The world of Westeros is as exciting as you remember. And maybe that’s kind of the problem.
House of the Dragonthe new prequel that returns to the world of Game of Thrones, is set about 172 years before the events of that series. Now we see a very different King’s Landing, ruled by the Targaryens at the height of their power. This is a Game of Thrones joint, will soon spoil it all in fights and sex, betrayal and seizures, politically both petty and legitimate. But for now, everything is set for an epic story.
But since this show is a successor (in our timeline) of the very popular Game of Thrones series, it is virtually impossible to approach it with a fresh mind. When someone makes the choice to sign up for another comprehensive chronicle of Westeros, they’re faced with a whole lot of burden about where the story inevitably goes. But if the first episode is painted with as broad a brush as possible to inform us about the Westeros of yesteryear and its many players, then episode 2 is more of a pointillist portrait of the Targaryen family as it has come to be. In “The Rogue Prince” we zoom in on the finer points of what people care about, the better the setup House of the Dragon as his own creature whole.
Perhaps the strongest thing I can say about House of the Dragon is that almost every detail in the show is worthwhile, without the danger of pulling too hard and unraveling the carpet it weaves. That may seem damning with vague praise, but Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) is incredibly interested in details – the Dornish knight having combat experience, or the jewelry she wears at dinner with her father, King Viserys (Paddy Considine). That she takes off the steel Valyrian necklace for a dinner where she hopes to bond with him better is a revealing subtlety in a production stacked with them.
So far much of the family dynamics of House of the Dragon have been less violence and bloodshed and more heartbreaking meta-communication where two people just seem to be talking about the same thing. Viserys cares about nostalgia and turns poetic to Alicent (Emily Carey), his daughter’s best friend, about the glory of old Valyria and the difficulties of his duties. But in his daughter’s presence, he can’t sit and listen enough to hear what she’s really trying to accomplish. When Rhaenyra brings up the awkward moment at the Little Council meeting, he tries to save her what he considers even more shame: “You’re young; you’ll learn’ – miss a chance to really talk a lot with her. It’s not a leap from this to see how Rhaenyra sees the situation as less of her own rise to power and more chosen to reject Daemon. House of the Dragon presents both Rhaenyra and Viserys with empathy, but it also just presents them incredibly clearly. It’s hard to blame either of them for both being stuck by convention.
That Viserys and Rhaenyra rely on the same person – Alicent – to help them through their grief is just a cruelty of fate, but it’s one for which the show has also laid a careful emotional foundation. In just two episodes House has argued for why they both feel seen, while also making sure that Alicent and her concern for them both don’t sound fake.
That’s the way House of the Dragon won me over, and it feels built to reward looking again. The show is full of powerful smaller beats, such as the maester watching the Hand of the King persuade Viserys through his emotional rejection of marriage proposals, and the visual composition of the show follows suit. This one is doing feel like old school Game of Thrones, only here that’s no underhanded compliment about the lingering aftertaste of the eighth season. At its peak, that show was one that could grab your attention and reward it with telling character notes and stories based on a million little moments. In its second episode, House of the Dragon proves that he is able to do the same.
The centerpiece of Sunday’s episode (and where it comes closest to the traditional sword-drawn action that audiences associate with the franchise) is Dragonstone, as all the details surface in one of Rhaenyra’s earliest tests. She’s come to Targaryen Castle where Daemon (Matt Smith) has been crouching for a while, hoping to avoid the bloodshed that Otto Hightower’s (Rhys Ifans) efforts have certainly resulted in. She manages to appropriately weigh Daemon’s bluff for what it is: the smug act of an asshole with the impulse control and brash plans of a high school student. Still, the scene is all suspense, with the camera ping-ponging around the various players and their respective motivations for landing on those Dragonstone steps. And the to work (whether you believe the CGI background to it all or not).
Perhaps she still had the words of her Aunt Rhaenys (Eve Best) in her ears, reminding her that although she is a named heir, she still carries her father’s cups, or perhaps it was her father’s image. who went on a date with a 12 year old. Either way, it provides a clearer portrait of who Alcocks Rhaenyra is and who she could become. When her father takes a threat, he thinks in general and only warns her to fend off “who dares to challenge us”. But Rhaenyra knows that threat can come from anywhere, and she’s proven she’s up to the challenge no matter what comes her way.
That’s good because, as this episode quickly reminds us, there are threats outside of King’s Landing. Within the first few moments of the episode, before we even know what we’re seeing or hearing, we know it’s poignant and horrifying. These details may amount to nothing, but here, in the second episode, House of the Dragon makes them revealing: there are all kinds of dangers in this world; the Crabfeeder and its nautical horror is just the beginning. But it’s enough to wash away the memory of season 8 and its “best stories.” For now it’s enough to just have fun with Westeros again.