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The Cost of Leaping Through Time in ‘House of the Dragon’

The first season of the ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel was largely a success, but compressing years of conflict into 10 hours of television leaves us with vague outlines rather than cohesive characters

HBO/Ringer illustration

During the early production of Game of Thrones, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ran into a roadblock. The first season of the HBO fantasy epic had already exhausted most of its budget, but was set to come in about 100 minutes too short. To pad out each episode, Benioff and Weiss added the most cost-effective kind of scene: conversations among a handful of characters in a single room.

The origins of these scenes may be pragmatic, but the results are anything but filler. The only time we see King Robert Baratheon alone in a room with Cersei Lannister, his wife and schemer of his eventual murder, came out of this need for new material; their dynamic helps the audience understand a marriage whose failure comes at the cost of a fragile peace. So did the drinking game Cersei’s brother Tyrion plays with mercenary Bronn and sex worker Shae. It’s there we learn of Tyrion’s traumatic first marriage, which gives weight to his contentious, abusive relationship with Lannister patriarch Tywin. The later seasons’ big battles were built on a foundation of small, intimate moments.

House of the Dragon, the prequel to Game of Thrones that concluded its first season on Sunday, had the polar opposite problem. Over 10 episodes, the show’s plot covered several decades, starting with the Great Council that named Viserys Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne and concluding in the days after his death. At the Great Council, Viserys’s wife Aemma is visibly pregnant with their daughter Rhaenyra; by the finale, that unborn baby is a middle-aged mother of five. Far from needing to stretch itself out, House of the Dragon chose to compress years of brewing conflict into 10 hours of television.

Where early Thrones added scenes that helped illuminate its characters, House of the Dragon had to leave some out. The two sides of the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons are led by two former childhood friends: Rhaenyra Targaryen, Viserys’s appointed heir, and Alicent Hightower, his second wife. Following House of the Dragon’s third episode, director Greg Yaitanes revealed that two scenes that would’ve provided crucial context to the future rivalry had ended up on the cutting-room floor: the first, an argument between the two after Viserys abruptly announces he will marry his daughter’s companion; the second, a quiet moment Rhaenyra and Alicent share before the latter’s wedding. With its layers of jealousy, resentment, and perhaps a hint of repressed desire, Rhaenyra and Alicent’s relationship should be the heart of House of the Dragon. But skipping past the details leaves us with only a vague outline of either antagonist.

In adapting George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, a 700-page tome surveying several conflicting accounts of Westerosi history, House of the Dragon has largely stuck to the script. When the writers, captained by cocreator Ryan Condal, did deviate from the text, it was largely to clarify intentional ambiguities: exactly what happened between Rhaenyra and her uncle Daemon when she was a teenager, or the sequence of events that led Aemond Targaryen—Rhaenyra’s half-brother and Alicent’s son—to start the war in earnest by killing his nephew Lucerys. On the whole, though, almost all the major events in Fire & Blood up to the war’s onset are portrayed in House of the Dragon, in the same sequence and over the same period of time.

The paradox of a project like House of the Dragon is that all this ground to cover exists alongside a vast swath of space to fill. Where Thrones, adapted from a set of novels, drew on pages upon pages of characters’ internal monologues, the Targaryens of Fire & Blood are abstract sketches crying out for some color. Some of House of the Dragon’s best scenes add exactly that: laying out the mutual understanding between Rhaenyra and her first husband, Laenor Velaryon, a gay man who still loves and respects his wife; exploring the insecurity and aggrievement that drive Aegon Targaryen, Rhaenyra’s rival for the throne, to drink (and do far worse). The show’s acting, especially, helped these fictional historical figures feel like flesh-and-blood human beings. Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke are so charismatic that even their off-the-clock banter sparked a meme, while Matt Smith makes a power-hungry sadist like Daemon compelling enough to confound the show’s own producers with his character’s fan base.

But in the absence of connective tissue, these performances often felt like they were straining to weave disparate parts into a cohesive whole. In one episode, Alicent tells Aegon it’s widely understood he’ll be crowned king; in another, set nearly a decade later, she’s stunned to learn other members of the Small Council have been conspiring to put him on the throne. Rhaenyra’s yearslong affair with Harwin Strong is so consequential it alters the course of a continent, yet by fast-forwarding to its violent end, we gain little understanding of its hold on her. Faced with a blank slate, House of the Dragon crammed in details—we now know more about the Stepstones than anyone would ever care to—but crowded out the emotional texture.

Earlier in the season, my colleague Zach Kram expressed reservations about House of the Dragon’s frequent use of time jumps, which threatened to break up the story and skip past vital exposition. Even my own, largely positive review noted how the show’s rapid pace could disrupt an otherwise immersive feel. Both of us acknowledged the plot would have to slow down eventually, once the Dance got underway. And it’s true that the last three episodes take place over just a few days, compared to the prior seven’s 30-odd years. But this long-awaited downshift hasn’t countered the effects of the accelerated buildup; instead, it’s started to show its true toll.

Take the finale scene when Daemon chokes Rhaenyra, a shocking violation Smith and D’Arcy give suitable heft—except it’s divorced from any sense of what their partnership, now several years and two children into a marriage, is typically like. The actors play the older versions of their characters as more melancholy and resigned than the horny schemers they once were: strategic allies, not passionate lovers. It’s all implicit, though—creating on set what isn’t communicated on the page. The rest of the ensemble is packed with relationships that are even more underbaked, despite their role in the coming conflict. We’ve barely seen Daemon interact with Baela and Rhaena, his twin daughters from a previous marriage. (Both ride dragons and are betrothed to two of Rhaenyra’s sons, though one is now deceased.) Erryk and Arryk Cargyll, two knights of the Kingsguard, take opposite sides in the succession battle. But their dispute doesn’t feel rooted in any established disagreement, nor does it gain emotional impact from a prior depiction of their bond.

Looking back, it’s easy to point out what House of the Dragon could have done differently. It might have slowed down, planning for more seasons than the three or four currently slated. Milly Alcock and Emily Carey could have had full seasons as the young Rhaenyra and Alicent; the writers could’ve had more time to plant seeds that would bear fruit down the line. Or House of the Dragon may have modeled itself after The Crown, another show about a royal family’s inner strife. The Crown is not exhaustive in its survey of British history, instead focusing on strategic vignettes. It doesn’t trace every up and down of Margaret Thatcher’s time at 10 Downing Street; it does show a weekend in Scotland that draws a vivid contrast between the prime minister and the monarchy. The problem with House of the Dragon isn’t necessarily its time frame, though 30 years in 10 episodes puts even The Crown’s decade-per-season blueprint to shame. It’s how the show moves through that time: more like a high-budget History Channel reenactment than a drama with life-size stakes.

But House of the Dragon can’t look back. Headed into Season 2, the show has plenty working in its favor: Vhagar-sized ratings, a stellar cast, and a knack for spectacle. (If that final chase scene is any indication of the dragon-on-dragon violence to come, we’re in for a treat.) It also has room for improvement. The Dance of the Dragons is the story of a family turned against itself. Parts of that rift are convincingly tragic, like the self-delusion that led Viserys to back his daughter, and turn a blind eye to her indiscretions, until his dying breath. Going forward, more characters need to feel that coherent. Before its namesake creatures can soar, House of the Dragon should focus on the people who ride them.