Spoiler alert! The following contains details from “House of the Dragon” Season 1, Episode 1.
Westeros is back, baby.
HBO’s highly anticipated “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” finally arrived Sunday, and it certainly has quite a few dragons, plus violence, sex and palace intrigue. It’s a slice of the “Thrones” world, mostly within the walls of the Red Keep in King’s Landing (that’s the palace in the fictional nation’s capital, if you’ve forgotten since “Thrones” ended in 2019).
The first episode of the series, one of many potential spinoffs HBO developed to keep the “Thrones” mania going after the finale, has a lot of work to do, setting the table of players in Westeros – mostly the ruling Targaryen clan and their courtiers – 172 years before Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke in the original series) was even born. Much like the first episode of “Thrones” all the way back in 2011, there is a lot of exposition, a lot of very similar-sounding names (Rhaenyra and Rhaenys, for starters) and hints of more drama and dragons to come. It is not, perhaps, as bombastic as many fans would hope and, worse, does little to establish the characters as sympathetic or even intriguing (a weakness that doesn’t go away, at least not in the first six episodes made available for review).
So what to think of “Dragon” after the first hour? Well, it doesn’t have the daring that “Thrones” did – remember when Jaime Lannister (Nikolai Coster-Waldau) pushed Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) out the window? It doesn’t quite grab you the way its predecessor did, but perhaps all the dragon flying, nudity and dismemberment the pilot delivers will be enough to bring fans back for Episode 2.
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Meet the Targaryens
Much of the first episode is spent laying out the players in the Targaryen court: the schemers, dreamers and wig-wearers (if you haven’t noticed yet, there are just so many platinum blonde wigs).
So to set the scene for “Dragon” we start with a prologue: The good Targaryen King Jaehaerys ruled over Westeros during a half century of peace, but he has no sons to succeed him on the Iron Throne. So he calls a great council to choose his heir, picking between his oldest descendent, Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) and his oldest male descendent, Prince Viserys (Paddy Considine). Spoiler alert: The man wins the vote in the patriarchal society, and all is well.
Except that, 10 years into Viserys’ reign (the time in which the series kicks off in earnest), his only surviving child is his teenage daughter, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), so he’s stuck with his wayward, cruel brother Daemon (Matt Smith) as his heir. But don’t worry, Viserys’ wife Aemma (Sian Brooke) is pregnant, and Viserys is oh-so-sure that it will be a boy. He has no time to discuss affairs of state with his Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) or potential war in the borderlands known as the Stepstones with Master of Ships Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint).
So everything is fine in King’s Landing! Rhaenyra can fly on her dragon with her best friend Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey); Daemon can turn the City Watch into a murder brigade and creepily give his niece gifts; and Viserys can throw a jousting tournament in honor of his unborn sure-to-be son. Nothing bad could happen, right?
There’s something rotten in Westeros
When Aemma so ponderously tells young Rhaenyra that “the childbed is our battlefield,” we should have all been worried about her upcoming birth. After we meet the cast of mostly very blonde characters, the episode really begins. Amid the tournament Viserys called in the name of Aemma’s child, she goes into labor, but things are not going well. Viserys is presented with two options: Lose them both, or save the baby.
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He chooses the baby, and holds Aemma’s hand while the medical “maesters” butcher her in a violent, bloody Caesarean section that leaves her bloody and dead on the bed. The images of Aemma’s nearly-naked body being held down and ripped apart are interspersed with the fights from the tournament in one of many heavy-handed metaphors the show’s writers employ. (And speaking of that tournament, Daemon is bested by very handsome Dornish knight Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), who catches Rhaenyra and Alicent’s eyes). It’s an unnecessarily graphic depiction and a clear indication that “Dragon” won’t shake the “Thrones” love of portraying the pain and suffering of women, but just swapping birth for sexual assault.
Who will inherit the Iron Throne now?
Although the baby is a boy, he only lives for a few hours, and at the little prince and his mother’s funeral, Rhaenyra is livid with her father, who is broken by his grief. Otto chooses a meeting of the King’s small council afterward to bring up the topic of succession, voicing his concerns about Daemon’s temperament (and general hatred for the king’s little brother).
Some of the councilors agree, and other names are thrown about for the role of heir. There’s Corlys’ wife Rhaenys, dubbed the “Queen that Never Was” after Viserys bested her for the throne, or young Rhaenyra. The room of men makes it clear how little they think of a woman, any woman, taking the Iron Throne, but Viserys doesn’t want to hear any of it. Daemon, however, hears all of it while hiding in the room.
In addition to pushing for Viserys to cast Daemon aside, Otto has other machinations. He sends Alicent, his 15-year-old daughter, into the bedroom of the king, just to offer him some company, he says. Then he tells her to wear one of her mother’s more revealing dresses. Alicent does as she’s told, and Viserys takes a liking to the child his best friend has prostituted to him, although they do nothing but chat (so far).
‘The heir for a day’
When reports reach Otto that Daemon, ever the impulsive and arrogant idiot that he seems, rented out a brothel, seemingly to celebrate the death of his nephew and rival for the Iron Throne, he runs to tell Viserys. The king has tolerated a great deal of his brother’s shenanigans, but he cannot tolerate Daemon calling his dead son “the heir for a day.” Viserys strips Daemon of his role as heir and sends him away.
He then calls Rhaenyra down to the bowels of the Red Keep to stare at the skull of the Targaryen’s greatest dragon and to pass his tests about leadership so he can feel good about naming her his new heir. He also tells her about a prophecy their ancestor Aegon saw a hundred years ago, about the end of mankind starting with a great and terrible winter. Yes, he’s talking about the plot of “Thrones,” but his dire warning feels kind of lame considering we all know how that story plays out.
The episode ends when Viserys names Rhaenyra his heir, and all the lords of Westeros bend the knee and swear fealty to her (including a Baratheon and a Stark in clear fan-service Easter eggs).
But it’s clear that Rhaenyra’s succession won’t be as simple as that.