In Praise Of House Of The Dragon's Small Council Scenes

Remember all those months of hemming and hawing among the fandom (online, at least) over whether anyone would actually care about a new "Game of Thrones" prequel, particularly after how much controversy and backlash the ending of the original series sparked? Well, "House of the Dragon" answered those questions quite definitively with its widely-seen premiere, proving that viewers still have an appetite for epic fantasy, disturbing moments of violence, and, of course, dragons.

Immediate reactions painted a promising picture of a spin-off that seems to have taken notes from what "Game of Thrones" did so well: from lavish, spectacle-filled action to rich interpersonal conflicts between aspiring rulers to even the most seemingly minor and esoteric details of world-building. But ambition, resources, and an entire house of power-hungry characters can only go so far if the artists involved — co-creators Ryan Condal and George R.R. Martin, along with showrunners Condal and Miguel Sapochnik — truly understand what drew audiences to this material in the first place.

Thankfully, the premiere doesn't take very long to put any such concerns to rest. An early sequence between King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), his Hand of the King Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), and the various lords who make up his innermost small council introduces several major characters in one efficient scene, calling back to some of the best moments in the early seasons of "Game of Thrones." In the hands of intuitive writers, these small council scenes have revealed the most about the complicated and flawed figures we follow. 

The premiere of "House of the Dragon" is no different, wisely packing in as many of these scenes as it can throughout the jam-packed hour and, in the process, providing some of the clear highlights of the episode.

Learning from the best

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, as the famous line in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" goes, but what about those tasked with helping to keep that crown on the monarch's head?

The tradition of the small council in this universe traces back to George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, which featured the honorable Ned Stark (portrayed by Sean Bean in "Game of Thrones") pressed into the rulership role that King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) chose to neglect. In subsequent seasons of "Game of Thrones," the arrival of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and, later, Charles Dance's Tywin Lannister in these meetings brought a completely new sense of political gamesmanship to the fore. Tyrion's scheming to uncover traitors in his midst, Tywin sending his nephew King Joffrey to bed early, and even the impromptu game of musical chairs as the small council jockeyed for positions showed how compelling (and comedic!) the politics of the series could be. But as early as the third episode of the entire series, the very first small council scene spun a complex web of character dynamics and conflicting personalities that would go on to play major roles throughout the inaugural season.

The first such scene in "House of the Dragon" fulfills a similar function, giving us an early taste of what kind of leader Viserys is, establishing Corlys Velaryon (Steven Touissant) as a shrewd but oft ignored rival, and, most importantly, emphasizing Viserys' need of a male heir to the Iron Throne — an obsession with succession, if you will, that will go on to define the predominant focus of this spin-off series.

Wars to come

There's no arguing with the fact that the creatives behind "House of the Dragon" had a strong sense of why audiences ultimately couldn't help but tune in to the highly-anticipated premiere of "House of the Dragon" — tellingly, after the expository info-dump explaining the backstory and setting of the new series, we're immediately presented with the image of a dragon soaring through the sky. But rather than going to one extreme, as the later seasons of "Game of Thrones" did by prioritizing spectacle above the political bickering and backstabbing that made the show so watchable to begin with, the early returns of "House of the Dragon" prove that dragons and drama can, in fact, coexist.

As the premiere goes on, each progressive small council meeting takes on a greater and greater sense of urgency. First, Viserys' critical character flaw (and blatant blind spot, overlooking his capable daughter Rhaenerya, played by Milly Alcock) regarding the need for a male heir rears its ugly head. Next, when confronted with his troublemaking younger brother and heir-apparent Daemon (Matt Smith), his half-measures contradicting the advice of a wary and suspicious Otto Hightower lays bear his deficiencies as a ruler where blood ties are concerned. Finally, there's his explosive condemnation of his small council during an emergency meeting to discuss the succession, while in the throes of grief over his wife Aemma (Sian Brooke) and stillborn son.

Presenting leaders with impossible decisions and bouncing personalities off of trusted advisors, many of whom have specific and conflicting motivations of their own, always served "Game of Thrones" extraordinarily well throughout its run. As "House of the Dragon" attempts to carve out its own identity, it's nonetheless thrilling to see the spin-off return to a familiar well and remind us that a bunch of politicians arguing with one another can provide as much entertainment as any number of dragons.