This House of the Dragon review contains spoilers.
House of the Dragon Episode 2
It’s long been observed (including by me in last week’s House of the Dragon episode 1 review) that the best scenes in the Game of Thrones universe frequently feature little more than a handful of well-dressed characters talking to one another in opulent rooms.
Before HBO realized that there was gold in them there Westerosi hills and upped the show’s budget to massive CGI battle levels, Game of Thrones was often content to let its characters talk things out, with George R.R. Martin’s creative dialogue making its way past capable actors’ lips. When you’ve got the storytelling goods, there’s no need to always default to nonstop spectacle.
The problem with House of the Dragon episode 2 “The Rogue Prince,” however, is that it doesn’t quite have the same storytelling goods that the show’s premiere did. This is an awkward hour of television that doesn’t fully extinguish the show’s hopes of being a worthy heir to the Iron Throne…but it does dim them.
“The Rogue Prince” picks up roughly half a year after the conclusion to “The Heirs of the Dragon.” After storming off in an indignant huff, the titular rogue prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) has taken up at the Targaryen ancestral home of Dragonstone. King Viserys I (Paddy Considine) and his council are content to leave him to his tantrum there, even if it is symbolically fraught as Dragonstone is supposed to be the seat of the king’s true heir. But when Daemon announces his betrothal to the “Lady” Mysaria (Sonoyo Mizuno) and steals a dragon egg for their eventual child, the king is forced to act. And by “act,” I mean send Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) over to the foggy isle to glare at Daemon for a bit.
While House of the Dragon’s sense of (fictional) historical fidelity to its source material imparted episode 1 with a real sense of importance, that same historical approach immediately runs into some issues in episode 2. Just like the real history of our world, we don’t always know what happens behind closed doors of George R.R. Martin’s fictional history. Though in Fire & Blood, the “history” book upon which House of the Dragon is based, Martin’s maester characters are able to make some pretty educated guesses.
A lot of those educated guesses made their way into “The Heirs of the Dragon” and it’s perhaps why the episode so closely resembles the early Thrones seasons. Moments like Daemon referring to his dead nephew as “heir for a day” and the exhilarating King’s Landing tourney (or Maidenpool tourney in Fire & Blood) are events that Martin’s fictional maesters have a lot of “sources” for. “The Rogue Prince,” however, doesn’t have many, if any, of those well-sourced scenes. As such, throughout this episode the Westerosi maesters’ voice (which is really just Martin’s) is replaced by the show’s best attempts at it, which are often less than inspiring.
The ostensible climax of this episode, in which Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) arrives on Dragonstone to confront her uncle about squatting in her home, is a fine example of how the show’s fictional history approach has already started to fray. While one dragonrider flying to a fiery island to treat with another dragonrider may sound fairly epic in the annals of history, in practice viewers must concede that there’s not much to it.
House of the Dragon’s depiction of Dragonstone is certainly visually stunning, and continues a welcome trend of the show improving upon production design elements from Thrones, but the action of the scene leaves much to be desired. Daemon folds far too quickly and the scene’s dialogue doesn’t really hold up – though newly-minted Kingsguard Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) reminding Daemon of who knocked him off his horse is admittedly satisfying.
Truth be told, “The Rogue Prince” is filled with talky scenes where the quality of the talk just doesn’t pass muster. The episode’s first dialogue-heavy moment between Viserys and his soon-to-be-child-bride Alicent (Emily Carey) is intriguing enough…even if we learn the devastating information that Viserys isn’t a master craftsman and it’s the stonemasons who have erected his Old Valyria model. But after that, the usual “people talking in rooms” approach lacks the clever repartee and kinetic energy that the Thrones-world is capable of.
Forgive the potential hyperbole but Viserys’s brief conversation with his Master of Laws Lord Lyonel Strong (Gavin Spokes) might be among the least interesting and least necessary GoT/HotD scenes ever filmed. House Targaryen’s precarious progenitorial position has already been made clear through conversations (always conversations) with Lord and Lady Velaryon about joining their houses and an extra chat with Lyonel only serves to remind us that Lyonel exists and his House will be playing a role in the Wars to Come.
Less ineffective but perhaps even more disappointing is Viserys’s discussion about the topic with Rhaenyra before ultimately choosing to get hitched to her teenage best friend. Rhaenyra is quite simply too understanding and too accommodating of her father’s plight in this situation. One of the great strengths of Game of Thrones, and really any story that has to deal with royalty, is how the obligations of the state and the obligations of the family often impossibly intersect.
When Viserys tells his 15-year-old daughter that he does “not wish” to make them estranged, how is her response anything other than “you are a king. Anything you ‘wish’ you can make happen?” Instead she opts for the shockingly congenial “You are a king…and your first duty is to the realm. Mother would understand this. Just as I do.”
Rhaenyra’s immediate understanding of her father’s plight does open her up for an even more acute betrayal when he chooses to marry her best friend, but that doesn’t make the scene before it any less of a missed opportunity. It’s a rare moment in House of the Dragon thus far of a character acting as history needs them to, rather than acting how their heart tells them to.
At this point, perhaps I’m coming down too hard on this episode, which, despite its faults, is perfectly entertaining. The production value here is so high and Martin’s original tale so rich that it’s probably not possible for House of the Dragon to turn in a truly bad episode. This one, however, comes far closer than it has any right to. If anything, it makes both GoT and HotD’s previous triumphs in this form of storytelling seem all the more impressive. When much of your plot relies on people in rooms talking, the razor’s edge that separates whether it’s compelling or boring is simply the words they choose to say. And the words are just off here.
Thankfully, the conclusion to “The Rogue Prince” suggests more visually dynamic days to come. Though Corlys and Daemon’s closing conversation is far too expository (and once again seems to operate under latter day Thrones fast travel rules) it does set up the series first proper martial conflict. The opening and closing shots of very literally-named warlord Craghas “The Crabfeeder” Drahar surveying the destruction he hath wrought are quite beautiful. And one can’t help imagine how much more beautiful they’d be if everything were consumed by dragonfire.
Caraxes laying waste to whole hosts of Free Cities soldiers should buy House of the Dragon plenty of goodwill inbetween all of the idle chatting. But it will still need to spice up its conversations soon.
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.