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In the 'House of the Dragon' series premiere, the blood of the dragon runs thick

"No, I like it. It's a statement piece. Really completes the space." Viserys (Paddy Considine) and Rheanyra (Milly Alcock) in <em>House of the Dragon</em>.
HBO
"No, I like it. It's a statement piece. Really completes the space." Viserys (Paddy Considine) and Rheanyra (Milly Alcock) in House of the Dragon.

This recap of House of the Dragon's premiere episode contains spoilers for ... well, for House of the Dragon's premiere episode. That's pretty much what a recap is. Proceed accordingly.

And we're back. All of us — HBO, the Seven Kingdoms, you, and me of course, the guy who recapped Game of Thrones for NPR lo those many years ago. We're all of us here, back on our dragonscat.

I've written a couple handy primers to help us all get in the right headspace, but essentially: Forget what you know, you won't need it much. House of the Dragon opens about 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones. The now 100-year-old Targaryen Dynasty is at its height, as the royal family holds the reins to 10 full-grown dragons.

We open at Harrenhal, the vast ruined castle that got famously dracarysed by Aegon the Conqueror, founder of the Targaryen Dynasty, a century before. We're witnessing the Great Council of 101 AC, where the inheritor of the Iron Throne will be decided.

In this corner: Rhaenys Targaryen, the king's granddaughter (she's standing beside her husband Corlys Velaryon, aka the Sea Snake — we'll be seeing a lot more of him).

In that corner: the king's grandson Viserys Targaryen, standing beside his wife Aemma Arryn, who is pregnant with their daughter, Rhaenyra Targaryen. (I know, I know — we're not even two minutes in and already there's a Rhaenys and a Rhaenyra to contend with. Not to mention the fact that most of the characters are sporting the same long, plantinum-blonde wig. Welcome to the Targaryen Dynasty. Edgar Winter is coming.)

The Great Council chooses Viserys, even though Rhaenys is older, because the patriarchy is nothing if not utterly predictable.

Featuring a dragon-drop interface

Opening credits! Which expressly do not send us swooping over a map of Westeros to visit clockwork versions of the various locales that will figure in this week's episode. Instead, we just zoom into the three-headed dragon sigil of House Targaryen.

Take that a signal that House of the Dragon's chief conflict won't manifest, as GoT's did, as a sprawling worldwide clash involving numerous far-flung Houses and kingdoms. Here, the battle lines will largely be drawn within a single family, in just a few familiar locations. No map necessary.

We get a dragon's-eye view of King's Landing, which is looking a bit more precisely rendered these days. We may be 172 years in the past, but the servers in HBO's VFX department have had four years of updates since GoT ended, and it shows.

That giant domed building dominating the skyline? That's not the Great Sept of Baelor, which won't be built for years. That's the Dragonpit, where reside the royal family's dragons.

We meet teenaged Rhaenyra and her friend Alicent Hightower, daughter of Otto Hightower, who's the Hand of the King. They walk through the same courtyard in the Red Keep that Cersei will turn into a giant Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? board, centuries later.

The show puts more of its chess pieces on the board: Queen Aemma is pregnant again, and offers the headstrong Rhaenyra some truly terrible "lie back and think of Westeros" motherly advice. Corlys Velaryon (told you!) warns that some of the Free Cities have formed an alliance called the Triarchy, and their admiral — one Craghas Drahar, aka Crabfeeder — is brutally ridding the Stepstones (a string of islands between Westeros and Essos) of pirates. Put a pin in that; it'll come back.

"I call it Spiny-Echidna-Chic." Daemon (Matt Smith) and Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) in <em>House of the Dragon</em>.
/ HBO
/
HBO
"I call it Spiny-Echidna-Chic." Daemon (Matt Smith) and Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) in House of the Dragon.

Enter: Daemon Targaryen, the King's cheeky — well, cheekbony, anyway — younger brother. He's sitting on the Iron Throne, which looks much more jagged and dangerous than we remember. I mean, the tetanus risk alone.

Daemon and Rhaenyra evince an easy familiarity with each other. We're meant to pick up on something else between them too — and if that squicks you out, hoo boy, are you watching the wrong show, about the wrong family. He gives her a gift, an amulet of exceedingly rare Valyrian steel — the same thing his sword, Dark Sister, is made of.

Here comes the blood

The king has a wound on his back that refuses to heal. He says it's from sitting on the Iron Throne — which is something taken directly from the books that Game of Thrones never picked up on; the Iron Throne is not meant to be place where anyone can rest easily. The royal coffers probably come with a line item for Band-Aids and hydrogen peroxide.

Were you thinking that House of the Dragon was seeming a little light on GoT-level violence, thus far? Oh, you sweet summer child. This next sequence, in which Daemon leads the City Guard (aka the Gold Cloaks) as they attack King's Landing's seedy underbelly by sticking their swords into a lot of seedy underbellies, should keep you sated for a while.

The next day, Ser Otto Hightower attempts to shame Daemon for his impulsive action, but the prince is supported by Corlys Velaryon and, conditionally, the king himself. There will soon be a tournament, after all, held to celebrate the impending birth of the king's child, which (the king is certain) will be a boy. Lots of visiting nobles. The king rationalizes that Daemon's show of force will help protect the people. Daemon peaces out before anyone can say "Gold Lives Matter," so that's a good thing.

In a brothel scene of the sort that comes factory-installed in George R.R. Martin shows, we meet Daemon's paramour, a sex worker named Mysaria, and learn that he's been having trouble ... landing the dragon, as it were. Earlier, we learned that he's married to a lady of the Vale, but doesn't much care for her. All of which is laying the track to remind us that he's a true Targaryen — and thus a man of very specific, plantinum-haired tastes.

The jousting tournament is a bloody and barbaric affair, mostly between knights that have never known real war. Daemon defeats Otto's son, and looks pretty damn smug about it. But he, in turn, loses to the mysterious and handsome Ser Criston Cole, upon whom Rhaenyra bestows her favor. Remember his name, he'll figure largely in what's coming.

While all of that's going on, the queen goes into labor, and it doesn't go well. The child is breached. The king is summoned to her side and they get to share a tender moment before he gives his permission to have her baby removed surgically. (The queen, notably, is not consulted in the matter.) The show really lingers on this sequence, daring us to keep watching; if the point is to remind us how dangerous childbirth can be, even in a world full of magic, mission accomplished.

The queen dies. Soon after, her child — a male heir — dies as well.

We get a glimpse of Targaryen funeral rites, as Rhaenyra instructs her dragon to burn her mother and brother's corpses on a pyre. Very metal.

Honey bunches of oaths: Rhaenys (Eve Best) and Corlys (Steve Toussaint) line up to swear fealty to the new heir in <em>House of the Dragon</em>.
/ HBO
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HBO
Honey bunches of oaths: Rhaenys (Eve Best) and Corlys (Steve Toussaint) line up to swear fealty to the new heir in House of the Dragon.

This meeting could have happened over chain-mail

Given the tragedy, the king's High Council is divided on whom should eventually succeed him. Corlys cites precedent and makes a case for Daemon. But others, led by Otto, maintain that Daemon is too impulsive, too ambitious, too cruel for the Iron Throne. (Daemon, for his part, is Jay Leno-ing this meeting, which is to say: He's listening in. He's not, like, driving a classic car and wearing a lot of denim. Just to be clear.)

Instead, the other Council members suggest Rhaenyra. Cue the requisite "A .. a girl? On the Iron Throne?" spluttering and pearl-clutching and monocle-dropping. The king storms out, leaving the question unanswered.

Otto talks to Alicent, his very! young! daughter, and suggests she go to visit the king in his chambers. To offer him ... a kind ear.

For a start, at least.

Yes, it's gross, but it's part of George R.R. Martin's whole deal. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, dads gotta exploit their young daughters.

Alicent visits the king, and we learn he's the Seven Kingdoms' equivalent to a model railroad guy: He seems to be carving an enormous scale model of King's Landing out of stone.

Contractually-Obligated Brothel Scene 2. Daemon toasts the king's late infant son, calling him "The Heir for a Day." This angers the king, who promptly calls Daemon on whatever the Westeros equivalent of a carpet is.

The brothers exchange fiery words of resentment. The king orders Daemon to leave King's Landing and return to his wife in the Vale — and tells him he's no longer heir to the Iron Throne. As if in answer, the Iron Throne promptly gives the king yet another nasty cut.

In the cellars of the Red Keep, the king and Rhaenyra chat, under the huge looming skull of Balerion, the dragon that their ancestor, Aegon the Conqueror, rode as he set about, you know, conquering.

The king tells his daughter that their ancestors should never have messed with dragons, that they're a dangerous force beyond man's control. And then he kind of sneaks in that she's the new heir to the Iron Throne.

Cut to: the Iron Throne. The lords of the Seven Kingdoms swear fealty to the king's newly named heir, Princess Rhaenyra, one by one. House Velaryon, House Hightower, House Baratheon, and then — just as we get a flashback of the king warning Rhaenyra that the world will end with a great winter — we get a shot of the current Lord of Winterfell, Rickon Stark, swearing the oath with those round Northern vowels I've missed so much. A nice touch.

Meanwhile, Daemon and Mysaria leave King's Landing in a huff.

A huff, in this case, is a saddle on the back of Daemon's dragon Caraxes. The fact that he takes Mysaria with him strongly suggests he's not going back to the Vale as instructed.

Parting thoughts:

  • Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra is the breakout star here. She's giving you the requisite cool, patrician haughtiness, but she's able to show you the layers of emotion roiling just beneath the surface, too. I'll miss her when there's a time jump later in the season and Emma D'arcy takes over the role as adult Rhaenyra.
  • Is King Viserys meant to be weak, or just ... not a jerk? Game of Thrones tended to telegraph its incompetent characters, but I don't yet have a fix on what we're to make of Viserys. He loves his wife and daughter, and in GRMM's world, displays of tenderness are usually a harbinger of doom.
  • House of the Dragon is based on the 2018 book Fire & Blood, which is presented as a series of conflicting historical accounts, written in different styles, from different points of view. Lots of stuff is left open to the reader's interpretation, which makes it a fun read, but serialized television can't be so coy. The show's gonna have to pick a side and explicitly dramatize it, which will be fun to see.
  • Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.