Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones Seasons 1-8 and the teaser trailer for House of the Dragon.
Practically everyone I’ve spoken to, from hardcore fans to casual viewers, felt that Game of Thrones ended in a way that was rushed and disappointing. Individual reasons for disappointment may vary, but the broad consensus is that Game of Thrones Season 8 – and to a degree parts of Seasons 6 and 7 too – didn’t provide fans with a satisfying ending to a well-established, decade-long story. Now that we’ve seen the first teaser for House of the Dragon, and gotten a release window of 2022, the question I want to ask is simple: can the new series successfully bring back fans who were disappointed with the way that Game of Thrones ended?
I haven’t gone back to re-watch Game of Thrones since it went off the air in mid-2019, and I’m not alone. As I wrote last year, at the height of the pandemic when folks were stuck at home looking for films and shows to binge-watch, Game of Thrones didn’t even enter the conversation. The way the ending landed for fans was so bad that it made going back and starting over an unappealing prospect. Despite the first few seasons being some of the best serialised television ever brought to screen, even those fantastic scenes and episodes are now tainted for many fans with the knowledge that the story they set up went off the rails.
This article isn’t a re-hash of my Game of Thrones Season 8 arguments. If you want to get my full thoughts on what happened with Game of Thrones, I have a two-part essay which you can find by clicking or tapping here. Instead I want to use Game of Thrones Season 8 as a starting point for the conversation about House of the Dragon, because whatever HBO and George R R Martin might want people to focus on as the new show’s marketing campaign kicks off, there can be no denying that it exists in its predecessor’s shadow – for better or for worse.
One thing that struck me about the House of the Dragon teaser was how heavily the new series is borrowing from Game of Thrones in terms of aesthetic. It’s a prequel set in the same universe, so similarities are to be expected, but if I didn’t know any better or I’d been out of the loop for a couple of years, you could’ve shown me the teaser and told me it was Game of Thrones Season 9 and I’d have believed it. We aren’t just talking about obvious things either, like the Hand of the King badge or the throne room set. The way the teaser used camera shots, the lighting for scenes and characters, and even the music all leaned very heavily on Game of Thrones.
It’s hard to see House of the Dragon as its own thing right now, and that could become an issue for HBO. Any prequel or spin-off naturally relies on what came before, but when you compare House of the Dragon to similar projects, there are key differences. Star Trek: Enterprise created an entirely new look for its 22nd Century setting, one which aimed to blend the modern world with Star Trek’s futuristic technology in a way that felt like a half-step between the world of 2001 and Captain Kirk’s 23rd Century. It didn’t always succeed at that, but it made the effort to distinguish itself from other parts of the Star Trek franchise.
Even the Star Wars prequels changed up significant visual elements. Some of the starships and armour designs shown off in the prequel trilogy managed to feel like a natural ancestor of the familiar Star Destroyers and Stormtrooper helmets we knew and loved from the original films. Other prequels and spin-offs likewise make an effort to appear new, different, or to have at least some distinctive elements that make the project unique. I didn’t see any of that in the House of the Dragon teaser.
When HBO greenlit House of the Dragon and considered scripts and story treatments for at least four other Game of Thrones spin-offs, the original show was riding high. Maybe Seasons 6 and 7 had started the process of tarnishing its halo a little, but there was hope and optimism that Season 8 would see the series end on an explosive high note – setting the stage for prequels and spin-offs and getting fans incredibly hyped for what was to come. The ending of Season 8 killed much of that hype stone-dead, and in the intervening couple of years it really does feel like Game of Thrones has completely dropped out of our collective cultural conversation.
In that environment, House of the Dragon needed to do more in this first look to reassure wayward fans that lessons have been learned and that there won’t be a repeat of Game of Thrones Season 8. The teaser needed to demonstrate that House of the Dragon will be worth fans’ time and investment because it’s something different, a series with a planned story that won’t go off the rails. By showing us something that felt very familiar and very samey, this first teaser hasn’t achieved any of those objectives. Instead it seemed explicitly designed to offer fans more of the same – more Game of Thrones. It’s as if the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Season 8 fell entirely on deaf ears at HBO.
Imagine being a huge Star Wars fan, then absolutely hating Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to remember now, but that film was once considered the weakest part of the Star Wars trilogy, with fans deriding things like the Ewoks and the Death Star redux storyline. But imagine being a Star Wars fan who’d absolutely detested the way Return of the Jedi ended – and then a few years later being offered the Star Wars prequels and The Phantom Menace. Would you want to go back and get invested in that world all over again? Or would you be cautious, unwilling to make a commitment to a new story when the last one just plain sucked? That’s the position many Game of Thrones fans – or ex-fans – are in at the moment. HBO is offering more Game of Thrones to a fanbase embittered by the way Season 8 was handled.
None of this addresses the merits of House of the Dragon. The series may very well be good – as the first five-plus seasons of Game of Thrones were. But the task that lies before it is a difficult one, and I don’t think that the way it’s being marketed – at least based on this first teaser – has helped.
House of the Dragon has to demonstrate that there’s more to Westeros than Daenerys, Jon Snow, and the Night King. It has to take a familiar setting and make us care about new characters and new factions all over again, to reset the lands of A Song of Ice and Fire and potentially tee up even more shows and films down the line. It has the task that Star Trek: The Next Generation had in 1987 – to demonstrate that a successful series can become a successful franchise.
For all of the lore and detailed history of Westeros that George R R Martin has written over the years, only one part of that has thus far made it to the screen. Many fans, even those deeply invested in the television show during its run, were only aware of events like Robert’s Rebellion, Aegon’s Conquest, or the Dance of Dragons from throwaway lines spoken by characters in dialogue. The lore of Game of Thrones was backstory for the events happening in that show – and whether any of it will translate to standalone projects and stories is now up for debate.
Where Game of Thrones excelled in its earlier seasons was its sense of scale. The world-building beyond the characters we got to know was exquisitely handled, and it was only in the latter part of Season 7 and through Season 8, as the number of characters and locales shrunk, that that sense of scale diminished. In short, the world of Westeros does feel lived-in, as though there are more stories out there to be told. That’s a huge point in favour of House of the Dragon – and other potential spin-offs that may be coming in future.
House of the Dragon also has the task of trying to appeal to new fans. Perhaps those who tried Game of Thrones but found its large number of characters confusing in those first few episodes, or fans of the books who didn’t give Game of Thrones a chance, as well as a broader television audience. The show can’t just rely on fans of the original series to flock back – it has to have more to offer beyond the existing fanbase.
With The Witcher Season 2 coming soon, Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel, The Wheel of Time, and now House of the Dragon, there’s a lot for fans of fantasy to look forward to. That’s also a potential pitfall for House of the Dragon, though, as Game of Thrones blazed a trail in the big-budget fantasy television genre that others are now scrambling to follow. House of the Dragon won’t have the genre all to itself, and Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series in particular will be a major competitor.
Although I have gripes with the way Game of Thrones ended, I’m interested to see more of Westeros. But “interested” is as much as I can muster right now. I’m not hyped, I’m not excited. I’m interested… cautiously so. HBO has work to do to rebuild trust between its creative team and the fanbase, and the number one objective has to be convincing lapsed fans to get back aboard the hype train. I don’t believe that the right way to go about that is simply to say “here’s more of the same,” because that’s what fans got burned by last time. House of the Dragon has to balance its place in the expanded franchise with offering something at least slightly different, and from this first teaser I saw nothing even superficially so.
I’d love to see House of the Dragon be successful. Heck, I’d like to see it surpass Game of Thrones and reinvigorate interest in Westeros and A Song of Ice and Fire after the disastrous ending to Game of Thrones tainted the brand. Maybe then George R R Martin might actually finish the novels! A fan can dream, eh?
House of the Dragon will stream on HBO Max in 2022. All properties mentioned above – including Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon – are the copyright of HBO and/or Warner Bros. Television. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.