Ever since Jeff Bezos gazed at Game of Thrones and thought, I gotta get me one of those, the shows we now know as House of the Dragon and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power have been pitted against one another. Both HBO and Amazon set their sights on adapting high-profile IP into a Thrones-esque four-quadrant sensation. Their series’ respective first seasons premiered two weeks apart and will end nine days apart. Each series has the hallmarks of high fantasy, and each is a prequel that represents the culmination of a major media player’s big-budget bid to break through a crowded landscape. For months before their premieres, they seemed to circle each other warily; the actors and creators of one series tended to downplay their concerns about the other, even as each of the shows appeared to be positioned so as to steal a march on the one that was slower to start or finish.
They are, of course, competitors, whatever anyone says. Robert Aramayo, who plays Elrond on The Rings of Power, insisted in August that “there is no rivalry,” but let’s be real: There is a rivalry, just as there was escape and conflict when Darth Vader declared otherwise. But rivalries don’t have to be unhealthy, and the knowledge that an alternative tentpole would be coming out at almost the same time may have given each side an extra reason to make a quality show. The series’ critic scores are roughly equivalent, and both found sizable audiences right out of the Bloody/Black Gate. (Exactly how sizable remains murky in Amazon’s case.) As Dragon and Rings reach the halfway points of their respective seasons, though, one takeaway for watchers of both argues against the idea that the two TV blockbusters are locked in a zero-sum trial by combat with win-or-you-die stakes: how little they overlap in their look, content, and tone.
It’s not just that there’s room in many media diets and streaming budgets for both of these shows—besides, two hours a week and 18 in total between the two seasons doesn’t seem like a prohibitive commitment considering the average American devotes upward of three hours a day to TV. Nor is it just that they’re “not even on the same night” (as George R.R. Martin put it in his own attempt to turn down the heat and deflect the comparisons). The real revelation is how well the competitors actually complement each other. Notwithstanding all the head-to-head hype, they’re not a lot alike; they’re doing distinct things, and each supplies something that the other lacks. I’ve watched episodes of each series back-to-back, and instead of suffering from fantasy fatigue at the end of the double feature, I’m struck by the sense of a balanced meal. The two go together like bread and salt—or, to be fair and balanced, lembas and the best salt in all the Shire. Not only is this “not a death match,” as Martin said, but for viewers it’s more of a friendly handshake or hug.
Sure, the pair share some superficial similarities: prophecies, fancy costumes, an exotic, subtitled tongue or two. They both feature some mythical creatures and make ample use of CGI. But four episodes into both seasons, they haven’t had a whole lot in common for shows that share the same genre and that are often framed as two peas in a Pod by those who can’t tell their orcs from their Crabfeeders.
Visually, Dragon exhibits more medieval vibes, whereas Rings supplements its humble, (middle) earthier settings—and its sequences in the devastated Southlands—with detours to the cavernous Khazad-dûm and ethereal realms like Lindon, Eregion, and Númenor, paradisiacal places perpetually bathed in the glow of golden hour. The show’s architecture, clothing, and color palette pop like living frescoes—on-screen slices of The School of Athens, interspersed with majestic vistas where snowy peaks and waterfalls preside over verdant valleys. No wonder Rings resorts to slow motion to give us more time to admire the view.
Rings also varies its views much more than Dragon: The HBO prequel’s characters are practically shut-ins compared to globe-trotting Galadriel, Halbrand, and Arondir. Thus far, most of Dragon’s events have taken place in King’s Landing, and largely indoors at that. The godswood at the Red Keep is logging lots of minutes, but that garden—and the dark, drafty castles of King’s Landing, Dragonstone, Storm’s End, and Driftmark—can’t compare to the natural splendor of a fully operational New Zealand. Dragon also focuses on far fewer characters than Rings, which incorporates a Thrones-sized ensemble spread out across several locations. What with all the time spent in Númenor, Khazad-dûm, the Southlands, and Eregion, the latest episode of Rings simply skips over the Stranger and the harfoots in Rhovanion, as Episode 3 omitted Elrond and Durin. There’s so much going on that these absences aren’t glaring. Dragon doesn’t always seem as eye-catching or kinetic, but the strength of its structure is that there’s more time and dialogue devoted to exploring each of its characters’ intricacies.
Despite its prophecies and dragonriders, Martin’s world—particularly as rendered in Dragon—is much less mystical and more grounded than J.R.R. Tolkien’s. Dragon has, well, dragons, whereas Rings has orcs, elves, dwarves, and harfoots (not to mention maiar). Rings is also brighter not only in appearance, but in its themes and outlook: It’s about a battle between good and evil, not an internecine struggle for control of a throne. And in keeping with the material in Martin’s and Tolkien’s books, Rings contents itself with a lot less graphic violence and sex (and, thus far—how quaint!—not a single sign of incest). It’s not always anodyne, but it’s a lot less likely to make a parent watching with their kids answer some uncomfortable questions.
Tolkien was a major influence on Martin’s vision for A Song of Ice and Fire, but Martin, who was writing decades later in a tradition that Tolkien shaped, delighted in challenging conventions and toppling tropes. Because these series’ source materials were in a conversation of sorts, the adaptations are also. Thus, they work in concert: Dragon is both an homage to and a deconstruction of the aesthetic and ethos of Rings, and the multiple flavors of fantasy on display makes the tandem feel fresher and more fascinating than either would on its own. In some ways, I wish each one could be a bit more like the other—a Dragon that ranged farther afield, or a Rings in which there were time for deeper character development—but then they really might step on each other’s TV toes. As it is, they carve out their own territories and establish disparate, signature styles.
Fantasy fans—or, to hold up a broader umbrella, TV viewers—don’t need to anoint only one of these shows any more than baseball fans have to limit their awe to either Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani. The only people who have to pick one player are the 30 media members who’ll elect the MVP. Everyone else can just enjoy them taking turns hitting huge three-run homers and sending their fans home happy. Along the same lines, Dragon and Rings can both dominate different calendar days, in their own ways.
None of this is to say that the series are equally rewarding, that they may both win over everyone, or that those who watch both won’t have a favorite. Rings is growing on me, but I’m still a Dragon guy if forced to choose. The point is, though, that I’m not forced to choose: Tuning in to one doesn’t diminish my appetite for the other. Just the opposite, in fact: If one leaves me with a hard-to-reach itch, the other might scratch it. This a classic “Why not both?,” beer-and-tacos situation.
By virtue of the routes they took to our screens, House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power will forever be linked in the trades and the popular imagination. From an industry perspective, perhaps, one show, franchise, and streaming service will “win,” as measured by audience size, subscription growth, number of seasons, and number of spinoffs spawned. For fans, though, there’s no need to get caught up in a streaming-service update of the old-school console wars. Sega and Nintendo both had great games, and Sonic’s success didn’t mean Mario sucked—they just took separate paths to the platforming pantheon. Maybe House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power can both be fantasy standouts that please some of the same people on different days or in different moods. Rings and Dragon, sitting in a tree; whether White Tree or weirwood is fine by me.