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.
The BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials has always faced an uphill climb in terms of how to expand on the novels while also keeping a consistent and engaging pace. The novels stick to a simple format, with the overwhelming majority of the first book being told from Lyra’s perspective, splitting most of the narration between Lyra and Will in the second, and adding Dr. Mary Malone’s viewpoint to that of the two children in the third. One consequence of this format is that there is not an adult narrator capable of fully articulating Phillip Pullman’s more complex theological and philosophical ideas until the final installment. That makes the scope of the books extremely narrow, and as a result, the gigantic war being waged by all the inhabitants of all dimensions by the end of the trilogy mostly plays out in the background.
Of course, for the TV series to feel satisfying, it was always going to have to show us more of the world in which it takes place.
Adaptation is hard. It’s even harder to adapt source material that is beloved. It’s even harder than that to adapt beloved source material that already has a great, extant adaptation. That’s part of what makes Mike Flanagan’s second season of his Haunting anthology, The Haunting of Bly Manor, so brilliant. He understands how to adapt something that has already been perfected.
In this case, the source material is Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw (alongside a host of other Henry James-penned short stories) and the already perfect adaptation is the 1961 Jack Clayton film The Innocents (2001’s The Others also does a remarkable job of telling a story that, while not strictly an adaptation of Turn of the Screw, is a brilliant parallel story). Mike Flanagan faced the same, seemingly insurmountable task in his first season with Shirley Jackson’s beloved The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and the equally beloved adaptation The Haunting (the version from 1963 and decidedly not the version from 1999). But in both cases, Flanagan succeeds wildly, even more so in the second season, because, at the core of it, he seems to understand how to pick apart a story and put it back together, changing absolutely everything and still remaining completely faithful to the spirit of the original.
Having just finished the season finale of Lovecraft Country on HBO, I found myself underwhelmed by the last installment (and only the last installment). I should start by saying that Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name is one of my favorite books ever; certainly the best book I read in the decade in which it was published. And despite that high bar, almost without fail, Misha Green’s TV adaptation has been the novel’s superior in many ways—it takes the source material and adds additional nuance, thoughtfulness, and a gut-punch humanity to the book’s relatively dispassionate remove. I can only surmise that, in addition to Misha Green’s (and her cast and crew’s) incredible talent, some of the reason for this brilliance on top of brilliance is that the series was created, written, and directed by a a largely Black creative team and Matt Ruff, though extremely talented and insightful, is a White man.
But this last episode hasn’t sat well with me, and I have been looking both at why that might be, and also at why I might be wrong about it. Spoilers for both Green’s show and Ruff’s novel follow.
A few weeks ago, 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, which is about to finish its second season and has been one of the recent delights of my quarantine.
The original Penny Dreadful and its new “spiritual sequel,” Penny Dreadful: City of Angels are fundamentally different projects, at least if the inaugural episode of the latter is any indication. There are definitely some through lines in the series’ obsessions: a macabre fascination with ecstatic religious praxis, a characterization of mankind as essentially venal and corrupt, and a desire to acknowledge the racist history of Anglo and American empire. But otherwise, the shows seem to mostly share a desire to communicate a deep love of the times and places in which they are set. Showrunner John Logan’s devotion to bringing 1891 London to glorious, operatic life seems similarly channeled, here, to the Los Angeles of 1938.
I will admit that this has been a daunting article to write. Besides the ennui and dread brought on by the Covid-19 outbreak, I also find myself in the position of trying to do justice to what is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite television show ever: Penny Dreadful.
There was a brief shining moment in 2015 when Penny Dreadful, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Game of Thrones, and Hannibal were all on TV at the same time and that exists as my own personal high-water mark for “peak TV.” Those seem like halcyon days right now, and Penny Dreadful, whose “spiritual sequel” City of Angels premieres on April 26th, deserves to be lovingly memorialized. And hey, in these days of social distancing, what better time for a (re)watch of a truly outstanding Victorian Gothic drama (either in preparation for the new series or just because it’s an amazing show)?
In looking back at the first season of His Dark Materials, I am struck by how much of a mixed bag it has been. Like many of you who have been commenting, I found the season lagging and somewhat uninspired in the middle, plagued by pacing issues and sometimes clunkily written. But that said, there were moments of pure sublimity—including one of the best performances of the year and consistently excellent visual design.
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