House of the Dragon Remains the Fantasy Equivalent of Reality TV in Largely Entertaining Second Season

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House of the Dragon Remains the Fantasy Equivalent of Reality TV in Largely Entertaining Second Season

It’s been a little over five years since the final season of Game of Thrones nosedived spectacularly in a collection of baffling story choices that brought a multi-year cultural event to its knees. But even if this conclusion ruffled many feathers, the franchise was simply too lucrative for HBO to pass up. For those not entirely burned by the fiasco, in 2022, we received House of the Dragon, the first of many planned spinoffs set in the land of Westeros and beyond. While the series, co-created by Ryan Condal and George R.R. Martin, never reached the peaks of its predecessor in that first season, it was still a mostly celebrated follow-up that honed in on the familial drama and succession crisis of a divided House Targaryen with the scandalizing eye of a paparazzi. And perhaps most notably of all, it squarely focused on one of the elements that made the old show so beloved: Machiavellian power politics.

Through the first four episodes of its second season, House of the Dragon mostly feels in line with what came before. While it ditches the controversial time-skips from the previous run, it’s still clearly an adaptation of a fictional history book (Fire and Blood) that lacks the propulsive storytelling of Game of Thrones. That said, what it lacks in narrative pizzazz, it frequently makes up for with impressive production value, great performances, memorable gaudiness, and all the other little details that make it mostly worthwhile to return to this brutal fantasy world, even if there are diminishing returns.

The story picks up right where it left off, after King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) ascended the throne with the help of his mother, Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), and her allies, pushing the realm closer to civil war as Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) and her followers find themselves on the back foot. Queen Rhaenyra is grieving the loss of her son after yet another accidental escalation between the two factions, and Westeros waits with bated breath as a cataclysmic war between dragons becomes increasingly likely.

As alluded to, unlike the time-jumping antics of Season 1, where we would frequently fast forward months or years between episodes, there aren’t any major leaps forward through the first half of this latest run (four episodes were made available for review). This time around, we have far more time to sit with the cast, absorbing their motivations, personalities, and litany of similar-sounding names. However, while these skips were a commonly complained-about element of what came before, there’s been something of an overcorrection this time around. Throughout the first three episodes, the story spins its wheels a bit as Rhaenyra’s council repeats the same objections, and Aegon predictably behaves like a little shit while both sides mean mug the other. It’s not that this focus on politics can’t be interesting—after all, this is what made the original series so memorable—but at least early on, both sides can come across as incompetent in ways that can be tough to watch, and the lack of solid B-plots cause the narrative to lose steam.

Thankfully, even during some of these dry spells, there’s still plenty to ogle at because, much like the previous season, there are plenty of tasteless turns in the form of wanton sex and violence (especially the violence this time around). The series is just as trashy and shocking as ever, further magnifying Game of Thrones’ taboos, but thankfully, it puts its most toxic relationships on the back burner in its second season. And most pivotally, as the fourth episode kicks into gear, the show finally makes good on the previous table-setting to bring this tale in an exciting direction that bodes well for what’s to come.

Although the pacing remains up and down, these characters are compelling enough to mostly make up for these occasionally static conflicts. Rhaenyra is a complex protagonist whose inner battle between wanting the Iron Throne and worries about plunging Westeros into civil war make her more than a two-bit despot, while her main foe and former friend Alicent is similarly torn. Their childhood friendship tinges this conflict with tragedy, which stings all the more because they both come across as reasonable people who are pitted against one another by a mixture of political inertia, stupid men, and unlucky turns, such as a misinterpretation of prophecy.

Flanking these heroines are a procession of unlikable doofuses who are fun to hate, such as the woefully incompetent Aegon, disaster master Daemon (Matt Smith), who somehow ups his previous screw-ups, or a-hole extraordinaire Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). Although the cast can sometimes feel a little too big for its own good, the subdued pace lets us fully marinate in these people’s drives, ambitions, and deceptions. Admittedly, there is still a lot of sleaziness involved, including the continuation of the worst ship of all time due to the Targaryens being little freaks, but outside of this, many of these motivations are well-conveyed.

And beyond the writing, the performances help sell these characters. From the rip, Emma D’Arcy immerses us in Rhaenyra’s grief, and Olivia Cooke similarly conveys Alicent’s spiraling doubt. Then, for the garbage boys, whether it’s Tom Glynn-Carney’s petulant line deliveries that convey Aegon’s sulking inadequacy, Ewan Mitchell’s scene-stealing menace as Aemond (he rocks that eye patch so hard), or Matt Smith’s mixture of these two modes as Daemon, these portrayals lift characters that could have otherwise been grating. While plot events sideline Rhys Ifans’ Otto Hightower somewhat, he still has room for a memorable sequence where the performer launches into a spirited rant targeted at his grandsire’s antics that’s impossible to look away from.

And it’s not just the acting that is transportive, but nearly every other layer of its presentation. The costuming is on-point, as Rhaenyra’s crimson ‘fits make me eager to support whatever dragon-related war crimes she pursues. The Red Keep and its glammed-up Iron Throne remain a fitting symbol of Targaryen conquest, and this place is filled with tons of small details like its mish-mashed banners and weirdly horny murals. Even if most of this tale is set behind castle walls, the series’ trademark grime and grit are still very much present whenever we journey beyond them. For instance, this time around, we get a big set-piece battle that acts as a satisfying payoff to the previous season of scheming, a grandiose sequence that captures widespread devastation in shell-shocked soldiers and scorched earth.

All that said, although House of the Dragon’s production value, performances, score, and just about every other aesthetic element are impressive, it’s hard to deny there’s a certain vacuousness compared to the first few seasons of its parent series. Much of this comes from the fact that it’s basically adapted from an appendix, Fire & Blood, a fictional history book targeted at A Song of Ice and Fire lore-lovers. While Martin’s other novels and Game of Thrones cross-cut between adventures all across Westeros to create constant rising and falling action that kept the story engaging, House of the Dragon is almost entirely set within the confines of the Red Keep and Dragonstone, following a family stuck in a succession squabble that can feel small despite its larger ramifications.

Game of Thrones poked at the pettiness of these kinds of high-borne political spats, but this story feels entirely consumed by these scuffles in a way that can be diminishing and repetitive, even if it tries to distract from this by making these events as crass as possible. And I’ll admit that I miss my salty Winterfell Northerners and their general dismissal of this high-borne nonsense, although we get a small dollop of them here in the latest season. It also doesn’t help that House of the Dragon doesn’t go for quite as many big swings compared to its flagship, and although some larger developments this season push back on this trend, nothing here hits nearly as hard as when a certain fan favorite’s head was separated from his shoulders, for instance.

Still, as we seem to stray further from the era of “Peak TV,” I can’t help but be mostly taken with this series that feels ripped from a previous era of big-budget indulgence. The cast is massive, the sets and costumes look expensive, and there’s a whole flight of CGI dragons that probably took an unreasonable number of hours to render. The narrative may feel constrained by the work it’s adapting, but its characters are complex enough to make this tale more than just royalty-oriented reality TV. House of the Dragon may come across like a diminished scion of a once proud house, but honestly, I’ll take whatever reminders of former glory I can get.

House of the Dragon Season 2 premieres Sunday, June 16th on HBO and streaming on Max. 

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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