October 29, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: House of the Dragon, Season 1


Now that the first season of House of the Dragon is finished, I thought I would say a few words about it. I came to it from the point of view of someone who has never read any of George R.R. Martin's books or seen the original Game of Thrones (other than a few snippets on YouTube). To be sure, I had heard of the show, and had read enough about it (I've never been someone who gets all up in arms over spoilers) to pretty much keep up with what was happening, but I never felt enamored enough to pay out sufficient weregild to subscribe to HBO. 

Truthfully, the only reason I subscribed to HBO Max in the first place wasn't anything Dragon/Game/or Martin-related: it was to view the internet's favorite gay pirate love story, Our Flag Means Death. (Although my relatively recent realization that the service also holds the entire five seasons of the remastered Babylon 5, which I've been steadily rewatching, kind of sealed the deal.) But you know, at least for me, after I start paying for something a bit of inertia sits in. It's just easier to keep it (and this is very much a first-world problem) then to rouse myself enough to cancel it. So while I've also been looking forward to the upcoming The Last of Us, there was sufficient hype and for me, curiosity about the world of Westeros to give it a try.

I'm very glad I did. 


First of all, this show looks gorgeous. I suppose the inevitable comparison is to Amazon's The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, on which Jeff Bezos & Co. spent more than twice as much money: $58 million per episode as opposed to Dragon's $20-25 million, according to the different reports I've seen. Of course, Amazon ended up having a great deal more CGI, as far as I could tell, as they had to construct countries and landscapes from scratch--Valinor, Numenor, the Southlands, Khazad-dum, and all the towers, ships, palaces, statues, and cities involved in the various storylines, as well as Mount Doom blowing its top (which really should have killed everyone in that village including Galadriel, but no matter) and the Balrog. Sure, the first season was shot in New Zealand--partly because they went down there to film just before Covid broke out and couldn't leave--but it sure didn't seem like they used a lot of it, at least to me. There just weren't that many shots of the stunning landscape.  As a result, as pretty as Middle-earth ended up being, it also felt more cold, computerized and sterile than Westeros. 

HBO, on the other hand, could re-use the sets and CGI programming already broadcast for Game of Thrones, with the additions of the vastly expanded and diversified ranks of the dragons (more about them later). King's Landing, the Red Keep, Driftmark and Dragonstone are as alive, vital and messy as the people who inhabit them. Rhaenyra Targaryen is a far more compelling character than Galadriel, at least the way the latter has been depicted so far. Amazon's show seems to be too huge and sprawling (and, I suspect, too chained to the demands of the Tolkien estate) to really grab the viewer, though it clearly tries its best--and nearly breaks through, with the bromance of Elrond and Durin. But even that simply doesn't stand up to the smoldering intensity of Daemon's romance with Rhaenyra--or Matt Smith's fantastic chemistry with both the younger version of Rhaenyra, Milly Alcock, and the older, Emma D'Arcy. 

The Rings of Power is also a more simplistic sort of show: the battle against the ultimate evil of Morgoth and Sauron. Black and white, good and bad. House of the Dragon is nowhere near that clear-cut, and that's what makes it the more fascinating of the two. Though I haven't read the source material, George R.R. Martin's Fire and Blood, I've seen enough articles here and there to grasp what's coming from the Dance of the Dragons, and it's going to be a messy, bloody Shakespearean tragedy. This first season is already showing that, with the arc of King Viserys as a mostly decent guy who had no business ruling the Seven Kingdoms, but who to the end of his life tried his best to keep his dysfunctional backstabbing family together. We also have the fundamental misogyny holding up the system of Westeros, in that, paraphrasing the Queen Who Never Was, Rhaenys Targaryen, the nobles of Westeros would "rather burn the realm to the ground than let a woman sit on the Iron Throne." (Which is at least one point in Amazon's favor: Galadriel may be a pretty bland character, but no one tells her she has to stay behind and pump out babies.)

(Pause for a grumpy nitpick. Really, George? Rhaenys, Rhaenyra, Rhaena? Viserys and Visenya? Laenor and Laena? Daemon and Aemond? At least give your characters some different nicknames, for crying out loud.)

This entire first season is background and context for the bloody fiery mess that is going to be the Dance of the Dragons, and covers about twenty years in the lives of the Targaryens and Velaryons. During the first five episodes, Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower are portrayed by the fantastic Milly Alcock and Emily Carey respectively, before the adult versions of the characters are taken over by Emma D'Arcy and Olivia Cooke. Since both of them have children along the way, and since said children play a major role in the conflicts to come, there are two time jumps in the season of ten and six years, with the kids recast both times. (Although one wonders why some of the more prominent male characters, namely Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen and Fabian Frankel as Ser Incel Criston Cole, don't also have younger versions. I guess one doesn't really waste the Eleventh Doctor, especially as Smith is so deliciously evil in the role. Paddy Considine, as King Viserys, doesn't have a younger version either, but that's because he has eight episodes to get sick with what is supposed to be leprosy, lose body parts--including part of his face and an eye, a gruesome sight revealed in Ep 8--wither and die. And he does such a fantastic job of it that if he doesn't get nominated for an Emmy, there is no justice.) The different kid actors are all pretty good, although the last time jump, with Ewan Mitchell taking over as Alicent and Viserys' second son Aemond, is almost a misfire: this guy looks at least 5-7 years older than his supposedly "elder" brother Aegon. But he also looks (and acts) a lot like Daemon....and with what Aemond's dragon Vhagar did in the last episode, and Daemon trying to lure out a huge, grumpy old beast named Vermithor from his hiding place underneath Dragonstone, also in the finale....I have an inkling of where those two characters are headed. 

Speaking of the dragons: there are quite a few of them, and they are where the show's VFX millions have obviously been spent. This is never more apparent than the finale, where Aemond Targaryen's gargantuan Vhagar is a big as a mountain, a freaking kaiju. (One wonders what on earth a monster that size would eat. A baby dragon is shown being fed a goat in an earlier episode, but for Vhagar/Godzilla, a goat ain't gonna cut it.) The dragons are different colors and designs, with the enormous Vhagar, Daemon's long-necked and snakelike Caraxes, and Rhaenys' bright red and horn-crowned Meleys. These are four-limbed dragons rather than the usual six-limbed (four legs and two wings), which means they walk, or rather waddle, almost like pterodactyls. 

The central theme of the series is the family fighting and ultimately devouring each other in their struggle for the Iron Throne, which only serves to drive home the point of Drogon's melting the damn thing in the Game of Thrones finale. (In fact, that scene, where he does so and then flies away with Daenerys Targaryen's body, really should have been the end of the series.) There is palace intrigue, betrayals, and backstabbing galore throughout the season, but we spend enough time with the characters to understand and sympathize with them, even though they are deeply flawed people and some of them are borderline (or outright) sociopaths. (As cruel as Laenor Velaryon's faking his death to run away with his male lover was to his parents, he was one of the few decent people we saw, and I was rather glad he got out of that Kings' Landing hellhole.) This is due to the show's high production values, deft directing and most of all the performances of the uniformly excellent cast. 

As far as I can tell, the series was a runaway hit for HBO, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it garnered multiple Emmy nominations next year. For me, although I also watched and enjoyed The Rings of Power, House of the Dragon was the superior show in nearly every aspect. 

Long may it burn. 

No comments: