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HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Prequel Returns

HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Prequel Returns

At the heart of House of the Dragon‘s second season is an unresolvable tension, and I don’t mean the one between the Greens and the Blacks.

On one hand, both Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), the daughter that Viserys I (Paddy Considine) chose to succeed him on the Iron Throne, and Alicent (Olivia Cooke), mother of the son (Tom Glynn-Carney’s Aegon II) who actually did, want desperately to avoid all-out war, or at least to minimize the destruction when it comes. It’s an eminently reasonable and humane stance, held by two of the show’s more reasonable and humane main characters. Of course we want what they want.

House of the Dragon

The Bottom Line

A show divided against itself.

Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, June 16 (HBO)
Cast: Emma D’Arcy, Olivia Cooke, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Eve Best, Steve Toussaint, Fabien Frankel, Matthew Needham, Sonoya Mizuno, Tom Glynn-Carney, Ewan Mitchell
Creators: Ryan Condal, George R.R. Martin

On the other hand … what, we’re going to tune into a show about a succession crisis involving dragons and not root to see them burn each other to a crisp?

This contradiction is not new or unique to House of the Dragon; Francois Truffaut’s “there is no such thing as an anti-war film” has endured as a truism for a reason. But it’s particularly glaring here, in a way that illuminates the series’ most fundamental shortcoming. Entertaining though it can be, the Game of Thrones prequel still struggles with the balance of epic scope and human-scale motivation that made its predecessor work so well.

The new run of episodes does make some welcome attempts to course-correct. Where the first season sprinted through entire decades’ worth of set-up, sometimes skipping entire years between episodes, season two slows the clock considerably. The first four hours sent to critics (of eight) cover mere weeks as Team Rhaenyra and Team Technically Aegon II But Let’s Be Real, For Our Purposes It’s Really Team Alicent scramble to shore up their defenses and strategize their offenses in the wake of Viserys’ death. The scheming and strategizing pulls some of the show’s most egregiously underused characters closer to the spotlight, including Rhaenyra’s savvy aunt/advisor Rhaenys (Eve Best) and shrewd sex worker Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno).

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Even still, so much happens in each chapter that one character bemoans having “barely had the hours to grieve one tragedy before suffering the next.” This is not entirely for the worse. House of the Dragon gifts its performers the sort of juicy feeling and meaty speeches that Emmy reels are made of: Cooke is riveting as a woman who seems far more conflicted about her cause in private than she’s allowed to admit in public, while D’Arcy’s Rhaenyra seems to surprise even herself at times with the depths of her own rage. And scene by scene, these big moments can be arresting. A verbal clash between enemies is positioned as the mic-drop closer of episode three, and despite the fact that not a single drop of blood is shed, it really is as tense and thrilling as any sword fight could’ve been.

Yet the overall relentless pace undermines the larger picture. Individual twists are given barely any room to sink in before the characters are hurried along to the next one, propelled less by internal motivation than narrative necessity. Main players get less shading than they should, and supporting ones barely any at all. It seems reflective of the show’s haphazard approach to its cast that one emotional climax rests, for some reason, on a pair of twin knights, Arryk (Luke Tittensor) and Erryk (Elliott Tittensor), so identical that even their names sound interchangeable. While it’s objectively sad that the war has put the brothers at odds against each other, with Arryk backing Aegon and Erryk declaring for Rhaenyra, the pathos would have more weight if we knew anything about them at all.

Stubbornly opposed though Alicent and Rhaneyra may be, the dynamics on each side echo each other. Both women insist on patience and prudence, preferring only to unsheathe the swords and unleash the dragons when it becomes absolutely necessary. Both are unfortunately surrounded by men chomping at the bit for blood. Aegon, a buffoon drunk on both power and actual booze, is sure war will prove once and for all that he’s not “weak.” Alicent’s sworn guard Criston (Fabien Frankel) relishes the opportunity to strike back at his ex, Rhaenyra. Rhaenyra’s devious uncle-husband, Daemon (Matt Smith), chafes under her cautious command. Dragons might be the greatest weapon either side possesses, the medieval-fantasy equivalent of a midcentury atom bomb. But increasingly, it seems the most destructive force in all of Westeros is the male ego.

Not that House of the Dragon itself is immune to the pull of violence. Since Game of Thrones, this universe has been negotiating how far it can push onscreen brutality; this season, the storytellers have evidently deemed it too much to show a child being slaughtered, but fine to hear the squelch of a sword hacking into his flesh. Full-scale battles are to be deployed sparingly, if only to keep the production budget in check, but fields of corpses in the aftermath of a battle do almost as much to underline the awesome scale of ruin. The dragon-on-dragon action is appropriately breathtaking, but also somewhat heartbreaking. (Do the dragons want to be doing any of this?)

The ostensible intent is to highlight both the cruelty and pointlessness of war. Thousands of lives will be lost and thousands more ruined, and for what? It hardly matters if each side claims to be working toward some nobler cause, or even if they earnestly believe they are. As Rhaenys bleakly cautions, there comes a point in fighting “when the desire to kill and burn takes hold, and reason is forgotten.” House of the Dragon ensures that we never lose sight of why its war is happening — to the contrary, it takes pains to show us every step on the path there, and to question if there might yet be another way. But in its emotional shortcomings, it fails to make us feel the very tragedy it means to sell. Bring on the dragons.

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