Game of Thrones was a revolution. The show once not-so-eloquently described as “tits and dragons” proved to be so much more, introducing a seemingly never-ending parade of compelling characters likely to die from one episode to the next. High production values and genuinely impressive CGI further contributed to the show skyrocketing into the apex of pop culture, but Thrones‘ secret weapon was always the writing.
Some battles are won with swords and spears, others with quills and ravens; Thrones knew that. Its action episodes were thrilling and massive — from Stannis’ invasion of King’s Landing to the infamous Battle of the Bastards. However, most of the show’s most iconic clashes were verbal; think of Littlefinger and Varys’ snarky remarks to each other or Cersei and Tyrion’s surprisingly honest conversations. Guided by George R. R. Martin’s sprawling source material, Game of Thrones was a writer’s dream. Enhanced by the delicious readings of a cast of icons at their prime, the dialogue in Westeros was a writer’s dream come true. Thrones was the perfect combination of cleverness and wit mixed with political intrigue, high stakes, ambitious world-building, nonstop violence, and yes, “tits and dragons.”
And then, it wasn’t.
Away from Martin’s helping hand, seasons 7 and 8 descended into chaos and, worse, simplicity. Gone was the sense of danger looming in every episode, replaced with plot armor so thick it could’ve saved Ned Stark. Any trace of intelligence vanished from the writing, replaced by bad dialogue and eunuch jokes, with the characters making borderline stupid decisions that made less sense the more you thought about them. Seasons 7 and 8 all but destroyed the reputation that the show carefully built throughout six seasons, leaving only the bitter aftertaste of swallowing something that turned out to be rotten.
Because Hollywood is greedy and the World of Ice and Fire too valuable to forget, HBO began planning multiple spi-offs as soon as Thrones ended. Fans have made a case for Martin’s world to expand into animation, while HBO greenlit — and promptly canceled — a $30 million pilot starring Naomi Watts. However, one idea seemed to show genuine promise: a prequel focusing on the Targaryens, arguably Westeros’ most intriguing family (sorry to the Starks).
Now, the Targaryens are a tricky act to balance. Sure, Daenerys Targaryen was Game of Thrones‘ original breakout star, an inspiring character for the girl boss generation. Parents actually named their daughters Khaleesi, a decision made unbelievably unfortunate considering how the character ended the show. However, Daenerys remains a star, despite her quick descent into a medieval Mad Queen. Part of it has to do with Emilia Clarke’s superb performance, but the other part is the same reason why the Targaryens are the most intriguing and compelling figures in Martin’s world: dragons.
Daenerys was the Mother of Dragons, the sole provider of the fantasy elements in a show that, more often than not, seemed too realistic for comfort. Her dragons, or children, as she liked to call them, were mighty beasts of wonder and menace and the embodiment of everything people expected from a fantasy show. It’s no wonder or coincidence that the first Thrones scene that truly exploded involved Daenerys’ main dragon, Drogon, burning down the city of Astapor.
The scene, from the season 3 episode “And Now His Watch Has Ended,” is the perfect representation of the Targaryens. They are powerful and ruthless to their enemies but fiercely loyal to their allies; staunchly committed to their cause but willing to break the rules; always prepared but clever enough to improvise. The scene, which goes on for nearly eight minutes, features many elements that would become Thrones‘ most distinctive and celebrated, including the made-up Valyrian language and Clarke’s commanding performance. It was an instant success, exploding in the blossoming social media landscape and cementing Daenerys as the Breaker of Chains. Clarke even chose the episode to support her Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series nomination at the 2013 Emmys.
Like the best families in Thrones — Lannisters, Tyrells, NOT Starks –, the Targaryens were complicated and fascinating. However, unlike the other, mostly homogenous houses in Westeros, the Targaryens were contradictory, capable of considerable kindness and infinite cruelty. Unlike the Lannisters or Tyrells, they weren’t simply smart or cunning, elegant or graceful. The Targaryens were messy, volatile, and uncontrollable, just like the dragons that gave them their power. And the more people learned about them, the more appalled yet enthralled they were. Like a car crash you can’t keep your eyes away from, the Targaryens demanded attention, and we willingly obeyed.
Martin expanded on the Targaryens’ lore with his 2018 novel Fire & Blood, which he wrote instead of the long-delayed The Winds of Winter. Fire & Blood tells the story of the Targaryens, from Aegon’s Conquest to the aftermath of the Dance of the Dragons. It offers a comprehensive view of the dragonlords, chronicling their rise to power and depicting the intricacies of their often chaotic rules.
Fire & Blood is uneven and hard to follow at times. Not because of a particularly complicated story but because the material lacks the detailed nature of Martin’s early narrative. Still, for all its flaws, Fire & Blood is at its most entertaining during its first and last thirds — the middle is best ignored. Aegon’s Conquest will forever be the crowning achievement in the Targaryen story, which makes it even stranger that House of the Dragon doesn’t begin its narrative with it. However, the Dance of the Dragons is equally fascinating and far more compelling.
The Dance has everything that made Thrones successful in the first place. It features political conflict aplenty, betrayal, gross sexism, murderous schemes, conversations in barely lit rooms, and a healthy dose of cruelty. Above all, it features dragons. Dozens of them, including some of the mightiest in Westerosi history. Game of Thrones didn’t really feature dragon-on-dragon action — Daenerys’ children all got along. Once Viserion became an ice dragon, fans got the closest thing to a dragon battle, but barely; The Long Night episode is so poorly lit, one can’t see much of anything in that episode, even the dragon battle.
However, the Dance of the Dragons has one dragon fight after the other. Arrax versus Vhagar! Sunfyre and Vhagar versus Meleys! And the pièce de résistance, Vhagar versus Caraxes! Burn them all, the Mad King would say. But epic literary battles beget high expectations, and HBO is no stranger to letting fans down. Can it truly bring these mighty clashes to life in a satisfying way? VFX artists are speaking out about bad work conditions worsened by absurdly tight deadlines, just as Hollywood begins to push back against toxic and entitled fans. Is House of the Dragon a recipe for disaster?
The GOT fandom lies fractured, the consequence of they-who-must-not-be-named and their poor handling of season 8. And yet, interest in House of the Dragon seems considerable. The show might not be in the same position it would find itself in had Thrones had a good ending, but it’s not in a dire situation either. Fans are willing to give it a chance if only to see the Dance come to life. But can HBO bring the Dance to life accurately? Or will this be another Long Night situation where the network’s bark is better than its bite?
House of the Dragon might be fighting a losing fight. It is not only responsible for living up to the fans’ lofty expectations, but also has to redeem the reputation of a show undone by its own devices. And make no mistake, House of the Dragon is HBO’s last chance with the World of Ice and Fire as far as fans are concerned. In their minds, they’ve been fooled once by Game of Thrones‘s ending and twice by Martin’s refusal to finish his book series. The third time is the last straw, and it could be House of the Dragon.
The show will also face considerable criticism from an audience that only became more critical since Thrones ended. In its original, unadulterated form, Game of Thrones might not be able to thrive in today’s television landscape, with its graphic sexual violence and problematic messages on race. And while House of the Dragon took corrective measures on the latter front, the former remains to be seen. So much of Martin’s narrative relies on sexual power dynamics; how will the show deal with those? The Targaryens in the book thrive on their sexist ways and reprehensible behavior towards one another, including their merry proclivity for incest. Can House of the Dragon do them justice when their nature is so divisive?
Then there’s the matter of the characters in the story and how not one is a good person. All of them, male and female, are selfish and duplicitous, bordering on unlikable. On the page, the Dance of the Dragons was a power struggle between two factions obsessed with sitting on the Iron Throne. No one cared about the people or the realm; there were no Breakers of Chains or Kings in the North in the Dance, only mad kings and queens looking for their shot at ruling a still thriving Westeros. If every story needs a hero, fans are in for a rude awakening with House of the Dragon.
And yet, not all is lost. The age of the antihero might be nearing its end, but the age of the antiheroine is only beginning. Shows like The Flight Attendant, Somebody Somewhere, The Morning Show, and Killing Eve gave rise to the antiheroine in television; Game of Thrones itself spearheaded the movement with characters like Cersei, Arya, Yara, Margaery, and as it turns out, Daenerys. House of the Dragon will feature antiheroines to spare, from Rhaenyra and Rhaenys Targaryen to Alicent Hightower and the dragonseed Nettles. And while the Dance features multiple crucial male characters, this is one battle that lives and dies with its women.
Perhaps that will be House of the Dragons‘ true angle. After Game of Thrones failed its female characters so spectacularly, the spinoff will fight for their redemption. It’s a compelling purpose, but only time will tell if the series will see it through. One thing’s for sure, though: House of the Dragon needs to be more than just “tits and dragons.” So far, it’s not doing a great job at that, but even Game of Thrones needed some time to develop into the cultural and critical juggernaut it eventually became.
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