HOUSE OF THE DRAGON [Series Premiere Review] – Before The ‘Game’.

Another year, another premiere prestige HBO series makes its debut– here a prequel to Game of Thrones, the House Of The Dragon. As the title should suggest, the series is focused on what is likely to be the fall of the House Targaryen, and follow similar familial, dynastic dramas.

That drama comes in the form of King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), who — lacking a male heir, and whose wife, Aemma (Sian Brooke), subsequently died during childbirth — names his daughter, Rhaenyra (an aww-shucks Emma D’Arcy) as his heir apparent. This doesn’t sit well with the impulsive, cruel, aptly-named Daemon (Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith), Viserys’ brother, and leader of the Gold Cloaks, essentially a secret police tasked with ridding King’s Landing and Westeros at large of the seedier elements that have made Game Of Thrones so compelling.

With this initial set-up, it’s easy to see how some of the more obvious conflicts will develop.

But JL! Isn’t this show (*GULP*) w-w-w-WOKE? Jinkies! It’s about as “woke” as you can expect a show featuring rapists being castrated, orgies, brutal jousting matches, and a rather graphic, non-anesthetized C-section can be. I mean, yes, Lord Corlys Velaryon is played by Steve Toussaint who — yes — a man of color, and has lines, and says things to people and has agency and status? And, no, there is no point where Daemon turns to the camera and warns the viewers of white genocide or how the 2020 election was stolen, so is it that viewers want a scene like that? And I’m pretty sure a female character is referred to as “her” and “she” a few times, so…pfffttt, pronouns, amirite?

I’m not sure what to look out for here: is it the fact that Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) is ostensibly the main character and is a female (which, in the context of this very show, is a massive controversy in itself that presumably causes whatever instability becomes the focus of the series). This is a fantasy series set in a world where winter can last years, if not decades; there is a whole wyvern of dragons flying around; and proto-zombies exist in the form of the White Walkers. I’m not sure how to contextualize “wokeness” in this universe.. a universe that will graphically cut open a woman right before it kills off a baby and still has no problem treating women — in particular, young women — as objects and incest as a near necessity and masculinity is just as toxic and entrapping in Westeros as it has been

The violence is about as brutal as you can expect: maimings, castrations, and a brutal jousting match remind us that Westeros is just as violent as it apparently has always been, even 172 years before Daenerys is born. There’s something to be said of the practical effects here, as well as Ramin Djawadi‘s score, which uses to original GoT theme as a motif, but is just as compelling as it always has been. There’s something about cinematographer Fabian Wagner‘s work that feels less epic than Thrones ever was (there’s much less location-hopping in this pilot), and more than a few times I “felt” the acting this time around, as opposed to the more measured, weary performances in the main series; that’s surprising given the acting talent involved. Only one episode in, and there isn’t a single outright compelling performance nor character in the vein of Peter Dinklage’s at-once-classic and fascinating Tyrion Lannister…so here’s hoping someone steps up.

This is a less successful prequel/spin-off than, say, Better Call Saul, in comparison to the original series. But it’s no less compelling a watch, and to see Westeros in its heyday, dragons flying around and everything, is like comfort food. Here’s hoping it gets much more fascinating and compelling sooner than later, because — and I never thought I say this — there’s only so far orgies and dragons can go if there are no characters about whom to care.

3/5 Whiskeys.

-J.L. Caraballo