It’s been a long, sometimes clumsy lead-up to The Dance of the Dragons. But when a dragon stirs and clears its throat, you’re going to listen, because in that momentous pause is the promise of fire.
As a prequel series, HBO’s House of the Dragon can’t stand without the foundation built by Game of Thrones. Who would care much about the epic fall of House Targaryen without it? But that was ten episodes ago. Now that House of the Dragon has finished its first season, we’ve met the main players—several times, in some cases—and if you’ve made it to the finale, you haven’t been asked to pick a side so much as you’ve been asked to enjoy guessing who will burn next.
And I don’t mean that in a “I don’t care what happens to these horrible people” way—though it’s definitely true for some characters (looking at you, Lord Larys Tarantino)—but in the sense that this first season has been truly unpredictable, containing some of the best TV moments of the year one week and making your skin crawl the next. If the showrunners haven’t quite figured out the conversation House of the Dragon wants to have with its parent show, they have tried to address some of Game of Thrones’ failings. And the finale’s last moment sees viewers through the elaborate set-up for the main story House of the Dragon really wants to tell… but not until next season. In 2024.
Dragons aren’t known for patience, and it’s a lot to ask of viewers, too.
[Major TV show spoilers ahead; I have not read Fire & Blood, so no book spoilers in the post, though they might be discussed in the comment section.]
House of the Dragon both is and isn’t trying to be Game of Thrones; the stakes are lower, the scope is smaller, and the memorable characters are disappointingly fewer. (Not a Stannis “Grammar Nerd” Baratheon among them.) But the look is just as opulent, the dragons even more thrilling, the score equally intense, and there have definitely been some fan favorites to emerge from the fray between Queen Rhaenyra’s supporters, the Blacks, and Queen Alicent’s Greens. As unpopular as Thrones’ final season was, it was still popular enough to retain a considerable amount of good faith that further stories would be worth following. And if House of the Dragon began with a slow burn, the last three episodes brought the fireworks. It’s just Thrones enough.
I appreciated that there were a lot fewer tits and more dragons (though Ian McShane is still probably not a fan.) As so much of the show is centered on its two female leads, we got to watch them grow into their sexuality, insofar as their royal positions would allow them. For Rhaenyra, she had her knights with benefits and exercised a level of agency that, tragically, drove the final stake in her relationship with Alicent, who was ever a pawn in her father’s political maneuvers.
Instead of sexposition, we had frightening pregnancies and horrific scenes of labor that maybe pushed that “the birthing bed is a woman’s battlefield” thing a bit too far. We get it! These ladies have royal wombs! While we’re shown the fierceness and courage required of characters struggling to deliver babies—or not—it was Viserys’ cruel decision to allow his wife’s death via C-section that haunted him and his whole kingdom from the first episode until his final breath.
Viserys’ agonizing slow death was among the most powerful visual metaphors House of the Dragon employed over this first season. I was enjoying the show with some reservations early on, but wasn’t fully on board until episode eight, “The Lord of the Tides,” which gets my vote for one of the year’s best hours on television. As heartbreaking and moving as it was to see Viserys’ march to the Iron Throne, it was the second time I teared up in that episode. The show’s director, Geeta Vasant Patel, forced you to think about how Viserys’ decay was symbolic of the corruption of his realm and his own self-inflicted punishment for his first wife’s suffering. It also forced you to think about how thoroughly painful, isolating, and infantilizing chronic illness can be, as this otherwise peaceful, non-confrontational guy was drugged and spoken down to, ignored, and plotted around, as though he was already dead.
But it was that Last Supper scene that really stole the show. You’ve gotta love a good party scene with a big cast. Viserys was a kind family patriarch, but a bad king. Alicent was a loving caretaker to her husband, even if it was a passionless marriage. Rhaenyra was terrified of her father dying, not just as his heir, but as a grieving daughter. Grumpy Otto Hightower has a favorite grandkid! Helaena is the best kind of truth-teller! Paddy Considine breaking down in tears amongst his family made my heart break a bit, too, because it did seem that a legitimate opportunity to make things right was now simply too far gone. Alicent and Rhaenyra’s children had already inherited their parents’ grudges, forged some of their own, and were not wise enough to stand down. It was beautiful and tragic.
…And then the next episode we get Lord Larys Strong jerking off to Alicent’s feet. Lord Larys conveniently skulking around the Weirwood tree dispensing gossip is no replacement for Littlefinger. For a show that clearly wants to correct some of Thrones’ wrongs and oversights—an impulse that resulted in fewer brothel scenes, more Black actors in big roles, in not killing all its gays, and portraying neurodivergence, illness, and pregnancy with greater sympathy and sensitivity—well, giving the obvious Bad Guy a clubfoot and a foot fetish was definitely a “What the hell were they smoking?!” moment. Tyrion Lannister and Bran Stark weren’t defined by their disabilities; disability wasn’t used as a shorthand for evil. Aemond, who is consumed by resentment over his second son status, resentful of his nephews, and (thanks to childhood trauma) is absolutely enraged by pork, is not defined by the loss of an eye.
The sports team tone of the central factions, “the Blacks vs. the Greens,” is probably my biggest issue with the show. I don’t know anyone who’s rooting for the Greens to keep the Iron Throne and House of the Dragon is trying really hard to pretend it’s not telegraphing that we should be rooting for one color over the other. But, to paraphrase William Gibson, the fandom finds other uses for things.
As Daemon Targaryen goes, so, too, goes the audience.
Matt Smith has long been the Internet’s boyfriend. He’s a good actor and gives The Rogue Prince a ton of charisma. For every snarky one-liner, facepalm, or rare tender moment, there’s a laundry list of reasons to hate him. He’s a glowering brat, treasonous, and he murdered his very badass first wife in cold blood. He manipulated teenaged Rhaenyra, his own niece, into a sexual scandal to get back at his brother, and though he couldn’t, uh, complete the act, it drove another wedge between Rhaenyra and her childhood best friend, and will haunt Rhaenyra’s reputation in the court of public opinion for the rest of her life.
He is not A Good Man. Or a particularly clever one. Definitely not a consistent one.
Well, except literally; he’s always been played by Matt Smith. Daemon was probably always going to be the Internet’s Problematic Boyfriend. Fans are prone to ships. He’s not my fictional crush, but he’s not really any worse a choice than, say, Interview with the Vampire’s Lestat.
As truly uncomfortable as it was to ship Daemon and his young niece, Matt Smith and Milly Alcock were the only actors on the show to display any sexual chemistry. Yes, Daemon and Rhaenyra are related, but Targaryens don’t care. So I kinda don’t either; those are the in-world rules. They both act like people who believe they have dragon blood in their veins, they both understand the awful position Viserys placed them in, they both have no eyebrows. They seem pretty perfect for each other.
But then there was the time jump, the younger actresses were replaced, and as great as Emma D’Arcy is as adult Rhaenyra, the marriage between the two Targaryens didn’t get much time in the honeymoon phase before yet another time jump, with Rhaenyra and Daemon settled into a more mature companionship raising a bunch of kids.
The time jumps did the show a few favors in terms of the story’s pacing. It’s understandable why Alicent and Rhaenyra’s kids needed to grow up fast in terms of moving the narrative along, but I’m still not sure that having teen Alicent and Rhaenyra age mid-season while every man around them stayed the same was the best choice. If it was intentional in order to show the unchanging patriarchy both young women have to navigate, it didn’t work as a visual cue when poor Viserys clearly got all the aging makeup budget and Criston Cole couldn’t even have a few white hairs in his beard. I don’t even know how old Criston’s supposed to be. I just assume his hate for Rhaenyra pickled him at the age he was when she told him to go kick rocks.
When you tally up who’s on each side of this civil war, almost all of the cool people are in Rhaenyra’s camp. It’s not exactly a fair fight, in terms of audience love. Portraying Alicent as less bitter and helpless in the Red Keep might prevent her from being wholly “unlikeable,” that perennial favored accusation used against characters who aren’t funny as Daemon, Tyrion, Bronn, etc., but it doesn’t mean we want her horrid kids ruling the kingdom.
The Game of Thrones connection that has seemed most forced is the tie-in to the Song of Ice and Fire, Aegon the Conqueror’s prophetic dream of uniting the Seven Kingdoms against the Night King’s army. It’s a tenuous bit of information that becomes an extremely important justification for poor decisions to whoever hears it, but only Rhaenyra understands the truth behind it. How can we not root for the queen who is also playing a long game that will not begin for nearly two hundred years, when all of everyone’s real favorite characters will fight and die and screw each other over? Aegon’s dream was a huge motivating force behind Rhaenyra’s actions, at least until her son was eaten by a dragon and things got real personal. Now, it’s just an incidental connection.
And it’s fine, really.
House of the Dragon painstakingly walked us through this epically long backstory to get to those final moments of “The Black Queen.” While we barely knew poor little Luke, we knew what he meant to his family. And we also knew why Aemond couldn’t let a generational insult stand. We were also told by Viserys in the very first episode that the control of dragons is “an illusion.” The war to come may not have the same stakes as Game of Thrones, but we know Rhaenyra will be swathed in mourning black for a world that’s going to be covered in the ashes of the Targaryen dynasty.
I’ll be here for it.
Some Final Dragon Eggs
- Poor Luke and Arrax. That chase above Storm’s End was absolutely the kind of spectacle you want to see. I will never not be freaked out by the sheer size of Vhagar. And I was even left feeling a bit bad for Aemond, who is definitely the Greens’ best asset and a real standout in the cast.
- Won’t anyone please think of the smallfolk? Mysaria, aka the White Worm, addressed this, but I definitely want some non-noble characters in the mix who actually care about the people unfortunate enough to not live in fortified castles as the world burns.
- I was so happy Laenor lived. It was definitely the right call, knowing what’s coming, but that’s a supremely cruel thing to do to your parents. I’m sure he’s glad he lived, too, but I hope all the sexy partyboy times Laenor’s having in whatever counts as Essos’ answer to Ibiza is worth it.
- My TV crushes are highly predictable, as three people texted me “Erryk Cargyll, right?!” Absolutely. Only Rhaenys’ has a better updo.
- Underrated season MVP: Wil Johnson, the actor who played Vaemond Velaryon. We’d all been waiting for someone to say “BASTARDS!” with his whole chest. Poor Vaemond, who clearly cannot believe this shit. But if you stuck around to watch the post-show “Inside the Episode,” you got to see Johnson give a hilarious interview pretty much in-character, as if it was a reality show confessional booth. Give this man a podcast!
- It was criminal to keep the fantastic Graham McTavish (Outlander, The Witcher) in the background all season. Harrold Westerling’s indignant resignation as Lord Commander of the Whitecloaks had definite shades of Ser Barristan Selmy. He’d best show up in Rhaenyra’s camp next season and get Criston Cole off my TV screen forever.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com. Her fiction has appeared in Weird Horror, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed. She’s also gotten enthusiastic about pop culture for Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Send her a raven via Twitter.