‘House of the Dragon’ Series Premiere Recap: Game On

Up in the sky, a platinum-blonde princess rides her dragon over the streets of King’s Landing. Ring any bells? It certainly should. This was one of the starkest images from the Game of Thrones endgame—and now, it’s one of the earliest images in HBO’s successor series, House of the Dragon.

Some good news for the denizens down below: unlike her descendent Daenerys, the dragon-riding Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock, with Emma D’Arcy taking on the role midway through this first season) doesn’t have conquest on her mind. Cheered far and wide as “the realm’s delight,” Princess Rhaenyra aspires for little more than a lifetime of eating cake and watching handsome knights smash lances into each other. Who wants the Iron Throne when the mighty dragon Syrax offers the best view of the realm?

Besides, what’s the point in dreaming about the crown when the king’s true heir—her baby brother—is just days away from entering the world?

That’s where we launch into Dragon, roughly. More exactly, we begin some years earlier: in the ruined castle Harrenhal, at the tail end of an old king’s reign. With the end of his life in sight and without a clear heir to his name, Jaehaerys Targaryen summons a council to untangle the matter of succession between two choices: his eldest heir, Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best), and his eldest male heir, Viserys (Paddy Considine). Guess who wins the vote in a landslide?

Nine years into Viserys’ reign as king, questions of succession are once again on the menu. Without a son, the crown is due to fall to Viserys’ brother, Daemon (Matt Smith), charismatic as he is cruel. (The erstwhile Eleventh Doctor’s introduction to the world of House of the Dragon, in which he leads the gold-cloaked City Watch through a fire-and-bloody raid of King’s Landing, immediately ranks among the most violent in the entire Thrones franchise.) There are legitimate concerns about this man ascending to the throne, most repeatedly raised by Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), Hand of the King.

More good news, this time for Otto and those who agree with his take on Daemon: another heir looms on the horizon. Viserys and his beloved wife Aemma (Sian Brooke) are due to bring a new child into the world, and Viserys is convinced it will be a boy, thanks to a dream, “clearer than a memory.” The king is so sure of his son’s imminent arrival that he throws a lavish tournament in the baby’s honor, an event that quickly descends into typical Thronesian bloodshed, both on and off the battlefield. Just as a mystery knight named Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) bests Daemon at the height of the tournament, tragedy strikes House Targaryen, when both Aemma and her child die in one of the franchise’s most upsetting sequences. Only in the wake of her mother and brother’s death does Rhaenyra finally allow herself to voice the rage she’s felt toward her father, and his inability to see her as worthy of the Iron Throne: “I wonder if during those few hours my brother lived, my father finally found happiness.”

More than a few hours later — though not much more — the dreaded question rears its head again: succession. Fears of Daemon’s ascension outweigh common decency, as members of the king’s small council implore Viserys to name a new heir: Rhaenyra, his daughter, who would stand to become Westeros’ first ruling queen. For his part, Viserys is sickened by the conversation, if not the suggestion. “My wife and son are dead,” the grieving king bellows. “I will not sit here and suffer crows to come and feast on their corpses!”

But Viserys’s own attention turns to the matter when he hears reports of Daemon celebrating the passing of the “heir for a day.” Daemon doesn’t deny the claims, and instead puts his own spin on it: that he mourns in his “own way,” and that all he cares about is protecting the Targaryen lineage, which means protecting it from Viserys himself.

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