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House of the Dragon: The Heirs of the Dragon

"The only thing that could tear down the house of the dragon was itself."

Let's get those knees bending, folks.

When Game of Thrones came to its controversial end, I was skeptical upon hearing the initial rumblings about a spinoff when the other show was barely cold.

There were several ideas they batted around: A Dunk and Egg adaptation, an original series set before the Doom of Old Valyria, a series about Queen Nymeria's voyage to Westeros, etc. Finally, they settled on adapting some of the fictional histories that have been written for the series. I remained skeptical even after seeing some of the impressive promotional material for this show. However, after watching this first episode, I'll admit that it has reignited my nerdy obsession with this grim fantasy-land George R.R. Martin has created.

House of the Dragon is adapting material found mainly within Fire and Blood, the portion that covers the beginning of the end of House Targaryen's mythic greatness. If we're talking prequels, this is probably the best period to set it in. It's the height of courtly intrigue and widescale war in Westeros prior to the main series, as well as being a time when a whole bunch of dragons were around; the dragons were never a huge draw for me, but I know other viewers will be pleased.

The Plot

It takes place nearly 180 years before the start of Game of Thrones. After the long reign of Jaehaerys the Conciliator, his oldest male heir, Viserys Targaryen, is made king and presides over one of the most propserous eras the realm has known. Unlike his predecessor, Viserys is not a great king. He is mostly benign and amiable, but he is also weak and indecisive. He arranges a large tourney event to celebrate the birth of his male heir before the child is born or its sex known, only for his wife and child to both die quite traumatically when a crude c-section is required.

This forces the king to confront the issue of his succession. The one next in line is his brother, Prince Daemon, who is strong and controlling in all the ways Viserys is not. He's also got a vicious streak that alienates him from most of the royal court, which includes his brother after Daemon is reported to have made a drunken joke at his dead nephew/rival heir's expense. This insult provokes Viserys to finally recognize the potential of his only child, Princess Rhaenyra.

From the start, the medieval glass ceiling is directly addressed. The Great Council chose Viserys over his older cousin Princess Rhaenys, to maintain tradition. In order to keep the Iron Throne out of Daemon's covetous hands, Viserys and Otto Hightower, the Hand of the King, decide to go against tradition and name young Rhaenyra as heir. For most of the episode, Rhaenyra is a bold, intelligent and spirited girl who, despite being the king's daughter, longs for more. She wants adventure and excitement, and also for her dad to see her as more than a lovable cupbearer. Being officially named as his heir -- as well as having the weight of a surprise family secret placed on her shoulders -- has likely raised her self-esteem a little. The end showcases various high lords bending the knee, acknowledging that they will loyally serve her one day. That's the idea anyway, but we all know how ass-backwards this world is. Rhaenyra's got centuries of male hegemony to contend with, in addition to the game of thrones itself.

Thoughts So Far

Overall, I just really like the presentation of everything. Sure, we've got our HBO GOT staples of ultra-violence and brothel orgies, but there is also a lot of nuance. Nuance is something that rapidly bled out of Game of Thrones as it neared its conclusion, mostly owing to the fact that the writers were at a loss as to how to complete someone else's unfinished story with a labrythine plot. House of the Dragon has a lot going for it just by being an adaptation of a story that is complete. This episode's writing felt much more in line with those stunning first few seasons of Game of Thrones, but with the budget of that show at its apex.

The characters are all well-defined, and the drama from the text translates well to the screen and gets fleshed out more. The CGI on the dragons is still pretty dope, but it's a testament to the writing thus far that the dragons were the least interesting part of this episode for me. I'm excited to see everything they do with Daemon Targaryen, who is one of this universe's most badass characters.

But Daemon and Rhaenyra are obviously going to get plenty of shine. In this episode, I was very taken with Paddy Considine as Viserys I, Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower, and Emily Carey as Alicent Hightower, Otto's daughter and Rhaenyra's best friend. These are characters who are framed in a negative light, more or less, in Martin's histories. Here they are portrayed with a lot of nuance. Viserys, for instance, is made out to be like another Robert Baratheon in the books, a poor king who overindulges himself and avoids serious issues. Here, he is much more like Ned Stark (even down to a similar hairstyle), a decent guy who makes grave mistakes for reasons that are pretty easy to sympathize with.

I love that this show includes so much lore taken from the source material, much of which is organically conveyed through character dialogue that sounds a lot more like the antiquated dialogue seen in the books as opposed to the more modernized vernacular featured in Game of Thrones. That, along with the inclusion of elaborate armor and colorful regalia, adds to the fantasy element while also bringing authenticity to the setting.

The show also does cool things with our perspective as an audience. Originally, this is a story conveyed as a fictional history, written by a scholar who didn't know the full details and had to rely on questionable sources and research. As such, we don't know exactly how much we learn about the characters is true. This gives the show writers a lot of wiggle room to tell this story in a compelling way, letting us get to know these dynamic figures a lot more intimately.

That's not to say the show isn't without issues. I, like many others, am not one-hundred percent on the reveal that Aegon the Conqueror's prophetic dream of White Walkers and the Long Night is what led him to conquer Westeros and that being a secret passed down from one Targaryen ruler to the next. Not only does it kind of slap in the face of this world's own history, but it also just leaves a bad taste due to how disappointing the conclusion to that whole prophesied doom turned out to be in the previous show.

There's a chance the show might suffer in the long run if it tries leaning too heavily on the damaged legacy of its predeccesor, especially since the story being told here is ultimately a tragedy. Tragedy... does not always go over well with audiences. Game of Thrones tried to pull one off and epically failed. I'm hoping this show can maintain its momentum and sell this story all the way to the end, because I do really like what I'm seeing so far.

Blacks and greens:

* A lot of familiar house sigils during the tourney: Lannister, Baratheon, Bolton and Tarly, to name a few. Lord Boremund Baratheon and Lord Rickon Stark appear at court in the end to pledge fealty to Rhaenyra as the king's heir.

* Ryan Condal, the show runner, apparently said that this show will do for childbirth scenes what Game of Thrones did for wedding scenes. So there’s something to look forward to. Oy.

* Another instance of the show toying with perspective that I noticed was in the "heir for a day" scenes. In the books, it's written to be unambiguous: Daemon is a savage and audacious guy who mocks his dead nephew in his brother's time of grief. In the show, we see part of the scene where Daemon is in the brothel, while the other half is Otto Hightower relaying the incident to Viserys. We have it set up for Daemon to say the infamous line, giving a toast to the king's son... then cutting to Otto Hightower claiming he called the baby "heir for a day." Makes it a tad more interesting. Is Daemon just an arrogant prick who hurts others, even his own family, to make himself look cool? Or was it a lie told by Otto, who is a subtly manipulative politician and Daemon's main rival at court?

* It’s neat to see the skull of Balerion the Black Dread elevated on a candlelit pedestal, whereas in Game of Thrones we only ever saw the dragon skulls hidden at the bottom of the Red Keep.

Quotes:

Queen Aemma Targaryen: "This discomfort is how we serve the realm.
Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen: “I’d rather serve as a knight and ride to battle and glory.”
Aemma: “We have royal wombs, you and I. The child bed is our battlefield. We must learn to face it with a stiff lip.”

Prince Daemon Targaryen: (to Otto Hightower) “You mightn’t know this unless you left the safety of the Red Keep, but much of King’s Landing is seen by the smallfolk as lawless and terrifying. Our city should be safe for all its people.”
King Viserys I: “I agree. I just hope you don’t have to maim half of my city to achieve this.”
Daemon: “Time will tell.”

Princess Rhaenys Targaryen: “It’s been 70 years since King Maegor’s end. These knights are as green as summer grass. None have known real war. Their lords sent them to the tourney field with fists full of steel and balls full of seed, and we expect them to act with honor and grace. It’s a marvel that war didn’t break out at first blood."

Viserys I: “Daemon has ambition, yes, but not for the throne. He lacks the patience for it.”
Lord Otto Hightower: “The gods have yet to make a man who lacks the patience for absolute power, Your Grace.”

Lady Alicent Hightower: “When my mother died, people only ever spoke to me in riddles. All I wanted was for someone to say that they were sorry for what happened to me. I’m very sorry, Your Grace.”

Viserys I: “‘The Heir for a Day.’ Did you say it?”
Daemon: “…We must all mourn in our own way, Your Grace.”
Viserys I: “My family was just destroyed. And instead of being by my side or Rhaenyra’s, you chose to celebrate your own rise! Laughing with your whores and your lickspittles!”
This is exactly the kind of scene I was looking forward to with this show.

Rhaenyra: “Everyone says the Targaryens are closer to gods than to men, but they say that because of our dragons. Without them, we’re just like everyone else.”
Viserys I: “The idea that we control the dragons is an illusion. They’re a power man should never have trifled with. One that brought Valyria its doom. If we don’t mind our own histories, it will do the same to us. A Targaryen must understand this to be king… or queen.”

Pretty damn cool. Four out of five dragon dreams.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent review, Logan! This first episode brought back all the feelings and excitement I had watching the early episodes of GOT. I was so thrilled with it that I watched it again the following night! Can't wait to watch the next episode.

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  2. I too was skeptical and didn’t think I was going to get into it. But boy did the first episode suck back into Westeros. I thought both episodes that have been released are great. Really do a good job at setting up (or re-introducing us to) this works.

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