It’s crazy to think that three years have already passed since Game of Thrones’ final season swept in and … crashed head first into a mountain of disappointment that’s still dropping rocks on our asses to this day. Yeah, Season 8, aside from some terrific visuals and a handful of well-staged battle sequences, mostly sucked and failed to live up to our lofty expectations generated throughout the previous seasons. What started as a complex deconstruction of the fantasy genre and its well-worn tropes morphed into, well, a fantasy show consisting of every well-worn trope in the book — i.e., climactic battles, thinly drawn heroes and villains, last-minute rescues, daring missions, and a whole lot of fan service.
Is it any wonder no one talks about Game of Thrones any more? Yeah, the pain hasn’t subsided.
And yet, I’m here, enormously excited for House of the Dragon, the first in a purported million Game of Thrones spinoffs planned by HBO and George R.R. Martin. That’s how good the first five (or six) seasons of Game of Thrones were. The fact that I’m sitting here prepared to dedicate several more years of my life to another Game of Thrones series after having my brain mutilated by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss speaks volumes of Thrones‘ glory days. It was that good.
I loved Game of Thrones. I was obsessed with the characters, the drama, the theories. Like a Frey itching for meat pie, I tuned in every Sunday for what felt like decades to engage in the dark and perilous journeys of Robb, Jon, Arya and Tyrion, among others. I felt for these people before they turned into cartoon caricatures of themselves. I listened to podcasts, studied behind-the-scenes vignettes and poured over YouTube channels that pieced together nuggets of information in an attempt to predict how the show would end. I even read the books! Watching Thrones was an arduous, emotional, exciting and even challenging viewing experience. And while the series eventually flew off the tracks like my great grandfather after he drunkenly burned down his cornfield and rode a sheep over a cliff, I’ll never forget those magical (and horrific) first five (or six) seasons when Game of Thrones held my soul in the palm of its bloody hands.
That’s why I’m here doing this recap, hoping for just a taste of that magic. The reviews for House of the Dragon thus far have been overwhelmingly positive. I have no doubt this series will lure me in like my wife’s half-sister … the question is: will this one stick the landing? I guess we have a long time before we have to have that discussion … so, let’s focus on Season 1 Episode 1 of House of the Dragon and hope for the best.
What Happens in House of the Dragon Season 1 Episode 1
We get an ominous Lord of the Rings-styled prologue that discusses the Targaryen dynasty, led by one King Jaehaerys and a whole lot of dragons. Jaehaerys, we learn, is dying. Without any sons to claim the throne, the King is in a pickle. Princess Rhaenys Targaryen and her younger cousin Prince Viserys Targaryen applied for the role. Predictably, Viserys earns the spot. Everyone is happy. Unfortunately, war still looms.
Cue credits … and some kick-ass new music by Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi.
A title card informs us that we’re now in the ninth year of King Viserys I Targaryen’s reign, 172 years before the death of the Mad King and the birth of Daenerys Targaryen. Cool.
Immediately, we’re given our first glimpse of a dragon as it soars over King’s Landing. The denizens don’t even look up to witness the CGI spectacle. Dragons are commonplace in this land.
This one, called Syrax, carries a rider: Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), who steps off the beast and is met by an iron-clad soldier named Ser Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish) and young Alicent (Emily Carey). A group of men shepherds Syrax into a cave and we jump to a carriage pulled by four black horses and flanked by banners.
Rhaenyra approaches her mother, Queen Aemma Arryn (played by Sian Brooke), who reminds her that a woman’s royal duty in this world is to birth children or heirs to the throne. Rhaenyra has obviously seen the recent Prey and longs to break free of her “royal obligations” and fight as a knight in combat on the back of a dragon. Alicent frowns disapprovingly nearby.
We also meet King Viserys I who discusses a man called Craghas Drahar, aka the Crabfeeder. Why do they call him that? Probably because it sounds scary. Craghas is killing pirates, I think. Rhaenyra arrives, late, stinking of dragon. She pours drinks for the men and listens to the council, which includes Rhys Ifans Otto Hightower, discuss politics and the goings on of the seven kingdoms. There’s talk of a tournament, which sounds expensive, but Viserys thinks it’ll be worth it if his wife bears a son (and heir) during the week-long event.
Rhaenyra serves drinks.
We get our first glimpse of the Iron Throne, which looks like someone tried to draw the Iron Throne from memory and just decided to scribble until the black ink ran out. We also meet Matt Smith’s Daemon Targaryen, the King’s brother, who relaxes on the throne for a spell (where he discusses his desire to rule) before stepping down to give Rhaenyra (his niece) a necklace made out of Valyrian steel.
Rhaenyra relaxes with Alicent and once again laments her position. She wants to fly on dragons.
Back with Viserys, we see a small wound in his back caused by the Iron Throne. No one seems to know what the nasty-looking wound is and Viserys’ inner council chalks it up to stress. The King then heads to his chambers to speak to his wife. He’s positive the babe in her belly is a boy. She’s not so sure and tells him this is the last time I do the prego thing.
Daemon greets the City Watch, a pack of men adorned in gold capes. He gives a speech, rallies the boys, and the group heads out to beat up the poor denizens of King’s Landing, because what the hell else is there to do in this town?
We get our first glimpse at good ole fashioned Game of Thrones violence. Limbs are chopped off, heads roll, and blood oozes. Good stuff.
The next day, the King’s council debates Daemon’s actions. Some think it’s necessary to keep the people afraid, others feel such violence doesn’t do much to glorify the King. We also learn that Daemon is married to Rhea Royce, a woman he doesn’t seem particularly fond of. He also seems to despise Otto and the two partake in some verbal jousting before the King pulls them back to more important matters.
There’s one in every family, sire.
Daemon has some raw sex at the local brothel and is given a nice little pep talk by the lady, ah, serving his needs, who assures the man the King will not replace him. (Look, I’m not one who needs sex or violence to enjoy my TV, but there was a part of me that was worried House of the Dragon would tone down the blood, language, and nudity that was so prevalent in Thrones. No, none of it is necessary, but it also wouldn’t feel like a Game of Thrones series without the R-rated mayhem.)
Now we’re at the tournament. The King announces his wife has gone into labor, causing the crowd to cheer. A mystery knight — a Cole, of the Stormlands — knocks another off his horse and heads to the sidelines. He calls to Princess Rhaenys Targaryen, “The Queen Who Never Was.” The crowd cheers. This will probably not go over well. (The King, for his part, clearly disapproves of the comment, but holds his tongue.)
Daemon hops on his giant black horse and, looking like something out of a wicked anime, prepares to joust. Otto looks on disapprovingly and even snickers when Daemon takes a big hit. Naturally, the King’s brother composes himself, aims low and knocks the poor bastard off his horse. He then rides over to greet Rhaenyra and Alicent. At this point, I realize Alicent is Otto’s daughter, which is why Daemon asks for her blessing in his next fight. Otto squirms in his seat.
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The King is called to his wife. Uh oh. The Queen is finding childbirth difficult.
Childbirth is intercut with scenes of bloody carnage at the tournament. (Surprisingly, the only two shots that affected me were the kid vomiting and Alicent picking at her nails.)
Viserys is given a Sophie’s Choice moment: kill his wife or his child.
At the tourney, a man called Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) will square off against Daemon. The music kicks up. The horses neigh. The two combatants charge.
We don’t immediately see the outcome. Instead, we’re back with the King who tells his wife they’re going to get the baby. “I love you,” he says ominously. Yikes. (I’m forced to pause the scene when a shriek upstairs grabs my attention. I run to my daughter’s room. She had apparently fallen asleep listening to the soundtrack to E.T. — I raised her well — and one of the tracks was so loud it scared her awake.)
Anyways, we see the look on the Queen’s face as the realization kicks in. She’s pinned down as her stomach is cut the hell open. Brutal. I can’t imagine doing that to my wife, though I’m pretty sure she’d do it to me if the tables were turned.
Back at the tourney, Daemon gets knocked off his horse, refuses defeat, and challenges Criston to a one-on-one duel. (The very graphic birthing scene continues amidst somber music.) The two knights square off and Daemon seems to take the victory (as the baby is pulled from the Queen’s stomach), but Criston smacks him upside the head and forces him to yield. Daemon doesn’t take it well.
Criston asks for the Princess’ favor and she happily obliges, tossing flowers at the man.
As the King laments over his now deceased wife, he’s told he has a son. Baelon. The new heir. News passes through the crowd. Rhaenyra looks worried.
Days or weeks pass and the Queen is now wrapped atop a funeral pyre while Syrax looks on from atop a hill. The camera pans down and we see the baby didn’t survive either. I mean, good lord … I’ve had some bad days, but getting a ticket for running a stop sign is small potatoes compared to losing your wife and son on the same day.
Daemon urges Rhaenyra to step forward. She laments that she will never be the son her father yearned for. Then she says the magic word: “Dracarys.” Syrax obeys, wanders down from the hill, and lights the corpses on fire as everyone, including Daemon, weeps.
Later, the King sits amongst his council. Otto says they need to discuss his heir. I mean, they could wait a few weeks … Alas, some of the members, including Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) believe it should be Daemon. Others, including Otto, think Daemon (who is not present) would destabilize the realm. He wants the King’s brother far away from the court.
Viserys defends his brother, but also believes he lacks the desire for power. At one point, one of the council members suggests Daemon may kill the King in order to obtain the crown, which Viserys scoffs at. Meanwhile, Daemon scoffs at his brother’s scoff from behind a wall.
Otto chimes in with another option: Rhaenyra, but no one can abide a girl taking the throne. Corlys suggests his wife, the Queen Who Never Was. Debate breaks out. The King loses his mind: “My wife and son are dead,” he reminds everyone before storming out of the room. Otto leans back and sighs. Then sends the first of likely many ravens, this one to Oldtown. Alicent enters. Otto instructs his daughter to go to the King — in his chambers — and offer comfort. “You might wear one of your mother’s dresses,” Otto suggests as though sending your child off to have sex with the King is as simple as ordering pizza.
Alicent enters, looking none too pleased to be in this situation. The King busies himself with a model that looks like it’ll take approximately 10,000 years to finish. (Ole Andy could do it in 20.)
Dameon chills in the brothel, the nonstop sex, and debauchery doing nothing to calm his thoughts. The next morning, we learn from Otto that Daemon bought out the pleasure house to entertain members of the City Watch (Rhaenyra pours drinks and overhears this bit of news). During the event, he toasted Baelon as “the heir for a day” (the dude toasting whilst awkwardly stuck in doggy style cracked me up), but mostly celebrated the death of his brother’s child.
Viserys sits on the Iron Throne. Daemon enters the room. An argument immediately breaks out. Daemon is angry that his brother never asked him to serve as his Hand. Viserys thinks Daemon has done nothing with the opportunities presented to him. “I would protect you … from yourself,” Daemon says. “You’re weak and that council of leeches knows it. They all prey on you for their own ends.” He’s mostly talking about Otto.
The King commands Daemon to return to his wife in Runestone. He obeys after a tense stare down. “Your grace,” he says before leaving the room. Viserys sits and notices blood on his hand.
Sitting before the skull of Balerion, Viserys speaks with Rhaenyra … she’s the new heir. The new Queen. “Daemon was not meant to wear the crown, but I believe that you were.” I mean, he’s about 11 years too late, but better late than never. It took my parents 33 years to love me, but only because they needed money to invest in cryptocurrency.
Rhaenyra is sworn in. We get other images. Her father explains that the Iron Throne is the most dangerous position to maintain … Dameon prepares his dragon, Caraxes … Viserys then discusses Aegon, a man who looked across the Black Waters from Dragonstone and saw a rich land ripe for capture, leading him on a conquest. He also saw the end of the world of men, to be brought on by a terrible winter … we see Rickon Stark (!) pledge his allegiance to Rhaenyra … In order to stop the long winter from destroying the world of men, Viserys continues, the entire world of Westeros must be united and a Targaryen must be seated on the throne — King or Queen. There’s talk of “The Song of Ice and Fire,” and we’re already reminded that that story doesn’t really end the way we wanted it to … No matter, Rhaenyra gets sworn into her new spot, Daemon flies away and we arrive at the credits.
Final Thoughts on House of the Dragon Premiere
Damn. Game of Thrones is back. The good Game of Thrones, the one driven by politics, complex characters, violence, sex, and terrible consequences. Where every choice has repercussions good and bad. That’s what made Game of Thrones, well, Game of Thrones. Man, does it feel good.
This first episode has a lot going on, but it’s still too early to get a gauge on where all of this is headed — unless you read the books, I suppose. Honestly, I couldn’t help but wonder how much these poor characters are going to suffer throughout this series. We see them now as young upstarts with dreams and ambitions and can only imagine the horrors they will encounter on their journeys. Daemon, in particular, looks like he’s going to cause a lot of trouble for a lot of people (is it wrong that I think he’s cool?), while Rhaenyra looks like she may take the Daenerys course and be forced to learn about the cruel nature of the world the hard way.
We’ll dig into this more as the series progresses, but I would honestly give this episode an A+. It had everything I want from a Game of Thrones-inspired show. Who doesn’t love watching interesting characters scheme in dark rooms behind closed doors? My worry heading into this new series is that the creators would feel compelled to match or top the robust blockbuster action of Thrones‘ final seasons. Thankfully, the people in charge seem to get what made George R.R. Martin’s amazing series so, well, amazing.
Let’s not get too carried away. It’s still just the first episode.
Battles will be fought. Lives will be lost. A lot of blood will be spilled on account of that damned Iron Throne. And I absolutely cannot wait to see how it all goes down. Until next week, people. Thrones is back!