Season 1, Episode 1: ‘The Heirs of the Dragon’
So where were we?
Oh, right: Sitting on our sofas trying to make the phrase “King Bran” make sense in our heads. It still doesn’t, but that’s ancient history now. Or to be more precise, in a narrative sense: ancient future.
That’s because it was a much earlier clash for the Iron Throne that we saw being set up in Sunday’s long-awaited premiere of “House of the Dragon” — an Iron Throne that, based on its sprawling, jagged footprint, will apparently lose quite a few swords before King Robert Baratheon lands on it in a couple of centuries.
But it is fundamentally still the same ugly chair inspiring the same ugly feelings — anxiety, envy, power-lust, a willingness to betray friends and relatives. That last part is important because unlike in the original contest, it seems that most of the betraying will be happening not between the various houses of Westeros, but within the same messed-up family.
That would be the Targaryens, the ancestors of Daenerys, who embody the key pillars of the “Thrones” universe: vengeful resentment, dragons and incest. (The lore says King Viserys’s late wife was his cousin, and on Sunday the dynamic between Daemon and Rhaenyra was, uh, complex.)
Their apparent proclivities were part of a series premiere that had to thread the needle of creating investment in a new story while reminding viewers that it was still “Game of Thrones.” This last part was pursued dutifully as the episode — written by Ryan Condal and directed by Miguel Sapochnik, the two showrunners — played all the hits. Hacking, shocking gore? Check. Brothel scenes? Check. Tense bickering at a big table? Check.
Almost anyone who’s been on the internet in the past few years will have at least passing familiarity with HBO’s efforts, after the polarizing end of its biggest-ever hit, to keep the “Thrones” loot train going. There were the multiple spinoff concepts, a failed pilot. All of it led eventually to the story George R.R. Martin, the “Thrones” godhead, wanted to go with all along, which is what we got on Sunday, complete with the more hulking Iron Throne. (Martin often complained that the one in the original series was too modest.)
So it was hard to ignore the brand management of it all. Even Ramin Djawadi’s score seemed designed to reassure with its minor-key riff on the thundering “Thrones” theme. (Though I admit that even in a more pensive register, the “duh-nuh-NUH-nuh” motif is very satisfying.)
All the sameness is particularly glaring within a franchise that frequently dazzled viewers by showing them things they’d never seen before on TV. There is also a weird thematic discordance when you consider that “Thrones” spent eight seasons showing us the destructive folly of cyclical power struggles, ultimately building to a resolution designed to leave all that behind.
If you can forgive the obnoxiousness of a self-quote, I wrote about the “Thrones” finale: “In the end, ‘Game of Thrones’ was about blowing up the game of thrones.” Three years later, HBO is essentially saying, commercially and narratively: “Can we interest you in another game of thrones?”
So there’s all that. But to be fair: It was one episode, and a pilot episode at that. Getting sagas going is almost always an expository slog, especially in a world as dense as Martin’s, which makes the awkward bits more apparent. And there were reasons to be excited about what is to come over the next nine weeks.
The cast seems great. Matt Smith makes a meal of Prince Daemon, a one-man sex-and-violence machine spiked with self-doubt that he shows only to his courtesan girlfriend. Rhys Ifans is all slippery soullessness as Otto Hightower, the King’s Hand, who marginalizes his rival Daemon while using his own young daughter, Alicent, as bait for the grieving ruler. Steve Toussaint has presence and authority as Lord Corlys Velaryon, a wealthy former mariner known as the Sea Snake. (One of the other spinoffs in development would chronicle the character’s exploits as a young man.) As Alicent and Rhaenyra, Emily Carey and Milly Alcock bring charm and complexity as two halves of a friendship that seems destined to splinter.
Paddy Considine is terrific as Viserys, his hangdog face exuding the king’s frailty and grit simultaneously. But based on his unhealing lesions and their evidence that the throne doesn’t like him — as well as the fact that this is a succession story, and that monarchs need to die for games of thrones to go on — he seems unlikely to occupy it for long.
The episode began with a prologue scene that set two key precedents, as Viserys was named his grandfather’s heir over his older cousin, Rhaenys (Eve Best). First: The convoluted Targaryen family — again, incest — has a tradition of squaring off over succession claims. Second: The patriarchal leaders of the realm will resist attempts to put a woman on the Iron Throne.
A woman’s place in this world was summed up in some later advice by Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke) to Rhaenyra. “The childbed is our battlefield,” she said, and we saw how that turned out. Her birth scene was grueling and ghastly, as any hope of continued peace died with her and her short-lived son.
I praised several of the actors earlier, but probably the most sympathetic character in the episode was that vomiting squire at the tournament — I watched the birth scene and chunks of the City Watch dismemberment plan through my fingers. Sapochnik, the director of “Thrones” spectacles like “Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhome,” has a gift for visceral filmmaking, and that talent can be used to disgust as well as dazzle.
We got both in the jousting tourney, a breathtaking sequence in which, as my colleague Mike Hale wrote in his review of the series, “the collisions have an authentic force that will throw you back in your seat.” Also authentically forceful: the bloody bashing of sundry knight faces.
“And the day grows ugly …” Rhaenys deadpanned as the crowd delighted in the brutality, which was one way to put it. The point was to establish the naïve bloodthirstiness of a people who, we were repeatedly reminded, had never known real war. When Viserys named his daughter as his heir a few minutes later, he guaranteed that they would eventually get one.
“House of the Dragon” is based on Martin’s “Fire & Blood,” a novel written in the form of a faux history tome. The book reflects Martin’s longtime interest in the gap between what actually happens and how it is recorded for posterity.
This gap apparently also applies to prophesy, as we see at the episode’s end: one last explicit tie to “Game of Thrones,” which was a broad-stroke retelling of “Game of Thrones.”
Down in the dragon skull cellar where Cersei and Jaime will eventually meet their end, Viserys tells Rhaenyra that Aegon, the original Targaryen conqueror, was driven partly by a vision of “the end of the world of men.” But in his version, it’s a Targaryen who will “unite the realm against the cold and the dark,” either because the oracle was off that day or because Aegon tweaked it out of self-interest.
To be fair, I guess Daenerys helped to save the realm from the White Walker menace. Maybe Aegon just left out the part where she incinerates the capital city afterward.
At any rate, it was actually a different dragon queen reference that brought back a bit of the old thrill. It came during the funeral for the queen and her son — the baby bundle particularly devastating in its tininess, with enormous repercussions for the kingdom. The scene was a somber counterpoint to the chaos and violent agony that had come before it, and Sapochnik wisely let the quietness build.
And when Alcock aced her first “Dracarys!” well … I mean, I’m not made of stone.
A few thoughts while we check the side effects
For the record, I do intend to give “House of the Dragon” a fair chance. My weariness with parts of it is tied to a more general weariness with media conglomerates endlessly flogging their profitable intellectual property. (Marvel’s “She-Hulk” premiered Thursday; “Lord of the Rings” and “Andor,” the latest “Star Wars” series, arrive next month.) It can all feel like a streaming content pharma ad: “Do you recognize the elements of thrilling drama but still feel malaise while watching it? You may be suffering from franchise fatigue …”
In an interview before the season, Sapochnik discussed the importance of making the dragons feel like real, organic parts of the world. “What you want people to do is say, ‘Oh, cool, they can do dragons,’ and then move on,” he said. I was mostly there until Daemon nuzzled his on his way out of town, which evoked the sick triceratops in “Jurassic Park,” from 29 years ago.
“The gods have yet to make a man who lacks the patience for absolute power,” Otto said, referring to Daemon but also to himself.
Daemon’s brothel speech about the “heir for a day” was earth-shattering in the context of the story, leading Viserys to anoint his daughter heir instead and setting up all the fun to come. Know who was really staggered by it? That poor mid-coital couple frozen on the floor of the brothel.
It took me years to be able to spell “Daenerys” correctly on the first try, so thanks in advance for your thoughts and prayers as I try to keep all these Targaryens straight.
What did you think? Are you back in? Did you buy the dragons? Dracarys away in the comments.