by Henry Donald
It's fine. If you came to House of the Dragon hoping to be delivered to the heights of Game of Thrones season 4, you will be sorely disappointed. Or for that matter seasons 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. There are plenty of visually stunning battles, Lannisters, Targaryans, and Dragons, but the show lacks what made its predecessor and sequel so enthralling, the dialogue and structure that endeared (or detested) us from its characters and their fates. Hampered by an extravagant budget, House of the Dragon is too quick to depict incredible battles and majestic dragons, missing what made them so enjoyable. Additionally, a focus on female empowerment and its ostensibly more progressive outlook than Game of Thrones is undercut by the obviously self-aggrandizing tone and propensity to depict violence for shock value.
One of the most striking differences between the opening episodes of Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon is the dialogue. Characters in Game of Thrones speak cleverly and often with distinction, but their lexicon is not unfamiliar to the viewer. Undoubtedly aided by the superior acting of Game of Thrones, communication has subtext upon subtext: Tyrion and Cersei and even Ned weaving witty remarks, parental advice and threats together seamlessly, often in the same words. Monologues, when they do occur, feel truly menacing or inspiring: Tyrion’s pleas at his trial and Baelish’s pronouncement that chaos is a ladder still ring in my ears. Conversations feel natural and dramatic, each line further characterizing the characters as containing complex and contradictory motives to country or house or family. In House of the Dragon, conversation feels coerced in search of drama, concocted by writers who preferred consulting a thesaurus of old English to literature. Written in a terrible replication of Shakespearian language with none of the complexity or heart that made Shakespeare Shakespeare, you can practically hear the writers’ room when any character speaks, awkwardly mixing antiquated sentence structure with more modern speak. Aesthetically this pulls the viewer from their engagement, but hurts the characterization of the show on a deeper level. When writers resort to platitudes rather than wits, preferring to proffer contrived dramatization to genuine moments of connection found all throughout Game of Thrones, they deprived the viewer of an opportunity to learn more about the characters, what motivates them, who they love, why they are fighting. Relationships aren’t given a chance to evolve, and viewers aren’t enabled to connect with the characters but instead marvel at them.
The structure of the beginning of Game of Thrones is brilliantly paced. Battles come rarely, and when they do are epic and memorable, dragons take seasons between their introduction and destruction. Blackwater and The Battle of the Bastards remain as memorable as the day I viewed them. The time skipping of house of the Dragon absolutely demolishes its own structure. To engage with a climax, there must be a rising action. When you jump right into fire and pageantry you offer nowhere for the viewers’ expectations to go but down. Without a proper build up, the writers of the House of the Dragon have cornered themselves into delivering on impossible promises, to one up themselves eternally when their budget will only stretch so far. Additionally, the time jumps break the continuity of the show. We don’t care about the triarchy or the Crabfeeder, as he is only a villain for three episodes. Even if he is not a main antagonist, the failure to even attempt to portray him and his motivations fails the wider purposes of the characterization of Daemon and Rhaenyra. We are told the war has lasted three years and caused great harm to the seven kingdoms, but how are we supposed to emotionally connect with exposition? House of the Dragon attempts to claim the exalted status of prestige drama entirely offscreen, fast forwarding through the character growth, and aftermath of conflict, and catastrophe that would make the audience care about the show. The pacing of Game of Thrones built up to the epic heights of Hardhome and the Red Wedding like a methodical chess game, each player playing the long game, trying to outsmart their opponent, moves taking seasons to pay off, building suspension for that eventuality. House of the Dragon simply has Paddty Considine exclaim it’s been however many years at the beginning of each episode. You can’t have the payoff of epic battles without the care put into constructing the participants so that you care about the outcome.
Finally, and potentially most egregiously, House of the Dragon attempts to claim its spot amongst the best of HBO by blatantly appealing to the current political climate rather than the more essential and timeless humanistic themes of literature. While certainly not perfect, mainly in terms of later character arcs and depictions of sexual violence, Game of Thrones portrayed powerful female characters. Dany, Arya, Cersei, and Sansa amongst others had competing loyalties to friends, lovers, children, power, bannermen, common people, religions, and trades. They had rich histories and growth marked by self-empowerment. By appealing to the classical themes of literature, love, obligation, duty, honor, greed, but recontextualizing them in the hands of women protagonists, too often ignored in high fantasy, Game of Thrones successfully incorporated feminist ideals. By granting female characters autonomy and depth because they were characters equally as worthy of attention as male characters, they were able to help bridge the gender gap in prestige television and media as a whole. House of the Dragon is proud of its female protagonists. It puts them front and center in the marketing, producers talk openly about how childbirth is the real battlefield and every other character in the show reminds the audience that a woman should never ascend to the Iron Throne. While women in Game of Thrones were constrained by the patriarchy, their struggle was encapsulated in implicit systems of control, dehumanizing acts of obedience, and derogatory dialogue. While Game of Thrones could have reined in the obscenity, this more subtle approach to depicting the patriarchy proved to be more effective at demonstrating its ubiquity and strength. When characters in the House of the Dragon make reference to it, there is not nearly as widespread a depiction of the struggles women in Westeros face, the show preferring to skip over the more mundane but potentially overbearing and brutal methods of control to the girlboss moment of defiance. Sansa’s ascent to power was impactful because the viewer understood the forces she was up against, personally and politically. When House of the Dragon shows the victory without the struggle, it cheapens the fight, breaks the immersion of the show, and undermines its messaging. The showrunners also show their priorities clearly even in the first episode with over the top violence not even seen in Game of Thrones, most noticeably in an excruciatingly prolonged childbirth scene. Watching the scene felt like gore, festishing the struggle for the sake of purely shocking the viewer. Instead of spending her short lived screen time fleshing out her character, we watch her suffer and bleed out on her childbearing bed. The showrunners preference for shock over nuance is just as apparent in their continual use of child marriages. Suggesting marriages between adults and infants, a king decades older than a prepubescent child is a pastime of the small council. They are introduced with such fervor you are made to consider not the destructive nature of child marriage but rather question how far the writers will go. This scenes are handled without delicacy, and while central characters act disgusted at the prospect, there is no wider examination of the culture that encourages it. Showrunners can’t claim to aspire to feminist messaging when they would so easily undercut those messages to shock the viewer in a misguided belief that simply showing the brutal effects of oppression is acceptable instead of depicting how those oppressive systems function and can be demolished.
House of the Dragon’s main draw is the emotional attachment viewers have to the original show. I watch it because even if it isn’t as good as its predecessor, I get lost in intricately crafted fantasies, and House of the Dragon provides more depth to the works of George RR Martin. I admit I am entranced by dragons, battles, and admittedly simplistic and obviously set up drama. Even every once in a while I’ll appreciate a snappy back and forth. I worry that by continuing to engage with House of the Dragon, I am supporting a model increasingly dependent on intellectual property and drawing in viewers by spinning off ridiculous numbers of projects from an initially enjoyable franchise. I critique it because I want it to be better, to not only exist in the same world as Game of Thrones but to live up to it.