House of the Dragon
Season 1, Episode 1: “The Heir of the Dragon”
Air Date: 8/21/2022
Hello, fellow citizens of Westeros! Welcome to The Workprint’s weekly recaps of the Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon. I am your Review Maester for this journey.
My wife and I were huge fans of GOT during the initial run on HBO, to the point where my we named our puppy Daenerys. I will admit to having no small amount of trepidation about this new series, seeing as how the last one didn’t exactly stick the landing. (That’s me bending over backwards to be exceedingly gracious. King Bran, my ass.)
Still, I loved 90% of that show, and I even liked the last season more than most. (Except for Euron, the dollar store pirate. He can go straight to the seven hells and burn.) So, let’s give it a go.
This takes place 172 years before the birth of Daenerys (the princess, not my dog) As the opening narration helpfully explains, House Targaryen has ruled for 100 years and they command ten adult dragons. King Jaeharys has been on the throne for sixty years of peace and prosperity, but as he grows older the line of succession is in doubt. Both of his sons died, leaving no obvious heir, so a Grand Council is held to determine the next ruler. It comes down to a choice between the king’s daughter, Princess Rhaenys, and the king’s nephew, Viserys. The council selects Viserys, because he’s a man.
We jump ahead nine years into King Viserys’s reign. Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) is soaring majestically above King’s Landing on a gold dragon named Syrax. Good to know HBO still has the effects budget to give us what we want, namely dragons and lots of them. After landing, she hurries off to her mother, Queen Aemma (Dang, George R.R. Martin. Enough with all these extraneous A’s.) She is extremely pregnant, hoping to provide the king with a proper male heir. In classic fantasy tradition, Rhaenyra would rather be a knight and ride dragons than give birth to heirs, but as her mother says “the childbed is our battlefield.” Foreshadowing!
Aemma is due any day, and in anticipation, Viserys (Paddy Considine) is holding the Heir’s Tournament. Viserys is certain that his new son will be born during the tournament, sealing his legacy. However, there does exist a current heir, the king’s brother Daemon (Matt Smith). He’s clearly ambitious, even though he’s blown off all the high council meetings. We first see him, lounging on the Iron Throne, playing the cool uncle to his niece.
Daemon leads the City Watch, aka the Gold Cloaks. They seem extremely loyal to Daemon, and eager to show it. I’m sure that the ambitious brother leading a paramilitary force of unchecked psychopaths will have no ill effects or bad consequences at all!
In advance of the coming tournament. Daemon leads the Watch on a sweep of the criminals in King’s Landing. This is a brutal sequence where Daemon helps to dish out graphic, eye-for-an-eye punishments. Thieves get hands chopped off, murderers are killed, rapists… well, you can guess. Please note that the King’s Landing justice system consists of one of the guard pointing at you and shouting “Thief!” And then, the punishment. Even though the level of violence shocks the high council, the king reluctantly backs his brother. Got to keep the streets safe!
After a hard night of dispensing justice, It’s time for Daemon to celebrate, and since it’s Game of Thrones, where else would he go? The brothel! It’s not GOT without a visit to the Street of Silk! Seems that HBO is leaning hard on the dragons and boobs formula that has served them well in the past. His favorite working girl, Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) sees he’s stressed and suggests adding in an extra girl, maybe even a maiden with platinum hair, which, ew. It clearly implies that Daemon has eyes on his niece. Another bit of foreshadowing to come into play.
And speaking of foreshadowing, both the King and Queen are giving heavy indicators they won’t be around much longer. Aemma tells her husband that after a total of five miscarriages, stillbirths, and crib deaths in the last decade, this will be her last pregnancy. And the King has a weird, seeping wound on his back that the maesters can’t fix. Nothing ominous there!
On the day of the Heir’s Tournament, Aemma has gone into labor as the maesters predicted. Meanwhile, the current heir, Daemon, is working his way through the challengers. He’s not above fighting dirty. (At one point, he trips a horse with his lance.) I do have to say, as much of a shit as he is, his armor looks fantastic. Jet black, with a dragon-winged helmet. That will be a big hit among the cosplayers next year. He meets his match when he gets to Ser Christon Cole (Fabien Frankel), the common-born Dorniesh son of the steward to the Lord of Blackhaven. Cole bests Daemon in jousting and the trial at arms and gets Daemon to yield before he kills him. Kinda seems like it would save everyone a lot of time and energy later on if Cole had just killed him here. Same as if Tyrion had just bitch slapped Joffrey to death back at Winterfell. The handsome Cole asks Princess Rhaenyra for her favor, which she does, and you don’t need to consult a maester or an oracle to see where this might lead.
Back at the childbirth, things are not going well. Aemma is having a breech birth and the maesters cannot turn the baby. She is in an enormous amount of pain. The Grand Maester takes the king aside and explains to him the “impossible choice.” He may have to choose the life of the baby or the mother, or risk losing them both. After a moment’s hesitation, he chooses the baby. The maesters and midwives then proceed to cut open Aemma – while she’s still conscious, with Viserys telling her not to worry – and take the baby from her. This is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on TV. It’s a brutal, bloody, violation. After all is done, Aemma is dead, but hey! At least the king finally got his male heir. Oh wait, was that a cough from the little baby? Whoops.
Cut to the funeral pyre. Aemma’s body is wrapped up next to a little tiny bundle. (Great job, Viserys!) Rhaenyra is choked with rage and grief – grief at the loss of her mother, and rage at her father. She can barely utter Dracarys to get her beloved Syrax to start the pyre. She brushes off Daemon’s urging to go talk to her father. “I wonder, if during the few hours my brother lived, my father finally found happiness.”
The King’s Hand, Lord Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), has his own schemes. He sends his young daughter (and Rhaenyra’s best friend), Alicent (Emily Carey), to go comfort the king. In his bed chamber. (Again, ew.) Viserys is too busy carving his model replica of King’s Landing to think much of this, but I’m sure that will come into play later on. I’m sure Rhaenyra will be totally happy to call her best friend “mom.” Can’t see any issues with that!
Hightower has been butting heads with Daemon all episode. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the ass-kicking Daemon gave his son in the tournament. Nothing at all! Otto makes sure the King hears all about the party Daemon threw for the watch at a brothel, where during the wild orgy, Daemon stops everything to refer to the dead child as “heir for a day.” Ouch. That’s harsh, even for a dick like him. Enraged, the king banishes Daemon back to his wife’s kingdom in the Vale of Arryn. Viserys instead names his daughter Rhaenyra to be his heir to the throne. As the various lords of the realm pledge their loyalty to her, Viserys tells her of the dream of Aegon Targaryen. The dream of the end of the world of men, of an endless winter, a winter that is coming. He called this dream “The Song of Ice and Fire.” (Oooh, they said the title!) Every Targaryen king has kept this secret charge, and now it’s Rhaenyra’s turn. And as Rhaenyra accepts her new position, the familiar strains of the Game of Thrones theme start to play.
So, overall, there’s potential here. The pieces are at play, even though the foreshadowing is way too heavy-handed. Rhaenyra is the future heir, despite opposition from the King’s Council. Alliances between Dorne and the Targaryens are percolating. The king’s bitter, vicious, ambitious brother is on the move with his dragon, and the threat of winter is in the air. The acting is impressive so far, with Ifans and Alcock being standouts. Smith looks to be a fun villain, even if he doing a little too much mustache-twirling early on. But I’m not entirely on board yet. That has to do with a couple of the same criticisms on the original series, namely the gratuitous sex and violence.
After watching the first episode, I’m a little concerned that they took away exactly the wrong lessons from GOT. Did you have issues with the graphic physical and sexual violence of Game of Thrones? Well, guess what? We’re doubling down! The much-criticized sexposition scenes? They’re back! Brutal deaths? We got ‘em! Lots of bloody face-pulping at the tournament!
Now I am not suggesting for a second that fantasy be nothing but happy elves and gnomes. Please explore mature and adult themes. But why are “adult themes” always expressed as brutality? My favorite parts of Game of Thrones were always the scheming and the machinations. The only time I ever stopped watching was when the show got a little too into Sansa being degraded by Roose Bolton.
Will this improve? I hope so. I am not looking forward to ten episodes of castrations and c-sections. Hopefully, all of the pieces put into play will make some moves next week as the great game continues. It is good to be back in Westeros, though. We’ll see next Sunday.
Episode Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Line of the week: “I never jest about cake.” Wise words indeed, Rhaenyra.