It’s fitting that House of the Dragon premieres less than a week after the Better Call Saul series finale. Both shows are prequels to two of the most critically admired, award-winning, and popular TV series of the 21st century. The key difference, besides the dragons (don’t worry, we’ll get to them), is that after the unexpected success of Breaking Bad, AMC was playing with house money with Better Call Saul. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, well, no one expected the show about the Lionel Hutz-ass lawyer from Breaking Bad to be good, anyway. (The fact that Better Call Saul ended up being arguably better than Breaking Bad is a twist no one saw coming.) Meanwhile, HBO needs the “very big, very expensive” House of the Dragon to work. Game of Thrones is to Warner Bros. Discovery (rolls off the tongue!) as Marvel and Star Wars are to Disney; if the prequel is a bust following the unsatisfactory (to put it lightly) reaction to the Game of Thrones series finale, that puts the franchise’s reputation puts the 43 other spinoffs in limbo.
So… is House of the Dragon good? I’m happy to report: yes!
Set 172 years before the birth of the Mother of Dragons, House of the Dragon centers on the “Dance of the Dragons,” a civil war that pitted the Targaryen family against each other after King Viserys’ (Paddy Considine) names a woman, his dragon-rider daughter Rhaenyra (the younger version is played by Milly Alcock; the older version is portrayed by Emma D’Arcy), as his heir. Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) believes he’s the rightful successor to the throne, while Rhaenys (Eve Best), the so-called “Queen That Never Was,” has a chip on her shoulder after she was passed over for the throne.
There are non-Targaryens in the show’s orbit — including “Sea Snake” ally Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), hand of the king Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), and his daughter, Alicent (Emily Carey / Olivia Cooke), who is described as the “most comely woman in the Seven Kingdoms” — but they’re also impacted by the succession decision. (If creator Ryan Condal’s pitch to George R.R. Martin for House of the Dragon wasn’t “what if Game of Thrones plus Succession,” it really should have been.)
Viserys. Rhaenyra. Daemon. Alicent. Rhaenys. Corlys. Mysaria. Jacaerys. Rhaena. There are a lot of names (and wigs) to process in House of the Dragon (it doesn’t help that the Targaryens frequently reuse or only slightly tinker first names), and in later episodes, there’s a time-hopping element, too. But it’s not as confusing as it seems. Would I recommend keeping this character guide handy while watching the first few episodes? I would. But House of the Dragon patiently takes its time introducing the main players in the game of thrones, and because the action is largely centered around one family, instead of an entire continent, it’s easier to keep track of everyone’s schemes.
So far, the biggest disappointment, although that’s too harsh of a word, is the lack of a Tyrion Lannister-like breakout character. Whether it was the small but fierce Lyanna Mormont, or the audience surrogate Samwell Tarly, or the stoic Davos Seaworth, Game of Thrones had a robust ensemble of scene stealers. House of the Dragon is well cast, but there’s no one who immediately pops with as much charismatic gusto as, say, Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell. (Although, to be fair, I have only seen the first four episodes.)
Otherwise, House of the Dragon doesn’t break the wheel but it gets more right than wrong. There’s a lot of lore for the hardcore book readers, but it’s not so dense as to bore casual Game of Thrones fans (yes, other familiar families pop up here and there). The show looks like a million bucks — or more accurately, 20 million per episode bucks — and it’s not lacking in violence. There’s less sex than on Game of Thrones, but more dragons, so that’s a toss-up. I can’t imagine enjoying House of the Dragon if you haven’t watched Game of Thrones, a person that I assume exists out there. Otherwise, if you liked Thrones, especially the talkative wheeling and dealing scenes in big rooms, you’ll enjoy House of the Dragon, too. It may not match the highs of Game of Thrones, but with the way the show is structured, it’s doubtful that it will sink to the lows, either.
To paraphrase Olenna Tyrell, the world is overflowing with horrible things, but House of the Dragon is not one of them.
House of the Dragon premieres on Sunday, August 21, at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max.