When Game of Thrones debuted in 2011, it took pop culture by storm. It was something that people had wanted to see for years: a big-budget fantasy TV show with dark, adult themes and a genuinely engrossing world. It became one of the biggest TV shows of all time and was a smash hit for HBO–until it ran out of books to adapt.
The show was based on the George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire book series, and the first six (or so) seasons directly adapted the books. The show is regarded as some of the finest TV ever made, with the notable exceptions of the seventh and eighth seasons, which are largely original stories and are extremely divisive among fans.
Warning: Major spoilers for the final season of Game of Thrones and the first season of House of the Dragon follow after this.
In the final season, Game of Thrones rapidly moved pieces around the continent of Westeros and hastened to a conclusion that left many fans frustrated. Critically, one of the main characters, Daenerys Targaryen, made such a sudden and surprising heel turn that many viewers felt the show missed something in its abbreviated final season.
Rushing the Finale
In the final season of Game of Thrones, the show seemed extremely eager to bring all of its various plot lines to a swift conclusion. For instance, right as the season started, the undead armies of the Night King amassed and attacked Winterfell. A storyline that had taken almost a decade to come to a head ended in an instant when Arya Stark just dropped in and stabbed the Night King.
For whatever reason, with a single stroke of her knife, Arya defeated all of the White Walkers. The Night King’s death caused the rest of the icy zombies under his command to simply discorporate. This isn’t something that the show had set up in any way and it feels as though it came out of nowhere.
Likewise, the show then hastened to the war between Dany and the Starks and the villainous Lannisters sitting on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing. The show, which had once moved with a nearly plodding precision, suddenly saw characters teleporting around the continent and plot developments that once played out over seasons suddenly took shape across single episodes. But all of this could have been forgiven had it not been for one particularly unusual character betrayal that undermined everything the show had set up before the finale.
Dany Breaks Bad
The most perplexing part of the finale came when Daenerys suddenly decided to start torching innocent people. Riding atop her faithful mount Drogon, incensed with Cersei and ready to claim her throne, Dany ordered her dragon to torch the innocent people of King’s Landing. There was no misunderstanding, no provocation–Dany just decided to commit war crimes.
This sudden heel turn wasn’t telegraphed earlier in the story. Dany’s father Aerys II had succumbed to murderous madness in his old age, which kicked off the action of the entire series. However, Dany had never shown any indication that she would be okay with committing the mass murder of innocent civilians. The move was such an unusual, out-of-nowhere villainous act that many fans felt the writers had betrayed the character.
Following this murderous outburst, Dany’s nephew Jon Snow made the hard decision to end her tyrannical reign before it could get started. Jon never had any plans to sit on the Iron Throne, though, so he ordered Drogon to torch it and left the smoldering pile of metal behind. This entire bizarre chain of events struck many fans as a hollow ending, something that went against the feel and spirit of Martin’s dark fantasy novels.
House of the Dragon
After the final season of Game of Thrones aired, many fans soured on the franchise as a whole. Its abrupt ending and seeming lack of understanding of what made its own characters such iconic people in the history of TV alienated many viewers and essentially ejected the franchise from popular consciousness. Some people even noted on social media that Game of Thrones pulled off a surprising disappearing act after its final season aired, essentially deleting itself from public discussion.
The franchise was too big to stay dead, though. HBO was eager to dive back into the world of A Song of Ice and Fire and greenlit a prequel series, House of the Dragon. Like Game of Thrones before it, this series was also based on a Martin book–in this case, the historical novel Fire and Blood. This series, which picks up almost 200 years before the start of Game of Thrones, is primarily focused on the Targaryen family, the Dragonriders who ruled Westeros for centuries before Aerys was deposed.
House of the Dragon was met with trepidation by many fans who had been burned by Game of Thrones. Rather than diving in and getting immersed in the story, many fans approached the new franchise with caution and waited to see if it would repeat the mistakes of its predecessor. And, indeed, House of the Dragon’s showrunners seem to have taken the complaints about the end of Game of Thrones to heart and are dedicated to not stepping into the same pitfalls.
Minds of Their Own
The Targaryens of House of the Dragon are all flawed characters with their own worldviews and inner demons, but they’re remarkably human. While Fire and Blood presents some characters as strictly villainous and others as deeply valorous, House of the Dragon takes care to add nuance. This isn’t even retconning, for what it’s worth–Fire and Blood is presented as a historical text within the Song of Ice and Fire universe, and it’s written with the biases of the various scholars who penned it.
Moreover, House of the Dragon issues some meta-commentary on the Targaryen family’s use of dragons in war. In the finale, Rhaenyra notes that she has no desire to rule over a kingdom of “ash and bone” after her dragons burn everything to the ground. While the Targaryens might be lucky enough to ride atop their destructive steeds, to say they “control” them is wishful thinking at best.
This comes to a head in the episode’s climax when Prince Lucerys and Prince Aemond meet in the skies above Storm’s End, with the younger prince riding atop the diminutive dragon Arrax and the elder commanding the monstrous Vhagar. As the two beasts quarrel in the skies, what Aemond intended as a session of non-lethal bullying becomes a sudden horror scene: Vhagar devours Arrax and Luke in a single bite, kicking off the cataclysmic war known as the Dance of Dragons.
No One Controls Dragons
House of the Dragon introduces an angle that Game of Thrones sorely needed: it views the dragons themselves as interesting characters capable of interior thoughts and possessing their own desires. Dragons are smarter than the average animal, capable of understanding some human speech, and able to strategize while engaging in battle. However, they’re also creatures that run on instinct, and no mere human could hope to command them.
Aemond and Luke learned this the hard way, and the various Dragonriders during the Dance of Dragons would all come to know it throughout the brief, brutal conflict. Had Game of Thrones included a similar plotline, showing Dany pleading with Drogon to stop torching the innocent residents of King’s Landing, the show could have struck a very different chord in its finale.
Imagine a version of Game of Thrones’ eighth season in which the conflict between Jon and Dany wasn’t so much a philosophical disagreement as a pragmatic one. If Jon realized how dangerous the dragons were and that their sole rider was unable to control their destructive abilities, then he could have seen killing Dany as the only way to secure peace in Westeros.
Rehabilitating a Franchise
House of the Dragon succeeds in a number of ways that Game of Thrones’ eighth season failed. The protagonists are genuinely intriguing characters who are given ample nuance and imbued with believable character flaws. Even villains like Aemond are allowed to be human, make mistakes, and act in ways that the average viewer can understand.
By presenting the events leading up to the Dance of Dragons as a series of misunderstandings, unfortunate coincidences, and draconic accidents, House of the Dragon makes Westeros feel even more like a real place. In the real world, history is messy and often written by the victors. In Westeros, any number of events could have gone slightly differently to avert the war.
The greatest trick House of the Dragon pulls off, in fact, is that it makes the inevitable feel like it’s up in the air. Sure, the story needs to culminate in the Dance of Dragons, but the show offers enough room for characters to make decisions that you can see the ways the war could have been averted. That kind of thoughtful, well-written drama is exactly what Game of Thrones fans wanted to see in a prequel series.