‘House of the Dragon’ plays a less addictive game for the former throne

Working from author George RR Martin’s prequel “Fire & Blood,” the new series has the disadvantage of being set nearly two centuries before the major events of “Game of Thrones,” taking place 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen. It builds pressure to sink or swim — or rather, soar or sputter — strictly on its own terms.
The current occupant of the Iron Throne, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), is somewhat weak as kings go, so much so that he is called weak by his brother Daemon (Matt Smith, “playing a different prince from his role in The Crown. “), a ruthless libertarian who openly lusts for power.

Mostly, Viserys longs for a male heir. When his wife is pregnant again, his teenage daughter Princess Rhaenyra (Millie Alcock), an accomplished dragon rider, realizes that her fate depends on whether a son is born, as well as another potential heir to her uncle. (Specifically, all blonde-white Targaryen locks should lock hairdressing Emmy, if nothing else.)

Practically everyone seems to be playing angles that suggest they’re a step or two ahead of the Viserys, including the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), who wields a quiet authority over furtive whispers.

Martin shares the creation of the show with newcomer to the “Thrones” world, Ryan Condle, while Miguel Sapochnik (who directed some memorable episodes, among them “Battle of the Bastards”) is also running the show.

While HBO has clearly opened the piggy bank, making sure the look is as elegant as expected — and composer Ramin Dawadi’s lightly tweaked score goes a long way toward reviving the mood — such series are built on characters. Simply put, the inhabitants of this realm initially paled next to the likes of Tyrion, Arya, or the Lannister or Stark children.

Halfway through a decade-long run of engineering, the story will gradually become more compelling over the six episodes previewed, boasting some of the most brutal and bloody moments “Thrones” has produced. There is also the vague threat of war on the outer fringes of the empire and the periodic use of dragons as the ultimate weapon in medieval-style aerial warfare.

The vigorous debate surrounding the final season of “Game of Thrones” has somewhat obscured the lofty position the series had occupied up to that point, maintaining practically unparalleled excellence. Notably, it signed in 2019 before the launch of several streaming services that have significantly increased the level of TV ambition and investment in the fantasy realm.

When the original began, Cersei’s character said that when you play Game of Thrones, “You win, or you die.” In a way, that mantra reflects the huge bet and huge rewards made and reaped from the show itself.

“House of the Dragon” tries to play a similar game, but the TV world has changed 11 years after the first series began. And at best, both the series and HBO are likely to settle for a smaller, more deserved, less-decisive victory.

“House of the Dragon” premieres Aug. 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a Warner Bros. Discovery unit.

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