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Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen, facing off against Rhys Ifans as Otto Hightower and Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in HBO’s House of the Dragon Image: Ollie Upton/HBO

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House of the Dragon’s first season shows how good it hurts when you see everything coming

More so than Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon is all about the journey

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From the start, HBO’s House of the Dragon had to contend with an audience that at times seemed like a jilted lover. Game of Thrones, its predecessor, had ended in such a divisive way that any follow-up had to immediately contend with the distaste. HBO’s response, after many, many aborted and still-in-progress attempts, was House of the Dragon: a show based on a story that was done.

The completeness of House of the Dragon’s source material was the biggest selling point to the skeptics, a book that gave the Game of Thrones prequel permission to basically be Game of Thrones but smaller and more conservative, wearing its perfume and shamelessly lifting its theme song. From a distance, this made the show look regressive, like a creative retreat for nervous producers and showrunners concerned with jeopardizing their big-budget cash cow — and in a lot of ways, that read is correct. House of the Dragon is not bold television. It is at times oddly self-referential, with writing more in conversation with the show’s own status as a Game of Thrones spinoff than it is as its own discrete story.

Yet thanks to the odd nature of its source material — George R.R. Martin’s supplemental text Fire & Blood, which is more of a fictional history book than a novel proper — House of the Dragon’s first season was able to relish in the pleasures of what makes good television. Effectively free of the burden of adaptation, the show became a work of interpretation. Given the big historical goalposts of Martin’s book, showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal were free to decide how they thought some events came about, or happened differently. That trickled down to the conversations writers put in the mouths of the Targaryens and those around them, the choices the actors made when depicting the interiority of these characters and their relationships, and in choosing the moments that were worth showing on screen and leaving off screen as its story leapt through years.

Daemon (Matt Smith) placing a crown on Rhaenyra’s (Emma D’Arcy) head Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) standing in front of a crowd of cheering Westeros members of the public, holding his sword in the air triumphantly Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

This isn’t necessarily different from what made Game of Thrones — or any TV show, really — good at its best, but it does serve as a meaningful reframing of the show and its relationship to the audience. It cannot be stressed enough how much of House of the Dragon’s coming plot is just out there. Look up, for example, the name of a dragon, and odds are you will find out something about the Targaryen family that will likely have to be addressed in a future season or episode of the show. Unlike, however, with Game of Thrones — or any adaptation of a more straightforward narrative work — there is much less room for fans to debate about warring intents between the text’s various adaptors and the source material (which is already dubious by design).

In an era of popular culture where spoilerphobia drives so much of the conversation around entertainment, leaving little room to actually discuss art, House of the Dragon inadvertently became a show that is arguably impervious to spoilers — or at the very least, it removes the question of where it’s all going as best as an epic fantasy can. The big signposts are all there for anyone who cares to look: The war that is imminent at the end of “The Black Queen” was always going to come, the friendship between Rhaenyra and Alicent was always going to be dissolved, Rhaenyra’s claim to the throne was always going to be challenged. House of the Dragon is decidedly not a show about whats. It’s a show about whys.

This is the secret to the show’s highs as well as its lows. The climax of its season 1 finale, where Aemond inadvertently kills Luke? George R.R. Martin set them on that collision course in a few lines of text. House of the Dragon, through careful selection of moments in their family history to dramatize and wonderful performances by its cast, rendered that into a moment of heartbreak that would emotionally anchor a war that was always going to happen.

Similarly, the decision of House of the Dragon’s writers to depict Martin’s chronicling of the Targaryen family’s fortunes largely through the suffering of childbirth comes across as gauche. It’s a narrow and reductive way to analyze the gender and power dynamics the show is genuinely interested in as it traces the fortunes of two women who become rivals. Yet the show’s writers and directors continually fixate on it, feebly offering it as restitution for the frequent sexual assault suffered by women in Game of Thrones.

This is a level of critical appreciation that ought to be afforded every show, including Game of Thrones. There’s truth in the old saw of journeys mattering more than destinations, and it’s among the best ways to engage with and appreciate art of all types. What’s remarkable about House of the Dragon’s first season is ultimately its restraint. It’s a show that was free to include all the bombast of dragons and was bold enough to have its biggest moments happen at bedsides and dinner parties, where a misunderstanding or failure to communicate is more devastating than any amount of dragonfire. It’s a show that, despite its stumbles, knows that while endings are memorable, it’s the episodes before them that make them hurt.

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