The world of Westeros is as exciting as you remember. And that may be a bit of a problem.
Dragon Housethe new prequel that returns to the world of game of thrones, takes place approximately 172 years before the events of this series. Now we see a very different King’s Landing, ruled by the Targaryens at the height of their power. This being a game of thrones together, soon everything will spoil in battles and sexual relations, in betrayals and power grabs, by playing politics that is both petty and legitimate. But for now, everything is falling into place for an epic story.
But since this show is a successor (in our timeline) to the wildly popular game of thrones series, it is practically impossible to approach it with a fresh mind. When one makes the choice to sign up for yet another expansive chronicle of Westeros, one comes up against a heavy burden of the story’s inevitable destination. But while the first episode paints with as broad a brush as possible to acquaint us with the Westeros of old and its many players, Episode 2 is more of a pointillist portrait of the Targaryen family as it was born. In “The Rogue Prince,” we zoom in on the finer points of what people care about, all the better the set-up Dragon House entirely as his own creature.
Perhaps the strongest thing I can say about Dragon House is that nearly every detail of the show is worth it, without the risk of pulling too hard and unraveling the tapestry it weaves. It may seem overwhelming with low praise, but Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) is incredibly interested in the details – the Dornish knight who has combat experience, or the jewelry she wears to dinner with her father, King Viserys (Paddy Considine). That she takes off the Valyrian steel necklace for a dinner party where she hopes to better connect with him is a telling subtlety in a production stacked with them.
So far, much of the family dynamic of Dragon House have been less violence and bloodshed and more heartbreaking meta-communication where two people only seem to be talking about the same thing. Viserys cares for the nostalgia, the poetics of her daughter’s best friend, Alicent (Emily Carey), the glories of ancient Valyria and the hardships of her duties. But in the presence of his daughter, he cannot sit and listen enough to hear what she is really trying to say. When Rhaenyra brings up the awkward moment at the small council meeting, he tries to save her from what he sees as further embarrassment – “You’re young; you will learn” – missing an opportunity to talk to him much at all. It’s not a leap to see how Rhaenyra sees the situation as less her own rise to power and more chosen to spurn Daemon. Dragon House presents both Rhaenyra and Viserys with empathy, but it also presents them incredibly clearly. It’s hard to fault either of them for both being trapped by convention.
That Viserys and Rhaenyra are relying on the same person – Alicent – to help them through their grief is only a cruelty of fate, but it’s a cruelty for which the series has also laid careful emotional groundwork. In just two episodes Accommodation explained why they both feel seen, while making sure that Alicent and her care for the two don’t ring true.
This is how Dragon House won me over, and it feels built to reward rewatch. The show is full of smaller, powerful beats, like the maester turning to the Hand of the King to coax Viserys through his emotional rejection of marriage proposals, and the visual composition of the show follows suit. This Is feel like old fashioned game of thrones, only here it is not a backhanded compliment on the lingering aftertaste of the eighth season. At its peak, this show was one that could demand your attention and reward it with character notes and stories based on a million little moments. In its second episode, Dragon House proves able to do the same.
The focal point of Sunday’s episode (and where it comes closest to the traditional sword-drawn action that audiences associate with the franchise) is at Dragonstone, as all the details come to a head in the one of Rhaenyra’s first tests. She’s come to Targaryen Castle where Daemon (Matt Smith) has been squatting for some time, and she hopes to avoid the bloodshed that Otto Hightower’s (Rhys Ifans) efforts would certainly have led to. She pulls it off, appropriately sizing Daemon’s bluff for what it is: the smug act of an asshole with impulse control and the wacky plans of a middle schooler. But the scene is still tense, with the camera ping-ponging around the various players and their respective motivations for ending up on those steps of Dragonstone. And that works (whether or not you believe the CGI background to all of this).
Maybe she still had her Aunt Rhaenys’ (Eve Best) words ringing in her ears, reminding her that despite being a named heiress, she still wears her father’s cups, or maybe it was the visual of his father dating a 12 year old. Either way, it paints a clearer picture of who Rhaenyra d’Alcock is and who she could become. When his father conceives a threat, he usually thinks, warning him only to push back “anyone who dares challenge us”. But Rhaenyra knows the threat can come from anywhere, and she’s proven herself up to the challenge no matter what comes her way.
Which is good, since, as this episode hastens to remind us, there are threats outside of King’s Landing. In the first moments of the episode, before we even know what we’re seeing or hearing, we know it’s gripping and horrifying. Those details might be nothing, but here, in his second episode, Dragon House makes them revealing: There are dangers of all kinds in this world; the Crabfeeder and its nautical horror is just the beginning. But it’s enough to erase the memory of season 8 and its “best stories”. For now, just having fun with Westeros again.