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‘House of the Dragon’ Season 2 Repeats Same Thrills — and Mistakes — as Season 1

‘Game of Thrones’ prequel still thinks confusion equals complexity, and that the spectacle of hot dragon-on-dragon action makes up for interchangeable characters

House of the Dragon

Theo Whitman/HBO

On House of the Dragon, there are prominent characters named Rhaenyra, Rhaenys, and Rhaena. There’s an Alicent and also an Alys. There are identical twins named Arryk and Erryk (both pronounced like “Eric”). There are references to multiple characters named Jaehaerys, and there’s also a Jacaerys, whose nickname is Jace, though you shouldn’t confuse him with a different character named Jason. And did I mention that Jason also has an identical twin?

There’s also a scene in the HBO fantasy epic’s second season where two characters with similar names are dressed in similar styles while they fight to the death; an ally to one of them enters the room and is rightly uncertain which is which, who’s winning, or how to even discuss the battle in a coherent fashion. And the civil war at the heart of this season came about because Alicent (Olivia Cooke), then the queen of Westeros, heard her husband talk on his deathbed about Aegon becoming king, and assumed he wanted her to install their son Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) onto the Iron Throne, when in fact he was referring to a legend about his own ancestor, Aegon the Conqueror.

I appreciate that Ryan Condal, who co-created the Game of Thrones prequel with George R.R. Martin, has allowed his characters to experience the same level of befuddlement that viewers not already steeped in A Song of Ice and Fire lore likely feel about GRRM’s fondness for overlapping names. But acknowledging a problem isn’t the same as fixing it. In its second season, HotD remains a show that mistakes confusion for complexity, hurling waves of thinly-defined, often interchangeable characters at the audience, and hoping no one will mind because here be dragons — along with some fiery performances by Cooke, Emma D’Arcy (as Rhaenyra), Eve Best (as Rhaenys), and a few others.

The show’s first season was oddly structured, with multiple big leaps forward in time, sometimes with older actors like D’Arcy and Cooke taking over for younger ones. Even within each discrete time period, the plot and character arcs were omitting what felt like crucial moments — we didn’t, for instance, see Rhaenyra’s immediate reaction to learning that best friend Alicent would be marrying Rhaenyra’s father. And the time jumps kept derailing what little narrative momentum was being generated in any particular era. It felt as if Condal, Martin, and their collaborators were eager to get to the civil war among House Targaryen, and its promise of dragon-on-dragon battles, as quickly as possible, and viewed the build-up to that war as a necessary evil.

With this theory, a HotD agnostic could find a reason to believe in the promise of this new season: If the civil war itself is the story Condal and company were really interested in, then perhaps once they got around to telling it, the series as a whole would find levels of urgency and consistency it too often lacked in the summer and fall of 2022.

The first half of the season does offer some tangible improvements, albeit more cosmetic than substantive. The dull Season One opening credits sequence, which followed literal trails of blood through a stone structure, has been replaced with new animation that shows a tapestry of Targaryen family history being woven before our eyes. It’s still not close to the all-timer GoT intro, but it’s much livelier and more overtly speaks to the conflicts this show is dramatizing. On several occasions, Season One’s episodes presented sequences that were literally too dark to see, including the franchise’s first proper dragon-on-dragon battle in the finale. Now, when the two sides — the Greens on behalf of Aegon, the Blacks believing that Aegon has usurped the Iron Throne from Rhaenyra — come to blows, it tends to be in bright, vivid daylight.

But the colors meant to distinguish each side of the conflict are themselves visually muddled, with Aegon’s being such a dark shade of green that they often look black unless the light is hitting them at just the right angle. So even something as simple as an establishing shot of a castle hanging the banner of one side or the other doesn’t always properly orient you as to where you are and which cause is being supported.

All this business about overlapping names and hues would matter much less if the characters were more vivid. On Game of Thrones, Ned Stark and others spent a lot of time telling stories about their respective family trees, many branches of which sounded similar to one another. But the people talking were so fully-realized, and their conflicts with others so clear, that it didn’t matter(*). You cared about Ned, about Tyrion, Arya, Daenerys, Brienne, and so many others because the writing and the performances had brought them to life on a level which HotD rarely approaches. D’Arcy and Cooke are both excellent, and the idea of childhood friends becoming mortal enemies is the most potent one the show has. But the design of the story makes it nearly impossible for the two to directly interact, and instead they’re siloed off with more thinly-sketched figures, like Rhaenyra’s petulant husband Daemon (Matt Smith) or Alicent’s cunning father Otto (Rhys Ifans). Some of the actors bring more than what’s on the page — Ewan Mitchell has an impressive physical presence as Aegon’s ruthless, one-eyed brother Aemond, while Eve Best has a steely resolve as Rhaenys, who would rather not be in the middle of this mess — but most of the key players tend to have one defining trait and not much more.

(*) GoT also had the advantage of being on a fairly regular schedule, with its first six seasons debuting within a year of one another, and only the final season having a two-year gap. By that point, we knew everyone well enough that it was easy to remember who was who and why they were fighting. It’s been 22 months since HotD Season One premiered, so you may need to turn early and often to your friend Google for refreshers — while also being careful not to read any spoilers from Fire & Blood, the GRRM book being adapted.

As the title reminds you, House of the Dragon does at least have an abundance of the great, big, leathery, fire-breathing beasties, and they’re on display early and often throughout the season’s first four episodes. But even when the direction and CGI are strong, it tends to be empty spectacle, involving people whom the show has provided the bare minimum reason in which to invest.

For a good chunk of the audience, the spectacle — and the chance to be back in the same world in which a beloved show took place — may be more than enough. If viewers held grudges over how poorly Game of Thrones ended, you couldn’t see it in the monster ratings for HotD Season One. Quality-wise, though, it’s not close between the prequel and the original, even at this respective stage of their development. Because GoT was a gamble on an untested genre for HBO, its early seasons didn’t have the budget for epic battles or soaring dragons. Its creators had no choice but to make the human characters as deep and compelling as possible. So by the time the ice-zombie money came rolling in, that stuff was an incredible bonus to the show’s core, rather than the core itself. Since House of the Dragon has all the money in the world at its disposal, it doesn’t have to work as hard on the people who get to ride the dragons or be burned by them, and that’s palpable in the storytelling.

The good news, for people who were happy with what HotD offered last time around, is that this is the same show as before, even a bit better in some areas. But anyone hoping for a substantial growth curve will find it as denied to them as the Iron Throne is to Rhaenyra.

Season Two of House of the Dragon debuts June 16 on HBO and Max, with episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen the first four of eight episodes. 

From Rolling Stone US