Hey, remember Game of Thrones? It’s only been three years since nearly 20 million people tuned in to find out who would rule Westeros, but May 2019 already feels a lifetime ago, and not just because of the time-distortion field we entered the following spring. In the leadup to the series finale, GoT was heralded as “the last show we’ll watch together,” and while that hasn’t exactly proven true—Tiger King came along less than a year later, Stranger Things has merely gotten more popular, and Euphoria’s audience has, in only two seasons, grown to nearly the size of Thrones’—it felt like “The Iron Throne” closed the book on an era of TV, one where viewers would keep watching a show, even one many grew increasingly to dislike, simply because they felt they had to.
HBO, and its newly conglomerated corporate parent Warner Bros. Discovery, are counting on that sense of obligation to carry us into House of the Dragon, which begins airing Sunday after a development process almost as contentious and bloody as the Red Wedding. In the long march to extend the network’s most valuable piece of intellectual property, there were many bodies left by the side of the road. Half a dozen projects remain in various stages of progress, and more than $30 million was spent on the pilot for a Naomi Watts-starring prequel, tentatively titled Bloodmoon, that one HBO executive called “very adult, sophisticated, and intelligent” before it was scrapped altogether. House of the Dragon, which an opening title helpfully reminds us is set 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, isn’t especially sophisticated or intelligent, but it is at least adult, as long as your definition of “adult” stops at men having their faces split open with hatchets. Opening with the seeds of a struggle for the Iron Throne and following it up with the sight of a dragon swooping over King’s Landing, the show delivers on the promise of providing more of the same. Guest star Ian McShane famously proclaimed that Game of Thrones was “just tits and dragons.” House of the Dragon has both.
It’s an approach designed to set C-suite overlords at ease, the trouble being that it deprives House of the Dragon of an element crucial to its predecessor’s success: surprise. If Game of Thrones went from solid genre hit to iconic cultural object the moment Ned Stark’s head fell from his shoulders, Dragons begins in a fictional universe where betrayal is expected at every turn, and only the terminally pure-hearted or simply naïve would be caught off guard. Heads are cut off, sure, as are arms, legs, and torsos. (Don’t ask.) But the Targaryen is corrupted from the start. The weak King Viserys (Paddy Considine) rules feebly with one hand while the other is rotting away, plagued by an unnamed malady that consumes his entire arm as the series’ first five episodes jump through several years’ worth of plot. Do I need to add that maggots are involved?
Miguel Sapochnik, the Game of Thrones veteran who serves as House of the Dragon’s co-showrunner, spawned an internet rage cycle last month when he told an interviewer that the show would not “shy away from” depicting violence against women, which quickly grew into the accusation that it would feature graphic depictions of sexual assault. That turns out not to be true, but the series does exist in a world where the mere act of being a woman, particularly a married woman of child-bearing age, is inherently violent. Thrones was so often concerned with death in its more spectacular forms, but as Viserys’ wife, Aemma (Sian Brooke), reminds him, its mundane incarnations are no less devastating. Having born him a daughter, Rhaenyra (played as teenager by Milly Alcock), Aemma has buried five children in the effort to give Viserys a male heir; the one in her womb, she informs him, will be her last attempt. But she also tells young Alicent (Emily Carey), the daughter of her husband’s closest advisor, that the “discomfort” of pregnancy is “how we serve the realm. The child bed is our battlefield.” The episode realizes that last sentiment with brutal literalism when it intercuts a bloody jousting tournament with a medieval C-section, the latter forced on an unwilling woman who knows the procedure is certain to mean her death. And when it comes time to introduce the adult version of Rhaenyra, played by Emma D’Arcy, it’s through a long shot of her grimacing face as she powers through the agonies of childbirth herself.
In an attempt to calm the uproar over Sapochnik’s comments, House of the Dragon executive producer Sara Hess issued a statement that the show’s aim was to focus on “the violence against women that is inherent in a patriarchal system,” but there’s so much violence in the show that it ceases to convey much of anything beyond the idea that this is a brutal and ugly world. It’s not enough to tell us that a notorious brigand is nicknamed “the crab feeder” because of how he disposes of his enemies. We get loving shots of men being nailed to stakes at low tide and screaming as crabs begin to nip at their flesh, next to picked-clean skeletons with crustaceans oozing from their eyeholes. It’s difficult to process a critique of systemic patriarchy when you are focused on keeping your dinner down.
The series does have the epic production values fans have come to expect, and the show is at pains to show early and often how far dragon-rendering technology has advanced in the years since Daenerys fire-bombed King’s Landing. What it lacks is something much simpler: a heart. There is no shortage of inbred schemers—chief among them Matt Smith as Daemon, Viserys’ resentful and bloodthirsty brother—but precious few idealists, or even characters who seek anything higher than their own advantage. Viserys may have inherited a long stretch of peace and prosperity, but his reluctance to go to war with the kingdom’s enemies is parsed as spinelessness and not prudence. It’s a world of Cerseis and Littlefingers, with nary a Snow or Stark in sight.
In other words, House of the Dragon’s response to the backlash that greeted Game of Thrones’ final seasons seems to have been, somewhat inexplicably, to double down. Some of that negative response might have been from people who enjoyed the show without really paying attention to what they were watching—if you named your daughter Daenerys, that’s on you. But at least some of it had to with a turn towards grim determinism, with the characters behaving in atrocious ways mainly because the plot required them to. Martin’s readers will know much of what happens next in House of the Dragon, a lengthy war of succession chronicled in his book Fire & Blood, and—spoiler alert—very little of it is pleasant. So instead of starting with noble characters whose intentions are slowly bent towards the unspeakable, the new series begins with them terrible, and evidently expects people to stick around to find out just how much.
It’s been 11 years since Game of Thrones’ premiere, and 26 since George R.R. Martin’s original novel was published. And while House of the Dragon is set in the past, the show exists in the present, in a world where simply appearing on HBO at 9 p.m. on Sunday nights isn’t enough to command an audience’s attention. If all you want is more Game of Thrones, then House of the Dragon might well be the Show That Was Promised. But if you’re looking for a show that is to the current TV landscape what Game of Thrones was then, well, there’s a long winter ahead.