Review: Despite time jumps, ‘House of the Dragon’ finale wraps compelling season

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'House of the Dragon' (Part 1)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This review, naturally, contains spoilers in order to review elements of the storytelling. The audio intentionally avoids spoilers because it would be unfair for FM radio listeners to hear spoilers on their drive to work!

“Game of Thrones” fans had every right to be skeptical of a prequel series set 172 years earlier, during House Targaryen’s war of succession. After all, the original HBO series ended with plenty of backlash from fans and critics alike for rushing the final season after years of brilliant fantasy storytelling. Surely, more content would feel like overkill, right?

However, “House of the Dragon” left many folks pleasantly surprised that we could still enjoy this material. Call it the pandemic effect: Beforehand, we had no desire to watch a “G.O.T.” prequel, but the past three years made us crave our comforts. “House of the Dragon” (and the “Lord of the Rings” prequel “The Rings of the Power”) filled that need.

Nearly 10 million viewers watched the season premiere of “House of the Dragon” Aug. 21, making it the most-watched HBO premiere ever. Similarly, an impressive 9.3 million viewers tuned in across all platforms to watch the season finale last Sunday. If you questioned whether fans still hungered for this franchise, the answer is a resounding yes.

The season finale fittingly brought the story full circle, with its themes of women deserving to wear the crown despite the objections of the traditional patriarchy. The season premiere saw Princess Rhaenyra’s mother (Sian Brooke) die in childbirth, while the season finale saw “Queen” Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) groan her way through an excruciating stillbirth.

We have to put “Queen” in quotation marks because there are now two claims to the throne. King Viserys (Paddy Considine) publicly named Rhaenyra his heir, but Queen Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) claimed that he changed his mind in his dying breath to crown their son King Aegon, an immature doofus who makes Joffrey look well behaved.

This sets up a Season 2 war between King’s Landing and Dragonstone, the former having home-field advantage, the latter controlling the skies with more dragons and the seas with a House Velaryon alliance. Rhaenys Velaryon (Eve Best) should have fried Hightower when she had the chance at Aegon’s coronation, but she insists, “It’s not my war to start.”

Her merciful decision in the penultimate episode allowed for a full-circle bridge scene in the finale, recalling Rhaenyra swooping in on her dragon in Episode 2, only this time to swipe the lapel pin from “The Hand” Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) to call him a traitor. Like Littlefinger, he is the most manipulative character, pawning off his own daughter for power.

Expect a thrilling Season 2 showdown between Rhaenyra and Queen Alicent, as some fans have theorized a simmering romance since their first childhood scene when Young Rhaenyra laid her head on Young Alicent’s lap. Their love-hate relationship nearly came to blows when Rhaenyra’s son stole the eye from Alicent’s son Aemond in Episode 7.

While the aforementioned devices brilliantly set up potential payoffs next season, Season 1 was not without flaws. My biggest gripe? You guessed it, flaunted incest. Sure, it may have been common during medieval times, so it makes sense to include it, but “G.O.T.” reserved this sin for its villains as Bran Stark caught Jaime and Cersei Lannister in the act.

Imagine if Bran slept with Catelyn Stark’s sister, Lysa Arryn. Fans would have shoved them both through the Moon Door. And yet, “House of the Dragon” does just that with Princess Rhaenyra, who was a strong female protagonist for three episodes, then lost all sympathy by bedding her uncle, Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), leaving us unsure who to root for.

Some sick fans were actually rooting for Rhaenyra and Daemon to get together (you realize that’s like Simba sleeping with Scar, right?). I wonder if this slice of the audience still cheered in the season finale when Daemon grabbed Rhaenyra by the throat to say, “Dreams didn’t make us kings. Dragons did.” Daemon’s a snake; don’t you forget it.

Navigating the time jumps has been another challenge. After five episodes with Milly Alcock as Young Rhaenyra and Emily Carey as Young Alicent, Episode 6 jumped a full decade forward with Emma D’Arcy as Adult Rhaenyra and Olivia Cooke as Adult Alicent. All four give stellar performances, but it’s hard to keep track of their bastard children.

Hats off to the consistent cast, namely Paddy Considine’s portrayal of a decaying King Viserys. The secret MVP is Eve Best as a feminist mentor dubbed “The Queen Who Never Was.” Her hubby, Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Touissant), was nearly sacrificed during a time jump (is he mortally wounded at sea?), but thankfully he returned for Episode 10.

We get it — show-runner Ryan Condal has a lot of ground to cover from George R. R. Martin’s 2018 novel “Fire & Blood” after his original book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” (1996-2011). Still, every time that title is invoked by characters describing dreams that “winter is coming,” we shrug, “So what?” We’ve already seen it and were let down by it.

It just brings back bad memories of how badly the battle with the Night King was bungled in the original “G.O.T.” — at least what we could see of it on our dark screens. “House of the Dragon” fans made similar complaints about Episode 7 where scenes were shot “day for night,” meaning they were filmed during the day and dimmed in post-production.

HBO Max initially defend the lighting choice as “an intentional creative decision,” but Condal later apologized to Variety, saying, “What I learned in the making of the season is that you do have to take much more into account the fact that we are making the show for people’s television sets versus in a perfectly calibrated movie theater environment.”

Indeed, the industry is changing. Dark theaters have given way to window glares on TV sets while viewers Tweet and fold laundry. One welcome throwback is rolling out the series in weekly installments rather than dropping it all in one binge. Not only does it give us something to look forward to each week, it allows for maximum social media reaction.

Granted, there weren’t as many shocking deaths this time. While Episode 5 brought back memories of The Red Wedding (Ser Criston needs to chill!), there were no real Ned Stark moments where a recurring main character was killed. “House of the Dragon” preferred to introduce side characters in the beginning of an episode just to whack them by the end.

This isn’t necessarily a complaint. I disagree with fans complaining that there isn’t enough sex and violence this time around. I’ve always preferred castle politicking over gory battles. If you prefer the behind-the-scenes jockeying for power, I highly recommend “The Lion in Winter” (1968). If you’re thirsty for more bloodshed, it’s no doubt coming in Season 2.

Until then, we can finally grade Season 1 of “House of the Dragon.” Not only did it earn an 84% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, it also received an 85% critics score, returning the franchise to good graces after “G.O.T.” averaged a 94% critics score over its first seven seasons before plunging to a rotten 55% with a hurried, rudderless Season 8.

Add it all up and “Game of Thrones” is back, baby. Winter came and went, but a franchise that was left for dead has found fresh fire on the backs of new dragons. All of the incest, time jumps and dark screens in the world can’t stop our masochistic love for this series.

Long live the queen. Whoever that may be.

4 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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