When I wrote about the first two episodes of this final season of His Dark Materials, I said that it had a tough job ahead of it, needing to stick the book’s impeccable landing while also making up for the final installment’s pacing issues and story problems. The question now is, did it succeed in its lofty goals? Sort of. Enough. It is likely the best version of Philip Pullman’s novels that could be made without a major reworking of the story. It’s also anchored by an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its cast. So let’s look at what worked and what didn’t in this final season.
The third and final season of His Dark Materials—corresponding to The Amber Spyglass, the last book in the original Phillip Pullman trilogy—has quite the job ahead of it. Not only must it bring a satisfying end to a multiversal story of war in the cosmos, but it must do so while tackling what I feel is the weakest book in the series.
With the first season of House of the Dragon having just wrapped up and the Halloween spirit lingering on in these first few days of November, I figured it would be a good time to discuss one of the key elements of Martin’s original Song of Ice and Fire texts that neither show has been able to adequately translate to the screen—namely, the series’ relationship with horror.
Typically, when talking about the sorts of horror to be found in Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon, the easiest things to point to are the Grand Guignol violence of its set pieces or the uneasiness produced by characters in power with a limitless capacity for vengeance. The death of Oberyn Martell has a slasher-film gory viscerality, and Cersei Lannister explaining the exact method by which she will torture and murder Ellaria and Tyene Sand can leave one with a discomfiting sense of the grotesque. But the ASoIaF series also works well as a horror fantasy even without its political machinations and, so far, this is something that neither series has been interested in fully engaging with. (And yes, I recognize that the first show had ice zombies.)
The finale of this first season of House of the Dragon features the other half of last week’s episode with a focus on “the Blacks” (though no one has officially given Rhaenyra’s supporters that name). Though much of its runtime is focused on Rhaenyra’s (Emma D’Arcy) attempts to delay a war in light of Aegon II’s (Tom Glynn-Carney) usurpation, it builds to the point of no return where conflict is inevitable, ensuring that season two will be a bloody affair. In the first part of this article, we’ll look at some of the lore behind the episode.
In the history of Game of Thrones shows, the ninth episodes of each season are typically reserved for big-budget, action-packed set pieces and stunning, treacherous reversals of fortune–Ned Stark’s beheading, the Battle of the Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the Battle of the Bastards. In this penultimate episode of its first season, House of the Dragon subverted those expectations by delivering—explosive ending notwithstanding—a slow-burn episode of growing tensions, two-hander scenes between close allies with fracturing relationships, and a blow-by-blow account of the first twenty-four hours of a coup. We’ll be diving into how this complicated thriller of an episode deviates in both large and small ways from Fire & Blood’s fictional history while still paying homage to its core moments. Spoilers below the break…
The antepenultimate episode of this first season of House of the Dragon featured our last major time jump with recast actors, a miniature succession crisis with a gruesome outcome, a last supper for the Targaryen-Hightower-Velaryon clan that almost ends happily, and the botched communication of a deathbed prophecy. We’ll take a look at some of the relevant lore from Fire & Blood as well as other the wider world of Martin’s source material as we take a deeper dive into the events of the episode.
Episode 7 is a masterful, edge-of-your-seat bottle episode where all the major characters wrestle with grief, dread, and the generational trauma that has spread from Alicent and Rhaenyra to their children. Nearly the entire episode is spent in a pair of lengthy scenes that have the entire cast on screen, roiling with tension, hatred, and frustration. As we move towards the end of the season, we’ll talk about more changes from the source material, most of them for the better, and the ways in which House of the Dragon continues to cleverly introduce intriguing details from Martin’s extensive world.
The sixth episode of House of the Dragon is being referred to as a “second pilot” by showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal, set after a ten-year time jump, with two lead actors recast as older versions of the characters they play, and a bevy of young royal offspring exacerbating tensions. There’s a spiraling sense of doom as old feuds ossify into deadly factions and King Viserys (Paddy Considine) seems ever more blind to the disaster awaiting his house and the realm, refusing to recognize the dangers even as he steers directly into the storm. (Some spoilers for Game of Thrones and the novels below, for anyone who might be avoiding those.)
Episode 5 of House of the Dragon featured the continued fallout and fractures from last week’s cascading sex scandals and attendant lies, culminating in the sort of tension-filled, rolling disaster wedding that became a hallmark of Game of Thrones, punctuated by the most white-knuckle formal dance ever put on television. The show continues to insert smart and nuanced twists into Martin’s original narrative, but stumbled a bit in its commitment to pushing back against the problematic tropes that its predecessor indulged in.
(Some spoilers for Game of Thrones and the novels below, for anyone who might be avoiding those.)
The latest episode, “The King of the Narrow Sea,” brings sexual intrigue and a major prophecy to the fore as Daemon and Rhaenyra reunite in King’s Landing. As always, there’s plenty of relevant history and some key references to analyze, as the show grapples with the many unreliable narrators of Fire & Blood and features a dagger (and a legend) that will be extremely familiar to everyone who’s watched Game of Thrones and/or read the Song of Ice and Fire books. It seems that House of the Dragon is doing its best to correct some of the missteps and omissions of the original series and reintroduce some pivotal lore and major plot points the earlier show overlooked… (Some spoilers for Game of Thrones and the novels below, for anyone who might be avoiding those.)
This week, House of the Dragon gave us an episode about rising tensions in the looming Targaryen succession crisis, a meditation on medieval signs and portents, and a thrilling battle where Matt Smith’s Daemon Targaryen knocked it out of the park without a single line of dialogue. So let’s dig into some of the vital bits of lore, legend, and history that are layered into the events and revelations of “Second of His Name”—starting with the episode’s title.
Welcome back to our ongoing discussion of House of the Dragon! Tor.com has been kind enough to let me spend this inaugural season doing a bit of a deep dive into some of Martin’s lore and how the show deviates from, builds off of, and informs our understanding of Fire & Blood, the history of House Targaryen, and the fate of the Iron Throne. Having been reading and re-reading books about Westeros on and off for the last twenty two years, I’m excited to see how this next chapter of the Game of Thrones saga brings more of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire to life, and there are plenty of key references and history to dig into in Episode 2, “The Rogue Prince.”
I’ll admit that I enjoyed the original Game of Thrones series through to the end. In my 2019 reflection on the finale for this site, I even went so far as to say that I loved it, albeit with reservations. In the three years since, the series has become shorthand for opportunities missed, landings unstuck, and fanbase betrayed. While I find that assessment somewhat lacking in nuance, my excitement in anticipation of House of the Dragon has been commingled with apprehension: would the showrunners of this new series, Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, fix the mistakes made by Benioff and Weiss?
My immediate answer, having watched the inaugural episode, “Heirs of the Dragon,” is—maybe? It has all the hallmarks, for better and worse, of a Game of Thrones series: dynastic succession politics, exquisite sets and costumes, graphic violence, and an uncomfortable amount of nudity. People who despised the original series won’t be swayed by this one. Likewise, untroubled fans of OG Game of Thrones will find it to be similar enough to keep providing the same pleasures. For those of us that want to see an improvement on the original—a more diverse cast, better treatment of its female characters, and more pointed and restrained use of its penchant for sex and violence—there is reason for hope.
Last summer, comedic actor Fred Willard passed away. He was a personal hero of mine—a brilliant mind who, as numerous obituaries and remembrances pointed out, was a master of playing characters who were both unbelievably dumb and unbelievably earnest in their stupidity. While Willard was, obviously, one in a million, that precise combination of dumb and earnest, when well executed, is one of the mainstays of what I find funny.
That combination is also essentially what fuels the FXX show What We Do in the Shadows, a show that helped get me through the early months of COVID quarantine, and which is about to start its third season tonight.
Forever ago, in the forlorn wilds of late 2020, I wrote about the twinge of hope I felt that, despite being filmed concurrently, the second season of His Dark Materials would improve upon the failings of the first. And I think I was right. Also a little bit wrong. TL;DR: Season 2 of HDM is a moderate improvement on the first, with a few lingering issues that sour the experience a bit.
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