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House of the Dragon episode 1 review: fire, fury and a return to form

The Targaryen dynasty are losing their grip on the Iron Throne as this captivating new saga begins.

House of the Dragon actor Matt Smith (Daemon Targaryen) sits on the Iron Throne
(Image: © HBO)

Our Verdict

A fire-scorched return to form for this monstrous franchise

For

  • Focusing on one family makes for a lean mean drama
  • Some terrifying tastes of the action to come
  • Matt Smith on fine form as another brooding prince
  • Dragons!

Against

  • A whole week until the next episode!

NOTE: This review contains spoilers for House of the Dragon episode 1.

It’s been over three years since one of the greatest sagas in the history of TV came to a climax in a hail of dragon fire and online fury. 

Yet while the Game of Thrones finale was rightly maligned for its clunky plotting, a disappointing ending could never obscure the legacy of a fantasy show that truly changed the way we look at television. After all, sometimes it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. 

In its heyday, the HBO saga was appointment viewing — miss it at your peril. Fans will be delighted to hear House of the Dragon takes us right back to those early seasons when Westeros felt fresh, dangerous and unpredictable. 

Full of vivid characters, destructive rivalries and some terrifying tastes of the spectacular action to come, the first episode of this new prequel spin-off is a return to form for the monstrous franchise. 

Set 170 years before the events of Game of Thrones, the origin tale traces the dramatic fall of the Targaryen dynasty. It begins in Kings’ Landing with the family at the height of their power. Rather than the warring clans we’re so used to, this is a time when one family has absolute power, like Roman Emperors looking out at a dark world from a shining metropolis. 

When the original show began all those years ago and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) gazed across the narrow sea and spoke of her family’s claim to the Iron Throne, we can’t help but feel this was the halcyon gilded past she was harking back to.

House of the Dragon dragon flying

(Image credit: Courtesy of HBO)

With 17 dragons at his back — the equivalent of owning all the world’s nuclear warheads — King Viserys’ (Paddy Considine) grip on power is secure, yet he knows that without a son and heir, the future of his legacy is uncertain. However, Viserys knows the only threat to the Targaryen dynasty comes from within, not without.

When tragedy strikes and his baby boy dies in a moving Sophie’s Choice moment, we also get an early glimpse of Viserys as a good man with compassion in his heart, who is also determined to preserve the Targaryen dynasty at any cost. It’s a great scene from Considine, which suggests that a good man can be a good king — a running debate throughout the series. 

Good king or not, Viserys is now at the center of a fully-blown succession crisis. Will he pick his ambitious and volatile younger brother Prince Daemon (played with relish by Matt Smith, of Doctor Who and The Crown fame) or will he plump for his teenage daughter Rhaenyra (rising Australian star Milly Alcock)?  

As far as the viewers are concerned, Daemon laid his cards on the table when he set off on a blood-soaked rampage through Flea Bottom at the start of the episode, hacking off the hands, heads and various other parts along the way. Yet characters such as him are two-a-penny in George R. R. Martin’s brutal world and we’ve certainly seen — or will see — far worse on the Iron Throne. Joffrey, we’re looking at you...

One man who certainly doesn’t trust him is Ser Otto Hightower. Hand of the King, he's a machiavellian operator played with simmering intent by Rhys Ifans of Notting Hill fame. We’ll be sure to keep an eye on him and his daughter Allicent (Olivia Cooke) as the series goes on.  

But despite Daemon’s shortcomings, Viserys’ daughter has a trait that disturbs the small council far more than a few maimed beggars. She’s a woman. No female has ever sat upon the Iron Throne before, so naming her as his heir could risk sowing the seeds of Targaryen destruction.  

It’s only a few decades since the Targaryens found themselves in a similar predicament, with Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) — or The Queen Who Never Was — being passed over for her cousin Viserys, despite having a better claim to the throne and being more suited to life as a monarch. 

Whether the King wanted to correct the mistake made all those years ago or he finally sees his younger brother for the viper he is, he opts for Rhaenyra and another one of the series’ main themes is set in motion. 

George R. R. Martin’s works have been branded as misogynistic and while there’s no shortage of that here, choosing this story, in which Rhaenyra and others challenge the patriarchy, feels apt. Confronting those attitudes within the world of Westeros feels like a fitting retort. 

We also get an interesting glimpse of Daemon and Rhaenyra's relationship, which will be pushed to the limit in the weeks to come as the uncle and niece line their dragons up against each other. We’re expecting some Cuban Missile Crisis vibes, except that these two are more than ready to push the nuclear button. We definitely sense Daemon would burn Westeros to the ground, so long as he could survey the ashes from the Iron Throne. Maybe Rhaenyra too, as the story unfolds. 

Indeed the triangular tug-of-war that runs between Viserys, Daemon and Rhaenyra is what this show will ultimately be built around and the focus on one family, rather than a sprawling mass of warring clans, is a real strength. Game of Thrones became bloated with storylines by the end of its run, inadvertently causing the saga to crash under its own weight. This looks set to be a leaner and equally mean offering. Prepare for plenty of fire and fury.

New House of the Dragon episodes air every Sunday on HBO and HBO Max in the US and on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK.

More on House of the Dragon

Sean Marland
Feature writer for TV Times, What's On TV, TV & Satellite Week and whattowatch.com

Sean has been writing about all things telly for over 10 years and in that time he's been lucky enough to interview stars like Ian McKellen, Tom Hardy and Kate Winslet. His favourite shows are The Great British Bake-Off, People Just Do Nothing and Succession and in his spare time he enjoys drinking tea, doing crosswords and watching football.