House of the Dragon
HBO

Does ‘House of the Dragon’ Redeem the Final Season of ‘Game of Thrones’?

'House of the Dragon' is finally here, and it's... actually really good. Does it do enough to reverse the damage of the eighth season of 'Game of Thrones,' though?
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House of the Dragon was one of the most highly-anticipated shows of the year, offering fans another chance to see the world of Westeros after the less-than-stellar final season of Game of Thrones. It might be odd to think about now, but the original show was once one of the most popular programs on TV and a de facto cultural phenomenon. 

Somehow, the show managed to eject itself from the popular zeitgeist with its eighth season. Coincidentally, this is the season furthest removed from author George R.R. Martin’s original novels, covering a time period that he’s yet to address in the Song of Ice and Fire books. Many fans felt the eighth season rushed too many plot points to a conclusion without giving them enough room to breathe. 

Now, a prequel series, House of the Dragon, is here, giving the world of Westeros a second lease on life. This show is based on another Martin book, Fire and Blood, itself a fictional history of the legendary Targaryan family. Fans have noted that the action in the new show is remarkably more engrossing than the largely fantastical events of the final season of Game of Thrones, sharing more of the political intrigue of the first several seasons of the show.

What Happened with Game of Thrones?

Game of Thrones debuted in 2011 to rave reviews. It was unlike anything else on TV at the time–it was bold, it had a huge budget, and it depicted a shockingly brutal fantasy world. Fans quickly fell in love with the new HBO series, owing to its rich backstory, well-defined characters, and gripping political plots. It didn’t hurt that the show was loaded with exceptional actors turning in exceptional performances!

The first several seasons of Game of Thrones are among some of the best television ever created. They’re largely adapted from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, which are fan favorites and largely considered some of the best fantasy novels of the modern era. The Song series roots its world in pseudo-Medieval realism, drawing inspiration from the real War of the Roses and surrounding events. Just, you know, with dragons and magic and frost zombies. Super realistic stuff.

That surface-level realism makes the world of Westeros extremely easy for viewers to immerse themselves in. It’s not hard to imagine King’s Landing or Dragonstone as real places that people could have inhabited in the distant past. It also makes the occasional appearance of dragons and other outlandish creatures that much more jarring–and meaningful.

Getting Ahead of the Books

When Game of Thrones started in 2011, Martin had just finished A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the series. However, the sixth and seventh books, titled The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, still weren’t completed by the time the extremely popular TV series had recapped most of the events of the first five books. Rather than put the production on hold until Martin finished the series, HBO decided to simply consult Martin and write an ending for the series.

Beyond this obvious dip in quality from a lack of source material, things got sloppier toward the end of the show’s run. Infamously, a Starbucks cup can be seen in plain view on a table in Westeros in one egregious scene. The production started to become generally laxer, and the plotting seemed looser and more direct. Rather than spending time developing characters, the seventh and eighth seasons rushed into new plot points and just tried to get from A to B.

The most damning part of the final season for most fans, however, was how swiftly it moved characters to their “end” points. Arya suddenly became the best swordfighter in the world and helped defeat the Night King in a single episode. Jon Snow’s lineage as a Targaryan was revealed, but nothing came of this. And, critically, Daenerys went from a protagonist to a tyrant in the space of a few episodes.

When Is Martin Going to Finish the Books?

As a brief aside, let’s look a the Song of Ice and Fire series. George R.R. Martin is infamous for writing slowly. No one can blame him: his books have casts of thousands and complex overlapping timelines. There are dozens of point-of-view characters and the narrative spans an entire fictional continent. It’s a big task.

However, The Winds of Winter’s delay has made fans antsy. Martin is still writing, of course–Fire and Blood came out in 2018. He just seems to have lost the desire to write about the Song of Ice and Fire characters that made him a household name. That’s reasonable! People get burned out, and he’s under no obligation to “give” fans anything. 

That all being said, Ice and Fire fans started to give up hope for Winds of Winter after the final season of Game of Thrones aired. Since the show broke into narrative territory Martin has yet to address, and fans hated it, it seems unlikely that he’s in any hurry to finish the series. With expectations sky-high and fans eager to see if he ends things in a different way than the show did, he might be just as likely to set the story aside and write spin-offs and other novels instead. 

Reclaiming the Glory

Needless to say, fans were unhappy with the state of the Game of Thrones after eight seasons. What started as a unique and promising take on the typically cheesy fantasy genre descended into easy tropes and lazy writing. When HBO announced plans to create a prequel series, some fans loudly noted that they’d rather not get sucked back into the world of Westeros only to be disappointed again.

Well, Game of Thrones fans, you might want to sit down for this next part. House of the Dragon is good. Like, really good. It’s got everything you’d want from a Game of Thrones spin-off. It’s based on an existing Martin book. It’s bloody, well-shot, and well-acted. And it’s almost entirely concerned with the Targaryan lineage and various struggles for the Iron Throne.

That’s all the stuff that fans loved about the first few seasons of Game of Thrones, and, this time around, the series is arriving fully formed. You don’t need to wait several seasons to see fully-grown dragons soaring through the sky, and our protagonists are already throwing down in the first season. The glacial pace of Game of Thrones has been replaced by a breathless pseudo-historical retelling that jumps months and even years ahead with each episode.

Can It Keep This Up?

The question on every fan’s mind now is whether House of the Dragon can keep up this pace. After all, the original Game of Thrones started strong before tapering off in quality toward the end. Will the same thing happen again? Well, it’s impossible to predict the future, but things are a bit different this time around.

For one thing, House of the Dragon is retelling a novel that comprises a massive span of time. Depending on how the showrunners want to tell their story, they could let each season cover decades of Westerosi history. That makes it easier for the show to remain gripping and full of twists as it jumps forward in time. Rather than taking the slower, moment-to-moment approach of the original series, House of the Dragon can tell stories of a more epic scope and scale. 

For another thing, HBO and the showrunners are armed with something GoT showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss couldn’t have had: hindsight. They know what happened with the original show and how disappointing the final season was for longtime fans. If the same thing happens with House of the Dragon, audiences might not have the patience to sit through yet another Game of Thrones spin-off.

Reading Ahead

Interestingly enough, the show has managed to remain gripping despite the “predestined” nature of its storyline. The history of Westeros is pretty much set in stone–if you’re curious about the fate of King Viserys, Princess Rhaenyra, or Prince Daemon, it’s trivially easy to just pick up Fire and Blood and look for the relevant historical entry. But doing so doesn’t give you the full story.

Sure, audiences love seeing the plot unfold. The twists and turns of the political intrigue in Westeros make for great television. But there’s more to a great TV show than the plot particulars. Sure, you might know that a given character will meet a grisly fate at some point, but seeing how they get there is just as important as the destination.

And, indeed, House of the Dragon is great at showing the “how”. The show is beautifully shot and visually breathtaking in a way that only Game of Thrones before it could have been. The blockbuster-quality visuals and larger-than-life landscapes give the entire show an epic feel that has been sorely missed following the conclusion of Game of Thrones. Big-budget TV just hasn’t felt the same since Jon Snow and Dany Targaryan sauntered offscreen the final time. Welcome back, Westeros–how we’ve missed you.