For those obsessed with Game of Thrones, the new prequel series, House of the Dragon, has been greatly anticipated. I have, with great difficulty, been avoiding spoilers for months. So, the only thing I knew when I sat down to watch episode one, Heirs of the Dragon, was that Doctor Who’s very own Matt Smith (my favourite incarnation of The Doctor) had a starring role.
Naturally, I was eagerly anticipating the show all the more after learning this.
Of course, there is the (admittedly somewhat encyclopedic) knowledge of GoT I have from reading all the books and reviewing the original series, but in terms of what the showrunners have decided to do with the source material, I’m blind.
Here’s my review of Heirs of the Dragon and thoughts on where the series will likely go from here.
The Spoiler-Free Version
If, like me, you prefer to watch spoiler-free, you’ll need to skip most of my musings until after you’ve watched the episode for yourself. However, I would not like to leave you without some idea of the quality you can expect.
Visually the series is everything you’d expect following on from its predecessor. There’s plenty of dragon eye candy, stunning and intricately designed sets, and beautiful people, some of whom get naked.
The one let down for me was the throne room which, for some reason, didn’t quite look natural. Whether this was a result of the CGI not quite doing it justice, or something in the physical set design, I’m not sure. For whatever reason, it doesn’t quite work. Scenes in the room are very dark (not quite The Long Night dark, but still difficult to see). And while I applaud the set designers for creating a design for the Iron Throne that more accurately represents what George RR Martin wrote about, I feel we didn’t quite benefit from it.
One hopes this means there aren’t more episodes to come that are difficult to watch simply due to poor lighting.
As with the original series, the first episode is not without its issues. It’s a slow start due to the need to introduce characters and ensure everyone knows what’s happening. The opening ten or fifteen minutes has the same painful line delivery that we saw in the first episode of Game of Thrones, back when nobody had settled into their characters yet, and many of them didn’t deliver their lines naturally.
Thankfully, this only affects a couple of brief scenes. For the most part, the cast appears to have been very well chosen, and I suspect future episodes won’t have a hint of this as they will have fully embraced the world they now inhabit as a reality.
There are some nice nods to the original and the books throughout the episode, including name-dropping A Feast For Crows in a line that genuinely made me lol. Much of the dialogue was sharp, with some of the wit we came to love about the original, though perhaps not as much as I’d have liked.
Hopefully, that will improve now the groundwork and setup have all been established.
Overall it didn’t disappoint and certainly made me more excited to see what’s to come in future episodes.
And Now For The Spoilers…
Heirs of the Dragon opens with a monologue from Rhaenyra Targaryen, explaining how her father, Viserys, came to sit the Iron Throne following the tragic death of both King Jaehaerys’ heirs. A council was convened, and fourteen heir claims were heard, but only two were seriously considered: Rhaenyra’s father and Rhaenys Targaryen, the eldest descendant yet lost out on the throne due to the possession of a vagina.
This brief summary of events nicely introduces us to the resistance to having a Queen on the throne, explains who several key players are, and perfectly foreshadows future events. As Rhaenyra says, Jaehaerys knew full well the only thing that could topple the might of the Targaergyns was themselves.
I won’t delve too deeply into what we know of this period from GRRM’s writings, but the series will be following the events surrounding the so-called Dance of Dragons (not to be confused with the book by the same name), a civil war that took place between King Viserys’ named heir (his eldest child and daughter, Rhaenyra), and his eldest son. Fire and Blood covers these events in detail, and the series has been based on the latter half of this book, as well as other details included elsewhere in The World of Ice And Fire.
One thing I will point out, though, is that – if memory serves – Jaehaerys’s two potential heirs were male. Meaning the switch to ‘the Queen that never was’, Rhaenys, was deliberately done.
And it was a smart move. Not only does it create the perfect setup to explain the issues Rhaenyra will face to the audience, but it also adds another strong female character to the royal family. Given that Rhaenyra’s mother tells her in Heirs of the Dragon that she’s nothing more than a ‘royal womb’ and that the birthing bed is her ‘battlefield’, this is much needed.
About The Heirs Of The Dragon
Rhaenyra has no wish to be Queen and, in a very Aryaesque statement, proclaims she wishes only to ride around on her dragon, exploring the world with her bestie and eating cake.
Fate, it would seem, has other ideas for her. Much of the run time of Heir of the Dragons is spent – as you’d expect – discussing the heirs of King Viserys I (Rhaenyra’s father). At the start of the episode, his wife is heavily pregnant, and Viserys is convinced she’s having a boy. Although Rhaenyra is their only living child, and they have tragically lost five others, Viserys is so convinced his heir is about to arrive he’s throwing an expensive tournament to celebrate.
Unfortunately, this has somewhat pissed off Viserys’ current heir, his younger brother, Daemon (played by the wonderful Matt Smith). Rhaenyra, meanwhile, is feeling somewhat neglected by her father, whose obsession with having a son has always left her feeling a little disconnected from him.
Rhaenyra Is Set To Be An Interesting Character
Milly Alcock performs splendidly as Rhaenyra, for the most part, and it’s a shame we are only likely to see her in this first episode, as the real meat of House of the Dragon’s story takes place years later. Despite this, the young actress does a great job portraying a character who is simultaneously disinterested in power and angry that her father has never found her good enough due to the lack of a cock. There is clear sexual tension between Rhaenyra and her Uncle Daemon. It’s slightly uncomfortable, partly due to the incest and partly the age gap, but it nicely sets up the potential for a relationship between the two later.
We all know the Targareyns are no stranger to incest. It’s why the Mad King becomes so mad, after all, and why Danaerys herself succumbs to madness (not to mention an illicit affair with her nephew).
Plus, uncle and niece isn’t exactly shocking after eight seasons of Jamie and Cersei.
As the games begin and Rhaenyra’s mother goes into labour, the unthinkable happens. With a breach birth threatening to take both his wife and unborn child, Viserys must make a terrible choice; sacrifice one so they don’t lose both. Of course, the real issue at hand is whether his heir would survive, and rather than giving his wife a chance at survival and risking losing them both, Viserys chooses to have the Maester perform a caesarian that kills her. It’s a disturbing scene in which Aemma is given no choice. She has no warning of what is about to happen, no way to decide for herself if she’s willing to sacrifice her life for her child. Instead, she has told Viserys she will not bear him any more children after such a difficult pregnancy and so much heartbreak. This, apparently, has left her worthless.
As Rhaenyra attends her mother’s funeral and delivers the iconic “Dracarys” command to her dragon, who promptly engulfs the funeral pyre in flames, we learn that her brother’s life was short-lived. Viserys is still without an heir. And while he initially insists his brother shall remain his heir, and unfortunate incident and the meddling of his Hand lead him to furiously banish Daemon and name Rhaenyra his heir.
What Do We Think of Daemon Targaryen?
Despite Daemon being painted as the bad guy, it’s hard to get a read on him (a testament to the acting chops of Matt Smith). He’s ambitious and power-hungry. Earlier in the episode, he leads the City Watch in their shiny new gold cloaks as they round up a hoard of criminals and summarily remove various limbs depending on their crime. Rapist? Say goodbye to your cock. Thief? You’re losing a hand. Murderer? Hope you don’t need your head.
Yet Daemon wasn’t wrong in his handling of lawlessness in the city. While brutal, it’s an effective way to rapidly bring order to a lawless city. He correctly said everyone deserves to be free to walk the city unharmed.
During the tournament, he believes himself to be victorious, only to be struck from behind when he wasn’t looking in a very unchivalrous display from Ser Criston Cole. I expected him to kill the Dornish knight out of spite after he was forced to yield, yet he didn’t.
He yielded and withdrew from the field.
He showed himself to have honour in that respect. And honour enough that it outweighed his temper or ambition. A stark contrast to other characters we’ve seen before, like Joffrey or The Mountain.
While everyone around Daemon may have celebrated and partied following the death of the Queen and her newborn son, Daemon was quiet, contemplative, and grieving. He may have toasted the young boy and named him ‘heir for a day’, thus incurring his brother’s wroth, but he did so because it’s what his audience expected to hear, and he’s a highly charismatic showman.
Where’s It Leading?
Heirs of the Dragons sets up several things quite nicely. The tension between Rhaenyra and her uncle hints at a potential union between the two in the future. The Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, manipulating Viserys into banishing his brother and then sending his daughter (who happens to be Rhaenyra’s best friend) to comfort the widowed monarch, was clearly done in the hopes she would become queen.
We know where this is heading, but if you’ve never read Fire And Blood (the latter half of which is the source material for House of the Dragon), you can still glean everything needed from this first episode without a huge amount of exposition.
There was very little exposition throughout the whole episode. The backstory is succinctly delivered in the opening voiceover, and a few brief but choice conversations, like Viserys and Aemma discussing their dead children while she bathes, fill in the rest. There’s a lot of name-dropping for characters who are likely to be important later – the Baratheons, in particular, are mentioned a few times and did not support Viserys as the successor.
It’s tough going into a series like this when we are already aware of so much but can’t be sure how true to the source material the show intends to be. We’ve already seen in one episode they are willing to fudge details to better represent their themes. It’s a tricky balance.
There’s been quite a buzz around House of the Dragon ‘fixing’ the sex issues that Game of Thrones had, but honestly, there’s still a fair bit. And that’s part of the charm of the show,
Humans are nothing but base instances held in check by social mores. Some may find it offensive or gratuitous but is that not just another social more, trying to hold those base instincts in check?