The dragon house is, after all, pretty decent

“You cannot follow Thrones, it’s the Beatles. So said Ryan Condall, who created Game of Thrones background story The house of the dragon with George RR Martinout of breath Hollywood Reporter cover story on the making of Dragon. If the Beatles had spent two years and record amounts of money recording a terrible follow-up to Let it be that would call into question the band’s entire legacy, that might be an apt comparison. In truth, Martin, Condall, and Condall’s fellow showrunner Miguel Sapocnik took on the more difficult task of creating a franchise from a once-great series whose final season alienated many fans to the point that, even in our crazy times, few seem to came out of it clamoring for more.

Against so much outside pressure, it’s impressive that they managed to put together a pretty decent show. Nothing for the first few episodes of The house of the dragon, premiering Aug. 21 on HBO, sets it up as a potential masterpiece. There are structural flaws, elements that seem overly derivative, a gaping void where there should be thematic resonance. But it’s solid enough to entertain Thrones viewers who prefer the focused, dialogue-rich early seasons of that show to the bloated, battle-filled spectacle it later became.

While there’s plenty of sex, blood, and dragon-riding that overwhelms the senses, the premise is at its core (at least in the six episodes made available for review), a family drama. Placed exactly 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, Thrones‘ The Mother of Dragons turned Destroyer of Worlds parallels parts of Martin’s novel Fire and blood, chronicling the civil war that tore apart the ruling House Targaryen after decades of peace and prosperity in Westeros. The conflict, as usual, is about inheritance. As King Viserys Targaryen (a mobile vulnerable Paddy Considine) grows old without producing a male heir, pressure mounts to name an heir and competition heats up among other family members with ambitions trained for the Iron Throne.

Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen c The house of the dragon

Ollie Upton – HBO

In one corner we have the series’ most lovable character: Viserys’ 15-year-old daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock as a teenager and Emma D’Arcy as an adult). A dragon rider with a ferocious energy from Daenerys and Arya, Rhaenyra dreads the prospect of a future bound to the domestic sphere by a husband and children. She clearly has the intelligence and courage to lead and her father knows it. But he also knows that naming even the most competent woman as his successor would create turmoil in Westeros and beyond, threatening the rule of House Targaryen. “Men would rather set fire to the realm than see a woman on the Iron Throne,” warns Viserys’ cousin, Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best). She should know; a generation ago Rhaenys was overlooked for the crown. Renira believes she is different.

For one thing, it’s not like the other option is all that compelling to the king. First seen sitting on the Iron Throne as if it already belonged to him, Viserys’ brother Damon (Matt Smithlooking a bit like the magician) lives up to its not-so-subtle name. Much like the Targaryen Roger Clinton, he was entrusted with leading the Kings Landing City Watch after holding a series of other positions at court, and took advantage of the position by sending his men on mass murder and mayhem designed to instill fear in the local villagers. He lies, cheats, resents Viserys for marrying him to an apparently rather ugly woman he calls “The Bronze Bitch” and frequents houses of ill repute (of course there is a brothel scene in the premiere). Yet Damon is no different Joffrey Baratheon; he’s more hurt than an outright psychopath.

Matt Smith entered The house of the dragon

Ollie Upton – HBO

Although they are rivals, Rhaenyra and Daemon are not exactly enemies. The tension between them — including sexual tension, since child brides are a time-honored Westeros tradition and there’s no such thing as an incest taboo in House Targaryen — makes for some of the show’s most compelling human drama. Also poignant, both written and acted, is the interplay between the timid king and his brave daughter. Their relationship becomes more complicated when the newly widowed Viserys remarries Rhaenyra’s best friend Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, then Olivia Cooke), who is also the daughter of his selfish Hand, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans ). Rhaenyra also feels betrayed by Alison. They had dreamed of living a wild, unencumbered life together. Instead, Allison accepts her new position in the same old order that Rhaenyra hopes to change.

Each of these relationships is carefully thought out and tested through solidly constructed storylines. What doesn’t get enough attention in the early episodes is the mutual resentment between Rhaenys, known to posterity as “the queen who never was,” and Rhaenyra, the girl who will be queen. Although we see a lot of Rhaenys’ husband, Lord Corlys Velarion (Steve Toussaint), a prosperous merchant nicknamed the Sea Serpent and Lord of the Tides, pushing his own sailor’s agenda on the king’s council, Rhaenys barely registers his chagrin.

Olivia Cooke, left, and Emma D’Arcy inside The house of the dragon

Ollie Upton – HBO

Pushing her into the background, Dragon it misses an opportunity to develop what it is should be its main theme: patriarchy’s self-destructive hostility to female leadership. Let’s approach the nuanced political commentary Thrones accomplished in their first few seasons, Condal and Sapocnik need to give us more than the medieval fantasy equivalent of “but her emails!” Instead, the frequent depictions of female suffering and death simply repeat the same broad, pseudo-feminist gender messages that Thrones creators DB Weiss and David Benioff kept hitting: it sucks to be a woman, am i right? (This should not be lost on us DragonThe all-male creative triumvirate is set to make its own spinoff after HBO shelved the $30-35 million pilot for Bloody moona series of prequels from Kingsman screenwriter Jane Goldman.)

Dragon play it safe. From the premise of Inheritance to a horror subplot set on the fringes of civilization to Thrones and Western world composer Ramin Javadi’s elegant score, the series sometimes seems too busy hitting all the marks of its predecessor. It might look better. Sapocnik directed some of the Thrones“most complicated fight episodes – it won an Emmy for Season 6”Battle of the Bastards”—and he did an impressive job of replicating his visual style; if you missed all those wide shots of carriages gliding past the palace gates, rejoice. But his keen eye can’t prevent many of the scenes that involve CGI from looking slightly shoddy and cartoony, despite Cost $20 million per episode.

These are all minor issues compared to the show’s unwieldy pacing. Dragon goes through something like 14 years in its first half-season, jumping viewers from one quagmire of court intrigue to the next without adequately smoothing the transitions. A decade-long time jump necessitated the replacement of Alcock and Carey with D’Arcy and Cooke—a sudden, initially confusing switch that also unnerved me because I preferred Alcock’s intense young princess to D’Arcy’s calmer Rhaenyra. (To be fair, I still haven’t seen much of the D’Arcy era.) I appreciate that the show avoids the multiple timelines that have become a crutch and cliché for prestige television, but this particular chronological structure makes for a choppy introduction to the Targaryen saga.

Still, with the most disturbing time jumps and throwaway transitions, I think Dragon will likely find a rhythm by the end of the season. It may never dazzle, excite or provoke thought or get the cultural conversation on its way Thrones did, but often entertains. They’re not the Beatles. It’s not even Imagine or All things must pass. Yet when you consider Ringo’s nadir solo album, it could have been, The house of the dragon still qualifies as a minor miracle.

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