(Bloomberg) -- Three years after the very divisive series finale of Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy world has returned to HBO with House of the Dragon.
All the blood, sex, violence, plotting, and dragons that made its predecessor such a pop culture phenomenon are back. Bloomberg Pursuits got an early preview of the first six episodes, which made it clear that fans won’t be disappointed. My own lingering dismay from the Game of Thrones ending was all but wiped from memory, and I predict the new series will make Sunday night on HBO necessary viewing again.
The show is set some 200 years before Thrones, at a time when the white-blond Targaryen dynasty have full control of the Iron Throne due to their fire-breathing dragons. The world feels a bit smaller than in Thrones, as the plot solely follows the Targaryen family’s bloody turmoils instead of jumping among all the Great Houses and the idiosyncratic locations viewers got used to in the first show’s opening credits. Still, the coloring and costumes are brighter and more opulent. This is an era in which the Targaryens flaunt their wealth, power, and status. There’s no time for the drab colors and people you might find at Winterfell, for example.
This is the opposite of a slow burn. The show sets up intrigue and violence within the Dragonlord house from the start. In the opening minutes, the dying King Jaehaerys Targaryen calls together the Great Council to decide on his successor. The choices are down to two of his grandchildren: Rhaenys (Eve Best) or her younger cousin Viserys (Paddy Considine, in top form).
The choice puts Viserys on the Iron Throne and makes Rhaenys the “Queen that never was.” But the sticky problem of succession pops up again for Viserys: He’s not particularly healthy, and there’s plenty of plotting as to whom the crown should pass after he dies.
An early option is Viserys’s first-born daughter Princess Rhaenyra. She’s played by Milly Alcock as a mischievous teenager and with cool detachment as an adult, by Emma D’Arcy, in what are sure to be breakout performances by both actors. Rhaenyra is smart, capable, and a fine dragon rider. Still, Rhaenyra is a woman. As her cousin Rhaenys reminds her, “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend to the Iron Throne.” The misogyny is real at King’s Landing, although the showrunners have promised that this iteration won’t depict graphic on-screen sexual violence.
Further contenders for the throne include Daemon, Viserys’s loose-cannon brother, played with a malevolent glee by a scene-stealing Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame. He’s got miles of charisma but lacks the temperament to rule. Another is his nephew Aegon, the son of Viserys by his much-younger second wife. That’s a lot of platinum wigs!
Not in the running for the Iron Throne but incredibly important to the plot is Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey as a teenager and Olivia Cooke as a grown-up). Alicent is both a victim of the plotting by her father (Rhys Ifans as the Hand to the King) and a driver of the narrative, going from a friend to a foil for Rhaenyra.
Showrunner Ryan Condal has called the show "Succession with dragons," as if the Roy family members were all blond and more disposed to literal backstabbing than the metaphorical kind. The violent delights have violent ends: There are some incredibly disturbing deaths in the show, which viewers have come to expect, including one in the first episode that’s sure to light up Twitter.
At its core, the show offers more of the same. But when Game of Thrones was good, it was great. The showrunners don’t seem to be interested so far in deviating much from the formula that made it such a popular program.
One of the main differences is the primary focus on the female perspective in Westeros. The show examines its lead characters’ roles as mothers and wives, queens or pawns. For example, there’s an uncomfortable scene when the king is offered a young girl for a new wife as a way to cement alliances; she tells him her mother says she doesn’t have to have sex with him until she’s 14. More than once in the show, husbands are made to choose whether or not to cut a child out of their wives’ wombs during difficult labor, knowing that the resulting blood loss would kill the women. This is difficult viewing as characters struggle with, and embrace, the roles given to them by their lots in life.
House of Dragons captures the magic of the earlier seasons of Game of Thrones by focusing on the politicking and feuds via captivating conversations in the throne room and king’s council. These characters are new, but the world of Westeros isn’t. It’s great to be back.
At House of the Dragon’s core, it’s a Shakespearean family drama about the cruelty that fathers and daughters and brothers and sisters will inflict on each other in the quest for power. Life in Westeros is nasty, brutish, and short, as Thomas Hobbes suggested is the natural state, and the show is suitably dark. In this series, there is very little light to the shade, and I miss a character with comedy chops, like Tyrion Lannister. All the characters save Daemon seem to take themselves and their legacies extremely seriously.
A montage in the first episode says everything for me. It’s an unsubtle metaphor in which footage of knights bloodying each other in a joust is interspersed with scenes of a woman giving birth. It shows how, for men and women, blood and death is the ultimate outcome, even if you can command dragons with a single word.
House of the Dragon will debut on Aug. 21.
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