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Prince Daemon holding a dragon egg with soldiers behind him in House of the Dragon Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

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House of the Dragon makes a case for going all in on Game of Thrones again

The HBO show turns small details into big character moments

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The world of Westeros is just as thrilling as you remember. And maybe that’s a little bit of the problem.

House of the Dragon, the new prequel that returns to the world of Game of Thrones, takes place approximately 172 years before the events of that series. Now we’re seeing a very different King’s Landing, ruled by the Targaryens at the apex of their power. This being a Game of Thrones joint, soon it will all spoil into battles and sex, betrayals and power grabs, politicking both petty and legitimate. But for now, everything is setting up for an epic story.

But since this show is a successor (in our timeline) to the very popular Game of Thrones series, it’s virtually impossible to approach it with a fresh mind. When one makes the choice to sign up for another vast chronicle of Westeros, they’re met with a whole lot of burden about where the story, inevitably, goes. But if the first episode painted with as broad a brush as possible to bring us up to speed on the Westeros of old and its many players, then episode 2 is more of a pointillist portrait of the Targaryen family as it came to be. In “The Rogue Prince,” we zoom in on the finer points of what people care about, all the better setting up House of the Dragon as its own creature entirely.

Perhaps the strongest thing I can say about House of the Dragon is that almost every detail in the show feels worthwhile, with no danger of pulling too hard and unraveling the tapestry it’s weaving. That might seem like damning with faint praise, but Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) is incredibly interested in details — the Dornish knight who has combat experience, or the jewelry she wears to dinner with her dad, King Viserys (Paddy Considine). That she removes the Valyrian steel necklace for a dinner where she hopes to better connect with him is a revealing subtlety in a production stacked with them.

The Small Council meeting with Rhaenyra standing at the table Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

So far much of the family dynamics of House of the Dragon have been less violence and bloodshed and more the heartbreaking meta-communication where two people only seem like they’re talking about the same thing. Viserys cares about nostalgia, waxing poetic to his daughter’s best friend, Alicent (Emily Carey), about the glories of old Valyria and the difficulties of his duties. But in the presence of his daughter, he can’t sit and listen enough to hear what she’s really trying to get at. When Rhaenyra broaches the awkward moment during the Small Council meeting, he tries to save her what he sees as further embarrassment — “You’re young; you will learn” — missing an opportunity to actually talk to her much at all. It’s not a leap from this to see how Rhaenyra sees the situation as less her own rise to power and more being chosen to spurn Daemon. House of the Dragon presents both Rhaenyra and Viserys with empathy, but it also just presents them incredibly clearly. It’s hard to fault either one of them for both being trapped by convention.

That Viserys and Rhaenyra rely on the same person — Alicent — to help them through their grief is just a cruelty of fate, but it’s one for which the show also has laid careful emotional groundwork. In just two episodes House has made a case for why they both feel seen, while also making sure Alicent and her care for both of them doesn’t ring false.

That’s the way House of the Dragon won me over, and it feels built to reward rewatch. The show is packed with forceful smaller beats, like the maester looking to the Hand of the King to coax Viserys through his emotional rejection of marriage proposals, and the visual composition of the show follows suit. This does feel like old-school Game of Thrones, only here that’s not some backhanded compliment about the lingering aftertaste of the eighth season. At its peak that show was one that could demand your attention and reward it with telling character notes and stories grounded in a million little moments. In its second episode, House of the Dragon proves itself capable of doing the same.

Rhaenyra standing and looking down Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Daemon sitting at a table at Dragonstone, looking full of ennui as he stares out the murky window Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

The focal point of Sunday’s episode (and where it gets closest to the traditional swords-drawn action that audiences associate with the franchise) is at Dragonstone, as all the details come to a head in one of the earliest tests of Rhaenyra. She’s come to the Targaryen castle where Daemon (Matt Smith) has been squatting for some time, and she hopes to avoid the bloodshed Otto Hightower’s (Rhys Ifans) efforts would have certainly led to. She succeeds, appropriately sizing Daemon’s bluff up for what it is: the smug act of an asshole with the impulse control and harebrained schemes of a middle schooler. But still the scene is all tension, with the camera ping-ponging around the various players and their respective motivations for having ended up on those Dragonstone steps. And it works (whether or not you believe the CGI background of it all).

Perhaps she still had her aunt Rhaenys’ (Eve Best) words ringing in her ears, reminding her that though she is a named heir she is still carrying her father’s cups, or perhaps it was the visual of her dad going on a date with a 12-year-old. Either way, it adds up to a clearer portrait of who Alcock’s Rhaenyra is and who she might grow to be. When her father conceives of a threat he thinks generally, warning her only to fend off “whomever may dare to challenge us.” But Rhaenyra knows that threat could come from anywhere, and she’s proven herself to be game to the challenge no matter what comes her way.

Which is good, since, as this episode is quick to remind us, there are threats outside King’s Landing. Within the first few moments of the episode, before we even know what we’re seeing or hearing, we know it’s grabbing and horrifying. These details could amount to nothing, but here, in its second episode, House of the Dragon makes them revealing: There are dangers of all sorts in this world; the Crabfeeder and his nautical horror is just the start. But it’s enough to wash away the memory of season 8 and its “best stories.” For now, it’s enough to just have fun with Westeros again.

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