House of the Dragon is distinguished from the parallel series Rings of Power, each tracing their origin to Tolkien’s magisterial Lord of the Rings, the inspiration for Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire on which Game of Thrones (set two centuries after House of the Dragon) is based. Rings of Power is set two millennia before Lord of the Rings, but it is nothing of the sort. The filming is clumsy and the narrative ill-advised. One must question if the makers had in mind Tolkien’s magisterial Silmarillion as source material or a bubbly take on C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, the utopian alternative to Lord of the Rings. Which makes the HBO series House of the Dragon so much more interesting for its surpassing its predecessor series to which it serves as prequel, almost living up to the dizzying heights of Tolkien’s imagination.
House of the Dragon pays close attention to themes of language, politics, and the slow, steady decay of time. The notion of a ‘crabfeeder’ eating away at the ageing world is as terrifying as it is testament to the enduring power of the darkness of Martin’s world, which on occasion verges on those depths that Stephen King’s Dark Tower series achieves, with Tolkien serving as shared source material. Matt Smith’s performance as the renegade prince who kills the crabfeeder (among many others, besides, of varying levels of criminality) is completely compelling, and refreshing in light of the spoilsports who ran the fantasy world of Game of Thrones. His sisterly counterpart Milly Alcock is almost as triumphant, and just as meticulous in her attention to emotive detail, a lead character as Emilia Clarke’s Targaryen heiress in the original TV series. One can believe that House of the Dragon depicts a more primordial time in Westeros, whose name is thankfully supplanted with a more integrated look on political geography, from oceans to lands and the sands that lie between.
The acting is half the story. Then there is the exhilarating pace of the episodes, racing from crisis to crisis without neglecting the steady heat of drama, all in bite-able 45-minute chunks, compared with the more unwieldy one-hour episodes of Game of Thrones. The role of George R. R. Martin in this script has payed off, aided by Ryan Condal’s TV scriptwriting acumen and excellent dialogue between characters. How can this show be both faster and slower than the original, both more lightweight and somehow more meaningful? Without the weary threat of the ‘white walkers’, all that remains is the struggle for power, after power, and the contentious questions of who has the right to power, and in whose right power is wielded.
Martin clearly seeks to subvert Tolkien’s morality tale with something more earthy. But by losing, on Episode III at least, the predecessor series’ obsession with sex and violence for the sake of violence, House of the Dragon gives us a far earthier picture of medieval politics than Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, or Narnia (the original utopian literary fantasy) could ever give. It is at once classical and modern in its dilemmas of duty, kinship, and statesmanship. For that alone, this series deserves applause — especially after, with some tense build-up in episodes I and II, the series has now synthesised the extremes of steady statecraft and dynamic brinkmanship into a balanced whole of fractious and contested power politics. Episode III is flawless in concept, and fantastical in execution. I grieve for television today, and the fate of art in general. But House of the Dragon gives me hope for what comes next. Let the sky rain fire upon its foes. Only the strongest survive.