childbirth is one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen on television. The show cuts between images of Aemma, sweaty, pale, and bloody on her bed, and the restless knights of the jousting tourney crushing each other’s faces in with maces. Truly, however, there is no comparison to be made between the two. Aemma’s breech birth and subsequent primitive C-section is far more invasive, intimate, and horrifying. For our American readers: now might be a good time to donate to your state’s abortion fund, by the way.
It’s all for naught, of course, as these things often are. Viserys gets his son but the infant dies moments later anyway. At her mother and brother’s conflagrant funeral, Rhaenyra wonders in furious Old Valyrian if the moments his son was alive was the happiest time in her father’s life. Though much of this first episode understandably focuses on Viserys, it’s clear that House of the Dragon will soon rest on Rhaenyra’s shoulders. Thankfully it looks like young actress Milly Alcock is more than up to the task before Emma D’Arcy takes over as the older (but perhaps not wiser) princess.
It’s tempting to compare any young female Game of Thrones character who is skeptical of the patriarchy to Arya Stark. And truthfully, there is plenty of Arya in the fiery and willful Rhaenyra but she also appears to be very much her own individual. Though she loves to spend time on the back of her dragon Syrax (and subsequently always reeks of dragon to her parents) she also appears comfortable at court. She studies below King’s Landing’s grand weirwood tree with her best friend, the Hand’s daughter Alicent, and the duo enjoy gossiping about who is secretly pregnant during the jousting tourney.
In the lore of Fire & Blood, Martin’s maesters note that Rhaenyra was often called “The Realm’s Delight” due to her cheerful disposition and frequent appearance at her father’s side after he named her his heir. Certainly Rhaenyra won’t remain a delight for long with her mother gone and the weight of the Iron Throne bearing down on her. But for now it’s just nice to see someone actually having fun in this grim universe. Alcock’s chemistry with Carey is off the charts, which makes Ser Otto’s clear intention to get Alicent wifed up with Rhaenyra’s father all the more upsetting. “You might wear one of your mother’s dresses,” has the verbal impact of pure dragonfire to the gut.
All in all, the acting in this first episode is superb, as it needs to be. Given the show’s understated historical fictional nature thus far, much of the action occurs internally within each character as they grapple with all the various contradictions required from their royal statuses. With that in mind, the most interesting of House of the Dragon’s creations so far is undoubtedly the king’s brother, Daemon Targaryen.
I’ll admit that I did not see the vision in casting Matt Smith as the volatile and frequently cruel Daemon. Though an excellent actor, Matt Smith has the outward visage of a gentle man, which he put to great use as the Eleventh Doctor. Thanks to that one pitch perfect scene in Morbius, we know Smith is physically up to the task of King’s Landing’s most corrupt cop but can he really embody someone so effortlessly entitled? Turns out that yeah, he can.
Daemon’s scenes as a thorn (or an Iron Throne swordprick) in his brother’s side are satisfying enough but where Smith really shines is in the jousting sequence that makes up the middle climax of the episode. Daemon relishes being the bully as he takes out Gwayne Hightower’s horse to humiliate the Hand of the King. It’s then immensely satisfying to see him immediately punished in the form of the less-heralded knight Ser Criston Cole of the Dornish Marchlands (Fabien Frankel). Ser Criston is certain to play a major role in the Wars to Come and this is quite the introduction.
The jousting scenes in general are this episode’s finest achievements and the best evidence that House of the Dragon has the capacity to reach the same level as Game of Thrones and perhaps even surpass it. While I admire the show’s devotion to capturing the “real” history of these very unreal events, pure historical fiction doesn’t frequently lend itself to dynamic visual storytelling. Before Game of Thrones proved itself to be a hit and garnered an increased monetary investment from HBO, most of its episodes followed a predictable visual format of well-dressed characters in various castle rooms talking to one another about important things. Those conversations were riveting, to be sure, but were leaving some of the visual storytelling potential that television can provide on the table. With the sastsifyinging kinetic jousting scenes presented in its very first episode it seems as though both House of the Dragon’s budget and storytellers are already ahead of the curve of their parent series.
The final moments of “The Heir of the Dragon” also contain the promise that the show is willing to test the limits of its “just the facts, ma’am” historical format. The news that Viserys shares with Rhaenyra is absolutely gobsmacking. With George R.R. Martin’s apparent blessing, House of the Dragon has now revealed that Aegon I didn’t come to Westeros merely to conquer it but to save the world. Every new Targaryen king receives the news that The Long Night is coming and when it does a Targaryen must be on the throne.
We know that information has been lost by the time Daenerys is born. Is it possible that the game of royal telephone ends in Rhaenyra’s time? I guess we’ll have to see what the dedicated historians behind House of the Dragon turn up.
New episodes of House of the Dragon premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max in the U.S. and Sky Atlantic in the U.K.