Is House Of The Dragon Moving Too Fast Or Too Slow For Its Own Game Of Thrones?

Tuning into "House of the Dragon" week after week always leaves me with a conflicted feeling. On the one hand, I find nearly every scene to be a dramatically charged feast. The tension in the air is always palpable, and the actors consistently deliver engaged, simmering performances with scene work any actor would love to chew on. However, once the episode ends, I end up spending very little time reflecting on what I have just seen and wondering about what will happen the following week. "House of the Dragon" is a show that I enjoy in the moment, but it doesn't really stick to my ribs in the way its predecessor, "Game of Thrones," did.

When I do think about the show, I often find myself wondering what and whose story "House of the Dragon" is. I know the plot of the show, the incidents and the mechanics, but the emotional core of the show often does not reveal itself to me. One would think the show is about the battle between Princess Rhaenyra and Queen Alicent as to who will sit on the Iron Throne after the death of King Viserys. The problem is that we are near the end of the first season of the show, and only now has Viserys kicked the bucket. This game of thrones, as you will, has all been entirely theoretical, and the show has already spanned 21 years existing in that theoretical space. Have these two decades been solely to serve as place setting for the actual story of the show, or were we supposed to find emotional satisfaction within these time-jumping eight episodes? Either way, it's leaving a lot to be desired.

Is season 1 purely a prologue?

When the actors for Rhaenyra and Alicent changed from Milly Alcock to Emma D'Arcy and Emily Carey to Olivia Cooke, respectively, after episode 5, that seemed to signal the end of a half-season prologue for "House of the Dragon." We get the childhood backstories of these two friends turned rivals, and then we'll jump 10 years into the future to start the real story. But that didn't really happen. The show continued on the same pace it had been, and there was yet another multiyear time jump between episodes 7 and 8. More actors changed, a seemingly major character may have died off-screen, and the status quo of the realm had both changed in a major way and also not at all.

In those six years, Alicent has essentially taken over Viserys' duties as king and adorned the Red Keep in symbols of her religion. Aesthetically, there is a difference from the previous episode, but in practice, there isn't. It is still the exact same dynamic as the previous one. Alicent tries to levy a claim about the legitimacy of Rhaenyra as queen, Rhaenyra denies the accusations, and Viserys affirms Rhaenyra's claim that he established in the first episode. Alicent may use different mouthpieces to raise these questions, such as Prince Aemond in episode 7 or Vaemond Velaryon in 8, but the conceit doesn't change.

Frankly, what else are they supposed to do until Viserys dies? His death is what would set everything off in motion, as the question of who is heir becomes urgent. This is why part of me sees this entire first season as a slow-roll prologue, and season 2 is where the fireworks start exploding. At least that would give me some explanation as to the slowness.

Adapting a history and not a story

But what about it moving too fast? I think that struggle comes from how it's translating the source material. "Fire & Blood," the book by George R.R. Martin on which "House of the Dragon" is based, isn't a novel like the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. That book is written as a history book. As with many history books, perhaps you remember this from your school days, "Fire & Blood" focuses much more on incident than motivation. History, by its nature, is plot-driven, not character-driven, as it documents the things people did and not who they were.

From my vantage point, "House of the Dragon" dramatizes incidents but doesn't properly give human context for them. Take Vaemond Velaryon wanting to inherit Driftmark. Obviously, he feels that he is entitled to this seat because Corlys' choice for Lord of the Tides, Rhaenyra's son Lucerys, is not Velaryon by blood. Beyond this, what do we know about Vaemond? He's Corlys' brother ... and ... uhh ... that's about all I got. He has spearheaded this trial, which is a major centerpiece for the story — one that ends in his death. When the top half of his head gets chopped off, I felt nothing. I don't know this man.

Because we spend so little time with these people simply existing as humans, the incidents they're apart of come at such a rapid pace. All they can do is go from one thing to another, and the time jumps don't help this frenetic pacing. They just underline their lack of inner lives. There's no way to judge how vital someone is to the story. It feels like it's taking short cuts to get to a certain status quo and sacrificing depth and weight for it.

Where do we go from here?

For me, "House of the Dragon" is simultaneously stalling and sprinting in equal measure. However, we do have a major development with the ending of episode 8 in the much-anticipated death of King Viserys. That is sad for me, as I found that Viserys was the one character who I felt bucked that trend and was someone I understood fully. But from this point on, the show has the opportunity to stop chugging along like a freight train to get through a massive prologue and settle down with these core characters. We presumably know what the stakes of the show will be going forward and can afford to exist with these people, getting to know the vast ensemble of characters. The show very well could still go along as it has been for the first eight, but I hope that we will get to have a lot more scenes of people where a major plot development does not need to get accomplished.

I want to reiterate that I enjoy watching the show. On an aesthetic and performance level, it can be some utterly captivating television. I just don't find it to be top-tier drama, which I believe could have been avoided. Television shines brightest when it tells character-driven stories, and "House of the Dragon" right now is a plot-driven one. There's still plenty of time to change that, especially with a guaranteed second season in the future.