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House of the Dragon review: a fiery new game is afoot

So far Doctor Who’s Matt Smith and Aussie Milly Alcock are the best in show. But Westeros ain’t big enough for the both of ‘em.

As sure as ice and fire co-exist, two things can be true at once about the much-maligned final run of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ Games of Thrones. Did the show suffer, writing-wise, when they set forth into Westeros without the guidance of glacially paced author George R.R. Martin and did the shortened episode count lead to quite ludicrous pacing?

As Ned would say (while he still had a head), ‘Aye m’lord’. But I’ll never understand the white walker-hot fury of folks who cried bloody murder over Dany’s ‘turn’ for the worst when she was, quite evidently, a colonial marauder with a white saviour complex who mercilessly slaughtered anyone who stood between her and the Iron Throne. Nor those still decrying the fantasy series’ supposed banishment from cultural relevance, apparently oblivious to the glaring cognitive dissonance at play.

All of which is to say that, sure, it could have wrapped up smarter, but destiny had set its inexorable course and, flaws and all, the bloody war waged ever closer to King’s Landing was, for the most part, spectacular TV. But are there severed legs left in Martin’s bloodthirsty world as the first episode of spin-off series House of the Dragon arrives on our screens?

172 BD

We re-join the action 172 years BD (Before Dany) as House Targaryen nears a century of absolute power with a little help from ten adult dragons. And yet, the now-doddering King Jaehaerys is fading, with no male heir waiting in the wings, having carelessly lost two to ‘tragedy’.

Perceiving that ‘the only thing that could tear down the house of the dragon was itself,’ this prompts him to summon all to Harrenhal so that he may proclaim a successor. His wise counsel no doubt sped-read Martin’s footnotes to figure out who had the best claim out of 14, whittled down to two.

House of the Dragon. Image: HBO.

Will it be the magnificently arch Eve Best’s Rhaenys Targaryen, his eldest descendant – youngest sister and wife of late King Aegon? This being the bloke-centric Westeros of old, that’ll be a firm nay, with Rhaenys uncharitably dubbed the Queen Who Never Was. Watch out for how she and her husband Corlys (Steve Toussaint), Sea Snake and Lord of the Tide, handle this snub in the years to come.

Instead, of course the old fool picks her younger cousin Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), on the sound basis of him having (unlike Grey Worm or Varys many years hence) a whatsit in his pants.

Nine years hence …

Jump forward nine years, and this hoary old tradition will set up a world of pain for House Targaryen. That directly involves our narrator, Viserys’ daughter Rhaenyra, played with oodles of spunk by Australian actor Milly Alcock as a dragon-riding young woman who, not entirely unlike Arya, is frustrated by the chains of her destiny and yearns to be a soldier (Emma D’Arcy will step into the role later). She’s besties with Emily Carey’s Allicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke to come), daughter of Otto, the hand of the king played by Rhys Ifans with a fretful sulking.

While this opening gambit penned by showrunner Ryan J. Condal (Colony) and directed by Emmy Award-winning ‘Battle of the bastards’ helmer Miguel Sapochnik is a little muted – no overt incest as yet, nor attempted child murder – there are still a bucket load of body parts thrown around.

House of the Dragon. Image: HBO.

Most notably by Doctor Who alumni Matt Smith, all slithering menace as brooding Prince Daemon. He’s grown tired of married life over at the Veil, instead playing cops and robbers at King’s Landing, having assembled the gold cloaks of the City Watch to forcibly remove bits and pieces of ne’er-do-wells in an attempt to bring law and order to a city he sees as unruly.

He also loves a spot of brain-goring jousting, and snoopily listening in on the king’s council. Which is problematic, given they strongly advise Viserys (concealing a pus-oozing wound inflicted by that peskily pointy throne) that his bro’s bonkers and should be sent very far away indeed. When the king doth protest that Daemon has no patience for throne games, he’s rightly reminded that, ‘the gods have yet to make a man who lacks the patience for absolute power’.

All of which ensures that an unfortunate turn of events involving Sian Brooke’s heavily pregnant Queen Aemma sparks yet another succession crisis, as dreams of a male heir don’t quite pan out. This births a conflict of interest between doting Uncle Daemon and his fiery niece Rhaenyra, who is now positioned as the first Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.

You can grasp the shape of the battle to come beating the drum between these best in show figures. Even as a confusing battle to secure a sound hold on the various family lineages Martin’s world offers up begins anew, the hunger for their clash of the titans in real.

The game’s afoot, then, and it’s actually reassuring that Condal is taking his sweet time. Thrones has always been at its best when folks are conspiring unhurriedly in hushed rooms. The establishing episode does lack a jester in the mould of Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, and the more common touch of Sean Bean’s nonetheless lordly Ned. I sincerely hope it re-finds the former’s mordant sense of humour, and that we soon glimpse the world beyond the Red Keep’s palace intrigue.

But it’s early days, so let’s not lose our heads just yet.

House of the Dragon

US, 2022, MA15+, ten episodes

Director: Miguel Sapochnik

Writer: Ryan J. Condal

Producers: Ryan J. Condal, Charmaine De Grate, Jocelyn Diaz, Pam Fitzgerald, Gabe Fonseca, Toby Ford, Vince Gerardis, Hannah Godwin, David Hancock, Sara Hess, Kevin Lau, George R.R. Martin, Angus More Gordon, Íde O’Rourke, Megan Ott, Ira Parker, Tim Porter, Alexis Raben, Miguel Sapochnik, Ron Schmidt, Richard Sharkey, Eileen Shim, Karen Wacker, Greg Yaitanes

Distributor: Foxtel

Australian release date: 22 August 2022