House Of The Dragon Embraces The Best Thing About Game Of Thrones

The months leading up to the "House of the Dragon" premiere were plagued by online debate about whether or not the show would have a chance at success. Could HBO's take on Westeros recover from the disappointing "Game of Thrones" finale? Would the audiences of the world ever be able to trust another entry in this fantasy series? Unsurprisingly, that debate was abruptly settled on premiere night, by some record-breaking stats. According to around 10 million viewers, the Westerosi hype is still going strong.

We can only wait and see how that dedication will hold up throughout the season but either way, there will be plenty more incest, wigs, and jousting to come, thanks to the newly announced season 2 renewal. Personally, I'm feeling pretty confident about the success of "House of the Dragon" — and it's not just because I've tangled with George R.R. Martin's "Fire and Blood." It certainly helps to know exactly where this rousing story will take us (a big change from our time with "Thrones") but even more exciting is the way that the adaptation has chosen to handle it. With the first two episodes of "House of the Dragon," showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal have proven that they know exactly what made "Game of Thrones" so great and their prequel series is wholeheartedly embracing it.

What was the "Thrones" secret sauce, you ask? The key element that made millions tune in for nearly a decade of dedicated watching? Search your heart, dear reader, because you already know the answer: it's the small council meetings! 

... I'm only half kidding.

Let's not forget our slow-paced roots

Some of the best moments in "Game of Thrones" history had nothing to do with swords, white walkers, or dragons: they were quiet moments in the office of a Tywin Lannister or meaningful glances exchanged between political rivals. Sometimes they were grand speeches given from one schemer to another, like Littlefinger and Varys discussing power in the shadow of the Iron Throne. Or moments of true brilliance from Tyrion, wielding the greatest weapon known to man — words.

At some point, it became the expectation that "Game of Thrones" would constantly deliver jaw-dropping spectacle, which is understandable since the series pulled them off so well. But you can't start out with "The Red Wedding" or open a story at the scale of "Battle of the Bastards." You have to build up to them. If you walked away from the "House of the Dragon" premiere worrying that it was too slow or lacked action, then I'm afraid you've forgotten your roots. The earliest seasons of "Thrones" offered us glimpses of other impending doom — Daenerys rising in the east and White Walkers marching in the North — but for much of the show, those were far-off threats. The bigger issue was surviving the political drama of King's Landing and ping-ponging between tacticians, as Tywin, Robb Stark, and Stannis Baratheon sussed out how best to win a war.

And when I say war, I'm not talking about Daenerys decimating armies in season 7. Did Tywin Lannister teach us nothing? Sometimes war is fought through the exchange of letters or through wedding arrangements made in corridors and chambers. Sometimes it's years of psychological warfare with your children. The show that initially won us over was never really about dragons and ice zombies — it was about the pursuit of power.

Scheming beats spectacle

The liars, the social climbing, the proximity to power; the second sons with much to prove; the women fending for themselves in a patriarchal society; the fact that the person sitting on the Iron Throne is rarely the most powerful — that's what "House of the Dragon" is actually about. Sure, we have more Targaryens than ever, and about 17 dragons to keep an eye on, but the problems that Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) is facing are nothing she can solve with brute force or dragon fire. If it was all about sheer willpower, perhaps Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) would already have a crown on his head — but in reality, his inability to play the game is what's holding him back.

The very first episode sees Daemon make the grave error of telling the truth, pointing out his brother's weakness right to his face. It ends with his banishment and by episode 2, the rogue prince is taking the flashiest route of shoving his anger in his family's face: he steals a dragon egg and holes up at their ancestral home of Dragonstone. None of this gets him any closer to the crown.

And while Daemon fails at politics, who is thriving in the background? Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King, who's quietly maneuvering like a twisted combination of Littlefinger and Tywin. He isn't a perfect analog of either schemer: not outwardly chaotic like Littlefinger, nor is he the kind of ruthless man that earns a song like "The Rains of Castamere." But he's savvy, opportunistic, and sharp. Most importantly, he has King Viserys (Paddy Considine) wrapped around his finger.

How Otto Hightower is winning the game

Within hours of the queen dying, Otto Hightower manages to set the table for his daughter to take her place. By the time "The Rogue Prince" rolls around, he's on the verge of sharing royal grandkids with the king. And how'd he pull it off? By biding his time and slowly manipulating the Crown. Westeros is never more interesting than when we're trying to determine everyone's allegiance, motives, and varying levels of ambition. Mapping out the plans of a guy like Otto Hightower and anticipating how he'll eventually clash with the Rhaenyra's and Daemon's of the world is where we have our fun. And yes, as I alluded to before, the best place to do this is often the small council chambers.

The first episode of "House of the Dragon" has no less than four small council meetings. Four! Four beautiful scenes of grizzled men arguing about taxes, money, and tourneys. Look a little deeper and you realize that it's four scenes laying out the groundwork for the wars to come: Otto Hightower showcasing his influence over the king, Corlys Valaryon (Steve Toussaint) making his ambition a little too obvious, men grumbling over the idea of a woman ruling, Rhaenyra existing just on the outskirts of political agency and King Viserys, demonstrating his weakness at every turn. 

The second episode takes these to the next level: as the question of the king's remarriage hangs over the characters, the issue gets squared away through conversation and small, telling moments. We watch Viserys set aside time for each of his esteemed councilmen; he considers Corlys' offer of his daughters hand in marriage, seeks advice from Grand Maester Mellos and Lyonel Strong, and ultimately falls into the trap set by Otto Hightower.

The best of Thrones is back

The palace intrigue of watching these pieces move across the board is what made "Game of Thrones" so addictive. The final seasons weren't poorly received just because of Daenerys' divisive arc, but because in its final two seasons, it started to feel like "Thrones" lost sight of what make it so great. Pondering about power fell to the wayside and the show has little on its mind but spectacle, violence, and bad jokes from Tyrion Lannister. Presumably, "House of the Dragon" has learned from those mistakes.

All is not lost for viewers with a thirst for blood, though. You want action? Among other disturbing scenes, "House of the Dragon" has already given us a bloody, brutal tourney — a promise that yes, if it's death and destruction you want, this show can deliver. But that violence is in service of the story. Even at the tourney, there's much more going on than bashed-in heads and puking squires. What does it mean that Daemon is bested by newcomer, Ser Criston Cole? Who does Princess Rhaenys give her favor to, and why does it matter? What can we make of the tension between Daemon and Otto?

War is in the air and the battle won't just be fought in the field. There's certainly spectacle to come — you don't CGI 17 individual dragons for no reason — but the core of this conflict will always be the plotting. Dragon fire can certainly do its damage, but nothing kills a dynasty quite like tension and schemes.