The Iron Throne—its platform bristling with the swords of the conquered, their angles anticipating an attack from any direction— is what everyone seems to want, and it will come as a shock to few (especially any readers of Mr.
Martin’s abundant fiction) that royal succession is the principal conflict of the story. Isn’t it always in the world of medievalist fantasy lit? As we are told, “House of the Dragon” begins in “the ninth year of Viserys I Targaryen’s reign—172 years before the death of the mad king Aerys and the birth of Daenerys Targaryen.” Daenerys, played by Emilia Clarke in “GOT,” was among the last of the Targaryens.
The new show is about her not-so distant ancestors, the “dragonlord” family that has already ruled the land of Westeros for a century, thanks in no small part to the fire-breathing beasts that appear out of the sky with only a few chirps of warning. They can incinerate enemies. And do.
Viserys is played by Paddy Considine (“In America,” “The Death of Stalin”), whose many fans might think him an unlikely choice to play a gray-bearded gothic despot. But his performance is marked by an originality shared by many in the cast, who resist following in any actorly footsteps, even as they enact a story that stomps along narrative territory so well-trod it can be mapped by memory: The aging king, desperate for a male heir to continue his century-old line, sacrifices his wife for the sake of the baby, loses the boy and has to name his daughter to inherit the throne— thus dictating a violent, intrigue-ridden course for the rest of her life (or, at least, season 1). It seems familiar.
The characters, on the other hand, are many, distinct and given depth by the people portraying them. Mr. Considine doesn’t do Lear, he doesn’t do Sauron, he doesn’t lapse into any previous portrayals of Henry VIII even if Viserys does have “Tudor” written all over him. He also has a sublime Rhys Ifans, on a very low boil, playing his closest adviser, Otto Hightower, this story’s version of Thomas Cromwell. Both men have daughters, childhood friends who’ll grow icy: Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, young and sweet; Olivia Cooke, older and devious) will eventually marry the widowed king; Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock until episode 6 when Emma D’Arcy takes over) loves her father. She also knows he murdered her mother, more or less, which colors her perceptions of him, as it does ours.
Similarly, the decision to show the prolonged butchering of a woman in labor colors our perception of the series makers: Their reliance on sadism, cruelty and occasional disemboweling suggests either an adolescent impulse to push the violence as far as it will go or an understanding that what bonds the “Game of Thrones” com- munity is a shared stomach for edgy mayhem. When the king’s soulless, scheming, charismatic brother, Daemon (Matt Smith of “The Crown”), brings his City Watch to enforce the “ law” in the capital of King’s Landing, they leave heads, limbs and testicles scattered in the squalid streets.
And this is just episode 1. None of it is much of a stretch from the bloody aesthetic of “Game of Thrones,” but still: Are they trying to outdo their predecessor? Or simply honor a tradition? Either way, it doesn’t make the story any better, though the indulgence can be funny: A very lengthy seduction scene involving one participant in a full suit of armor takes some of the luster off the lust.
HBO ( 4)
Only the first six episodes were made available for review, but those chapters establish a very convincing world and its people.
Even the dragons do a good job of portraying real dragons, though they’re used rather sparingly during the early efforts to conquer the empire of Viserys from without and undermine it from within. The writing, which apparently drew heavily on Mr. Martin’s voluminous “Fire & Ice,” provides the actors with the kind of faux-noble dialogue that a cast has to overcome to make real, but they do. (Several have to speak in both English and Valyrian.) They also have to bridge large gaps of time between each episode—six months here, two years there and 10 years between episodes 5 and 6, which makes more plausible a change in cast. Devoted viewers will find themselves missing the elfin, pugnacious Ms. Alcock, and the earnest Ms. Carey as they morph into the actresses D’Arcy and Cooke.
But they might not find themselves missing “Game of Thrones” quite so much.
House of the Dragon
Begins Sunday, HBO
Clockwise from top: Paddy Considine and Milly Alcock,; Mr. Considine; Emily Carey and Ms. Alcock; Steve Toussaint