House Of The Dragon Review: A Bold And Brutal Tale Of The Women Of Westeros

Many "Game of Thrones" fans felt burned by the HBO series' final season, leaving some to wonder if there's even still an audience for "Game of Thrones" spin-offs. Seven hells, I wondered if "House of the Dragon" was something even I wanted, despite being a die-hard fan of George R. R. Martin's books and the incredible world of Westeros. The series had two things going for it: one, it's based upon "Fire & Blood," a single novel that tells a complete saga; and two, it takes place during the reign of the Targaryens, which means dragons. Lots of dragons. Who doesn't love dragons? 

"House of the Dragon" starts a bit shakily and has moments where it falters, but the series has more on its mind than just gratuitous sex scenes and graphic violence. There's still plenty of nudity and gore, but it's often in the service of the story, and that feels refreshing after "Game of Thrones," which often bordered on exploitative. "House of the Dragon" is a return to the intrigue of court, but it feels fiercely feminine, focusing almost entirely on two women: Alicent Hightower and Rhaenyra Targaryen. Almost everything is told through their perspective, or through the eyes of other women. It's a bold choice that ultimately pays off as the series progresses, highlighting what many of us already knew. Being a woman is hard, but being a woman in Westeros is hell.

The birthing bed as a battlefield

There are more birthing scenes than battles in the six episodes of "House of the Dragon" provided for critics, though each birth is a battle of its own. In the pilot, Queen Aemma Arryn (Sian Brooke) explains to her daughter, Princess Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock as a teen), that as a woman in the world, the birthing bed is her battlefield. This could be the series' thesis, as it focuses almost exclusively on how women manage to survive in a world that caters to men. When there are battles, they're portrayed as somewhat foolish, an unnecessary waste of life. Life, after all, is precious, the thing that women labor and die to create. 

One of the more compelling aspects of Martin's books and the shows based upon them is the way he depicts women who struggle against the patriarchal systems that surround them. "Game of Thrones" gave the world several incredible characters who broke the barriers of their cultural gender rules, including Cersei Lannister, Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, and Daenerys Targaryen. Unfortunately, the television series was also rife with rape scenes, and several feminist-forward storylines went underdeveloped or unexplored. "House of the Dragon" doesn't shy away from the horrors of simply existing while female in Martin's world, but it also depicts them with more care, for the most part. Other than one harrowing sequence in the premiere where a baby is cut out of a screaming mother's womb, scenes of women suffering feel integral to the story, because this is their story. 

Points of perspective

"House of the Dragon" mostly follows female characters, and thankfully, this time there are plenty of women behind-the-scenes calling the shots, too. Director Clare Kilner helmed two episodes and Geeta Vasant Patel directed one, and several episodes were written by women. The authenticity of their experiences is felt in the series, which follows young Rhaenyra and her best friend, Alicent Hightower (played by Emily Carey as a teen) as they try to find their place in the world. 

As girls, they are close friends, but in adulthood, they become bitter enemies. The series devotes its first five episodes to telling their teenage tale before jumping over a decade forward in episode 6, but by the gods, it works. Instead of following a group of children to adulthood over the course of nearly seven seasons, as the first series did, "House of the Dragon" condensed their important backstory into a handful of episodes. By the time we reach episode 6 and see the girls as adults, with Rhaenyra played by Emma D'Arcy and Alicent by Olivia Cooke, the audience knows them intimately. Their desires, fears, and grudges are all laid bare, which makes the adult intrigue all the richer. 

All four of the performers playing Rhaenyra and Alicent are excellent, but I cannot wait to see more of Cooke, who chews every ounce of scenery she's in as the adult Alicent. Give this woman an Emmy already. 

Don't worry, it's not all politics and gossip

While the vast majority of "House of the Dragon" focuses on the political intrigue between the many houses of Westeros, there's still plenty of the ridiculous R-rated Renaissance fair craziness that made "Game of Thrones" fun to watch. There's jousting, knights battling with flails and swords, and plenty of dragon-riding. The dragon-riding looks a lot better than it did on "Game of Thrones," which is good, because there's a lot more of it. 

There are only a few battle sequences, but they are appropriately gory, reminding viewers of the savagery of the world. No one commits as much violence in "House of the Dragon" as Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), the king's younger brother. He has the cruelty of Joffrey Baratheon and the charm of Jaime Lannister, making him potentially one of the franchise's greatest villains. Smith is clearly having a ball with the character, giving him a kind of smug glee that's almost infectious. 

In the novel, Daemon is a force to be reckoned with, a man who influences all around him, and Smith's magnetic performance, especially in later episodes, makes that all the more believable. Other standouts include Fabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole, a nobody of Dornish descent who becomes a knight, and Jefferson Hall as twins Tyland and Jason Lannister, who show us where their descendant Tywin got all of his tactical talents. 

Old themes with new ideas

There any many elements in "House of the Dragon" that "Game of Thrones" fans will find familiar, including the problems faced by bastard children, the inherited madness of monarchies, and the politics of power. The first episode feels a little bit too much like "Game of Thrones," relishing in sex and violence simply for the sake of it, but it finds its footing in episode 2 and starts feeling like something more. The choices the women make and the struggles they suffer feel more contemporary than ever, as the women of Westeros lament the lack of ownership over their own bodies. It's timely, given the reversal of Roe v. Wade, removing personal autonomy for anyone with a uterus in the United States. 

The premiere languishes in that agony a bit too much, but as the season progresses, its heroines become inspiring champions worthy of warrior status. Rhaenyra and Alicent feel like justice for Cersei, Sansa, and the other women of "Game of Thrones" who were often given short shrift. 

I have small complaints, mostly with regards to an entire menagerie of CGI animals that could have been edited around or depicted differently, but the story itself is compelling enough to ignore the nitpicks. When I started watching "House of the Dragon," I found myself wondering if I could ever care about this world again, but after six episodes, I'm anxiously awaiting more. 

The first episode of "House of the Dragon" premieres on HBO on August 21, 2022.