Review | ‘House of the Dragon’ season 1 — a song of fire & blood


Image via Warner Media Press Kit, photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO

Olivia Cooke, center, plays Alicent Hightower in season 1, episode 9 of House of the Dragon.

By Jacob Mraz, Staff Writer

There’s a reason to be excited about Westeros again, and its name is “House of the Dragon.”

In the spring of 2019, the eyes of the entertainment world fell squarely on a series that dominated television for nearly a decade. “Game of Thrones,” the fantasy epic based on George R.R. Martin’s bestselling book series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” began its eighth and final season with soaring expectations. 

But rarely has a series finale destroyed a show’s public opinion like “Game of Thrones.” From nonsensical and rushed storytelling to dropped plotlines and disinterested showrunners, the series imploded in spectacular fashion and quickly faded from popular culture. 

Despite these final failures, “Game of Thrones” was a financial juggernaut throughout its run and brought in more than two billion dollars in revenue for HBO. As a result, in the fall of 2019 HBO ordered a spin-off series to take another shot at Westeros — this time through the eyes of House Targaryen

Created by Martin and executive producer Ryan Condal, “House of the Dragon” is a fantasy series set in Martin’s Westeros more than 150 years before the events of “Game of Thrones.” 

The story is a partial adaptation of Martin’s “Fire & Blood” — volume one of House Targaryen’s history, which covers the period between the conquering of Westeros to the rule of King Aegon III Targaryen. The series focuses on the bloody civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons, a conflict stemming from King Viserys I naming his oldest child and daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaren heir to the Iron Throne — setting her up to become the first Queen of Westeros.

Expectation is a terrible burden for any creative endeavor. “House of the Dragon,” officially announced in March of 2022, collected old hopes and disappointments and mixed them with cautious anticipation in a potentially deadly cocktail. But the show did not stumble and premiered in August with an HBO record-breaking 10 million viewers. Days later showrunners confirmed a second season. 

“House of the Dragon” owes its success in part to a tighter, more condensed narrative focusing on the exploits of the Targaryen family over the course of a few decades. The plot oozes with passion and political tension and is a tour-de-force of emotional range and quality. The finale, while almost entirely composed of political theater, is likewise tight and tense. The sprinkles of action in the first season are enjoyable and graphic without being overly theatrical. 

Because the show focuses on events that take place over a nearly 30-year period, time skips happen between certain episodes in order to convincingly set up the coming civil war as quickly as possible. The first season’s major stumbles involve these time skips. Character storylines occasionally feel rushed with some relationships all but left to imagination. This is most evident in the jump between episodes 5 and 6 — which take place 10 years apart and replace two of the main actors with their older variants. While those older actors do tremendous work, the switch is still jarring — if only because of the former actors’ tremendous performances. 

But these stumbles are largely forgivable, and casting did an excellent job with central characters such as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, played by Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy, and Alicent Hightower, played by Emily Carey and Olivia Cooke. Both younger and older actors portray their respective characters beautifully and deliver Emmy worthy performances. 

Indeed, “House of the Dragon” owes much of its success to stellar performances from actors like Fabian Frankel as Ser Criston Cole, the easily hateable knight of the kingsguard, and Ewan Mitchell as the older Prince Aemond Targaryen, the cold and dangerous half-brother to Princess Rhaenyra. While it is easy to gush over the central cast as a whole, two stand-out performances by Matt Smith and Paddy Considine deserve a moment of individual praise. 

Smith plays Prince Daemon Targaryen, the rebellious and prideful brother of King Viserys I Targaryen. Viewers of the recent Marvel guffaw “Morbius” need not worry about Smith’s acting ability — as viewers of “The Crown” already know. Smith excels as Daemon, and in almost every scene he oozes with menace and sex appeal. From his smoldering stare to his charming smile, he is consistently one of the most enjoyable characters on-screen — even if he is often malicious and out for blood. 

By contrast, King Viserys I, played by Considine, just wants everyone to get along. Considine does an excellent job of making the king a lovable, if naive man who tries his best but often fails. He is presented as a well meaning but disinterested king who would rather build models and talk about history than rule. From his amicable smile to his occasional furious outbursts, Considine’s portrayal of the Targaryen patriarch is masterful and just as memorable as Sean Bean’s performance as Lord Eddard Stark in the first season of “Game of Thrones.”

Acting and story aside, “House of the Dragon” presents a rich and fleshed out world 一 one filled with spectacular dragons of various size and personality, fantastic castles flush with knights and tournaments brimming with bright regalia and splendor. The show pulls you in and keeps you there throughout each episode with one of the best fantasy worlds ever presented on television.

In short, “House of the Dragon” is everything “Game of Thrones” once was — unrivaled fantasy-based television. The magic viewers felt the first time they stepped into Westeros has returned, and fans of the original series need not shy away. They should instead embrace this rare, excellent spin-off and thank it for rescuing this world from the depths of its predecessor’s unfortunate demise. 

Winter has come and gone, but the dragon is here to stay.