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Viserys on the Iron Throne looking at his daughter standing in front of him looking regal Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

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House of the Dragon’s pilot is playing the long game

It’s one piece of a very long story

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After eight seasons and more than a decade as a pop-culture sensation, it’s easy to forget that Game of Thrones wasn’t a surefire hit when it first arrived on HBO in 2011. With the original Lord of the Rings film trilogy firmly in the cultural rearview, and no fantasy stories rising to take its place (including the often forgotten Hobbit trilogy), it didn’t seem likely to catch on at all. But that’s not the case with HBO’s new successor show House of the Dragon. Fantasy TV is big business, Lord of the Rings is back, and plenty of people are already desperate to love Game of Thrones again after the disappointment of its last couple seasons. And House of the Dragon’s pilot makes great use of its audience’s good faith.

The franchise hopes to move forward by looking backward; House of the Dragon is a prequel set around 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones. The series will tell the story of an event known as the Dance of the Dragons, essentially a Targaryen civil war over the succession of the Iron Throne, which turned all of Westeros against itself.

These events make up the last half of the book Fire & Blood by A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin. But with half a book coming before we get to all that, House of the Dragon has a whole lot of table setting to do before things really get going. And it appears to be taking its time and getting there carefully — in fact, the pilot is basically a prequel to the prequel, set over a decade before the major fighting in the Dance of the Dragons will occur and featuring its two most important characters as teenagers rather than adults.

Alicent and Rhaenyra walking and talking Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Alicent and Rhaenyra standing and looking tensely at each other Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

Game of Thrones opens with an ice zombie, then slowly, step by step, introduces you to all of its main characters — some who are only around for a season and some who last the entire series. Thanks to a few clever shortcuts, by the end of the first episode, viewers have clear heroes to root for, clear villains to hate, and at least three or four different storylines that are all just getting started.

By comparison, House of the Dragon’s pilot opens on a meeting about who will be king next and barely introduces anyone. The main plot is somewhat fuzzy, and it’s not clear if anyone is worth rooting for just yet — after all, Rhaenyra and Alicent won’t stay friends forever. It’s a densely packed hour that feels designed for revisiting once the season (or maybe even the series) can be watched as a whole. It’s not hard to imagine that the pilot could leave some viewers feeling a little lost. The series throws you into a sea of laws, plots, blond wigs, and complicated names, assuming that you’ll figure most of it out eventually.

But House of the Dragon is designed for the obsessive, detail-oriented audience that Game of Thrones helped create. In the beginning of the original series, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss feared it would be too confusing for audiences. They cut corners and eliminated characters for convenience, cost, and clarity, which seemed smart early on. But the showrunners vastly underestimated their audience, which proved disastrous later on when they were missing some of their story’s key pieces. By the time the show reached its cultural apex, even fans who had never touched Martin’s original novels had crafted elaborate theories and could tell you all about the prophecy of Azor Ahai.

Viserys talking to his daughter in front of an altar with a bunch of candles and a giant dragon skull in House of the Dragon Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

House of the Dragon, at least based on its pilot, seems intent on avoiding that mistake. It seems built for an audience that’s primed for complicated plots and character deep dives, and is just as committed to learning the difference between Rhaenys, Rhaenyra, and Rhaena as A Song of Ice and Fire readers have been since 1996. It’s also laying the groundwork for a very specific ending that’s already in sight thanks to Fire & Blood, which should give Thrones fans some peace of mind going forward.

It’s a high degree of trust to place in viewers, but that trust works both ways; viewers have to believe the series is worth their time too, and that’s one place where House of the Dragon’s pilot succeeds. House of the Dragon’s pilot is still entertaining and intriguing. It’s got the gory fights and clever conversations that made Game of Thrones’ first few seasons stand out from other shows at the time — and it’s even got a bit of the series’ trademark “sexposition,” with important character moments set amid orgies.

Rhaenys and Corlys at the jousting match. She is standing looking at him, and he’s sitting. Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

It even proves itself to be an essential text for fans on its own, by revealing a secret about Aegon the Conqueror, one of Westeros’ most famous and important historical figures, that both viewers and readers had long wondered about but hadn’t been confirmed until now — not even in Fire & Blood. But even with all that in its favor, it’s purposefully not as quick or instantly enthralling as Game of Thrones’ debut episode was more than a decade ago.

This approach to a series’ opening episode feels like an acknowledgement that television is very different now than it was when Game of Thrones premiered in 2011. That show’s pilot was a million-dollar bet on an ambitious new series. House of the Dragon, on the other hand, is a billion-dollar bet on a complete story and, WarnerMedia hopes, an entire universe of content and spinoffs. Game of Thrones, in its early days, was built to hook viewers one episode at a time and drive seasonal subscriptions to HBO. Extending the show a bit of benefit of the doubt, House of the Dragon’s first episode is designed to be one part of a complete story, built to live in HBO Max’s content library forever as a brief snapshot of a fictional universe’s history.

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