‘House of the Dragon’ review: Brutal, spooky ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel could set viewers on fire

‘House of the Dragon’ review: Brutal, spooky ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel could set viewers on fire

The violence is just as brutal, the relationships spookier than ever – welcome to House of the Dragon, the Game of Thrones spinoff that might as well be called Dated and Related.

The stakes are high considering that “GoT” was the biggest show on earth during its run from 2011 to 2019, even if it crashed in a widely derided ending.

While “House of the Dragon” (premiering August 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO) is hardly a masterpiece, it’s an addictive series full of juicy drama, palace intrigue, and crowd-pleasing “GoT” nostalgia.

It takes place 172 years before Daenerys was born and gives us Westeros as the “successor”. We’re rooted in the drama of her ancestors, the silver-haired, dragon-riding, incestuous Targaryen family – and what led to their downfall, with Daenerys and Jon Snow the last of their bloodlines.

The main conflict in House of the Dragon, based on George RR Martin’s book Fire & Blood, is a civil war between Princess Rhaenyra and her half-brother Aegon II (who is yet to be born at the start of this show) over who gets the throne. The Targaryens are the rulers who rule Westeros in this era, but the current king, Viserys I (Paddy Considine), a sensible ruler (a first in this world!), must appoint an heir.

Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in "house of the dragon." Seated behind her is Paddy Considine as her father Viserys I on the throne. Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in The House of the Dragon. Seated behind her is Paddy Considine as her father Viserys I on the throne. Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO

Fans looking for characters to hold on to and hold on to – like the original show gave us the Starks – will be disappointed. The Targaryens are a bunch of prickly weirdos, and all of the show’s relationships are straight out of Groomers R Us, pairing middle-aged men with young girls they’ve known for years, who are often blood relatives. Dragons and battles and politics are all well and good, but they weren’t the only factors why “GoT” ended up with such a large audience.

The main contender for Viserys I’s crown is his infant daughter Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock in the early episodes; she is played by Emma D’Arcy in later episodes after a time skip). But it’s against the norm for women to rule, so the king’s advisers fear it would cause chaos. We see her mostly with her friend Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey and later Olivia Cooke), whose father Otto (Rhys Ifans) is the Hand of the King. Rhaenyra also has an uncomfortably flirtatious dynamic with her uncle Daemon (a landscape-chewing Matt Smith who oozes menace).

The incest between twins Jaime and Cersei Lannister was gross on “GoT,” but at least they were the same age, and the show also featured plenty of savory romances to counteract that. It’s unsettling – and sure to raise eyebrows – to watch Daemon, who’s approaching 40, flirt with his young teenage niece.

Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in the first episodes of "house of the dragon." Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in the first episodes of House of the Dragon. Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO

Matt Smith wears a helmet with a sword. Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen in The House of the Dragon. Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO

Pictured is Olivia Cooke as elder Alicent Hightower, left, and Emma D'Arcy as elder Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen "house of the dragon." Olivia Cooke as older Alicent Hightower, left, and Emma D’Arcy as older Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon. Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO

As the King’s brother, Daemon is another contender for the throne, but almost everyone (including Otto, who hates him) thinks that would be a disaster as he is impulsive, violent, and power-hungry. (Of course, he delivers many of the scenes that are dirty, gruesome, or just downright funny.) And when the king finally has a baby boy, matters of his succession become even more complicated.

Like GoT, House of The Dragon features many characters that intrigue with brutality in rooms and action scenes. Sometimes the writing is almost comically clumsy. In one episode, a pregnant woman compares childbirth to the battlefield. Later, the scene alternates between her labor going badly and a battlefield full of men fighting violently. “GoT” wasn’t a subtle show, but it didn’t hit viewers head over heels. The actress swapping for Rhaenyra and Alicent is also upsetting – while both couples perform well, the switch feels unnecessarily distracting as the age leap isn’t as obvious.

Graham McTavish on a horse. Graham McTavish as Ser Harrold Westerling in The House of the Dragon. Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO

A dragon One of the many dragons in House of the Dragon. Courtesy of HBO

King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and his daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen converse in front of a dragon skull "house of the dragon." King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and his daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen converse in front of a dragon skull. Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO

For better or for worse, House of the Dragon is smaller in scope than GoT. If you got tired of Jon out in the freezing cold, you could always count on GoT to change the scene to a different character or family. In House of the Dragon we only have the grandiose Targaryens, and the main setting (with some exceptions) is King’s Landing.

Questionable wigs aside, House of the Dragon is well-done for what it is: a mushy political fantasy that will keep you watching. And it manages to learn at least one important lesson from “GoT”: Its sex scenes are more tastefully filmed, featuring nudity for both males and females – and the former mostly seem to be having a good time, too.

It remains to be seen if a wider audience will be able to quell their anger with the “GoT” ending, or if this will be more of a niche show for hardcore fans. But it should set many viewers on fire.