TV review: There’s no Jon Snow, Ned Stark or oversexed Lannister twins. But the dragons — and the skulduggery — are on screen from the outset: cc Irish Times//Ed Power.
In hindsight it’s obvious why Game of Thrones went so spectacularly off the rails in its final season. HBO’s full-blooded adaptation of George RR Martin’s bestselling fantasy novels had started as a political thriller in medieval wigs. As its popularity grew it became addicted to spectacle. In the end it was an empty bacchanalia of dragons and ice zombies.
House of the Dragon, the sumptuous, long-awaited and quite dazzling sequel/prequel to Thrones, which comes to Sky Atlantic on Monday, seems determined not to repeat that mistake. Here the dragons are on screen from the outset (contributing towards a reported $16 million-per-episode budget). But so, too, is the skulduggery. And it is within its many smoke-filled rooms, with their many, many candles, that the plot thickens and the series comes fully alive.
Details matter to Thrones buffs, so let the record show that the action opens 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, girlfriend of Jon Snow and would-be overlord of the Seven Kingdoms.
Daenerys was officially the last Targaryen left alive. In House of the Dragon the dynasty is in its pomp. They have their dragons and their magnificent platinum wig, both striking mortal terror into their enemies.
Just as in Game of Thrones, absolute power is the ultimate corrupting influence in Westeros. Where that earlier saga was loosely informed by the War of the Roses — House of Stark/York vs House of Lannister/Lancaster — the inspiration here is King Lear and the archetypal tale of a weak-willed monarch who has a complicated relationship with the women in his life.
Paddy Considine is King Viserys I Targaryen, the well-intentioned yet malleable ruler of Westeros. He’s desperate for a male heir — to secure his legacy and to fend off his psychopathic younger brother. Fortunately, his wife is expecting again. What could possibly go wrong?
Daemon, the Targaryen prince, is played by Matt Smith — and what inspired casting it is: he reeks of roguish entitlement (and has a wonderful hairpiece). It’s like watching Prince Philip from the Crown as the main character in the Witcher video game. Whenever he’s on screen House of the Dragon becomes that bit fierier and sillier.
As the familiar notes of the theme tune sweep in, it’s hard not to feel a flutter in your chest. All of a sudden the terrible finale to Game of Thrones is a fading memory and we are back once again in the Seven Kingdoms
Daemon isn’t the only one eyeing the throne. Covetous glances likewise emanate from the regent’s second-in-command, Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). And from the ambitious power couple Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) and Rhaenys Velaryon (Eve Best).
Rhaenys was once a candidate to succeed her father, the previous king. But because the patriarchy was very much alive and screaming in historical Westeros, she was passed over for her cousin Viserys. Her thirst for power endures.
There is also Viserys’s strong-willed daughter, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. She’s a dragon-fancier like her scheming uncle and a princess determined to become the first woman to sit on the Iron Throne (the iconic perch far bigger and spikier than in Game of Thrones). She is played early on by Milly Alcock, with Emma D’Arcy taking on the role further into the series, which is apparently to jump forward in time.
Smith has complained that House of the Dragon contains a little too much sex for his liking. He is, indeed, lumbered with a perfunctory bonkalong in the opening instalment — while the viewer is treated to the graphic removal of a criminal’s frontal appendage as Daemon’s soldiers go on a rampage through the capital of King’s Landing.
The occasionally wonky willy notwithstanding, House of the Dragon is quite beautiful, its dragons and its mysterious castles twinkling in the mist. One thing the franchise has shed is the Celtic air of the otherworldly, production having shifted from Belfast to the Warner Bros complex in England.
Nevertheless, it is a thrilling return to Westeros. There’s no Jon Snow, no Ned Stark, no oversexed Lannister twins. But there is still a Harrenhal and a King’s Landing while in the background bubbles a plot about pirates wreaking havoc in the Narrow Sea.
They’ve even kept that swooping theme tune — though, alas, the swooping opening credits, and their clockwork map, have gone the way of poor Ned’s head. As those familiar notes sweep in, it’s hard not to feel a flutter in your chest. All of a sudden the terrible finale to Game of Thrones is a fading memory and we are back once again in the Seven Kingdoms. If you are a staunch believer — and there are still a few out there — it is a homecoming to cherish.
House of the Dragon begins on Sky Atlantic at 2am, and again at 9pm, on Monday, August 22nd; it will also be available to stream on Now