In classic George R.R. Martin fashion, House of the Dragon begins with one generation making the same mistakes as the last. History repeats itself, always and forever. For the Targaryen family? It means that marrying your siblings will likely not produce the kinds of heirs you need to successfully rule a kingdom.
House of the Dragon co-showrunner Ryan Condal previously described the HBO fantasy series as “Succession with dragons.” The Targaryen royals bickering over who will be next in line to the throne doesn’t place his comparison far off, but the sheer amount of bloodshed and double-crossing firmly roots us back in Westeros, more than it has us snoozing over King’s council meetings.
Set 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, the prequel series, which debuted on HBO this Sunday night, was designed to be accessible for anyone just jumping into the Thrones-verse now. It’s clear from the first mention of the Targaryen family squabble, however, that it’s only a matter of time before HBO starts giving fans easter eggs—like introducing Davos Seaworth’s great-great-great-grandfather. If you think memes like “when my boyfriend leans over at a Marvel movie and whispers, ‘that’s Phastos,'” are accurate, wait until guys start explaining how a character named Lyman Beesbury became the Lord of Honeyholt.
Let’s get into it. King Jaehaerys I Targaryen, grandson of Aegon the Conqueror—the legendary dragonrider who first conquered the seven kingdoms and created the Targaryen dynasty—is left without an heir. A council forms to help choose his successor between his granddaughter Rhaenys and his grandson Viserys. The patriarchal members choose Viserys, and it’s his rule where our story really begins.
Unable to produce a son, King Viserys (Paddy Considine) faces, years later, the same dilemma that put him in power. When a council forms to name a successor between his brother Daemon (Matt Smith) and his young daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), King Viserys tells them that he, “will not be made to choose between my brother and my daughter.” It’s the kind of indecisive declaration perfect for an impending civil war. Of course, we’re just getting started.
Princess Rhaenyra seems to be our new Daenerys. She loves riding dragons, is ambitious for her age, and doesn’t want to spend her life pumping out children. Daenerys wanted to “break the wheel,” and Rhaenyra wants to create “a new world order.” Her uncle Daemon, however, is our first main antagonist. As Commander of the City Watch, he spends his days avoiding council meetings and sneaking in to sit on the Iron Throne while the King is away.
One night, Daemon abuses his power and sends his golden-caped knights to murder random people in the street. Casual. “King’s Landing will learn to fear the color gold,” he declares. His men engage in beheadings, genital mutilations, and they sexually assault women. He considers the people he attacked criminals, but it seems like he just committed a massacre of innocents. Viserys is angry with his behavior, as is Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King. Otto disagrees with his methods of “keeping the peace,” suggesting that Daemon might be better off back in the Vale with his neglected wife. Daemon proceeds to call her a “bronze bitch” and openly insults her to the entire council by offering her to any man who wants her.
It’s just the first episode, but House of the Dragon clearly wants us to think that Daemon is a monster of a man. Earlier, he presented Rhaenyra with a Valyrian steel necklace. Let’s just say his intentions did not come with the kind of vibe that an uncle is supposed to have with his niece. Incest may be a Targaryen norm, but it must say something that Daemon is the only one entertaining the idea at the moment. His name is one letter away from Demon (!) and he’s certainly acting like it.
Viserys’s pregnant wife, Queen Aemma, goes into labor the following morning. It’s not going well. She had many failed pregnancies before, but the King is desperate to produce a male heir. Forced to choose between his Queen and the baby, Viserys chooses his heir and the Queen is sliced open. At her funeral, it is revealed that the baby only lived for a few hours. During this tragedy—which is truly one of the most harrowing and bloody scenes HBO has ever shown its viewers—House of Dragon intercuts the terror of Queen Aemma’s murder with wanton carnage at a jousting tournament. George R.R. Martin said that this series would be different because there is no one to root for. In this one episode alone, almost every main character has committed an atrocious act of violence.
Later, Otto Hightower once again brings up the topic of succession. The day may be closer than we think, because King Viserys has some weird, putrid wound on his back that seems beyond healing. Viserys occasionally cuts his fingers by accident while sitting on the Iron Throne, too. It’s an ominous metaphor for what happens to those who rise to power. But… it’s also kind of silly. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to build a pointy chair made of swords!
Many view Prince Daemon, the heir presumptive, as a potential tyrant should he claim the Iron Throne. The council unanimously agrees. Finally fed up with Daemon following a drunken rant about how his stillborn nephew was “heir for a day,” King Viserys reprimands his younger brother. Daemon retorts that the king’s closest advisors are simply using him to gain power. While he may be not wrong, calling the king weak after all the evil he’s done over the past few days wasn’t the smartest play. Viserys orders Daemon to return to his wife in the Vale. Then? He names Rhaenyra as his heir. His lords reluctantly bend the knee, but the eye-rolling does not go unnoticed by this viewer at home.
I was doing some eye-rolling myself every time we cut from a dragon to what was essentially a boardroom meeting. House of the Dragon promised us the glorious age of dragons. Not horrific, failed pregnancies. It feels weird to be back in Westeros, especially since the last two Game of Thrones seasons left viewers on such a sour note, but I’m strapped in and ready for another wild ride. I just hope that ride is on the back of one of the many dragons I was told would be here.
Josh Rosenberg is an entertainment writer living in Brooklyn, keeping a steady diet of one movie a day; his work can be found at Spin, Insider, Vibe, and on his personal blog at Roseandblog.com.
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