Warning: This post contains spoilers for House of the Dragon.
If you spent the most recent episode of House of the Dragon trying to figure out the identities of those twin bearded guys in whose hands the fate of the kingdom briefly rested—and why on earth we had not spent time with them earlier in the season—you weren’t alone. The hunt for the wayward King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) at an underground child fight ring (eek) was thrilling on its surface. How exciting not to be mired in conspiracy conversations and just see the hunt for Aegon in action! But that plot point ended in a so-called twist: One of the brothers, believing Aegon unfit to rule, turned traitor against the Hightower family and his own brother. The audience was left shrugging.
Without knowing the twins’ loyalties, personalities, or relationship to one another, one brother’s betrayal rang hollow. Had the show slowed down a few episodes ago to introduce us to the brothers Arryk (Luke Tittensor) and Erryk (Elliott Tittensor)—and differentiate the siblings physically or emotionally in any way—this turn could have been a rich one. Instead, most watchers were left confused as to which brother was which and why they should care.
From its first episode, the Game of Thrones prequel has been moving at a frenetic pace, and it can be maddening to try to keep up. In just its first eight episodes, House of the Dragon made three major time jumps—first three years, then 10 years, then another six—and swapped out much of its cast each time. The constant rotation of actors can make it difficult to understand how a character has evolved over the decades. Meanwhile, secondary characters have appeared and disappeared with little fanfare. We never even got to see a kiss exchanged between Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr), the father of her children. The death of Beesbury (Bill Paterson) in the latest episode was shocking for a moment but seemingly inconsequential since we’d spent little time with the droning lord before Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) slammed his head into the table. (Cole’s record of getting promoted for wild acts of violence remains gravely concerning.)
This story, at its core, centers on the breakdown of relationships that eventually lead to war. But the series has utterly failed in showing those fissures between friends and family grow. The writers seem more interested in big set pieces rather than the slow simmering of resentments. I wish, for example, the audience had been privy to conversations in which Alicent (Olivia Cooke) could explain why she was so reviled by Rhaenyra’s incestual interest in her uncle but had no problem marrying her son and daughter to one another. Alicent’s hypocrisy on many issues makes her an interesting character—I just want to understand her twisted logic and Rhaenyra’s response to Alicent’s sanctimonious attitude over the years.
If the show plays like a reenactment of a Wikipedia entry, that may be the fault of the source material. Unlike George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, upon which Game of Thrones was based, the book that serves as inspiration for House of the Dragon, Fire & Blood, isn’t a novel. It’s a faux history of the Targaryen dynasty, written by various maesters from a supposedly objective perspective, inspired by conflicting historical accounts of the War of the Roses. It’s no wonder then that House of the Dragon, in turn, skimps on character attributes: It has little to pull from. And with Martin heavily involved in the series, the writers no doubt feel an obligation to honor the source material. The result is something closer to a podcast episode about history than an actual episode of television.
Building a world that allows for proper storytelling in an efficient yet satisfying way can be tricky. House of the Dragon’s rival show, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, could be accused of the opposite mistake: Taking far too long scene-setting before revealing the main conflict of the series. The finale of the first season of Rings of Power was excellent and tied up a number of plot threads. But in taking its time, the Prime Video show may have lost viewers’ interest in the middle of the season before they were ever able to reach the Helm’s Deep-esque battle in Episode 6 or major character reveals in Episode 8.
Perhaps we the audience are partially at fault. Game of Thrones’ first season, in my estimation, was better than the early episodes of the many currently running fantasy shows. But that series also had time to find its footing and gain its massive audience slowly. First seasons of shows used to be shaky, and only in time would a series hit its stride. In the era of streaming television, those grace periods no longer exist. There’s too many other shows to binge, and we’re too impatient. And if a show isn’t a hit right off the bat, most streamers won’t hesitate to cancel it. So fantasy series find themselves with an impossible conundrum: either speed up the pace to capture our limited attention or slow it down in hopes of earning our long-term loyalty when we binge the season down the road. Neither makes for great writing.
Game of Thrones’ slow and steady success
This is not the inevitable fate of Martin’s fantasy series. After all, Game of Thrones caught flack for moving too slowly at times. Remember when we viewers bemoaned the fact that Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) spent a whole season hanging out in Qarth? And for several seasons after that, as she slowly built up her following in the East while those of us at home begged her to cross the darn sea to Westeros already.
But in the long wait we learned a lot about Daenerys’ motivations, temperament, and growth. When she enters the House of the Undying at the end of Season 2 and is confronted with a tempting image of her husband and child, alive and well, we understand how she has the strength to turn away and instead embrace her future as the Mother of Dragons. If Game of Thrones had been paced like House of the Dragon, we never would have seen Daenerys dallying. We may have gotten the episode in which Daenyers loses her husband and son followed immediately by a House of the Undying episode followed by a throwaway line about building an army—and bam, she’d be en route to Dragonstone, dragons in tow. But without all the intermediary storytelling, we wouldn’t understand how she went from terrified bride to Breaker of Chains.
In retrospect, I wish that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who served as showrunners on Game of Thrones for all eight seasons, had spent as much time exploring Daenerys’ psychology after she arrived in Westeros as they did in the early seasons. That way, we would have had a better chance to understand her turn into the mad queen. But as the show’s inevitable endgame grew near and the showrunners ran out of source material—Martin still has not finished the final books in his Song of Ice and Fire series—and decided to rush to the end. That led to not only bizarre plot oversights, like Daenerys notoriously forgetting about the Iron Fleet she was supposed to defeat, but also Danaerys’ wild character swing from hero to mad queen in just a few episodes.
Read More: Game of Thrones Didn’t Have to End This Way
Thrones was always at its best when it took its time. To choose a more beloved storyline than Daenerys lingering in Qarth, recall Jaime’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) long journey with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie). That season-long arc saw the handsome but loathsome prince deeply humbled. He lost a hand but became something of a hero—at least for a time. It’s difficult to imagine a show that jumps forward by years at a time having the patience to watch Brienne slowly influence Jaime over the course of many conversations and conflicts for an entire season.
The House of the Dragon time jumps are finally over
To House of the Dragon’s credit, the show finally seems to have settled down in the penultimate episode of its first season. In retrospect, everything that came before that episode feels like scene-setting. I’m optimistic now that the Dance of the Dragons, the civil war within the Targaryen clan that serves as the backbone for the show, has officially begun, we’ll get to spend more time with our characters and less time rushing around King’s Landing figuring out who is aligned with whom in the battle to come.
Conversations within the episode have immediate consequences—rather than ramifications decades in the future. Take the thrilling conversation between Rhaenys (Eve Best) and Alicent midway through the penultimate episode. Rhaenys delivered a withering critique of Alicent, whom she accuses of being a slave to the patriarchy. Best delivers a perfect line that Alicent’s actions have simply made “a window in the wall of [her] prison.” The exchange felt like vintage Game of Thrones: It’s proof that House of the Dragon is finally dramatizing relationships, not just recounting them.
And, for better or worse, the argument impacts Rhaenys’ otherwise baffling actions at the end of the episode. Rhaenys has the opportunity to burn Alicent and her family alive at Aegon II’s coronation and end the war then and there—sparing thousands of lives in the process. Instead, she decides to leave the new king un-charred. Presumably, we’re supposed to take from the earlier conversation that Rhaenys pities Alicent, so she couldn’t bring herself to burn the queen alive after she steps in front of her good-for-nothing son.
I don’t consider this explanation to be sufficient, especially given that Rhaenys must have killed hundreds of peasants in executing her meaningless dragon stunt. Presumably such wanton destruction would turn the people of the kingdom against Rhaenys and Rhaenyra, rendering the act counterproductive if not outright insane—very out of character for Rhaenys. In general, showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik have missed a major opportunity with Rhaenys, a character who would have have hopefully gotten a slow burn plot line on Game of Thrones, a la secret king killer Olenna Tyrell. We know little about the Queen Who Never Was except that she resents that nickname. My hope is that without future time jumps to contend with, the showrunners will spend more time on character development for people like Rhaenys.
The far-reaching consequences of House of the Dragon’s pacing problems
And yet the decision to speed through the setup will continue to have far-reaching consequences in the story. In the ninth episode, tertiary characters like Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), a keeper of secrets; or Ser Harrold Westerling (Graham McTavish), the head of the King’s Guard; or Arryk and Erryk—the twin soldiers I refused to try to differentiate—each had a huge impact on how events unfolded. And yet we’d spent barely any time with these characters, and have absolutely no idea why they behaved the way they did.
When Westerling sees Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) plotting to steal the Iron Throne for Aegon II he immediately hands in his cloak and leaves for Dragonstone. (Why he is allowed to leave while poor Beesbury is murdered for trying to do the same remains unclear.) Is it out of loyalty to Rhaenyra, a character we’ve seen him spend virtually no time with? Or hatred of Otto, another character Westerling has spent virtually no time with? Who knows!
When Mysaria demands, in exchange for information about Aegon II’s whereabouts, that Otto Hightower shut down the children’s fight ring in King’s Landing, I was a tad surprised. So far, what we know of Mysaria is that she has spies in the castle and slept with Daemon for a bit. Why is she now morally righteous? We’ll probably never find out.
And what of these twins who popped up for a mere second in the previous episode? Apparently they are part of the King’s Guard. Why is one loyal to the Greens and one to the Blacks? These are questions answered in sparse moments where one brother (I will not venture to guess which one) tells the other that Aegon II is no good. Well, duh. But shouldn’t these characters have had this conversation several episodes ago?
Their moments of rebellion—refusing to help usurp the throne, demanding the end of the children’s fighting rings in King’s Landing, and aiding Rhaenys in her escape, respectively—read not as difficult decisions born from years of struggle in ethically gray situations, but merely as plot points to push the story forward.
Even for more consequential characters, the time jumps muddled their motivations. We are to believe that Alicent resisted executing the rival to her son’s throne, Rhaenyra, because she and Rhaenyra had a nice few minutes together at dinner in the previous episode—and that brief reconciliation healed decades of animus between the two women. For several episodes set over many years, we watched Rhaenyra make overtures to Alicent, trying to wed their children and form alliances, only for Alicent to rebuff her. Had Alicent’s softening toward Rhaenyra been set over several episodes or a season-long arc rather than a single scene, we might be more inclined to buy her sudden softness. As it stands, Alicent’s unrealistic and sentimental decision to vie for peace makes little sense.
House of the Dragon has, unsurprisingly, already been renewed for a second season. Martin predicts the story of the Dance of Dragons will unfold over four seasons total. Given that the civil war itself only lasted about two years, we can expect the pace to decelerate. Still, given the sheer number of dragons involved in the battles to come, the writers will have to resist the temptation to insert large dragon-centric set pieces in every episode, especially when the Targaryens mounting their dragons to fight makes little sense from a character perspective.
The fate of Westeros has always been decided in dark rooms and intimate moments, not on the battlefield—when Cersei ripped up Robert Baratheon’s last letter and decided to place Joffrey on the Iron Throne; when Tommen decided to take his own life; when Tryion convinced Jon Snow to assassinate Daenerys. Despite its name, House of the Dragon would do well to remember the Game of Thrones is as much a mental game as a physical one.