House of the Dragon First Reviews: Don’t Expect Another Cultural Phenomenon

House of the Dragon review
Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO

It’s hard to consider HBO’s new series, House of the Dragon without comparing it to its behemoth of a predecessor, Game of Thrones. House of the Dragon has to be its own thing,” star Emma D’Arcy told W about the relationship between the two shows, and while ideally that would be the case, it’s just not realistic. Every Thrones fan tuning into Dragon when it premieres on Sunday night is going to compare it to the original show. It makes sense then, that as reviews role in for the first six episodes of Dragon, every single one of them not only mentions Thrones, but uses it as a rubric to grade its prequel.

Set 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, Dragon begins in the ninth year of Viserys I Targaryen’s reign. The story is about succession, familial-conflict, and the constant pursuit of power. The New York Times called the show “reasonably smart and well put together,” but cautioned that this doesn’t necessarily “translate into engaging drama.”

Paddy Considine, Sian Brooke, Michael Carter, Steve Toussaint, and Eve Best in House of the Dragon.

Photograph by Ollie Upton

If they were comparing Dragon to where we left off with Thrones in May 2019, with a disappointing last season that pushed characters beyond any realistic boundaries and wrapped up the story in a tidy, but wholly anticlimactic way, Dragon may have stood a chance. Mike Hale of NYT quipped that viewers will be “more pleased, surely, than it was with the GOT conclusion of 2019.” But when Thrones premiered in 2011, it became a hit because it sucked us into a completely realized world of fully-defined characters, intriguing conflict, and shocking turns. As Sam Adam’s writes in his review for Slate, though, after eight seasons of Thrones, viewers have come to expect just about everything the creators could throw at us. “Dragons begins in a fictional universe where betrayal is expected at every turn,” he wrote. “And only the terminally pure-hearted or simply naïve would be caught off guard”

Adam went on to say that Dragon “delivers on the promise of providing more of the same,” a sentiment common throughout many of the reviews. Roxana Haidadi of Vulture blames such “rote mimicry” as it “undermines character development and dampens any sparks generated by its ensemble.” In fact, the acting is one of the main aspects that does gain praise for this new show. Paddy Considine is applauded as Viserys I Targaryen, with his ability to “perfectly capture the compassion, jealousy and hesitance of a character whose actual and perceived weaknesses underlie every move of the plot,” according to NYT. D’Arcy too is described as “sharp” and Rhy Ifan, who plays Viserys’ closest adviser, Otto Hightower, as “sublime.”

Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy as Alicent Hightower and Rhaenyra Targaryen.

Photograph by Ollie Upton

In general, it seems that in many ways Dragon has learned from Thrones mistakes. The original show was often criticized for its depictions of violence, especially that against women. Recently, executive producer Sara Hess confirmed that sexual violence will not factor into the new series. “We handle one instance off-screen, and instead show the aftermath and impact on the victim and the mother of the perpetrator,” she told Vanity Fair. Instead, she explained the show will “focus on the violence against women that is inherent in a patriarchal system,” most overtly in the form of childbirth, three instances of which occur in the first six episodes.

But the real question is, does all of this really matter? Whether it’s better than Thrones or worse, more or less violent, just as engaging or not, fans will still tune in on Sunday for Dragon’s premiere, just as they did for Throne’s season finale, even after a less than impressive final season. And while they too will likely compare every minute to the Westeros they’re familiar with, many may just be happy to be back in the mind of George R.R. Martin at all.