Once upon a time, a team took on the difficult task of following up a massive TV show. The producers had to walk a thin and treacherous line: On the one hand, they wanted to retain the original’s appeal; on the other, they had to avoid the impression of a blatant cash grab. (Their audience had been trained to expect quality and care.) They settled on a prequel, a setup that came with its own set of challenges. Would viewers invest in a story when they already knew the ending? Still, the brain trust forged ahead.
Better Call Saul ended its run on AMC earlier this week. Through six seasons, cocreators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould conclusively proved their doubters wrong. Not only did Saul equal the achievements of Breaking Bad; in some critics’ estimation, it surpassed them. Saul also found a way to use inevitability to its advantage, as the certainty of Jimmy McGill’s fate only enhanced his tragedy. Saul’s conclusion comes at an oddly fitting time. This Sunday, we’re getting the blockbuster version of the same risky bet.
House of the Dragon does not map perfectly onto Better Call Saul nor any other show. HBO’s latest launch is an unprecedented response to an unprecedented success: Game of Thrones, the fantasy epic that snowballed over eight seasons into a modern miracle of monocultural reach. Game of Thrones was so undeniable that it prompted HBO to green-light the first spinoff in its decades-long history of original programming—though not before developing multiple projects and scrapping an expensive pilot starring Naomi Watts.
Arriving three years after Thrones’ much-maligned finale, House of the Dragon is far from the first attempt to recapture its predecessor’s magic. Game of Thrones proved it was possible to execute massive ideas at massive scale with massive results. Every big swing since, from film franchises breaking into TV to series based on “unfilmable” IP, has followed in its footsteps. House of the Dragon arrives amid a slew of such projects, from Stranger Things 4 to Obi-Wan Kenobi to The Rings of Power, Amazon’s long-anticipated take on The Lord of the Rings. The supposed “small screen” is no longer so small.
But so far, none of these would-be successors has matched Thrones’ mix of mass viewership and critical acclaim. Some seemed to imitate Thrones without understanding its core appeal. Just as many post–Breaking Bad shows learned the hard way that there’s more to a great antihero than a middle-aged man behaving badly, the post-Thrones wave has proved there was more to the phenomenon than sword, sorcery, and CGI. Like Saul before it, House of the Dragon suggests a simple truth: The people best equipped to make “the next Game of Thrones” are probably the people who made the first Game of Thrones. That’s good news for us, if not for the competition.
House of the Dragon, as fans are already aware, chronicles the lead-up to the civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons. It’s set over a century before the events of Game of Thrones, when the titular Targaryen dynasty still held a firm grip on the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The show’s events, and eventual conclusion, are a matter of public record; the series is adapted from Fire & Blood, the fictional history published by author George R.R. Martin in 2018 as a companion to A Song of Ice and Fire, the source material for Game of Thrones. Such accessible spoilers are one of several challenges confronting Dragon writer and cocreator Ryan Condal. Thrones, at least, could lay claim to finishing what Martin started and drum up suspense accordingly. With House of the Dragon, the parameters are fixed.
Then again, that may be an advantage. Thrones’ creative decline began when showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ran out of pages to adapt, then accelerated when they abandoned the careful, comprehensive storytelling that marked Martin’s MO. HBO has been heavily touting Martin’s involvement in House of the Dragon ahead of its premiere; in contrast with the later seasons of Thrones, the author shares creator credit with Condal, whom he hand-picked to help translate his vision. Besides, public plot points never detracted from early seasons of Thrones. The Red Wedding was put to print more than a decade before it shocked the world. Newcomers benefited from book readers’ discretion, and book readers felt the impact anew seeing the slaughter play out on screen.
Game of Thrones was always more impressive as interpretation than invention, doing justice to Martin’s richly detailed realpolitik while introducing it to a new audience. House of the Dragon, in the six episodes provided to critics, displays similar strengths. It took Thrones years to become the biggest show in town. Expecting House of the Dragon to start at such heights would be too much to ask, but there’s more than enough evidence that the potential is there.
It all starts with the exposition. Without the benefit of dense blocks of text, Thrones laid out the delicate geopolitics that would soon break out into war. House of the Dragon kicks off with a dry political summit hashing out the finer points of royal succession, which a voice-over then imbues with emotional stakes the viewer can grasp: whether the Seven Kingdoms’ political caste will voluntarily accept a female monarch. Our narrator is Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock, then Emma D’Arcy), the only child of King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine). Decades before the events of the show, Westeros’s aristocracy chose Viserys over his female cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best). When he goes back on their precedent and names Rhaenyra his heir, it starts a chain of events that turns the Targaryen motto—“Fire and blood”—into a prophecy.
House of the Dragon boasts a sprawling cast, yet by the end of the pilot, we understand the characters and their vested interests. After the death of his wife in childbirth, Viserys appoints Rhaenyra as a hedge against his younger brother Daemon (Matt Smith), a violent, power-hungry wild card. Rhaenys’s husband, the wealthy warlord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), is a less urgent threat, but his inflated ego demands attention. Meanwhile, the king’s hand Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) presents himself as an impartial adviser, even as he pushes his daughter Alicent (Emily Carey, then Olivia Cooke) to offer Viserys a shoulder to cry on.
You could spend—and Martin has spent—countless hours running further down the roster. Fire & Blood is written as a reference text, with minimal dialogue and conflicting points of view. What House of the Dragon does is turn entries in what amounts to an old-school Wikipedia into flawed, flesh-and-blood people. Condal and his writers introduce changes that enhance the action, like making the teenage Rhaenyra and Alicent friends before tensions get in the way. They’re aided by a strong set of performances. Considine makes Viserys a master class in well-intentioned naivete, while Smith gets to play a different, less duty-bound kind of royal. Thrones was largely about the failings and foibles of those in power. House of the Dragon operates in that tradition, steeping us in personal strife before it becomes political combat.
Equally immersive are the visuals, led by veteran Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik. Shows like The Sandman have repeatedly shown that big budgets don’t always make themselves felt in the final product. House of the Dragon puts every cent of its nine-figure production costs to tangible use. The show benefits from both the institutional memory of the Thrones machine and much more resources to start. The results aren’t just dazzling. They give the world a sense of detail, grandeur, and above all, reality. We accept dragons as a fact of life, because we watch them train in the Dragonpit and fly through King’s Landing. We understand the seafaring Velaryons are the Targaryens’ peers, because we see the murals and finery that decorate their lavish castle.
What weaknesses House of the Dragon has are unrelated to execution. Instead, they’re with a story inherently less approachable than Thrones’, which at least offered the Starks as accessible (read: sympathetic) entry points. House of the Dragon is named for a family that practices ritual incest and whose members make decisions that seem to invite their own downfall. Pacing, too, can be a problem. In a saga that skips months or years between episodes, pivotal events are lost in the gaps between chapters. It’s hard for us to mourn the end of an illicit love affair, for example, when we never witnessed its beginning. The pace does slow down as the Dance of the Dragons draws near; it’s better to race to the start than the finish, as Thrones did, though still not ideal.
Other issues are more conceptual—and harder to tease out from House of the Dragon’s central selling point. The show clearly understands what made Game of Thrones work; it’s effectively an entire series of the political jockeying that made for Martin’s shrewdest twist on high fantasy. (Think the horse-trading scenes with Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell, or Tyrion’s tenure as hand, or Littlefinger’s many lectures.) But House of the Dragon works so hard to replicate Thrones, effectively and attentively, that it rarely tries to differentiate itself. As strange as this is to say about a wildly expensive production with an entire franchise riding on its back, the show puts a ceiling on its own ambitions.
Some repetition is intentional. Martin and Condal are making a point about the cyclical nature of history by populating the cast with familiar archetypes. A weak king named Viserys threatens to throw his realm into chaos. A sweet-natured young woman learns the hard way to toughen up. A man with a physical disability uses his brains to get ahead. The same themes that run through House of the Dragon—that desire and duty are a deadly mix; that intentions mean nothing without the power to back them up—run through all of Martin’s work. House of the Dragon has many virtues, but novelty can’t be one of them. If Game of Thrones broke the wheel, House of the Dragon keeps the car running.