Fantasy fiction, television

House of the Dragon is Better Than Game of Thrones, And Here’s Why

Recently I watched season 1 of the Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon. I had originally decided I wasn’t going to watch it because, a) I no longer have HBO, and b) like any rational person, I’m still upset about that ending. Although I knew the book prequel was in fact published (I’ve shelved the damn thing), and the showrunners aren’t pulling their material out of thin air, I was still not feeling it for a visual adaptation (even one starring Matt Smith).

Anyway, here’s the short version on why I changed my mind: One day while sorting returns at work, my eye fell on the new release DVD of HotD, and the rendering of the dragon behind the Iron Throne and one of Dany’s ancestors, about the same age as Dany was herself at the start of GoT. In a heartbeat, I was reminded of what we all loved about the original series — sharing the journey of a young woman simultaneously blessed and cursed with a great birthright, and everyone else trying to take it from her.

I was hooked from the beginning. I watched all 10 episodes in 2 days. I thought about each plot point constantly when I wasn’t watching. I couldn’t imagine the agony of having to wait a whole week between new episodes when it first broadcast. I had to know what would happen next.

In short, I loved it, and I need season 2 NOW.

I liked it more than Game of Thrones. And this is coming from someone who genuinely appreciated some of the plots/themes/storytelling in both the books (yes, I have read them) and the OG show. BUT, GoT always gave me (many) reasons to hate it, too (even before we reached the extremely problematic finale).

I could write an entire separate post on this (maybe one day I will), so here’s a brief recap of the stuff I won’t ever forgive GoT for:

  • The CONSTANT violence against women and children. There were seasons when we couldn’t go a single episode without seeing some poor woman raped or a child murdered. There was less brutality in the books, so they can’t even claim it was sticking to the source. And I didn’t need to witness every bit of every incident, either. It was why I skipped a majority of seasons 4 and 5. ENOUGH, ALREADY!
  • The absolute lack of rationale on the part of, well, practically everybody. In the books, there were only a handful of people clamoring for the Iron Throne, and it was always someone who believed they had a legitimate claim through original royal lineage (like Dany), or through the altered succession brought about by the coup (like the Lannisters and the Barentheons). In the show, the fact that pretty much any small-time knight with a parcel of land to his name decided he had the right to grab for the crown just became silly.
  • The way nobody ever seemed to think it necessary to explain things to the audience. When you adapt a book to the screen, you have to assume many viewers will not have read the original stories, and it’s clear GoT‘s showrunners didn’t understand that. The ONLY reason I knew who was related/allied to/hated each other, and why, was because I looked up the family trees on Wikipedia before reading the books. On screen, there was so little explanation of the connections I missed almost all of it, and was totally lost until I did the research.
  • Because you couldn’t follow 90% of what was going on, you couldn’t get invested in the seasonal subplots. I skipped entire character arcs because I was bored. I didn’t care about what’s-his-name from where’s-it doing something terrible to who-the-hell-is-this-again-and-how-does-it-matter. The books went into ALL the details, and yes, that means they’re behemoths, but they’re behemoths that make sense.
  • Of course that ending. No logic plot-wise, totally breaking character for EVERYONE, major deaths happening offscreen, and ending on the MOST DEPRESSING, STUPIDEST note EVER, by crowning an arrogant kid with NO royal blood and sending the RIGHTFUL king to the Wall.

*Deep breath* Okay, so, on to House of the Dragon. *Warning: Spoilers!*

The show starts off by establishing it’s taking place about 6 generations before Dany, and the current setting is during the rule of Viserys the Peaceful, so called because the Seven Kingdoms remained together and largely without war. We’re introduced to the present king — who is apparently slowly going insane — and his family, which at this moment consists of his very pregnant queen, and his only living daughter, Rhaenyra. Of course, it goes very badly for the queen, and not only do both mother and child not make it, the king is left without the hope of a male heir. And we all know in worlds set in medieval times, this is considered a BIG problem.

This show is shot on a smaller scale than the original, meaning there are only a couple of big battles, and many of the effects are saved for the dragons (which are AWESOME). There is considerably LESS graphic violence against women (thank God!), and child death is few and far between and mostly offscreen. The explicit violence is absolutely still explicit, so be warned for that. But even the profanity was toned way down (it’s like the directors had a limit for f-bombs and really objectionable swears!).

It wasn’t surprising to me that Viserys goes against the grain and names Rhaenyra his successor. What did intrigue me was the lack of public outcry about it. When it happens, the lords (and ladies) that don’t really approve keep their opinion quiet, and the competition for who will become the future queen’s husband is on. This hints at some major long-game playing here, and that’s what the original show lacked. The only OG character with a clear long game was Dany; the Lannisters and the Barentheons and all the northern lords didn’t have a plan for civil war breaking out, or the people of King’s Landing rejecting them, or if another nation invaded, or, or, or. In Westeros’ past, everybody was quite aware that if there was more than one challenger to the Iron Throne, the entire system could come crashing down, which is bad for all of them.

Despite there being a whole lot of minor characters, there was a bunch of dialogue that explained who was who, who meant what to the king, and who is in control in what area. The scenes of the Green Council meetings aren’t filler; they give us vital clues as to who will stay loyal to whom, and who will probably switch sides and create later conflict. I appreciated this so much after 8 seasons of GoT pronoun-and-nickname-gaming.

The first round of the long game goes to Lord Hightower, who encourages his daughter, Alicent, to befriend the newly-widowed king, and the friendship becomes more, and the king eventually marries Alicent. It is a little uncouth by modern standards, as Viserys is about 40, and Alicent is only 16 or so, but, again, medieval times, different cultures (and, remember, it’s fiction, folks). From the perspective of Alicent’s father, Lord Hightower (who believes Westeros will never accept a woman ruler and wants to avoid civil war), it’s a stroke of genius. Indeed, pretty soon Alicent starts having children, and she does give the king a son — by many views, the obvious, real heir.

But the twist is that Viserys won’t hear of changing his succession, and he continues trying to find Rhaenyra a proper future prince consort. The next issue comes up when there are indications towards Rhaenyra and her uncle (the king’s half-brother, who we know very little about) getting involved in the “odd custom” (yup, think Cersei and Jamie). Viserys doesn’t like that at all, and when his brother Daemon does ask to marry Rhaenyra, it’s a flat-out no, and the king arranges a “more suitable” match for his daughter.

However, Viserys’ choice is a disaster waiting to happen — it’s his distant cousin’s son, who is secretly gay, and therefore very unlikely to produce heirs for the kingdom. A whole lot of drama does occur in the future (sooner and later) because of this unfortunate pairing. And, again, it all goes back to people doing what someone else wants because of trying to avoid a war. As the episodes progress, it’s clear that war will become inevitable.

It’s time for a tangent on how much I love Rhaenyra. This princess is totally badass, determined to hold on to what’s hers by right, and refusing to play to stereotypes about her gender. She tries to play nice even with the people she’s worried are plotting against her. She knows her cousin’s secret, and agrees to keep it, protecting his life and his family’s reputation. She finds a lover — an honorable knight — and maintains a discreet relationship, producing grandchildren for her father and the royal line. Later, when people guess something’s not solid and start questioning who really fathered her children, she doesn’t cave to pressure and doesn’t sell out her fake husband or her lover. (The truth is uncovered through a network of devious spies in the castle, and it’s pretty obvious they’d sell Rhaenyra herself down the river, given half a chance.) Despite suffering significant personal losses, Rhaenyra rises strong at the end, ready to defend her birthright, even though it means challenging her own half-brother for the Iron Throne.

And, no, I know we can’t get around the “odd custom” issue as being problematic; and while I don’t deny that, here’s why I feel it’s not as straighforward ewww and ick as, yup, Cersei and Jamie. In some cases. Yes, there’s actually a range in this show. For several reasons. Bear with me.

Rhaenyra’s mother was from a family in Riverrun, so that’s no previous relation to Viserys. Cool. Since Rhaenyra doesn’t “couple” with her arranged husband, and her lover is from a noble family outside of the Targaryen line, that means her first, second, and third sons got a diverse mix of DNA. (And I really like the way her in-laws still consider those kids their grandchildren, although everyone knows that biology-wise, it’s realistically not true.)

Then, when Rhaenyra and Daemon do wed later on, yes, he’s said to be her uncle — but, according to an early episode, the nobility knows Daemon is Viserys’ half-sibling, at best, and I had to wonder (more than once) if the real reason so many of the lords are so resistant to the idea of Daemon being granted any higher rank or power is because he’s not really a Targaryen. The only “proof” we’re given of Daemon’s parentage is that someone told Viserys this was his half-brother — that’s literally it. And at one point, Daemon openly refers to himself as a “bastard second son,” so that means his heritage has probably always been uncertain. So, maybe the bloodlines of Rhaenyra’s fourth and fifth sons aren’t as entwined as we might think.

Besides, when you consider that initially Viserys and Alicent were both extremely adverse to the notion of marrying too closely within the family tree…and then as the king descended further into madness, and Alicent deeper into desperation and paranoia, they wed their oldest son to their youngest daughter — EWWWWW!!! ICKKKK!!! That’s so much worse than Rhaenyra and Damon (especially if my theory is even close).

Here’s the other thing I majorly appreciated about the storytelling, even with the controversial themes and morally iffy characters — all of the main players in this complex long game were easy to sympathize with. Unlike GoT, where eventually I wanted to see almost everybody die (except for Dany, Jon Snow, and Tyrion), I don’t believe there’s really a villain here.

Viserys went mad, something that probably couldn’t have been prevented. Alicent was the pawn in a system that was always going to use her purely as a means to an end. Rhaenyra has to fight tooth and nail against exile at best, death for her whole family at worst. Daemon never wanted to be king, never tried to take anything from Viserys, but has to constantly prove his loyalty; and, yes, there is a dark side to Daemon, and you do have to wonder how far he might go to save himself or his loved ones, given the circumstances. But, again, consider the fact that everyone is against him and he has been surrounded, for years, by those who would see him not just fail as prince, but be dead.

All the lords who choose Aegon over Rhaenyra when Viserys dies are definitely perpetrating a sexist system; but they’re also trying to keep their own houses safe, in a world where forward thinking and change really isn’t a thing; so if saying so-and-so is king and somebody else isn’t means thousands of lives are spared, you can hardly blame their reasoning.

If anything, the villain in House of the Dragon is itself; the corruption within a system that the Targaryens helped to build; the greed from certain family members for ultimate power; the lengths some people will go to achieve their own selfish ambitions. There are plenty of characters and plot moments I haven’t even touched on here, mostly because it would make this post waaay too long. Suffice it to say, if you don’t mind the well-deserved R-rating, like high fantasy, historical fiction, and/or were ever invested in A Song of Ice and Fire, this is absolutely worth a watch.

I’m already so excited for season 2 — and hoping and praying these writers acknowledge the past sins of their colleagues, and give this story a sound, fitting ending, one worthy of Dragonriders.

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