It seems like a lifetime ago that Game of Thrones was the most talked about program on television, with a combined fan/critical approval rating to make even the most successful TV shows blush. It was subject to a litany of theories, memes, slogans, and general hysteria. The show’s immense popularity inspired the name of this very site. And then it all came crashing down – not slowly, but a jenga-like crumble not unlike the catastrophe that engulfed Jaime and Cersei Lannister. And yet, the severity of the backlash to the 8th season was met with an immediate awkwardness: the show established itself as valuable IP for HBO, and thus the show must metaphorically go on despite being at its nadir of popularity.
Which brings us to House of the Dragon, a prequel series that aims to detail some of the history of the infamous Targaryen clan, the disgraced family that once held a dynastic strangle hold over the Iron Throne. Previously, fans were only privy to a brief teaser for the new series, but within the past couple of weeks we were treated to a full-length trailer. However, said trailer was upgraded to an extended version which saw its world premiere at the 2022 San Diego Comic-Con:
There’s a lot to take away from this trailer. For starters, it is well-cut and exhilarating. It was joked that, amidst the rehabilitation of the franchise’s reputation, HBO would just double down on what fans already loved, namely dragons and that prophecy seems to have come to fruition. The show also seems action packed with a hefty budget and strong special effects. It’s not so much that the creatures look real, as much as they look gorgeous within the confines of the real-life locations in the show, a’la OG Game of Thrones or The Witcher on Netflix.
However, where the show may potentially stumble and still has a lot to prove is its handling of the human drama. In reviewing this trailer, it’s easy to see parallels between this and the story we saw play out in the previous series. There’s an Iron Throne up for grabs, a wise and elderly patriarch who must guide his children to rule, a brash and youthful contender for the throne, familial Civil War, backstabbings, double crosses, and an idealist young woman who wonders if the land is prepared for someone like her to become the most powerful person in King’s Landing. Oh, and dragons, lots of dragons. All that’s missing is some Whitewalkers and some incest to make a very familiar stew. Many projects tend to get away with the re-using of tropes by baking some type of “history repeats itself…” thematic symbolism into the work, but it takes an adept hand at the writer’s table to make fulfilling storytelling out of that.
This highlights the challenges of expanding a franchise – fans want more of what they’ve always loved, but they don’t want to feel like you’re producing re-runs and disguising them as new adventures. It’s admittedly a tough balance to nail, and House of the Dragon has time to prove it’s up for the challenge, but the trailer hasn’t really shown us anything new – yet. This struggle isn’t new, of course – it’s the eternal dilemma of The Prequel. For no matter how interesting the initial premise tries to be, each prequel starts from the deficit of this fact – the most important events the fans care about have already happened, they just haven’t transpired yet in the story we’re watching.
The Star Wars prequels famously bumped against this issue, but George Lucas at least attempted to present audiences with new worlds, new special effects, and fresh themes involving familiar characters. Thus far, House of the Dragon hasn’t signaled that it possesses that level of flexibility. Nonetheless, the press tour to get the hype rolling is well underway, and was in full force at San Diego Comic-Con as the cast, and A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin himself, were in attendance to sell audiences on this new fantasy drama:
Well that was a bit of a uninspiring panel. Now admittedly, Comic-Con Q&As aren’t always the best sell for a project, unless you’re there live. Unless it’s a rowdy crowd going crazy over a Marvel trailer or Avengers on-stage team up, these things are usually clunky and get overshadowed by the awkward interactions. Once we get through some of the unpleasantness, the best moment comes when Jason Concepcion asks everyone what traits would the ideal ruler of Westeros possess. The question is so interesting it’s the first time the entire panel wakes up, as if hit with a shot of espresso. Then an interesting moment happens around the 16:10 mark – George R. R. Martin theorizes what makes a good King, to which Emma D’Arcy (who stars as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen) provides a useful addendum: “Or Queen.”
Martin goes on to detail his primary influence for the story that House of the Dragon adapts from, which is The Anarchy of the 12th century. The real-world historical conflict hinged on opposition to the daughter of King Henry I, Matilda, and her claim to the throne. A common thematic conceit of the Thrones franchise is ambitious women who aspire to rule, and how their road to such power has even more obstacles than the men. While it’s a theme that both Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon share, the latter has an opportunity to expand on the themes of its predecessor for a narrative that successfully builds on what came before. Cersei and Daenerys could not enjoy their reigns, partly due to their personal flaws which inspired revolt. So is there a woman the people of Westeros will accept as their ruler; if not, then why not? Change, and the resistance to it, has been the cause of great conflict and great war.
How House of the Dragon can push the franchise forward is not just giving us retreads of what we liked before, but evolving the franchise’s political mediations. If House of the Dragon is just cosplay for a pop culture moment that has already passed, it will sacrifice long-term resilience for short-term gains. But a heady story that expands the reservoir of its political intrigue will keep viewers enticed, and may even invite back some disgruntled old fans. For as a wise man once said, there’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Not even a Dragon.
House of the Dragon hits HBO and HBO MAX on Sunday, August 21, 2022.