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Review: House of the Dragon season 2 returns to Westeros

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

HBO's "Game Of Thrones" prequel, "House Of The Dragon," debuts its second season on Sunday. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show digs deeper into how a familial civil war laid the groundwork for the popular franchise.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "House Of The Dragon's" second season opens with an earnest explanation of an institution that "Game Of Thrones" fans know well - the Night's Watch - the military order that guards a massive wall along the frozen north end of the Seven Kingdoms.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF THE DRAGON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Through its long tradition, the Night's Watch cultivated its strength from doomed men who had their life as their only possession. This is not a sentence, but an honor.

DEGGANS: Moments like this, where viewers see early versions of places and families with pivotal roles 200 years later in the "Game Of Thrones" universe, are the not-so-secret sauces flavoring the most compelling moments in "House Of The Dragon." It's been a minute since last season, so fans might not remember where the story stands. King Viserys died towards the end of the first season. He had long said his daughter Rhaenyra, played by Emma D'Arcy, should succeed him as ruler of Westeros. But upon the king's death, his much younger wife misunderstood a story he told on his deathbed. She assumed that he wanted their son, Aegon, crowned king.

I know - the biggest problem with "House Of The Dragon" is that it's got too many characters who look the same with similar names. Even the dragons have similar names, which can be very confusing. But one thing is obvious. Aegon, who was crowned king last season, is an impulsive, petty and not-so-smart ruler. In one moment, he interrupts an important council meeting to insist one of his lords let his son ride on his back.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF THE DRAGON")

TOM GLYNN-CARNEY: (As Aegon II Targaryen) Is the heir to the throne bothering you, Tyland?

JEFFERSON HALL: (As Tyland Lannister) No. No, not in the least, Your Grace.

GLYNN-CARNEY: (As Aegon II Targaryen) Because I think he wants a ride.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Your Grace.

HALL: (As Tyland Lannister) A ride?

GLYNN-CARNEY: (As Aegon II Targaryen) A pony ride.

DEGGANS: In another, he promises to return sheep taken as a tax on one subject without understanding that his order will create an avalanche of similar requests from others.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF THE DRAGON")

GLYNN-CARNEY: (As Aegon II Targaryen) Perhaps we could just return his sheep. He came all this way.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) If you return one herder's sheep, Your Grace, you'll soon find them all at the foot of your throne, expecting the same.

GLYNN-CARNEY: (As Aegon II Targaryen) They won't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) When the king speaks, Your Grace, all hear it.

DEGGANS: Even as Aegon's unfitness as a ruler emerges, his supporters and those backing Rhaenyra are trying to convince various lords and families across Westeros to join their cause. The women at the center of this situation are wary of war, but they are also surrounded by men who, through ambition, anger or sheer stupidity, are eager to plunge into a civil war that fans know will be called the Dance of the Dragons.

Caught in the middle are their subjects, epitomized by twin knights, Arryk and Erryk. Didn't I say there were too many characters with similar names and looks? Anyway, Arryk serves King Aegon, and Erryk sticks with Rhaenyra. Erryk is loyal, even after Rhaenyra's Uncle Daemon, played by Matt Smith, criticizes the knight, insisting he should have assassinated young King Aegon when he had a chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOUSE OF THE DRAGON")

MATT SMITH: (As Daemon Targaryen) Aegon was in your grasp. You should have killed him yourself.

ELLIOT TITTENSOR: (As Ser Erryk Cargyll) We swore the same oath - to defend the whole of the royal family. So what were we to do when they turn against one another?

DEGGANS: In this season, "House Of The Dragon" shows how mounting tension and misunderstanding bring deadly consequences, pushing all involved towards a civil war that many of them don't want but no one can seem to stop. It's a poignant story that resonates with today's times - if you can sort through all the character names and backstory to keep up with it.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI'S "MAIN TITLE (FROM 'GAME OF THRONES')") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.