Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the first episode of House of the Dragon.
It’s been a little over three years since Game of Thrones went off the air. That show’s disappointing final season and conclusion did a lot of damage to its brand – and may be a contributing factor to the delay in concluding the series of novels upon which it was originally based. As I wrote once, the incredibly negative reception to the way that Game of Thrones ended effectively killed any residual support the show had and removed it from our collective cultural conversation. The show’s legacy is the reshaping of the world of entertainment, with high fantasy enjoying a renaissance, multi-season serialised stories coming to the fore, the “disposable casts” of characters who could be killed off at any moment, and more besides. But Game of Thrones itself isn’t the phenomenon it once was.
The rise of big-budget fantasy and genre shows in the wake of Game of Thrones has led to projects like The Rings of Power, which will premiere next month, as well as The Wheel of Time, The Witcher, and even to an extent shows like Star Trek: Discovery, which has brought into the Star Trek franchise some of the tenets of storytelling in this post-Thrones world. All of these projects, and others like them, mean that there’s intense competition for viewers in this space.
This is the environment in which House of the Dragon has premiered. Undermined by the evident failures of Game of Thrones’ final season and no longer a singular phenomenon, the series has to attempt to carve out a new niche and demonstrate that it can bring something at least superficially different to the table. More of the same won’t cut it for fans who were left disappointed by Game of Thrones, and with ever more big-budget shows in the fantasy space, House of the Dragon has a lot of work to do. Based on its premiere episode, I’m not sure it will be up to the task.
House of the Dragon needs to define itself, to stand on its own two feet and demonstrate how it can be something new and different rather than just “more Game of Thrones,” and in its premiere it did nothing of the sort. The story outline feels incredibly familiar, with a focus on quarrelling aristocratic factions as they vie for the throne. The aesthetic and feel of the series have scarcely moved, with the same costumes, sets, music, and even cinematography clearly trying to emulate what has come before. It brought back as much sex, violence, and gore as it could fit into its premiere episode, too – all hallmarks of Game of Thrones, and elements that helped that series to stand out from the pack in its early seasons.
House of the Dragon introduces us to an ageing, weakened king, a young Targaryen princess, a mad Targaryen prince, and even has the audacity to dump in some foreshadowing of the Night King, the Long Winter, and events we saw unfold in Game of Thrones in a particularly ham-fisted sequence that laid on the exposition with some pretty clunky dialogue. I guess some kind of overt connection to Game of Thrones was inevitable – but it didn’t need to come in the premiere, and it certainly could’ve been toned down or at least worded less clumsily.
In terms of visual effects, I again felt House of the Dragon did not excel – particularly when considering the sky-high budget afforded to the series by HBO. There were too many moments where the blending of CGI with real actors and sets was noticeable, such as during long establishing shots of the jousting tournament. Visual differences between what the camera picked up and what the artists and animators imagined were noticeable enough to pull me out of some sequences altogether. Some fully-animated sequences, such as a flyover of Kings Landing early in the episode, likewise strayed into the “uncanny valley,” and when we’ve seen lesser shows with lower budgets pull off similar sequences much better, House of the Dragon has definitely come up short.
This one is purely a personal taste thing, but I don’t like the refurbished throne room set. The iconic Iron Throne is now framed by a small forest of foam-rubber swords that neither improve its look from Game of Thrones nor come close to recreating its appearance as described in the original novel series. The effect looks cheap, and while I’ll credit the creative team for doing something to try to differentiate the series from its predecessor, for me it doesn’t work.
So far, I see no evidence that HBO has truly taken to heart the criticisms fans had of Game of Thrones as that series came to its end. “More of the same” isn’t going to cut it, and House of the Dragon feels like the second coming of Game of Thrones – and that isn’t for the better. If it was 2010 all over again, maybe it would indeed be good enough. But in a television landscape that has completely changed over the past twelve years, House of the Dragon has to do more than that. When compared with other offerings in the same genre on other networks or streaming services, House of the Dragon manages to feel aggressively average.
The Rings of Power is hot on the heels of House of the Dragon, and despite also taking place in a long-established world, that series feels newer and fresher, somehow, than House of the Dragon does. I can’t escape the feeling that we’re going to get a story that will ultimately feel rather samey, and while that doesn’t mean there won’t be twists, turns, and excitement along the way, I’m not convinced that that will be good enough. House of the Dragon has a legacy to live up to – but it also has a legacy it must surpass. When it comes to the latter, there’s no evidence that it’s even willing to try – at least, nothing of the sort was forthcoming in the series premiere.
Familiar musical stings, recycled sets, and character archetypes who harken back to the “glory days” of Game of Thrones’ early seasons can’t be all that House of the Dragon has to offer. The series needs to have the ambition to go beyond what its predecessor achieved and set a new benchmark. Moreover, trying to pluck those nostalgic strings really won’t take House of the Dragon very far with fans who came away from Game of Thrones feeling let down. Right now, I’m trying to decide whether the series is worth pursuing; whether this time a decent ending has been planned out with a roadmap to get there that keeps the entertainment value going. That’s where Game of Thrones came unstuck, so if House of the Dragon’s sales pitch is just “we’re doing Game of Thrones again!” then I’m out. I won’t make it past the first few episodes – because what’s the point?
For now, though, I’ll stick with House of the Dragon to see what comes next after this underwhelming debut. I can forgive a degree of looking backwards in a series premiere that aims to reach out to an audience that it hopes to bring back; casual viewers who may not follow fantasy but who showed up in droves for Game of Thrones. If House of the Dragon can begin the task of differentiating itself and standing on its own two feet in the episodes ahead, that will be a greatly positive thing and something that will certainly hold my attention.
House of the Dragon will continue to face stiff competition for as long as it remains on the air. Rising to meet that competition is the task the series now faces – a task that, arguably, its predecessor didn’t have to deal with. The shadow of Game of Thrones looms large in more ways than one, and time will tell whether House of the Dragon truly has what it takes to convince audiences that the world of Westeros is deserving of a second look.
House of the Dragon is available to stream now on HBO Max in the United States. The series is broadcast on Sky Atlantic in the United Kingdom and on the NOW TV catch-up service. House of the Dragon is available internationally via a patchwork of different channels and/or streaming platforms. House of the Dragon, Game of Thrones, and other properties mentioned above are the copyright of HBO and Warner Bros.-Discovery. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.