House of the Dragon Actually Pulled It Off

The Game of Thrones spinoff crammed a 19-year family saga into 10 episodes of television—and somehow, it worked brilliantly.

Rhaenyra Targaryen in the finale of 'House of the Dragon'
Ollie Upton / HBO

This story contains spoilers for the entire first season of House of the Dragon.

One of the most common complaints about serialized television in the streaming era is that it moves far too slowly. Whole seasons contain plotlines that probably could fit within one episode; characters spend a year getting ready to do something. I watched every episode of Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power with my arms crossed grumpily, astonished that such an expensive production dared to have little to no narrative momentum for most of its running time. House of the Dragon, its big-budget fantasy rival on HBO, leans into the opposite extreme. If anything, the show has felt rushed, jumping madly through time and sacrificing some character development for the sake of plot, plot, plot.

Still, my biggest takeaway from last night’s Season 1 finale, “The Black Queen,” was the amusing surprise that the preceding episodes had all just been table-setting, albeit on a grand scale. For its first season, set over 19 years, House of the Dragon charted the seeding of a civil war within the ruling House Targaryen, but not until the end of “The Black Queen” did that war truly begin. I know enough about the George R. R. Martin–written source material to know that from here on out, the story is going to have to slow down dramatically. But that prospect only makes House of the Dragon’s first season a more impressive and downright avant-garde achievement.

The scope of Season 1 necessitated skipping over some massive developments. Whatever drew Rhaenyra Targaryen (played by Emma D’Arcy) to Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr), the secret father of her first three children, wasn’t really elucidated, even though the rumored illegitimacy of her offspring had been a major thread. The shifting nature of Rhaenyra’s second husband (and uncle) Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) was difficult to keep track of—he started as a feckless rabble-rouser, became a fearsome one-man warrior, and then spent much of the back half of the season as a supportive and unobtrusive husband up until the finale.

Nevertheless, I appreciated the speed. The time-jumping nature of House of the Dragon’s first season allowed the show to cram an emotional saga into 10 episodes, beginning with the teen friendship between Rhaenyra and Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), and ending with them plotting dragon-led war against each other. The show’s ninth episode saw Alicent and her father, Otto (Rhys Ifans), conspire to place her son Aegon on the throne after the death of her husband, Viserys (Paddy Considine)—against Viserys’s stated wishes that his eldest daughter, Rhaenyra, be first in the line of succession.

“The Black Queen” showed the other side of that maneuvering, with Rhaenyra learning of Aegon’s hurried coronation and deciding whether to march against him or stand down in the name of peace. A war of dragon-riders against dragon-riders, she said, would devastate the land both sides were fighting for. Why not marry everyone’s kids off to each other, or retire to her own lands to live in finery and avoid further misery? Again and again, House of the Dragon has proffered peace as an option that characters have to wrestle with, and rarely are they bloodthirsty enough to dismiss it. Instead, the myriad pressures of court politics and the unmanageable ensemble of lords and schemers within it keep nudging the world toward chaos.

The original Game of Thrones, which is even more sprawling, was partly concerned with how the pursuit of power corrupts decent people, and how the act of seizing it usually exacts some immeasurable toll. But House of the Dragon has made that the sole focus of its narrative. Every character wants a chance to sit on the throne or be the power behind it, and anytime they swerve away from the idea, the gravitational forces of ambition drag them right back to it.

Rhaenyra was seriously considering staying above the fray, even sending her children as envoys to various lords to sound out whether they’d support her. But in the course of doing that, one child, Lucerys (Elliot Grihault), ran into his uncle Aemond (Ewan Mitchell), whose eye he’d cut out in a fight years prior. Their enmity boiled into a dragon-riding game of chicken, with Aemond provoking Lucerys’s fire-breathing steed into attacking, then losing control of his own dragon and watching in horror as it chomped his nephew to pieces. War, once likely, is now unavoidable, and Rhaenyra’s face at the end of the episode suggested her heart has hardened beyond reason. Her rage feels mightily earned, potent fuel for the drama of future seasons.

My main fear is that House of the Dragon will only grow grimmer and gorier as it goes on and delves into the particularities of the “Dance of the Dragons.” The showrunner, Ryan Condal, has promised that the series will display a more humorous side moving forward, a welcome notion that’s hard to believe given the looming familial bloodshed. As much as I’ve gobbled up all of the palace intrigue and royal politicking thus far, I cannot deny that the show lacks the kind of memorable characters—Tyrion, Cersei, Bronn—who kept Game of Thrones juicy and piquant years into its run. But I also would’ve scoffed at the idea of cramming 19 years of storytelling into one season before House of the Dragon, to my delight, proved me wrong.