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‘House of the Dragon’ Review: HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Prequel Fails to Catch Fire

Set 200 years before the events of the original series, this spinoff is more pale imitation than compelling expansion

We haven’t come to re-litigate the fiery ending of “Game of Thrones,” in which Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen rides in on her dragon and torches King’s Landing, behaving tyrannically in ways antithetical to the ethical character built scale by scale over the previous eight seasons. The Mother of Dragons comes to a shocking and lethal end, but House Targaryen still has narrative juice to be squeezed. The highly-anticipated prequel series “House of the Dragon,” based on George R. R. Martin’s “Fire and Blood,” is set two centuries prior, when another battle of succession roils the powerful, incestuous, platinum-haired dragon-keepers.

“House of the Dragon,” or “Meet the Targaryens,” has the girl power backbeat that drove previous characters like Daenerys, Arya Stark and Ygritte. Spunky heir Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (well played first by Milly Alcock, maturing into Emma D’Arcy) has the dragon-riding goods and inner fire to rule. However, in this patriarchal hierarchy, lacking a winkle weakens her claim to the throne despite the support of her kind-but-limp dad, King Viserys Targaryen (the great British character actor Paddy Considine).

Over time, the princess becomes a rival to her bestie turned frenemy. Alicent Hightower (first Emily Carey, then Olivia Cooke) and the daughter of the King’s Hand (Rhys Ifans) find themselves at odds as their allegiances change. This is awkward, and a test to sister solidarity, but not nearly as challenging as the devious Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith, who slayed as Prince Philip in “The Crown” and the titular “Dr. Who.”). Rhaenyra’s warrior uncle — and seducer — considers himself his brother’s heir and will shed the blood of strangers and relatives alike to snatch the crown.

Where have we heard this before? It’s all so War of the Roses. That the prequel pales in comparison to the groundbreaking must-see series has a certain amount to do with how pale these characters are with their laughable platinum wigs. What looked good on Clarke does not flatter everybody.

And, for all the bloodshed, the Targaryen clan seems surprisingly bloodless (and humorless) in a baggy script that doesn’t end each episode with the shocking cliffhangers of yore. The universally tremendous cast — from Alcock, to D’Arcy, to Cooke, to Considine and Smith — has more talent than room to exploit it in conventionally-drawn characters. My kingdom for a Tyrion Lannister! “Succession” is a more successful drama about the family fight for power both internally and externally.  

HBO

While, as the title suggests, there are more dragons in the house during this earlier era, in the first six episodes available for review, none of these incredibly animated creatures comes into full focus. Nor do they demonstrate unique personalities with strong human bonds. We crave more depth and complexity in our beasts, and not just more flying, flame-breathing dinosaurs.

There’s also plenty of explicit sex, though by now the cable shock and awe has worn thinner than lingerie. The inevitable clutch between uncle and niece turns up the heat but can these incest storylines still be considered taboo in light of those crazy Lannister siblings from “Game of Thrones?” Or are they just plain creepy?

The inevitable orgies writhing outside the palace walls on the dark side of town seem choreographed like a cross between Cirque du Soleil and the Pilobolus Dance Company. However, for lovers of detail, two tapestries on the palace walls with naked folks in positions that recall the Kama Sutra are a nice touch – or a lot of touches – in textiles.    

While it would seem that there’s plenty of meat on these old dragon bones, the plot never takes wing. Rhaenyra is no Daenerys. The wit that was always there to leaven even the most mordant moments? Gone. The sex? Dry. Mostly, it’s unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other with less tension, less at stake and no breakout dragon adventures. In the end, with all the throne room soap opera, and elongated broody moments that resemble the video buffering, the prequel is more “Dark Shadows” with dragons, than a house ablaze.

“House of the Dragon” debuts on HBO and HBO Max on August 21st.

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