House of the Dragon Episode 1 review: Game of Thrones is back

HOTD green screenHBO

House of the Dragon Episode 1 is a warm, bloody hug from the hands that clawed you. This is the glory of Game of Thrones born anew, exorcising the ghosts of Westeros’ future.

The rise and fall of Game of Thrones should be seen as a pop culture parable: it had it all – worldwide fans, second-to-none storytelling, calculated spectacle – only to burn itself to ashes in its final season.

As a spiritual, high-fantasy successor to Lord of the Rings, it became the biggest show in The Known World, piercing the mainstream lexicon with George R.R. Martin’s jargon and mythos. After a heated period of online rioting, its footprint vanished, hushed into an emotional vault for self-preservation.

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That was then. This is now. We should call it a comeback: House of the Dragon is visually and emotionally rich from the very beginning, recapturing the thought-lost magic of Game of Thrones in the first step of a long dance.

Spoilers for House of the Dragon Episode 1 to follow…

House of the Dragon opens 172 years before Daenerys Targaryen

House of the Dragon is a prequel to Game of Thrones, based on Martin’s Fire and Blood, chronicling the civil war which ultimately weakened House Targaryen at the height of its powers.

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The series opens on a gathering at Harrenhal, called by King Jaehaerys. While peace and prosperity have thrived in the first century of the Targaryen dynasty – especially with 10 dragons at their behest, meaning “no power in the world could stand against it” – its leader is in poor health and must name a successor.

With both his sons dead, 14 succession bids are brought forward, but only two are seriously considered: Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best), the king’s oldest descendant; and Prince Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), the king’s oldest male descendant. A woman has never sat on the Iron Throne at this point, so the honor is given to Viserys.

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The narrator then explains: “The only thing that could tear down the house of the dragon was itself.”

Before we continue, a note appears onscreen to explain the exact time period we’re in: House of the Dragon begins 172 years prior to the death of the Mad King (King Aerys II Targaryen, the last Targaryen to rule from the Iron Throne before the events of Game of Thrones) and the birth of Daenerys.

Dragons break the clouds in House of the Dragon

We forward-wind to the ninth year of Viserys’ reign, with Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) riding her dragon, Syrax, through the skies and over King’s Landing, all while Ramin Djawadi’s music scores her flight. It’s hard to understate how immediately wonderful it feels to be back in Westeros, despite memories of the eighth season.

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When dragons were introduced in Game of Thrones, it was an earlier time in TV, so any missteps in CGI could be forgiven. While they’re bracing and delicately designed in House of the Dragon, the VFX is a little iffy; lighting doesn’t hit its scales naturally, and its dusty steps look cheap.

The show is set to have at least 17 dragons, and we see two in the first episode: Syrax and Caraxes, who belongs to Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), Viserys’ mean-spirited, vicious brother.

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House of the Dragon is epic but intimate in its story

Unlike Game of Thrones, which unfolded across the continent of Westeros, House of the Dragon’s opening episode sets the stage for a more intimate saga; tensions reside among those closest together.

Viserys is constantly hoping for an heir from his wife, Aemma Arryn (Sian Brooke), who’s lost several babies over just two years. “I’ve mourned all the dead children I can,” she tells him.

Meanwhile, Daemon – who believes he’ll be in line for the throne if Aemma doesn’t birth a boy – has been shifted to different duties across the kingdom, now serving as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, with the powers that be wishing to keep him away from roles that could harm the Targaryen rule.

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Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the DragonHBO
Milly Alcock plays a young Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon.

Rhaenyra’s best friend is Allicent Hightower (Emily Carey), daughter of Hand of the King Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans).

There’s also resentment among those who meet in the council: when Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) tries to press the king on shipping lane issues, he’s swiftly shut down by Otto. When talks of naming a successor in lieu of an heir are discussed, Corlys suggests Rhaenyra, as she’s technically got the best claim to the throne, but the men in attendance initially scoff at the notion of breaking precedent.

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The death of a child, a public slaughter, and jousting

Alas, the Targaryen’s dynasty is slowly cracking. Viserys has several injuries from the spiky Iron Throne, including one persistent, pus-filled wound. Daemon stirs further unrest with a “public spectacle of wanton brutality” in King’s Landing, ordering the Kingsguard to slaughter its residents.

Violence shouldn’t be a surprise in this world, but the blows are brutal; faces are pulverized, hands are amputated, legs are snapped inwards, and bodies are battered with maces. A two-horse car is required for all the dismemberment. Daemon wants the town to “fear the color gold” and establish the footsoldiers’ authority, but others feel he’s endangering the dynasty with reckless bloodshed.

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Matt Smith as Daemon in House of the DragonHBO
Daemon is at the heart of the impending civil war in House of the Dragon.

As Daemon later partakes in the king’s jousting tournament in armor resembling Malenia in Elden Ring – with competing Baratheons and Starks – Aemma goes into labor. Unfortunately, there’s complications, and Viserys has to make a horrific choice: doctors cut her stomach open to retrieve the baby, sacrificing his wife’s life in the process. The king’s grief is soothed when he’s told it’s a boy – but his cries soon turn to a gargle, and he dies.

The House of the Dragon selects its next heir, paving the way for civil war

As Viserys mourns the death of his son, Otto hatches a plan: he sends his daughter upstairs in his late wife’s best frock to, essentially, seduce the king, hoping she’ll eventually provide the next heir to the throne.

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Daemon angers Viserys by celebrating the baby’s death, or as he calls him while surrounded by naked women and alcohol, “the heir for a day.” The king sends him back to the Vale and summons Rhaenyra in front of the skull of Balerion, also known as the Black Dread, aka a really scary dragon.

“I have wasted the years since you were born hoping for a son,” he tells her, and reveals he believes it’s Rhaenyra who should wear the crown when he passes. The episode ends with her formally being named as his successor, with all the lords swearing their fealty.

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The House of the Dragon has a secret

Episode 1 also has a huge Game of Thrones reference. Viserys warns Rhaenyra that she can’t believe all of the myths about their family, like how they can control dragons. He also passes down a secret dating back to the reign of Aegon 1, regarding the “end of the world of man” as seen in a dream.

“It is to begin with a terrible winter, gusting out of the distant north,” he says.

“Aegon saw absolute darkness riding on those winds, and whatever dwells within will destroy the world of the living.

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“When this great winter comes, Rhaenyra, all of Westeros must stand against it. And if the world of man is to survive, a Targaryen must be seated on the Iron Throne. A king or queen, strong enough to unite the realm against the dark. Aegon called his dream the Song of Ice and Fire.”

For those unfamiliar with Game of Thrones, or those who don’t quite see it, this is in reference to the White Walkers, the ancient race of humanoid creatures who later re-emerge in the far north of Westeros, led by the Night King.

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House of the Dragon Episode 2 will air on August 28 in the US and August 29 in the UK.