Some Further Quick Thoughts on House of the Dragon (episode two)

I’ve received a number of questions from people asking whether I plan to post on a weekly basis about House of the Dragon. Thanks to those who’ve reached out: it is gratifying to know the Game of Thrones posts I did with Nikki over nine (egad!) years were enjoyed. I’m afraid my answer has to be an unsatisfying maybe. I’ll certainly have stuff to say, which may or not make it to my blog, but what I definitely won’t be doing is posting long, detailed blow-by-blow recaps/reviews—not with Nikki, and not by myself. We did that for Game of Thrones eight seasons, and I think it’s safe to say we both hit our saturation point.

And there’s also the fact that one of the reasons we were able to sustain that output—by the end, our posts were averaging over ten thousand words, which even between two people is a lot of text to produce in a couple of days—is because GoT was a genuine cultural phenomenon. It’s not that I wouldn’t be amenable to the idea of doing that sort of thing again, but not with a property like HotD, whose Westrosi territory we’ve mapped pretty thoroughly.

But having written as much as I did—one half of seventy-three 8-12K word posts is a hefty chunk of text—there’s a certain amount of muscle memory there that would be hard to ignore, even if I wanted to. Two episodes has got my mind flexing in some familiar ways, though less with the granular details of the show than with the broader issues it raises that reflect back on GoT, having to do with fantasy and genre and world-building. Also, given that Rings of Power powers up this week, there’s some interesting possibilities arising in the serendipitous juxtaposition of HBO’s ongoing televisual adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s latter-day fantasy and Amazon’s attempt to build upon Peter Jackson’s success in bringing Middle-earth to the screen.

I also watched Wheel of Time, also on Amazon, this past winter. And while I didn’t have anything to say about it at the time—honestly, I was underwhelmed—revisiting it might make for some useful points of comparison.

I commented in my previous post that I was more worried about Rings of Power, because that show has set itself a much more difficult task. The two shows are superficially similar insofar as they’re both prequel-ish narratives adapted from the histories preceding the stories that made people interested in those histories to start with. But beyond that point of comparison, there really is, well, no comparison.

For the moment I’m going to keep my powder dry on The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s legendarium more broadly until I’ve seen the first episode of Rings. Suffice to say that adapting Tolkien’s mythology is not the same kind of task as adapting The Lord of the Rings.

By contrast, HotD is entirely the same kind of task as adapting A Song of Ice and Fire, and is made easier by the fact that all of the heavy lifting—which is to say, its principal world-building, its aesthetic, its general narrative sensibility—was well established by the eight seasons of GoT. Perhaps more significantly, there is much less at stake in HotD: whatever dragon-borne sexytime shenanigans these Targaryens get up to, we know that they’ll still be around for Robert Baratheon to usurp in two centuries or so. We even know, should we wish to consult Fire and Blood, GRRM’s “history” of the Targaryen dynasty, who wins and who loses and how these conflicts either resolve or don’t resolve themselves.

To be clear, when I say there isn’t much at stake, I mean artistically and narratively. HBO has the pots of money it’s investing at stake, so if people’s appetite for GRRM’s particular brand of venality and violence, of incest and intrigue proves to have been exhausted by GoT’s ignominious exit, well, that’s going to result in a fresh batch of firings. But for those of us tuning in, we’re going to be propelled less by where we’re going than how we get there—by which I mean how the episode-to-episode drama unfolds, and how much we invest emotionally in the characters.

The good news, based on episode two, is that they’re off to a good start. The awkwardness of the writing in the first episode was largely smoothed out, and we’re starting to get a better sense of the main players and their motivations. The casting is proving its quality: there are no discordant notes. The MVPs for this episode are Milly Alcock as the young and precocious Rhaenyra and Eve Best as the jaded but shrewd Rhaenys, the Queen that Never Was.

(Something that comes with adapting fantasy is the realization that names as written on the page don’t always do well when spoken out loud. GRRM is usually pretty user-friendly with his Jons and Roberts and Neds, but occasionally we stumble over the jaw-crackers—as Samwise Gamgee might call them—more typical of the genre).

Prince Cheeky McCheekbones and his Precious.

The conversation between the elder and younger Rhaenladies is a good indication of how this series will play out, and a reminder that GoT, for all its spectacle, was at its best when its antagonists fenced with words as well as swords. Rheanyra surprising the meeting on the bridge at Dragonstone and calling her uncle’s bluff was also a close contender for the episode’s high point.

But where GoT was about a multi-front civil war taking place against the looming threat of the Night King’s malevolent return, HotD is about the internecine conflict of a single dynastic family, whose end—as observed above—is foreordained by history. This much is made clear by the opening credits, which retain the theme music of the original and the general aesthetic sensibility, but which unfold within the contained and claustrophobic walls of a castle we assume is the Red Keep.

The unifying symbol of the GoT credits was the armillary sphere containing the sun, soaring above the vastness of Westeros and Essos. From this celestial perspective we were shown the key points of geography relevant to the given episode. By contrast, the armillary sphere is replaced at the start of the HotD credits with the House Targaryen sigil, which connects to all the other nodes within the castle walls with criss-crossing streams of blood—which itself has the triple meaning of referencing familiar bloodlines, one half of the Targaryen motto (which makes me wonder if future credits will feature fire?), and presumably the rivers of blood that will flow once the fighting begins in earnest.

[CORRECTION: The first image we see in the sequence is not the Targaryen sigil, but a sort of bas-relief of dragons flying around a stronghold that, based on King Viserys’ hobby-model (what kings do instead of model trains, presumably), is meant to be old Valyria. This almost certainly means that the stone walls and corridors through which the blood flows are probably those of the model and not, as I’d blithely assumed, the Red Keep. Not that this really changes my interpretation: it’s still contained within the confines of the Targaryen dynasty, except more explicitly, and with the added sense of being yoked to a mythologized history. Still, more food for thought there.]

By way of conclusion, few quick thoughts in no particular order:

  • The CGI ain’t great. It’s generally OK, but there are those telltale moments when it looks more like a middling video game than a high-budget series. I have to imagine HBO is hedging a bit, which is fair enough: it took GoT a few seasons to establish itself. Before that, they either avoided expensive, large-scale sequences by, say, knocking out Tyrion just before a battle, or limiting themselves to one or two big spectacles a season. It’s fortunate the show proved its worth by the time the dragons got big.
  • The scene in which King Viserys walks and talks with his possible grade-school bride is one of the squickier sequences I’ve seen in any show, but all credit to Paddy Consadine for exuding profound discomfort throughout.
  • I’m in equal measures intrigued and concerned with the character Mysaria, Daemon Targaryen’s prostitute-turned-paramour. Her scene following the bridge confrontation, in which she takes Daemon to task for using her as a provocation was powerful, and it makes me hope the writers paid attention to the criticism leveled at GoT’s cavalier use of sexual violence and disposable female characters. And I am concerned, well, because perhaps this will end up being just more of the same.
  • If Daemon and Rhaenyra are any indication, the Targaryens ruled by divine right of cheekbones; two hundred years hence, Cersei Lannister attempts to follow suit.

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Filed under Game of Thrones, television, what I'm watching

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