In the spirit of John Green’s book of the same title, our theme for the month of October is “the Anthropocene reviewed.” Writers were asked to review and rate some facet of human experience on a five-star scale.
With a virtually unaltered Game of Thrones opening theme and a lackluster first few episodes, I withheld expectations from House of the Dragon. Ramin Djawadi’s theme for the original series is likely the most recognizable new origins score in the television landscape in at least a decade—and the poor decision to recycle it screams for unearned nostalgia. I was sure it would be needlessly derivative, piggybacking to the point of excess like all uber-capitalist media off its successful predecessors until the very things that promised intrigue transition into the point of disinterest.
I was wrong.
Based on parts of George R. R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, House of the Dragon depicts the “Dance of the Dragons,” or the Targaryen civil war of succession that appears blatantly inspired by both the Anarchy and the Avignon papacy. (Especially for how its events affect the long-term prospects for certain institutions and bloodlines). Season one, bookmarked by Targaryen stillbirths in the direct line of succession, does the drafting of the sides (the Blacks and the Greens) and ends on the utter precipice of war and the proverbial Lusitania already sunken.
For a series whose end is predetermined and foreknown by many (or, in some capacity, most) of its audience, showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, as well as Martin, place the biggest wager of their careers on the court drama. Their gamble is one that identifies the heart of the Song of Ice and Fire not in the political intrigue, warfare, or the sheer number of characters, plotlines, and the world-building of Westeros—rather, they bet on the Shakespearean weight of succession, on the “Game” in Game of Thrones. The effect results in a show with fewer characters, fewer locations, and fewer of pretty much everything else people remember the original series for: nudity, violence, main character deaths, etc.
It’s all centered on one house and a family pulled into two, traced from the childhoods of Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock; Emma D’Arcy) and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey; Olivia Cooke) to their respective adulthoods after the death of the peace-time King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), father to Rhaenyra and eventual husband to Alicent. The two girls were best friends before womanhood and the duties of family honor and patriarchal ambition call on Alicent to wed the widower Viserys. The slow and small (in geographical and character number) start to the season that many, myself included, were frustrated with by the season’s end realized one of the most patient seasons in the A Song of Ice and Fire television canon. The first season, while still fresh off the press, is right up there with the best of Thrones.
Even visually, while more stylistically contained, the first season felt as impressive as the Battle of the Bastards or the Alan Taylor–directed episodes in the early seasons. The use of the LED panel visual production studio, also known as the Volume, rivals the best the technology has enabled so far and puts Kenobi to shame. The original series didn’t stream in 4k (though it was available on Bluray) until earlier this year, but HOTD is starting with the higher resolution stream and HDR, making for stronger contrasts and deeper darks. And, of course, the dragons look excellent.
I was most impressed with the visual symbolic subtlety of the season. Characters gain new religious zeal and cozy to their sword houses through pageantry and color choices, small oaths and uncommented-upon ceremonies. The skeletal remains of Balerion, the dragon who died of old age, surprisingly feels both less dramatic and more prescient in the Targaryen version of King’s Landing than it did in the Lannister one. The episodes are less didactic and more episodic—a glimpse into the breaking of a house that could have been just as well rendered into other local instances of relational erosion and cousin bullying—than its more demonstrative predecessor with all of its diegetic historical allusions and Shakespearean climates.
I give House of the Dragon: Season One four stars.
Joshua Polanski (’20) is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking and exhibition, slow and digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, and Middle Eastern film.