“Second of His Name,” the third episode of House of the Dragon, opens, fittingly enough, with fire and blood. Daemon Targaryen has gone to war, and astride his serpentine dragon, Caraxes, he rains destruction on the foreign pirates ravaging the Stepstone islands off Westeros’s eastern shore.
Sure, the king’s brother doesn’t succeed in broiling Craghas Drahar, a.k.a. the Crabfeeder, because the admiral of the opposing forces escapes Caraxes’s flames in a cave. But in just one pass atop his dragon, Daemon disposes of dozens of his enemies with ease.
And yet, as the episode continues, the audience learns new information: Apparently, despite having multiple dragons on his side, Daemon and his allies are on the verge of losing this war.
The third House of the Dragon episode is the most uneven of the crop thus far, with interpersonal highs countered by the lows of one of the weakest action sequences in the history of the televised Game of Thrones universe. But the Stormtrooper-lite aim of the Crabfeeder’s archers and the episode’s anticlimax are not the most overarching issues that “Second of His Name” reveals. Rather, the problem is that Dragon’s time jumps are muddling its momentum, and may continue to do so for episodes to come.
Six months pass between Dragon’s pilot and its second episode, as the latter reminds the audience numerous times, and an even longer gap greets viewers tuning in for Episode 3. Roughly three years have passed this time, since the widowed King Viserys announced Alicent Hightower as his new bride and Daemon teamed up with Corlys Velaryon to fight in the Stepstones. In the gap between episodes, Viserys and Alicent planned a royal wedding, conceived a son, and saw him grow for two years—and yet, not much in the realm has changed.
To be fair, any adaptation of Fire & Blood, the fictional historical text that details the Dance of the Dragons—the civil war toward which Dragon is leading—would have to play with the passage of time. In Game of Thrones, the events that precede the War of Five Kings all happen in a relative blur: Barely seven months pass between when Jaime Lannister pushes Bran Stark out of a tower and Robb Stark raises an army. Heck, the three Dragon episodes thus far have encapsulated more time than the entire five-book ASOIAF series to date.
The buildup to the Dance of the Dragons is much slower. This is the “story of a generational war,” showrunner Ryan Condal said before the season. Nearly three decades pass between the Great Council shown in Dragon’s opening scene and the start of the Dance, and inciting events throughout that entire period lead the way, like breadcrumbs on a trail, to war. Unless it relied on annoyingly persistent flashbacks, Dragon was always going to have to use time skips to tell its story.
But on the actual screen, the effect of the time jumps thus far is to create a staccato rhythm, with little momentum building between episodes. To fill in the gaps from moment to moment, the show veers too far into telling, not showing—as it does in the Stepstones, when it tells the audience, repeatedly, that Daemon is losing the war, without ever showing him struggle in a battle or falter on a raid or lose his men.
The broader idea of time jumps is reminiscent of a behind-the-scenes quirk of the book series that formed the basis of the Game of Thrones show. For a while, author George R.R. Martin planned to introduce a five- or six-year gap between books three (A Storm of Swords) and four (A Feast for Crows). This time jump would have allowed young characters in apprentice positions—like Arya in Braavos or Bran beyond the Wall—to train and gain skills.
But Martin soon discovered that the gap didn’t work for all his characters, and he abandoned the plan after a year of futile efforts (which were just the beginning of his lengthy delays between volumes). The issue, Martin said, was that a time jump meant that he’d need to either write too many flashbacks or settle for a different undesirable solution:
The other alternative was [that] nothing happened in those six years, which seemed anticlimactic. The Jon Snow stuff was even worse, because at the end of Storm he gets elected lord commander. I’m picking up there, and writing “Well five years ago, I was elected lord commander. Nothing much has happened since then, but now things are starting to happen again.” I finally, after a year, said, “I can’t make this work.”
That’s kind of what happens in Dragon, however. Other than Prince Aegon’s birth, apparently nothing of note happened between episodes. The Seven Kingdoms are mostly at peace in this era, so perhaps important moments arise less frequently than they do during the constant tumult of Thrones. The Fire & Blood source text hopscotches around this portion of Targaryen history, as well; it’s only as the Dance approaches that time slows.
But at its best, the Thrones universe is full to the brim with stories, which span geography and class and religion and philosophy. Dragon already employs a narrower depth of field, zooming in on the Targaryens and King’s Landing rather than the many families and places that characterized Thrones. Now the prequel is making the narrative landscape seem more barren, too, by giving the impression that years can pass with little story of consequence.
To their credit, some of the references to events and feelings over the three jumped years in “Second of His Name” succeed in subtle fashion. Hearing that Rhaenyra and Daemon haven’t spoken since their encounter on Dragonstone’s bridge in “The Rogue Prince,” meaning no contact for three years, shows rather succinctly the dissolution of their once-intimate relationship.
Yet other gaps are more puzzling. Has Otto Hightower, an inveterate schemer who successfully finagled his way to become the king’s father-in-law, really waited until now to try pushing his grandson, Aegon, on a path toward the Iron Throne? Viewers also miss key opportunities for drama, such as Viserys and Alicent’s wedding: In Fire & Blood, Corlys and Daemon don’t attend at all, underscoring their break with Viserys’s plans.
Or take the deteriorated friendship between Alicent and Rhaenrya, now that the former has married the latter’s dad. The strain on their relationship manifests early in “Second of His Name,” when they counter each other’s orders to a singer, but this is a more broadly puzzling decision given other changes Dragon’s made to the source material. In Fire & Blood, Alicent is nine years older than Rhaenyra, and they don’t appear to have much of a relationship before Alicent becomes queen. But Dragon chose to bring them closer together, in both age and friendship, ostensibly to heighten the drama when Alicent becomes queen. (This choice also has the side effect of widening the age gap between Viserys and Alicent, rendering their marriage a bit skeevier.)
Instead, the show zooms right past the moment when Rhaenyra learns of the betrothal, and the wedding, and the birth of Alicent’s son—allowing audiences to see only the aftermath of the onetime best friends’ fallout, not the fallout itself.
And when audiences begin to expect time jumps between episodes, it’s harder to grow invested in the drama depicted on screen, because it’s a given that any consequences won’t be immediate. More time jumps of various distances are coming, after all—including one pre-announced big one of 10 years, after which Emma D’Arcy will assume the role of Rhaenyra, replacing Milly Alcock, and Olivia Cooke will play Alicent, replacing Emily Carey.
At least this is a temporary problem, because Dragon won’t persist down this path forever; the show will presumably stop jumping so much once it crests that 10-year gap. Knowing the contours of the story to come from the source text, it’s likely that by the end of Season 1, the action won’t continue to string out over the course of so many months and years.
For now, though, an otherwise gripping show is losing some of its narrative propulsion when it skips around so much, and so unevenly. Many other shows have incorporated time jumps successfully in their final seasons, or between seasons—but rarely so often or so early between episodes, when trying to attract and retain an initial audience. Dragon is, in many ways, a logistically more challenging adaptation than Thrones, and the seams have started to bulge.