It must have been horrible living in the old days. That’s the main conclusion anyone who watches the Game Of Thrones prequel House Of The Dragon is likely to reach. The series, which examines the fate of the Targaryen dynasty two centuries before the events of the blockbuster HBO phenomenon, paints life as a relentlessly morbid, fearful, dreadful time. There is even, given that this is the world of Game Of Thrones, a surprisingly restrained amount of sex.
This misery, through which only the occasional light shines, does not make for a miserable viewing experience. The events of the series, which focuses almost exclusively on who will continue the Targaryen line once King Viserys (Paddy Considine) dies, is handled well and with some restraint: where Game Of Thrones was often criticised for appealing to viewers’ basest instincts with its liberal application of gratuitous nudity and violence, House Of The Dragon uses these features as a seasoning, not a main course. If the opening six episodes are anything to go by, it is a rather different beast. The latter episodes are bound to ratchet up the bloodshed – and there is certainly some here – but, for the most part, the series is a great deal of sincere and passionate (occasionally boring) talking.
A full explanation of the events and families of the show would take several weeks but we begin nine years into the reign of King Viserys I Targaryen, who is desperate for a male heir to his throne. He fails to get his wish, watching his wife Aemma (Sian Brooke) die in childbirth after giving birth to a baby boy who also dies. (The women in the series get the worst deal: vessels for kings, frequently dying in bloody agony.)
Viserys’ daughter Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy and Milly Alcock) is named the heir to the Targaryen throne. As girl then young woman, Rhaenyra is the real focus of the show. She is independent and reluctant to do what is expected of her – and without giving too much away, the world of Game Of Thrones is still super-keen on incest, though perhaps no more than ancient royalty was.
As the chess pieces slide across the Westeros board, tongues wag while Rhaenrya’s children with a politically convenient suitor (Laenor Velaryon – Theo Nate and John Macmillan) never look like the father. Cue more hissed conversations, resentment – and arson for good measure.
To get into more detail at this stage would be unnecessary. What is reassuring is that House Of The Dragon feels as though it is walking on solid ground: the bubbling rivalries, the jostling for power, the eruptions of violence; six episodes in, it is all coming together to create a rich stew. Some of the acting is wooden, and not up to the standard of vintage Thrones – perhaps because the main series used up literally all of the actors in Britain – but it is a relief to see a prequel that seems to know what it’s doing. A decent watch for fans and neutrals alike.
‘House Of The Dragon’ is available from August 22 on Sky Atlantic and NOW