House of the Dragon returns to Westeros with a bloody, promising start. HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel roars out of the gate with sex, violence, and political intrigue galore. Based on George R. R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, the series takes place two hundred years earlier during the reign of the Targaryen dynasty. The premiere, “The Heirs of the Dragon”, has King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) anxiously awaiting the birth of a male heir. He loves his teenage daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), but pines for a son to be his successor. Viserys makes a fateful choice that shatters the peace between his deadly brother, Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), and trusted Hand, Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans).
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Spoiler WarningThe Heirs of the Dragon begins with a voice-over narration by the unseen adult Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy). She explains how her great-grandfather, King Jaehaerys (Michael Carter), the fourth Targaryen ruler, having no heir, allows a council of lords to choose their next leader. They anoint his grandson, Viserys, over his granddaughter, Rhaenys (Eve Best), purely on patriarchal terms. Her husband, Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), the legendary “Sea Snake”, watches in disdain.
A caption reads 9 years later and 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen. Young Rhaenyra lands Syrax at the dragon pit. She’s met by her protector, Ser Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish), leader of the Kingsguard. A happy Rhaenyra greets her heavily pregnant mother, Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke), who’s consigned to bed rest. Rhaenyra visits her father at a meeting of the Small Council. He wonders why his “cup bearer” is late. He playfully chides his daughter that she “reeks of dragon.” Viserys is told of free cities aligning themselves in a “Triarchy.” He’s more concerned with the Tournament of Heirs, a jousting competition to honor his hopefully newborn son. Hightower and Corlys note that Daemon has again skipped their meeting.
Rhaenyra sees Daemon sitting on the Iron Throne, which perturbs Westerling. Daemon gives Rhaenyra an amulet signifying their house’s history and power. Rhaenyra then studies in the garden with her best friend, Alicent (Emily Carey), the daughter of Lord Hightower. Viserys is checked for a sore on his back that won’t heal. He then attends to a bedridden Aemma. Viserys tells her that he dreamt their son was born wearing a crown. Aemma has suffered through five miscarriages. She will not go through pregnancy again.
Daemon Unleashes the City Watch
Later that night, Daemon unleashes the City Watch on King’s Landing. His men, the Gold Cloaks, capture, beat, and carve up the criminals. Wagons cart away bodies and appendages. The Small Council reprimands Daemon for his brutal actions. Hightower tells him he should be with his wife at the Vale. Daemon scoffs and rebuffs Hightower. He wanted to rid the streets of vermin for the tournament. Viserys thanks his brother but warns such violence cannot continue.
The tournament commences with Aemma’s labor. Viserys sits with the noble guests as the jousters pummel each other. Rhaenyra and Alicent watch the handsome Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) thrash his Baratheon opponent. Daemon enters the tournament in spectacular armor. He nastily cuts the horse from underneath Hightower’s eldest son in a joust. Then has the audacity to request a favor from Alicent. A maester quietly whispers in Viserys’ ear.
Viserys races to Aemma’s birthing chamber. The baby is in breach. She howls in pain. At the tournament, Daemon picks a fight with Criston. He knocks Daemon off his horse in their joust. The scene cuts back and forth to the excruciating birth. The maesters give Viserys a horrific choice. Cut the baby out or save his queen. The handmaidens restrain the writhing Aemma. She screams as they slice open her belly. Viserys holds her betrayed hand.
Daemon grabs his sword to continue fighting. Criston swings his mace with fury. The men battle ferociously, but Daemon is bested. He reluctantly submits to save his life. A victorious Criston requests Rhaenyra’s favor. In the chamber, Aemma lays dead in a pool of her blood. Viserys holds his son, Baelor, who gasps for breath. At the tournament, word reaches that Aemma has died.
Everyone gathers as Aemma and her infant son lay on their funeral pyres. A despondent Viserys cannot give the order. Daemon prods a weeping Rhaenyra forward. She whispers in old Valerian that her father found happiness in the hours he had a son. She commands “dracarys.” Syrax incinerates her mother and brother. A broken Viserys sits in his chamber chiseling a model of the city. Hightower sends Alicent to comfort the king. He asks that she wear one of her dead mother’s dresses.
The Small Council meets in an emergency session. Hightower and Corlys implore Viserys that a new heir must be named. They cannot let Daemon ascend to the throne. A bitter Viserys curses them all. His wife and child are dead. How can they bring this up now? Hightower tells Viserys of a toast his brother made after the funeral. The scene cuts to Daemon at a brothel. The City Watch soldiers fornicate at an orgy. Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), a prostitute and Daemon’s consort, asks him for a toast to his men. Hightower informs Viserys that Daemon drank to Baelor’s short reign.
Daemon is summoned to the Iron Throne. A furious Viserys excoriates his younger brother for such a callous toast. Daemon doesn’t apologize. He boldly proclaims that Viserys is weak. He has always protected his older brother from Hightower and his council cronies. Viserys banishes Daemon from King’s Landing. He cuts his hand on the Iron Throne.
A Song of Ice and Fire
Rhaenyra meets her father in the crypt. He stands before the dragon skull of the great Balerion. Viserys regrets not getting his daughter ready for this moment. Rhaenyra will be named his successor. She’s overcome by the shattering news. Viserys reminds her that they do not own the dragons. He also gives her a Valerian dagger that belonged to Aegon Targaryen, the first King of the Seven Kingdoms. He warns her about Aegon’s dream, A Song of Ice and Fire, that predicts the Long Winter, the greatest threat to come. A Targaryen must lead the war to protect mankind.
Alicent wraps Rhaenyra in regal red robes. She then stands before her father atop the Iron Throne. The nobles of Westeros all proclaim their allegiance to the chosen queen. Meanwhile, Mysaria says goodbye to her departing lover. Daemon strides the fearsome, red-scaled Caraxes and launches into the sky. Rhaenrya stares solemnly ahead as the Queen in Waiting.
House of the Dragon looked and felt like a part of the Game of Thrones universe. Miguel Sapochnik deserves credit for a seamless transition. The Emmy-winning director behind “Battle of the Bastards”, perhaps Game of Thrones’ best episode, steers a new ship into familiar waters. The Heirs of the Dragon continues Sapochnik’s crisp pacing and concise character interactions. He never lingers unless making a dramatic point. The dialogue and action flows like a swift river. Sapochnik also uses sweeping shots to invoke grandeur. This is Westeros in its prime. King’s Landing is magnificent as the dragons soar above. Sapochnik brilliantly stages a pristine setting before the mud flies.
Anyone worried that the series wouldn’t be hardcore got their blood and sex quota filled. Daemon’s men castrated a rapist then presented the severed genitals on a platter. He then celebrates with Mysaria in near full-frontal glory. The most disturbing scene was the awful Caesarean section of poor Aemma. I cringed as they tore the child out of her. The show pulls no punches portraying the brutal misogyny and patriarchy of the novels. Viserys chose to kill his wife to save a male heir; which ironically results in his daughter chosen as ruler.
The Premiere Introduces New Characters
The premiere does an able job of introducing the new characters and compass for the season. Hightower essentially pimped his daughter to the grieving Viserys. Alicent, soon to be portrayed as an adult by Olivia Cooke, will take her place at Viserys’ side. Rhaenyra’s bestie becomes her most threatening adversary. Thus setting up a conflict between the women for the Iron Throne. Viserys’ days are numbered. Someone’s responsible for those nasty wounds. Daemon, who clearly has a hold on his niece, will be Rhaenyra’s most formidable and important ally. It’ll be interesting to see how their aunt, Rhaenys, and Corlys factor in the struggle. She has a birthright claim that cannot be ignored. The political machinations are already boiling.
Viserys giving Aegon’s dagger to Rhaenyra was a clever nod and wink to the future. This was the dagger that Arya Stark used to kill the Night King. Viserys was correct that a Targaryen would stop the Great Winter. He couldn’t have imagined that Stark blood would also spawn Jon Snow, Aegon’s namesake, the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.
House of the Dragon suffers from an overload of goofy blonde wigs. Daenerys stood out in Game of Thrones. The Targaryens here are akin to the albino contingent at a medieval costume party. Showrunner Ryan Condal should have made a command decision and gone for a more natural, believable look. I couldn’t help but chuckle every time Matt Smith waved his faux Goldilocks.
House of the Dragon is a production of GRRM, Bastard Sword, and 1:26 Pictures Inc. The remaining nine episodes premiere Sunday nights on HBO and HBO Max.
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