House of the Dragon is Game of Thrones 2.0 (in a good way)

Warning: The following contains spoilers for House of the Dragon Episode 1, “The Heirs of the Dragon.”

House of the Dragon premiered on HBO this week to strong reviews from critics. A common theme across these reviews is surprise, which fits given the resoundingly negative response to House of the Dragon’s predecessor Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season. Yet the most shocking thing about this spinoff series isn’t simply that it’s successfully reinvigorated the franchise, but rather the way in which does so.

While most of us expected House of the Dragon co-showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik would downplay the show’s connections to Game of Thrones’ canon, instead they lean heavily into the best parts of it. The upshot of this is that – in ways both tangible and intangible – House of the Dragon feels like Game of Thrones 2.0: a refined remix of the original show that boasts similar highs and might even be on track to surpass them.

Game of Thrones’guiding influence on House of the Dragon is exceedingly evident right from the jump. In fact, one of the first things Condal and Sapochnik do in Episode 1, “The Heirs of the Dragon”, is explicitly define the spinoff’s setting in relation to one of the original series’ protagonists, Daenerys Targaryen. As a post-prologue intertitle makes clear, the show doesn’t merely take place before Game of Thrones – it unfolds exactly 172 years before Daenerys was born.

This is more than just a convenient means of bringing more casual fans up to speed (although it certainly is that). It’s also a way of foreshadowing the Targaryen-heavy spinoff’s narrative and thematic direction by invoking the name (and implicitly, character arc) of that family’s most famous member. That composer Ramin Djawadi then samples Daenerys’ leitmotif throughout “The Heirs of the Dragon” only serves to hammer home how disinterested House of the Dragon is in distancing itself from arguably Game of Thrones’ most controversial figure.

It’s not just Game of Thrones’ music that gets recycled in House of the Dragon, either. The prequel’s characters and themes are clearly modelled on those in the original show’s early seasons. Paddy Considine’s King Viserys I is essentially a more pragmatic stand-in for Ned Stark just as Matt Smith’s Prince Daemon is what happens when you put Jaime Lannister and Bronn in a blender, while Milly Alcock’s Princess Rhaenyra is essentially Daenerys with a dash of Arya. Similarly, ideas that were so core to Game of Thrones – stuff like the role of women in society and the allure of power and its ability to corrupt – are all present and accounted for in House of the Dragon, to differing degrees.

And then there’s the level of graphic sex and violence in each show. It’s safe that if you found this aspect of Game of Thrones a turn-off, chances are House of the Dragon will leave you equally mortified.

Now, all this overlap with Game of Thrones could have resulted in House of the Dragon coming across as a tired rehash of its predecessor, only with fewer dark-haired characters and a lot more dragons. Yet, somehow, “Heirs of the Dragon” manages to feel fresh despite running back many of Game of Thrones’ greatest hits, and, like I mentioned earlier, there are tangible and intangible reasons why this is the case.

In terms of what’s actually on the screen, the thing that really sets the House of the Dragon apart from even the best episodes of Game of Thrones is the greater degree of sophistication on display. Condal and Sapochnik aren’t shy when it comes to serving up the gross-out gore and exposition-heavy hanky panky the franchise is infamous for, only here there’s an undercurrent of restraint and purpose to both.

“Restraint” might seem like an odd choice of word to apply to a show that’s already featured both an impromptu neutering and easily the most traumatic c-section this side of a Twilight movie. Even so, it fits because rather than House of the Dragon’s MA-rated content being gratuitous (as the original show’s increasingly became), it’s necessary. Here, orgies and executions only happen when they’re the best way of driving the plot forward and setting up the key players, especially Daemon.

The same goes for House of the Dragon’s characters and themes – they may be familiar, but they also represent a small yet vital step forward for the franchise. A lot of this is down to the greater emphasis on, and sensitivity towards, the women of Westeros and the issues they face, something carried over George R.R. Martin’s source novel, Fire & Blood. It instantly reframes Game of Thrones’ ostensibly played-out character types and themes from a different perspective, making them as good as new in the process.

All of which speaks to the essence of what works about the first episode of House of the Dragon, and by extension, the show itself: it’s grounded in reinvigoration, not reinvention. It makes sense, too. After all, the key ingredients that made Game of Thrones such a monster hit – the morally complex characters, the compelling political machinations, the rich world-building, the social and political allegory – still have plenty of storytelling juice left in them. They just needed to be recalibrated ever so slightly, along with the more superficial elements they’re wrapped up in.

As to the less quantifiable side of things, that largely boils down to the sense of security that Martin’s hands-on involvement with House of the Dragon brings. The A Song of Ice and Fire author co-created the spinoff with Condal, and unlike later seasons of Game of Thrones, it’s clear he’s got at least one hand on the wheel here. The result is a hard-to-define assuredness to proceedings, a surety that this story is heading in a direction that’s been properly mapped out – particularly in the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways the first episode starts sowing the seeds for Fire & Blood’s big Targaryen civil war.

Of course, it’s still early days for House of the Dragon and I don’t want to fall into the trap of counting my dragon eggs before they’ve hatched. But based on how well it’s already revitalised the Game of Thrones formula, it seems unlikely this spinoff will burn out any time soon.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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