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House of the Dragon differs from Game of Thrones in various ways, although it is remarkable how much it initially looks and feels like a natural continuation of the show. It is a pleasure to be back in this world, to be transported so effortlessly through the evocative grandeur of its score (composed again by Ramin Djawadi) and set design; to sit through those long, talky small council meetings, where someone will say something like, “my lords, the growing alliance among the free cities has taken to styling itself ‘the triarchy'”. Heaven.
Much like Game of Thrones’ early days, it starts out measured and relatively modest, taking time to build its characters, establish their quirks, their wants, their relationships, their conflicts. It gradually manoeuvres them into positions that suggest nothing but the most unavoidable bloodshed on the horizon. It’s a rich, textured work, sharply written and handsomely directed, with a budget that far outstrips season one of Game of Thrones. There are lavish dragon sequences from the start, for instance, while it’s notable that the third episode features an enormous celebratory hunt, full of sets and extras. In early Game of Thrones, a similar sequence consisted of a small group of characters in some woods – a bugbear of George RR Martin, who originally wrote the hunt as befitting of a king.
The budget is not the only major difference between Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon, however. Showrunners Ryan Condal, a newcomer to Game of Thrones who has a close relationship with Martin, and Miguel Sapochnik, the director behind some of the show’s most striking episodes, were said to be inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which tells the story of a single family across generations. Similarly, each episode of House of the Dragon jumps forward in time: a little at first, enough for the birth of babies, or to show the passing of war, but then in episode six it jumps 10 years into the future.
It is here that the show begins to feel like a fantastical version of The Crown, as Rhaenyra is recast with the formidable Emma D’Arcy, and her former friend Alicent Hightower (initially Emily Carey), becomes Olivia Cooke, who plays a desperate, scheming queen. In Martin’s book Fire & Blood, which is written from the perspective of an Archmaester putting down Westeros’s history, he writes that “wars often begin in times of peace”. The structure and pacing of House of the Dragon does a deft job of exploring how the coming Targaryen civil war, known in future Westeros as the Dance of the Dragons, has been generations in the making: built bit-by-bit by decades of petty resentments and mistakes.
It is a treatment that makes House of the Dragon a strange beast: undoubtably similar, at least superficially, to Game of Thrones, but distinct in ways that could prove alienating for anyone looking for the exact same kind of high. From the outset, this is a darker, more solemn, more sophisticated piece – one that lacks the broad, accessible strokes of early Game of Thrones, or its vibrant, colourful characters. There is not a Joffrey to hate here, or a Tyrion to root for. These people are complex in ways that can often make them opaque and challenging, perhaps even unlikeable. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting.
Rhaenyra, for example, initially presents herself as the Arya of the piece, a ballsy girl fighting against the system, but makes decisions that are dubious to say the least. Similarly, it would be easy to paint Alicent, the future wife of Viserys, as the show’s Cersei. She is, after all, a sly operator behind the scenes, and appears to be orchestrating Rhaenyra’s downfall. But unlike Cersei she is motivated by more than greed and ambition: she lives in perpetual fear of what will happen when her husband dies and Rhaenyra ascends to the throne. As Alicent’s father Otto (Rhys Ifans) warns her: because Rhaenyra is a woman, her claim will be opposed, and in that scenario she will have no choice but to slaughter anyone who is a rival for the throne – including Alicent and her children.
It’s a fascinating situation, full of understandable motives and moral quandaries, and a ticking time bomb in the form of King Viserys’s health. It’s pure Games of Thrones – just not in the way you remember.
House of the Dragon premieres on HBO and HBO Max in the US on 21 August and on Sky Atlantic and NOW in the UK on 22 August.
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