House of the Dragon episode 1 review: “An intriguingly intimate take on Westeros”

Warning: Major spoilers ahead for House of the Dragon episode 1! Turn back now if you haven’t watched the premiere yet! 

How do you follow-up a pop culture juggernaut like Game of Thrones? The answer is simple: you go back to basics. That might sound strange, considering the lavish scale of House of the Dragon is apparent from that opening scene in the crumbling halls of Harrenhal, but the first episode of HBO’s new jewel-in-the-crown prequel series is an intriguingly intimate take on Westeros’ most dysfunctional family. 

While the Game of Thrones premiere introduced the Starks, Baratheons, Lannisters, and, yes, Targaryens, House of the Dragon’s debut narrows its focus to a handful of major characters almost 200 years prior to the events of the original series. The silver-haired Targaryens are front and center, along with father-daughter duo Otto (Rhys Ifans) and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), council member Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), the mysterious Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), who bests Matt Smith’s mercurial Prince Daemon Targaryen in a brutal tournament, and Dameon’s lover Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno). The opening episode deftly establishes each character’s concerns and ambitions, setting the stage for the bloody battles to come. In a world as complex as that of the Seven Kingdoms, that’s no easy feat, and it’s accomplished by sticking to that narrower scope. By the time the credits roll, the fault lines are plainly on show, and as always, it comes down to that pesky, pointy chair: the Iron Throne. 

From the outset, “The Heirs of the Dragon” fixes its attention firmly on succession. This is interwoven inextricably with crushing sexism – Eve Best’s Princess Rhaenys is passed over for the throne in favor of her brother Viserys (Paddy Considine), earning herself the moniker the Queen Who Never Was, in the very first scene of the series. King Viserys’ obsession with having a son pushes him to give the go-ahead for a harrowing, gruesome caesarean that kills his unwilling wife in the hopes of saving their unborn son, who dies anyway. Otto, meanwhile, is no fan of Daemon’s, the current heir, and Dameon’s arrogance combined with some skilful manipulation from Otto means that Viserys has to choose a new successor: his daughter, Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock), becomes the first female heir to the realm. 

Matt Smith in House of the Dragon

(Image credit: HBO)

Such political scheming and small council rivalries harken back to the early days of Game of Thrones – this episode admirably holds back from indulging in splashy, dragon-fuelled spectacle for the sake of it – and it’s a welcome return to form. There are no massive battles to be fought just yet; instead, power struggles play out in the halls of the Red Keep. Otto immediately marks himself as the most dangerous player on the board by clearing Daemon, the king’s brother, out of his way. Ifans’ steady, stern, and quiet portrayal makes the Hand of the King an inscrutable figure, though it soon becomes clear what he wants when he sends his nervous daughter Alicent, who happens to be Rhaenyra’s closest friend, into the chambers of the bereaved king in the middle of the night. Such ruthless, clever manoeuvering is classic Thrones.  

And make no mistake, this is Game of Thrones through and through: blood, sex, and dragons are all present and accounted for. Everything from the score to the setting is familiar, and Daenerys Targaryen even gets a name-drop in the opening text. Events to come are also given veiled reference when Viserys talks of a prophecy that foretells the end of humankind, caused by a winter from the North… hello, Game of Thrones season 8! Though, this inherently comes with problems. We already know the Long Night turns out to be a damp squib, so how can we really get invested in the Targaryens passing down a prophecy that revolves around preventing it? What should be an epic, chills-inducing moment as Rhaenyra learns of this closely guarded family secret is instead an unwelcome reminder of the pitfalls this prequel faces. 

For now, though, House of the Dragon proves itself a worthy successor to one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Still, there’s a sense that something is missing. The Game of Thrones premiere captured the perfect alchemy of a captivating plot, magnetic characters, and a fascinating setting, and while lightning may still strike twice, it’s undeniable that House of the Dragon’s first episode doesn’t quite reach the same mesmerizing heights. That’s largely because the show is primed to be a slower burn than its predecessor: we start with Rhaenyra and Alicent as youngsters, before a (previously-announced) mid-season time skip brings us into an even more tangled political web with the adult women now bitter enemies. The firewood is there, then, and all set up for the dracarys to truly set House of the Dragon alight. 

If you’re all caught up on House of the Dragon, check out our roundup of the best Netflix shows streaming now to fill out your watchlist. 

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