Unlike Game Of Thrones, There's No Clear Hero In House Of The Dragon

This post contains spoilers for the latest episode of "House of the Dragon."

It's easy to forget that "Game of Thrones" once had a main protagonist, since his head got lopped off before the end of the show's first season. But Ned Stark (Sean Bean) was there alright, grounding the series from the start and guiding viewers through the complex political landscape of Westeros with a dogged determination to do what's right, even at great personal cost. He wasn't the best player in the game of thrones, and his commitment to integrity ultimately cost him his life. With it went viewers' sense of stability, as the show proved itself willing to derail hero narratives in a heartbeat for the sake of a good shock. Still, even with Ned gone, "Game of Thrones" still had people worth rooting for.

No one in "House of the Dragon" reminds me of Ned Stark. In fact, no one reminds me of Jon Snow, or Arya Stark, or Brienne of Tarth, or Samwell Tarly, or Tyrion Lannister. There are few heroes to be found in the HBO series that aims to recapture the magic of its massive flagship series, and even the mildly heroic figures seem to have already been brought low by the magnetic pull of power. Character arcs that would have taken years to unfold in episodes now take weeks, as if to say, "you get it, we don't have to explain how power-hungry and vile these people can be." All of this makes for a viewing experience that feels increasingly unmoored with each passing week.

Who are we rooting for?

As a general rule, spinoffs should be able to stand alone on their own merits, and need not be compared to their predecessors. In practice, though, it's naive to think that any of us could take in a show as big as the one that came after "Game of Thrones" without feeling the comfort of familiarity or the pangs of what's lacking in comparison. And what "House of the Dragon" is sorely lacking, at this point, is heroes.

This week, as we witness Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy) hook up with her murderous uncle, Alicent (Olivia Cooke) attempt to gouge out the eye of a child, and their children engage in a brutal fight, it's hard not to wonder: who am I supposed to root for, here? Even the show's most milquetoast character, King Viserys (Paddy Considine), began the show by okaying the bloody non-consensual c-section that killed his wife. Too often by this point, watching "House of the Dragon" feels a bit like watching a reality show where it's no use getting attached to someone, because you never know when the edit will make them into a villain.

Not every show needs a hero, but for all the attention given to the more nihilistic aspects of his books, George R.R. Martin is in the business of building heroes. He anchored much of "A Song of Ice and Fire" around Ned Stark and Jon Snow, characters who were noble to a fault. On screen, "Game of Thrones" imbued supporting characters like Brienne, Samwell, and Davos Seaworthy with not just the qualities of a good sidekick, but also with a sense of warmth. Despite all the fire in "House of the Dragon," there's not much warmth to be found.

For all its nihilism and shock value, Thrones also had heroes

For characters like Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister, "Game of Thrones" initially positioned them as savvy outsiders, and only complicated their morality once they'd already built up a tremendous amount of goodwill with the audience. Of course, this isn't the type of discussion we'd be having about a show like "Succession," where amorality is the baseline, but Martin and the writers of "Game of Thrones" grounded that series with characters who were initially worth rooting for, and "House of the Dragon" refuses to do the same, making it a more disorienting and perhaps less consistently engaging viewing experience.

If the characters of "House of the Dragon" can be compared to anyone, many of them function within the same realm as Sansa Stark — a girl thrust into circumstances beyond her control who must learn to play the game of thrones not from the battlefield, but from the hearth. Sansa's a hero too, but many people didn't see that about her at first. In fact, in the early seasons, when she was still a child slyly making choices for self-preservation's sake, she was among the show's most hated characters. I admire the spinoff's commitment to centering characters like her, resilient women who make audiences engage with tough questions about patriarchal power, but I still can't help but feel the void space where there used to be someone to outright root for each week.

It all goes back to the source material

In the end, there's a simple reason that "House of the Dragon" feels less rooted in heroes' journeys than its predecessor: the books they pull from are two different genres. While Martin wrote "A Song of Ice and Fire" starting with a blank page, guided only by where the story wanted to go, "Fire & Blood" is presented as a history text that fills in the gaps of the world readers already know. And while "A Song of Ice and Fire" plants readers in the mindset of several key characters, "Fire & Blood" does the messy work of trying to streamline history into a cohesive narrative, looking at stories from several perspectives in retrospect while remaining outside the heads of each character in the process.

It makes sense that a history text would lack the warmth and closeness of a novel, and "House of the Dragon" is still propulsive even without the anchoring presence of a hero. But my hope for the series, in the long run, is that it will live up to Martin's own explanation of heroism in his texts. At a convention in 2016 reported on by Fansided, the author outlined his ideas about heroes, saying:

"We have the capacity for great heroism. We have the capacity for great selfishness and cowardice, many horrible acts. And sometimes at the same time. The same people can do something heroic on Tuesday and something horrible on Wednesday. Heroes commit atrocities. People who commit atrocities can be capable later of heroism."

If the characters in "House of the Dragon" all have the capacity for heroism, I hope we'll get to see more of that sooner rather than later. All the fire and blood is great, but sometimes, audiences just need a win.