Three years after that series’s (widely derided) finale, Westeros, the Europe-like landmass on which the Seven Kingdoms sit, returns in a reduced new form. Created by book author George R.R. Martin and Ryan Condal, “House of the Dragon” (premiering Sunday) is set 200 years before the original show, and comparatively diminutive in scale. Based on parts of Martin’s “Fire & Blood” novel, the initially rocky prequel series dives into the history of the Targaryen dynasty — and the family civil war that hastens its end.
Like the series that took over “Game of Thrones’s” perch as HBO’s buzziest show, “House of the Dragon” is a succession drama. The Targaryens — the dynasty famed for its flying fire-breathers, insanity-inducing inbreeding, excessive vowel usage and unfortunate ice-blond coiffure — have ruled the Seven Kingdoms for a century, but the premature deaths of its princes keep disrupting the plans for patrilineal continuity. (Remember: “Game of Thrones” kicked off with the Targaryens already ousted from Westeros by King Robert Baratheon, and an orphaned Daenerys plotted for eight seasons to wrest back the crown she believed to be her birthright.)
After ascending the Iron Throne not as the previous monarch’s son but merely his closest male relative, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) knows he must produce a male heir to ensure future stability. His conniving and too aptly named younger brother, Daemon (Matt Smith) — the Scar to Viserys’s Mufasa — whiles away his days hoping he’ll never be the uncle to a nephew. But Daemon doesn’t anticipate a grief-stricken Viserys’s sentimental next move after the death of his beloved wife (Sian Brooke): naming as his successor his willful teenage daughter, the tomboyish and slightly spoiled Rhaenyra (played as a girl by a charming Milly Alcock and a woman by Emma D’Arcy), who, if she makes it to the throne, would become the Seven Kingdoms’ first female ruler.
Why doesn’t Viserys simply take on a new wife who’ll bear him all the male heirs he could possibly want instead of leaving his daughter at risk of being murdered by her power-hungry uncle? Well, he eventually does opt for this incredibly obvious solution, awkwardly marrying and impregnating Rhaenyra’s best friend Alicent (played in her younger years by Emily Carey and her older ones by Olivia Cooke). A student of history, Viserys dreams of being the kind of heroic conqueror whose exploits are sung about half a millennium after his death. But he’ll most likely be remembered as the idiot who should’ve foreseen that he’d pitted his daughter against his eldest son, while their conscienceless uncle plots the demise of every last one of the king’s children. Tired of the endless politicking among his advisers, Viserys is further sapped by an illness necrotizing his body.
The question every prequel should answer in the affirmative is: Is there a reason to watch beyond the connections to the franchise starter? “House of the Dragon” gets to a yes, but not immediately. Despite an eye-popping (and face-axing) amount of hyper-violence — especially in the exhausting pilot — the first three installments are particularly generic in their plotlines and turgid in pacing, with certain characters displaying an exasperating naivete considering the abrupt bloodshed they frequently witness firsthand.
But showrunners Condal and Miguel Sapochnik gradually find their way to the specificities of their characters by the fourth hour, where it finally starts feeling like the “Game of Thrones” universe beyond the literal wheelbarrows of amputated body parts. It takes another couple of installments to finish putting all the pieces on the chessboard, but once the game is finally set up for play, things become quickly auspicious. The barbed relationship between former friends Rhaenyra and Alicent becomes particularly riveting, the stakes of their simmering but potentially mortal competition compounded by motherhood. The performances by D’Arcy and Cooke, too, easily stand out among those of a largely lackluster cast.
Despite some battle scenes, frequent dragon sightings and occasional forays into the brothels of King’s Landing, the series is essentially a sometimes claustrophobic royal court drama, rather than an epic saga a la “Game of Thrones.” There’s an effort to widen the sweep of the narrative with regular time jumps forward, with a decade separating two episodes midway through the 10-part season. (Six episodes were screened for review.) The temporal leaps deny us the intimate characterizations that were so integral to the appeal of the original series, but they do provide some necessary background to Rhaenyra’s self-satisfied softening, Alicent’s paranoid hardening and the many junctures where they’ll inevitably clash.
For better and for worse, “Game of Thrones” made it increasingly difficult to shock us with its gore, cruelty, gratuitous sexual displays and twists of fate. The scenes where “House of the Dragon” strives to outdo its predecessor in those regards seldom succeed; it’s where the prequel feels most like a cheap knockoff. The most thrilling or unsettling surprises of the original show were rooted in character, and so it is with the new series. It’s too bad “House of the Dragon” takes such a long time to define and shade the Targaryens and those in their orbit. But once it’s done, their viciousness gleams all the more against the darkness.
House of the Dragon (one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max.