Game of Thrones had one of the most disastrous finales in television history. As it earned only a pitiful 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, it's safe to say that everyone turned against the show in the eleventh hour, for good reason too — there are many core problems with the last season.
For a time, it looked as though the pitiful finale might have been the end for Games of Thrones, ruining its legacy on the way out. The Game of Thrones franchise was dead in the water, and the vast majority of its audience had lost interest.
This year, though, a spin-off series based loosely on the prequel novel Fire & Blood, which already has an ending (unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, which was adapted into Game of Thrones), dodging one of the biggest pitfalls of its predecessor. Debuting on HBO and titled House of the Dragon, it tells the story of the “Dance of the Dragons,” a civil war set centuries before the original series, wherein two ancestors of Daenerys Targaryen (an older sister and younger brother) battle each other on dragonback over which of them had a better claim to the throne. Surprisingly, this prequel has been received extremely well by fans of the franchise.
The first season sets the stage for the civil war, showing how seeds planted decades before any actual fighting informed the events to come. In order to do this, the series has had to adopt a very fast pace, with upwards of several years passing off-screen between episodes. At times, this can feel jarring, but overall, this storytelling method gives the audience a bird’s eye view of the story and all its intricacies without spending multiple seasons setting things up — something that would otherwise be necessary for a plot this densely woven.
With everything moving so fast, House of the Dragon runs the risk of leaving viewers feeling left behind. However, the anchor the series needs are its dynamic characters, which draw the audience in and keep them invested. Every single main character, both the ones you’re supposed to root for and the ones you aren’t, feel rich and morally complex in a way that makes the series much more engaging to watch. It’s easy to understand what led certain characters to make their decisions, even if you aren’t inclined to agree with their decisions, or even forgive them.
With such strong characterization, the plot ends up being more of a political thriller than a typical epic fantasy story, which puts the dramatic potential of its characters on full display. There are always multiple people vying for the throne and moving to protect their own interests, and all of these decisions ultimately feed into the rivalries that will tear the kingdom apart.
Being a prequel comes with many challenges. For example, we, as an audience, know that eventually all of this has to lead to the events of Game of Thrones, and because of that, much of the suspense and anticipation is gone. Dedicated fans may even already know how the story is going to play out based on bits of information from the main series. But, surprisingly, this doesn’t hold the series back at all. Instead, it actually ends up working to its benefit.
Viewers know that the story is going to lead to a war that few will survive, and that feeling of inevitability is deeply sad. From behind the fourth wall, it’s obvious just how many little decisions could have potentially saved everyone. If people were just a little more honest, if everyone could swallow their pride just a little bit, nobody would have to die. But it’s made obvious that none of these characters are the type to ever do that; they’re all too obsessed with themselves and their own ambitions to ever really grasp the bigger picture. Their downfall feels both inevitable and totally preventable, like any great tragedy. Ultimately, if you look only toward your own advancement,it can, paradoxically, lead to your own death (or worse) as many of the characters learn.
At its core, this story is very personal, centering around Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock and Emma D'Arcy) and her fracturing relationships with those around her. When you stand on the edge of absolute power, every action you take matters. As relationships with family and friends become increasingly complicated, she is faced with one of the core dilemmas of the whole franchise: What does power mean, and how much are you willing to sacrifice for it?
This is shown to us through King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), who sits atop a throne made from the swords of the enemies his ancestors slayed to win the Seven Kingdoms. As a result, he is slowly dying from countless little cuts and infections, not to mention the vultures trying to take pieces from him even while he’s still alive: his wife, his closest friend and even his own brother. He struggles and fails to keep the more ambitious and strong-willed people around him in check, which ultimately leaves everyone spiraling toward war the moment he can’t hold them back any longer. Trying to hold onto the throne is slowly killing him and turning everyone against him, yet he still can’t fathom the idea of letting go.
Ultimately, this series makes for a great jumping-on point for anyone who has never seen any of the original Game of Thrones, as well as provides a good experience for returning fans who felt burnt by the end of the eighth season. Complex storytelling and believable characters, along with some pretty stellar performances all around, do a phenomenal job of creating a believable world and story that’s easy to become immersed in. As the successor to one of the most iconic fantasy stories in recent memory, House of the Dragon was exactly the return to form that the franchise needed. And it might prove to be even better than what came before.