As long as it doesn’t start going on and on about the end of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon could be a worthwhile watch. Courtesy HBO

Here’s a question: Did you get to watch Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon last night? Because I, like millions of other viewers eager to return to Westeros with the premiere of GOT’s first spinoff, was initially stymied by HBO Max’s constant crashing. I finally gave in and watched, not on the TV from a passive, reclined, snack-cramming position on the couch but instead hunched forward and squinting at my laptop screen, which sat on the coffee table, all the snacks moved out of easy reach to accommodate it.

This might be the most First World Problem-y problem I have ever elucidated in my life, but given that I am writing weekly recaps of a high fantasy drama about a family of inbred, dragon-riding aristocrats, why not whine vociferously about a totally minor hassle? Whining about minor hassles is one of the things the rulers of Thrones’ fictional realm of Westeros tend to excel at, and stepping into that mindset might help me get invested in these characters a little more. I know I’ve spent only an episode with them, but any little thing to get me caring about these people will help.


Funnily enough, I actually tried a big thing to prepare to care about the Targaryens. Three weeks ago, I began reading Fire & Blood, the novel from which House of the Dragon draws its plot. If you did watch the show, you know that it takes place “172 years before Daenarys Targaryen,” but Fire & Blood begins another century-and-a-half before that — in terms of book length, that’s about 350 pages prior to the events of the new series, though if you care little about author George R.R. Martin’s world-building, the 700-plus pages of Fire & Blood’s fictional history format might be a snooze. I bring up 350 pages only because that’s as far as I got in the book, not because it’s boring but because I left it on my patio just prior to a rainstorm.

The half of the book that got waterlogged, a.k.a. the part that I didn’t yet get to, is what the show is about, so, really, what that week of reading did for me was prepare me for Dragon’s first scene (King Jaeherys I naming a successor at Harrenhall), as well as make it easier to tell one platinum-wigged, British-accented person from the other 700 platinum-wigged, British-accented persons.

Thus far, then, this show has already kind of been an ordeal, yet even if I wasn’t writing these analyses every week, I would still watch it, for I am indeed a diehard fan of Game of Thrones and even more of the books from which that show was adapted, which include supplemental material like Fire & Blood and The World of Ice & Fire, a concordance Martin wrote (with assistance from authors Linda Antonsson and Elio M. García) about his novels’ universe. Arguably, Dragon exists not because its principal source material — the history book Fire & Blood — is as massively popular as the novels but because the show that preceded it was.

HBO is betting that one experience with the Game of Thrones intellectual property will engender subsequent engagement, and as a person who would probably purchase and eat a White Walker-themed popsicle if given the chance, I think the execs who made that bet are probably right. But if you’re not a geek for this stuff, this episode will probably be a turn off, and it’s precisely because of that Inside Baseball-trap. Too much name-dropping is either overindulgent fan-service or impenetrable backstory, yet too little leaves the newbs in the dark. And by nature of the genre, even a little bit of exposition is in danger of toppling into embarrassingly dorky, narratively distracting detail. If you tried to watch Wheel of Time on Amazon Prime and quit after two minutes because you asked aloud what the fuck these pointy-eared people are even talking about, this is kind of what I mean. Exposition in a fantasy TV show is always like two weird names away from making you feel like you’re talking to a first grader about Pokémon.

But in the right doses, those little expository details are informative and fun, and House of the Dragon, as a prequel, is obviously canonical, and sharp-eyed GOT nerds will catch plenty of Easter eggs and callbacks to the show and the books — I got pretty excited about seeing Harrenhall again, as well as the familiar hilt of a particular, incident-inciting dagger poking out of King Viserys’ robe. But to avoid getting bogged down in fan-service, this show still has to, you know, be enjoyable to watch. And after one episode, I’m not sure if watching House of the Dragon will be enjoyable or a chore.

It is not without its gripping moments. The overlapping scenes of increasingly brutal jousts and a horrifying, tragically fatal breech birth probably gave me a tension headache, and in those scenes’ aftermath, the confrontation between King Viserys and his younger brother Daemon in the Iron Throne room gave me as much shock and thrill as a previous scene that concluded in quick cuts to a gelding, a dismemberment, and a decapitation. This is an HBO show, after all, set in a medieval fantasy world of might-made rights, so you know balls and hands and heads are gonna get chopped right the fuck off, and then later there’s a scene in a brothel, because otherwise the talky parts might make you look at your phone. Part of Game of Thrones’ appeal — often at the expense of its more laudable qualities — was that the show offered a cringe-y amount of gratuitous sex and violence, often in tandem, and while the producers have insisted that Dragon is decidedly less wanton in its depictions of sexual cruelty, it will likely offer something to offend someone, for which the producers will have to grit their teeth and answer for. I mean, this is a show about a royal line predicated on incest — and, if we’re being honest, epic-fantasy eugenics tropes — so you have to get around that from the moment you press play.

But also, if you choose to watch this show, swords and boobs and the tactical application of both are part of what you’re here for, not to mention the lurid excitement of a person getting roasted by a dragon.

Here be dragons, and not the little pipsqueak, mischievous ones wiggling across Daenerys’ shoulders, but huge, soaring, snarling, grown-ass dragons from Minute 1. When Daemon the Disgruntled (as I am going to refer to him now and again forever after) shows off his crimson dragon Caraxes, I got chills, because in the book, Caraxes’ nickname is “The Blood Wyrm,” and seen in the show, the thing looks fucking eeevillll. For all this episode’s dynastic dithering, smashed heads, and bad wigs, it is the dragons that ultimately hooked me, for if not for the physicality and power of these magical, reptilian incarnations of destruction, are not the Targaryens mere mortals?

Rhaenyra Targaryen makes this same observation to her father as he shows her the enormous skull of Balerian, the dragon ridden by Aegon Targaryen, his forebear and conqueror of the realm — and the last living thing to have seen ancient Valyria, the catastrophically destroyed, Atlantis-like polity from which the Targaryens fled centuries ago. King Viserys, elated at his daughter’s perspicacity, names her his heir. It’s a dramatically satisfying landing, an a-ha and oh-shit moment that lets you know Rhaenyra is more than a privileged princess but an ambitious observer with the potential to be a capable ruler. It also lets you know that while the, um, Game has begun, House of the Dragons is its own thing, with different players, and, yes, these royals who look like gelflings-as-portrayed-by-Matthew-and-Gunnar-Nelson are worth getting to know and love and hate every Sunday night through the end of October. It’s a good feeling, and then Viserys totally ruins it, because he mentions the prophetic dream of Aegon, the tale of which is passed down secretly from king to king that has very little to do with the show you’re watching now and everything to do with the show that already happened.

I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t watched the episode, but if you saw it, you know what I’m talking about, and let me tell you, I pulled a muscle rolling my goddamn eyes. By no means should this prequel ignore the lore on which it is based, but if House of the Dragon devotes more of its precious, costly minutes to hinting at the much-maligned conclusion to its predecessor’s story, I’m going to be annoyed. Then again, being annoyed at this show already seems a little baked in. I guess I’ll be grateful next week if I can stream it on my TV.