House Of The Dragon dropped its fifth episode on Sunday night, which means we’re officially halfway through the first season of this Game Of Thrones prequel. (We did it, everybody!) And that means that it’s high time for The A.V. Club to take a step back and see whether the show is delivering and what, if anything, needs work. So let’s get into it.
Sam Barsanti: I’ve been enjoying House Of The Dragon, though it does feel a little dense and dull in a way that the original Game Of Thrones didn’t in its first season. That show gave you the lovable Starks and the hateable Lannisters, then gradually added shades of gray to them and every other group. But HOTD is constantly introducing new people that seem like you either already should know them or that you should make sure you remember them for later, which is tiring and confusing, even if I assume it’s all being done to serve this eventual time jump. I guess I’m just ready for them to get to the fireworks factory, even if I’m mostly enjoying the journey to get there. Also, I really like seeing King Viserys being miserable and playing with his models. Finally, a monarch in Westeros I can relate to.
Saloni Gajjar: I think of the first five episodes of House Of The Dragon chiefly as an exciting, tightly packaged prelude. Fellow book readers probably know how speedily Fire & Blood moves through some of the events covered in these episodes. So I appreciated the show devoting time to establishing its complex characters, and their fraught dynamics and history together. (FYI, the book will still always be superior). Next week clearly marks the start of the Civil War known throughout the realm as Dance of the Dragons, but HOTD has sowed the seeds for it well despite some missteps. Thanks to Game Of Thrones’ bewildering end, I was obviously wary of stepping back into the world of Westeros. Yet HOTD has sucked me right back in.
Matt Schimkowitz: I have to say, sitting down to watch this show has become a chore. I really didn’t find much to cling to in the first two episodes. It felt like more Game Of Thrones, a show I was never 100 percent sold on. Pretty much from the first frame, I was on edge. The whole “172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen” text reminded me that all of this was leading toward a finish that I really didn’t care for. That episode didn’t quell these feelings, particularly when Viserys mentions the White Walkers, perhaps my personal biggest disappointment on GOT.
It’s unfortunate that the show has to battle against so much ill will and disappointment. And it’s one of the reasons I thought that doing a show about perhaps the most alienating family in Westeros wasn’t such a hot idea. But I stuck with it and slowly, as it digs into palace intrigue and away from the crab people we learn almost nothing about, I’ve found myself latching onto some of the joys, like in those early Game Of Thrones episodes, of this expansive world.
Drew Gillis: Honestly, I’m having a hard time getting invested in House Of The Dragon in the way I was able to get invested in Game Of Thrones. Obviously, some of that is the fault of the original series and the way it conducted its final seasons. But HOTD at this point is neither as good nor as bad as GOT at its best or worst, and it consistently adds up to less than the sum of its parts. As far as characters, I do like the change from GOT of having basically just one setting. That said, it does significantly temper the wide world of Westeros. And with the existing time jumps (and more extreme ones on the horizon), I can’t help but feel like we haven’t gotten to know these characters intimately enough yet. The show is moving so fast and painting with such broad strokes that it’s hard to care about the characters in the ways I used to. Plus, none of them are as immediately charming as those in the GOT crew. At this point, HOTD often feels like too much and not enough, simultaneously.
Jack Smart: When Ramin Djawadi’s Game Of Thrones theme song kicked off the second episode of House Of The Dragon, I had an unexpected internal reaction: This should be generating a Pavlovian response of fervent anticipation, but instead is leaving me disappointed. This new series, it became clear, is little more than an extension or even a recycling of HBO’s cash cow. Intellectual property is what really sits on the Iron Throne, and until we can get some original ideas into the line of succession, the monoculture will reign. My inner cynic is not loving this show.
One thing HOTD isn’t great at is establishing memorable supporting characters. I couldn’t tell you a thing about that dude who just became the king’s Hand. Most of the members of his council are indistinguishable old white men, although I’m pretty sure one of them was Hugh Grant’s roommate in Notting Hill and could swear another is Fleabag’s father. Aren’t there fewer characters in play here than there were in Game Of Thrones’ first season? That show lured us in with its vast, varied ensemble, and it’s frustrating that this prequel is setting out to recapture its success but forgetting Screenwriting 101 character development. The series’ all-around aversion to anything resembling a sense of humor doesn’t help.
Cindy White: After a disappointing final season of Game Of Thrones, I was wary of jumping back into the world of Ice & Fire, but I gave House Of The Dragon a shot and I’m glad I did. It reminded me of all the things I liked about Game Of Thrones in its early seasons and the book series. A lot of that has to do with the excellent cast. I expected to see strong, nuanced performances from Paddy Considine, Rhys Ifans, and Matt Smith, but Milly Alcock’s engaging turn as Rhaenyra has been a nice surprise. I also have to single out Smith, who has managed to make a truly despicable character so fascinating that you look forward to seeing him turn up in every episode. The work the production team has put into these episodes really shows (the truly awful wigs notwithstanding), and we’re not even into the really big stuff yet. The writers have taken a smart approach, I think, in tweaking things from the book just enough without straying too far from the plot and finding those places where they can fill in the gaps in the story. I didn’t expect to be saying this, but I’m all in now and excited to see where it goes from here.
Sam Barsanti: There’s only so much I can take of suspicious eyes darting around a room, and this episode gave me as much of that as I’ll need for the foreseeable future. I think it’s been kind of fun not really knowing who to root for or why, but this episode also went all in on everybody having secret, inscrutable motivations that don’t make sense to anyone but themselves. We don’t necessarily need a lawful good Ned Stark-type hanging around as the King’s Landing hall monitor, but surely not everyone gets to be a Cersei-like puppet master manipulating the kingdom from behind the scenes all the time, right?
Saloni Gajjar: “We Light The Way” is actually a perfect closing episode to this prelude because so much happens: Otto’s advice to his daughter about Aegon as heir, Alicent openly declaring her intentions, Rhaenyra’s wedding, Criston losing but also finding a new ally in Alicent, and Daemon and Laena’s courtship, among other things. These events will play a major role in the Dance of the Dragons, so as a setup, I thought “We Light The Way” did a commendable job—especially in that Rhaenyra/Daemon flirtation too. In front of everyone, no less!
I also think that HOTD can take certain liberties while adapting the novel it’s based on. It would’ve been game-changing to see what happened if Laenor and Joffrey remained together instead of watching another gay character brutally murdered on TV. They’ve already switched things up with the Velaryons, who are decidedly not Black in Fire & Blood. However, the show has also not yet dug into racial politics or what the Velaryons’ heritage and ethnicity mean. So it’s hard to expect they’d do the same for a sweet LGBTQ+ relationship. Instead, HOTD mostly sticks to George R.R. Martin’s book, where Joffrey’s death was a motivator for Laenor’s arc. While I do think the creators should’ve taken more storytelling risks (it’s entirely possible with the fantasy genre), we’ve seen a similar pattern in GOT when Tyrion kills Shae (it expands his story and gets him to Daenerys), or how Ned’s execution spearheaded Robb and Catelyn’s revolution. So I guess I’m willing to see where this semi-faithful adaptation takes us next. All I know is it won’t be the same without Milly Alcock, the strongest young actor of the lot.
Matt Schimkowitz: Sitting down to watch “We Light The Way,” I was immediately reminded of how spending time in Westeros can be a chore. Everyone is so miserable, and as we know, things are just going to keep getting worse. It’s hard to be mad at a duck for being a duck, and House Of The Dragon is designed to luxuriate in misery. That is the show, but for me, it’s becoming harder and harder to carve out time for the purpose of feeling bad.
This week was certainly no exception. In the first two scenes, the most lively character we’ve seen yet was cruelly mowed down by her estranged husband so that he can, hopefully, marry his niece, then we cut to Viserys who is puking and coughing blood into a napkin. As that washed over me, I prepared for an hour of bad feelings, and the show certainly delivered. The shots of Joffrey’s tenderized face were the cherry on top. Do I want to keep making appointments with Dr. Feelbad or will I sail far, far away from King’s Landing? Well, my favorite part of the show has been Paddy Considine, who I think played King Viserys with such faith and frustration. I really like his performance, but because this is Westeros, he’s probably dead soon.
Drew Gillis: Last night’s episode was demonstrative of a lot of the issues I have with the show at this point. By focusing on one setting, we should, in theory, be able to develop characters even better than we could in GOT, but the timeline moves too fast to even care about the side characters who were regularly highlights in GOT. We meet Daemon’s wife, who shows up, says a bunch of nasty things, and promptly dies. (Rhae is her name, I think? Seriously, she was barely there.) The episode was also super talky, which I never minded on GOT, but the dialogue here simply isn’t as good and often feels either too expository or like we’re being talked down to. Did we really need to be told that the king was going to be upset about the queen showing up to his daughter’s wedding late and interrupting his speech?
Then there’s the way the episode ended, with Criston brutally beating Joffrey to death at the wedding for basically no reason. As Jenna Scherer pointed out in her recap, it literally didn’t make sense from a plot perspective, but the cruelty of it feels even more pointed when taken with the fact that we had literally just met Joffrey. It was affecting in the way that seeing anyone get beaten to death is stomach turning, but to me it didn’t feel earned. It was purely spectacle, and, usually, GOT was able to give us spectacle while going beyond that emotionally.
Jack Smart: I’d like to echo Jenna Scherer in her on-point recap of this episode: We as a culture should be way past the “Bury Your Gays” trope, where a story’s few queer characters get plot arcs that are traumatic, tragic, and ultimately only in service to the non-queer characters. Even setting aside the gall of introducing a queer storyline only to bludgeon it to death in the same episode, such a quick conclusion is just not as impactful. Had Ser Joffrey Lonmouth been a main character tied to bigger stakes earlier, “We Light The Way” might have ranked a bit higher in the category of most fucked-up Westeros weddings. (What’s the Knight of Kisses nickname all about? Sounds like a cute backstory, but oh well!)
That brings me back to the notion that House Of The Dragon is, at best, a faint echo of Game Of Thrones and, more likely, a shameless capitalization of popular IP with nothing original to say. Yet I was riveted by the wedding sequence in this episode, which made “We Light The Way” a season high point, particularly the way the camera lingered on each guest over and over, laying out the shifting dynamics between every player on this chess board, wordlessly upping the tension. Great stuff. But that’s mostly because as now longtime visitors to this world we have been primed to expect blood and mayhem at weddings. Can anything top the shocking novelty of the Red Wedding? I doubt it, but it feels like House Of The Dragon barely even tried, instead giving us a death with a mere fraction of the impact of weddings past.
Having said all that, I’m here for Alicent coming into her own and would bemoan the loss of Emily Carey’s shrewd performance if the sure-to-be-brilliant Olivia Cooke weren’t taking over. That slow zoom as it dawns on Alicent that Rhaenyra lied, her father was right, and she has to decide how to survive this succession drama was fantastic.
Cindy White: The first five episodes were really about setting the table for the rest of the series, and this episode completes that arc in spectacular fashion. I suspect there may be some who will be done with the show after the way they fridged Ser Joffrey Lonmouth in the same episode he was introduced (reducing the show’s gay characters by half with one brutal beating), and I wouldn’t blame them. There will also be some fans who will love Daemon even more after he committed a similar murder upon his wife. Setting aside the problematic elements of the episode, it accomplished what it needed to and led us into the next phase of the story with an ominous flair. Alicent has finally picked a side, and her choice of a green dress was packed with meaning that readers of the book should have instantly recognized. It was helpfully pointed out for everyone else by Ser Larys Strong, the show’s second-messiest drama king (next to Daemon, naturally). It’s worth noting that the episode’s title is a reference to the words of House Hightower, signifying to viewers and the realm alike that it is on.