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‘House of the Dragon’ Season Review: Television’s Return to Westeros

Olivia Cooke as Alicent Hightower and Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in “House of the Dragon.”
Olivia Cooke as Alicent Hightower and Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in “House of the Dragon.” By Courtesy of Ollie Upton / HBO
By Thomas Ferro, Contributing Writer

For viewers who have not yet seen “Game of Thrones” or “House of the Dragon,” spoilers are revealed below.

With its finale just released on Oct. 23, “House of the Dragon,” the very anticipated prequel to “Game of Thrones,” made headlines. The mini-series’ 10 hour-long episodes examine the backstory of the dreaded, notorious House Targaryen, setting up the storyline for the original show.

“House of the Dragon” brings us back about two centuries to the height of House Targaryen’s control over the Iron Throne and its claim to power in Westeros. The series, which explores the importance of bloodlines, broken friendships, naïvety, and the legitimacy of one’s heirs, throws us right back into the bloody, merciless world of “Game of Thrones.”

Like “Game of Thrones,” “House of the Dragon” spans many years, continuously building towards the inevitable conflict of the ending. In the very beginning, the two main characters, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock/Emma D’Arcy), the later-announced heir to the Iron Throne, and Alicent (Emily Carey/Olivia Cooke), the future queen, are the best of friends. Over the course of the series, however, the two friends grow apart and eventually become foes, as each tries to ensure the safety of their children and their future as leaders of Westeros.

To deal with the significant time jumps between episodes, the producers of “House of the Dragon” decided to impose major cast changes, with only a few actors appearing throughout the entire season.

In such intricate shows, cast changes often spark debates about character growth and continuity. With multiple actors playing the same role, it can often feel as if each actor is not given adequate time to develop their relationship with the audience. Additionally, fitting over 10 years’ worth of action into a roughly 10-hour series is naturally going to result in the omission of some story elements, potentially sacrificing character development for the plot. The producers of “House of the Dragon,” however, were able to smooth out the edges to make the series fluid and coherent. Furthermore, the cast changes, while abrupt, make the evolution of each individual more realistic.

Notably, the characters whose actors changed in the series were also the characters who evolved the most. For example, the old King Viserys (Paddy Considine), his younger brother, Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), and the hand of the king, Sir Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), retained the same actors throughout the entire series. Was this because their age differences could be portrayed on the same actor? Or, was it because these characters generally retained the same positions and qualities throughout the entire series, a quality emphasized by their lack of physical change? Indeed, this directorial choice enables the audience to pay more attention to the other characters, playing on our own concepts of stability and evolution.

Furthermore, double-casting for the roles of Princess Rhaenyra, Queen Alicent, and their children was particularly effective. These changes specifically accentuate Princess Rhaenyra and Queen Alicent’s extreme separation and the hate they begin to have for each other as time passes. Also, because their children also start out as friends, the audience witnesses them growing away from one another as a result of their mothers growing apart as well. In the final scene featuring Emily Carey as young Alicent and Milly Alcock as young Rhaenyra, Alicent enters wearing green, the color of her family’s war banners –– a bone-chilling moment that foreshadows the division in store for the future of House Targaryen. While these two actors did not return in subsequent episodes, this was a perfectly subtle, encapsulating finale for the two: Their era of friendship was over. Overall, “House of the Dragon”’s ability to make viewers invested in the characters and plot despite these turnovers is absolutely a testament to the quality of the show.

Aside from the careful design and implementation of division and the use of cast changes to create a foundation for the story, one important aspect of “House of the Dragon” was its subtlety in conveying the evolution of characters and the passage of time. One particularly striking moment of this intricacy was how, when nearing the end of his life, King Viserys wears a mask of gold to hide the decay of his face and body. While this mask projects power and austerity to those on the outside, after the removal of his mask, we see the rot and decay underneath the veil of gold — a metaphor, perhaps, for the symbolic rot that is currently consuming the inside of House Targaryen, under a layer of power and prestige.

Overall, each episode effectively built upon the last, with limited but carefully-curated action scenes that seem to suggest an eventual final battle. However, after patiently watching each episode in anticipation for a final throwdown, viewers might be disappointed to learn that the whole series only sets the scene for the next season, or maybe even the next couple of seasons. While the slow-burn plot may be upsetting for “Game of Thrones” fans who are used to receiving closure at the end of a season, the producers have surely secured a devoted audience for the next season of “House of the Dragon.”

With only a slight idea of what’s to come from watching the original “Game of Thrones,” all I can now say is: Let the “Dance of the Dragons” begin.

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