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First episode spoiler-free look: How to live among beasts in the terrific 'House of the Dragon'

By Karl R. De Mesa Published Aug 22, 2022 10:58 am

When I say beasts it’s not really the dragons I’m talking about. Rather it’s all about the ruling dynastic Targaryen family, their retainers, appointees, enemies, and cronies who engage in all manner of savagery for the acquisition of more power. In contrast they make the dragons look pretty civilized.

Welcome back to Westeros! We rewind the clock, a few hundred years prior to the events of HBO’s Game of Thrones when the silver-haired, purple-eyed race of Valyrians who came over to the Seven Kingdoms are still ensconced as dynastic rulers over the continent.

This new series spin-off is based on George R.R. Martin’s book Fire & Blood. While in GoT, the Targaryens have been overthrown and exiled, on this one they’ve been more or less undisputed at the top of the heap for about 150 years since the coming of Aegon I, The Conqueror. The seasons we will see from this point onwards is based on the last third of the Fire & Blood book—which is really more of an academic history, tabulation of facts for scholars of the world rather than proper novels like the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Which by the way we must remind Mr. Martin that the final, seventh novel is still uncompleted and so urge him to its finish post-haste. Please lang, sir!   

In any case, what this means is that purists of the books already know it covers events like the roots of the events that lead to the civil war called The Dance of the Dragons, plus the ensuing all-out conflict itself.

Since this is a spoiler-free preview of the first episode that HBO Asia and HBO Philippines sent us on so what follows are impressions and clarifications.

First of all, have no fear: they didn’t screw this up. Not at all. For showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, it was important to not reinvent the feel and energy of what made the original GoT series great but rather take it without necessarily duplicating the similar grandiosity.

Thus, HotD feels like a homecoming for all GoT fans left orphaned and disappointed at how the final two season were fumbled. At the same time, there is very little of the sweeping points of view that informed GoT. There is more chance at intimacy with space and emotion. An intelligent family drama spanning decades-long conflicts that happens to have dragons. That is the easy, synopsized elevator pitch.

Of course, the facts on the ground are much more complicated than that, the relationships way more complex than at first glance. King Viserys Targaryen I (Paddy Considine)—namesake of the later Viserys III in GoT—is on the throne, a ruler well-loved enough and fair.  The question of his succession has been an issue lately since he has no male heir. He has only a young daughter, Rhaenyra, and a younger brother, Daemon. While his wife Aemma Arynn lies pregnant, complications in the birthing and the current power struggle put a wrench into the politics of the realm and the issue of who will next sit the Iron Throne. 

Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen.

There is very little story handholding here. Pay attention since the series is an intelligent one. No dumbing down like the Dorne arc of GoT. We are lucky that the source material has been made and it’s no doubt excellent (one of the things that made the later seasons of GoT trip up was that they ran out of source material, since GRRM hadn’t finished the books yet), but it’s also an advantage that the showrunners can play with the situations and the characters—the reference book is so academic in tone and approach that the adaptation material can breathe.

In short, the characters have room for interpretation for both actors and directors. Even a cursory look at the positioning and visuals of the iconic Iron Throne is different. There’s less swords on it, gut also it’s now closer to GRRM’s approved vision: making the ruler seated on it uncomfortable (it’s made of swords so it cuts skin), while afflicting intimidation and bombast on whoever’s in audience with the king. A creative choice that affects the way the actors play their characters, but dominoes in how they relate to each other, too.   

Emma D'Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen.

Notable in the dramatis personae is Matt Smith. One of the outstanding best in his role as the discontented heir, brother to the King Daemon Targaryen. Ambitious, lusty, and volatile he’s also a true military force with charisma enough to rally plenty of follower to his banner. Smith exudes a lot of brawny physicality here. In the first episode he is introduced as the Commander of the City Watch of King’s Landing, aka the Goldcloaks for the bright yellow they wear atop their armor. This is the police of the castle and surrounding city. Daemon inspires their loyalty through indulgent pleasure and violence—like the kind of utter impunity and brutality you’d have if the police chief were only accountable to the king, who also happened to be his brother, mind.  

Nobody in the cast is a slouch at all but the young ladies Milly Alcock and Emily Carey are of notable importance in their roles as the young Rhaenyra and Alicent (respectively), breathing life to a power struggle they have lived in all their life and yet the changes that they must embrace to survive still come as a surprise when they come, making for intense and emotive moments. Other actors will play those girls as they age. Another thing that’s different from the previous show but native to this series. We can see how they change for better or worse, judge them on their humanity or inhumanity and their life choices.

Milly Alcock as Young Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Emily Caret as Alicent Hightower.

Still, don’t ever feel too comfy about your fave Targaryen since this IS the kind of show where folks get killed sans warning when their arcs end. Remember how everyone thought the GoT series was about Sean Bean’s Ned Stark? If you’ve read Fire & Blood, they adhere pretty close to the events on it but that doesn’t mean there’s not some liberties taken for dramatic purposes. I must also note that Fabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole is another standout in how the characters are grey, quite human in a milieu where more power means more resources and thus safety. The man is both mystery and juggernaut in combat. Watch this guy, fans.

Fabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole.

There’s dragons here, of course, and how! But you’ll have to wait until later on in the first season to get to know all of them. In the first episode we are introduced to Syrax, the yellow dragon ridden by Princess Rhaenyra and the bigger Caraxes, also called the “Blood Wyrm,” the red male dragon who calls Prince Daemon Targaryen master. They’re like flying nuclear weapons and the directors do a great job of never letting the viewer forget they’re not safe to be around, even for their riders sometimes.

At times during the viewing I just took in how the sight of a flying dragon added to the magnificent way King’s Landing and the vistas of Westeros were shot. Big props must also be given to Jany Temime, the lead costume designer for HotD, who has outdone herself in crafting exquisite clothing to breathe to life the Targeryens and the characters, much of which indicates station and riches. Even just Daemon’s jousting armor and Rhaenyra’s festival costume alone are mind-blowing. 

From dresses to sets, they’ve created a beautiful conjuring of a medieval-themed world ruled by a race of ethereal aliens, their appetites and strengths, vulnerabilities and yearnings just as human as anyone’s, but enlarged by dynastic rule and Valyrian-born blood—the same blood that escaped a homeland that exploded and burned in a volcanic cataclysm.

Which means what the Targaryens are is essentially refugees. How they became conquerors in a foreign land is the meat of their narrative glory. And the story of their eventual downfall in House of the Dragon is something riveting no fan of epic fantasy should miss. I know I won’t.

"House of the Dragon” streams exclusively on HBO Go starting August 22.