TL;DR – A frustrating mess at times, it all came together in the end, but I am not sure the ride to get there was genuinely worth it at times.
Disclosure – I paid for the Binge service that viewed this episode.
Warning – this season contained season that could cause distress.
House of the Dragon Review –
Well, we have reached the end of the latest season of the Game of Thrones universe. As I think back to the prequel, I have to wonder if the show nailed its place in the landscape. Did it work as a prequel when we know the outcomes? Can it work to shore up some of the lost drive towards the universe after Season 8? For some of these, I think the answer was a strong maybe.
So to set the scene, on his deathbed, the late King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) tried to tell his wife about the prophecy that Aegon the Conqueror. But Queen Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) misheard him and thought he was talking about her son Prince Aegon Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney). So when Viserys is found dead the following day, Alicent declares her son as the next king, not Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy). Back on Dragonstone, the Princess and Prince Consort Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) are warned about this betrayal from Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best). Now they must work out what forces they can muster and who will stay loyal when dragons come flying. Now from here, we will be looking at the episode and season as a whole, so there will be some [SPOILERS] ahead.
To begin with, I want to take a moment to champion the acting throughout this season because it has been first class. Paddy Considine had to play a character that was a decent man, ill-suited for the role thrust upon him, but trying his best as his own body slowly betrays him. It is a character full of nuance that the actor embodies at every turn. Few actors in the world can saunter through a scene quite like Matt Smith, and oh, how he does it so fine. Or Eve Best as the Queen Who Never Was, a character that could have been entirely one-note, but she brings it to life. These performances helped get me through some of those rougher episodes at the start.
However, those performances also expose one of the most significant issues with the season: the narrative’s structure. This season was ten episodes long, but chronologically it meant decades passed between the first and the last episode. The season moved at such a pace that between episodes, Rhaenyra went from barely knowing Ser Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr) to secretly bearing three of his children. All of these things fly by without giving you any time to digest them or even think about them. You see this the most in the child actors who sometimes only had one episode to define themselves before they aged up. The transition between Emily Carey and Olivia Cooke, Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy is an area where the show was particularly poor.
From the production side of things, it is a bit of a mixed bad. When it worked, oh, how it worked. An excellent example of this is the map and throne room in Dragonstone. It was brooding and dark, illuminated by the orange glow of the table. However, conversely in the Dragonpit, during the coronation, it felt like the only thing that was real was the actors themselves. Then there was the decision that all light in the show would come from diegetic sources. This can create atmospheric intrigue moments, but it also makes moments a dark mess.
While there were pacing issues, these individual scenes stand out from the rest, making coming back each week worth it. They could be the confrontation at Driftmark, where a child’s scuffle turned into a calamity. Or the final dinner, dripping with hopes of reconciliation and a couple of knives. There were moments of betrayal of family members, people getting in over their heads, and deft deflections that led to downfalls. However, there were also a lot of traumatic pregnancies throughout the season as well, which were a choice.
All of this leads to the final episode of the season, and the first time I can genuinely say that the show demonstrated why the prequel season nailed its place in the landscape. After the Green’s mobilised last week, this week it was the Black’s turn. This slow build led to Queen Rhaenyra sending her children Prince Jacaerys “Jace” Velaryon (Harry Collett) and Prince Lucerys “Luke” Velaryon (Elliot Grihault) to deliver messages to the great houses. While on that trip, Luke is set upon by Prince Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell), and we get the best sequence involving dragons in the universe so far. You could feel the weight and manoeuvrability of the dragons, how they danced in the storm, and the crushing blow of defeat and the ramifications that followed.
We then get what might be the best scene in the show so far. In the slow walk of Daemon in darkness, evil tidings come from the shadow. There is a soft musical score. No foley, like the universe, has gone quiet with the weight of the revelation coming. Then as Rhaenyra sees him, a lone stringed instrument starts to play as he walks through all the bannermen to reach her side. There are no voices, no words, but there does not need to be, as Daemon leads Rhaenyra to the fireplace to bring a moment no parent wants to hear. At this moment, the strings are joined by a voice from a choir calling for grief. You see it wash over Rhaenyra as she tries to both process and grieve all at the moment. But we feel those emotions get cast aside as anger and rage take over. Her poster straightens, the music starts to build ominously, and when Rhaenyra turns, you know a different person is looking back at you. It is expert storytelling, and I hope we get more of this next season.
In the end, do we recommend the first season of House of the Dragon? Well? Yes, and No. I think it ended on a high note, and there are moments throughout the season that make the should live up to its legacy. However, if I were asked the question, I would probably not recommend the entire season but more of an abridged version.