‘House of the Dragon’ Review: All about succession and patriarchy

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

Murtaza Ali Khan

Game of Thrones ended up as an epic fantasy series about dragons and the dragon riding Targaryen queen, Daenerys Stormborn. But the saga began as a drama about feudal families and their fiefdoms. In fact, the entire first season was part family drama, part palace intrigue. It was only later that it developed into an epic fantasy marked by unforgettably breathtaking war sequences with larger than life characters. And, befittingly, the first two episodes of the prequel / spinoff series 'House of the Dragon,' take us back to where it all started—into the realm of succession and palace intrigue, far away from the world of operatic characters constantly engaged in devastating battles.

Set around 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones and 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, ‘House of the Dragon’ takes us to the very beginning of the end of House Targaryens with the events leading up to the 'Dance of the Dragons' aka the Targaryen War of Succession. The series is based on parts of the novel 'Fire & Blood,' by George R. R. Martin. 

The opening episode begins with the aging Targaryen king Jaehaerys Targaryen choosing his grandson Prince Viserys as his heir, overlooking Viserys' older cousin, Princess Rhaenys Targaryen, as per the Westerosi law that gives a male heir preference over a female one, irrespective of the birth order. 

Nine years into his reign, Viserys is struggling to produce a male heir. His brother Prince Daemon Targaryen naturally has an edge over his daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. But, Viserys' wife Queen Aemma is pregnant again and this time he is certain that it will be a son. If it's indeed a son all his future worries will be put to rest as he sees Daemon to be unworthy of sitting on the Iron Throne. Any other outcome is going to further push him to the brink. 

As for Daemon, he has been desperately waiting in the ranks for his opportunity. He considers his brother weak and thinks himself to be far more worthy of sitting on the Iron Throne. He shares a rather peculiar bond with his niece Rhaenyra. Daemon clearly seems to have a lust for power that Viserys lacks. It's pretty evident from their body languages. Even while sitting on the Iron Throne, Daemon looks a natural. Viserys, on the other hand, keeps hurting himself while learning backwards on the Iron Throne. The swords that constitute the throne are still razor sharp and it would take them another century to become blunter and less inconvenient for the king or the queen who sits on it.

At the heart of the season opener is Queen Aemma's pregnancy. King Viserys hosts a tourney celebrating the birth of his male heir even before the queen enters labor. The tourney scenes, featuring the knights battling each other in bloody duels, are intercut with Aemma's battle to deliver a healthy male heir. For, Viserys will not settle for anything less. When all hopes for a normal delivery get dashed, the maesters propose C-section. But in the absence of antiseptics and anesthetics, C-section used to be nothing less than a cold-blooded murder. While the bleeding would certainly kill the mother, the chances of the child's survival were also very low. 

But an aging, selfish king desperate for a male heir in a patriarchal world is least concerned about all this. So, basically, Viserys gives his approval to perform the C-section and sacrifice his wife in the process. The manner in which the sanguinary C-section scenes are intercut with the graphic tourney scenes, may look exhilarating to the eyes at first, but, in truth, given the ordeal that the pregnant queen goes through, it proves to be one of the most disturbing sequences ever seen on television / web. 

'House of the Dragon’ is all about success and patriarchy. The show’s beginning looks tamed but it picks up pace once the tourney begins. The second episode does a good of developing the plot points established in the first episode. On a whole, the first two episodes’ greatest strength has to be the brilliant performances on offer with Emma D'Arcy, Matt Smith, and Paddy Considine deserving special mentions. Another area that must be highlighted is the attention to detail: whether one speaks of the different manners in which Viserys and Daemon sit on the Iron Throne, or the enduring sharpness of the swords fused to forge it, or how Rhaenyra is repeatedly reminded that she smells of dragon (wonder what that smell is like?), or how the left side separation of King Jaehaerys’ hair swerves in the wind passing through the broken castle walls of Harrenhal (remember, Tywin Lannister’s narration of Aegon’s ingenious and devastating aerial attack to Arya?). Although, it’s a little early to speculate, it would be interesting to see if ‘House of the Dragon’ can prove to be for ‘Game of Thrones’ what ‘Better Call Saul’ proved to be for ‘Breaking Bad.’

A version of this review was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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