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TV review: ‘House of the Dragon’ delivers drama but falls victim to pacing issues

The cast of "House of the Dragon" stares outward in front of a bricked fortress. The HBO series recently wrapped up its first season on Oct.23.(Courtesy of Liam Daniel/HBO)

“House of the Dragon”

Created by Ryan J. Condal and George R.R. Martin 


Oct. 23

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

“House of the Dragon” is artfully flying viewers back to King’s Landing.

Released Sunday, the 10th episode of HBO’s “House of the Dragon” concluded its first season on a cliffhanger that sets up the battle over the throne in the second season. The prequel series to “Game of Thrones” explores the strife that led to the downfall of House Targaryen, from which “Game of Thrones” character Daenerys Targaryen is descended. The first installment in the series is full of intense drama, majestic dragons and daring performances but lacks consistent pacing, which lessens the emotional tension.

At the core of the story is Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen – portrayed first by Milly Alcock and then as an adult by Emma D’Arcy – who is the first woman to be named heir to the Iron Throne. Almost as essential to the story is Queen Alicent Hightower, also played by two actresses – Emily Carey as the younger version and Olivia Cooke as the older – to show the passing of time. Over the course of the season, viewers see the progression of Rhaenyra and Alicent’s intricate and undefinable relationship full of friendship, romance, resentment and antagonism.

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The stellar performances of the younger versions of Rhaenyra and Alicent captured a sense of wistfulness and excitement with every new situation. In particular, Alcock commanded attention even opposite established actors such as Paddy Considine, who played Rhaenyra’s father King Viserys I Targaryen, and Matt Smith, who played Prince Daemon Targaryen, Rhaenyra’s uncle and eventual husband. This was no small feat, especially considering Considine’s heart-wrenching farewell in the eighth episode – the highlight of which is Viserys’s arduous walk to the Iron Throne in support of his daughter, Rhaenyra.

When the major time jump in the middle of the season occurred, the switch did not feel too jarring as D’Arcy and Cooke’s performances were incredibly lived-in and complex. Their acting demonstrated a true understanding of their characters’ thoughts and desires to be closer to each other, conveyed by a longing gaze across the table or clasp of hands. This was most apparent in the ninth and 10th episodes of the season, in which Cooke and D’Arcy respectively carried the episodes with their stirring depictions of grief, madness and determination as the war between their houses began.

However, while there was strong acting displayed in the show, the disjointed pacing left much to be desired. Multiple time skips that ranged from mere months to a whole decade prevented the show from building momentum in a meaningful manner, causing the payoffs to feel unearned, such as Rhaenyra’s relationship with Ser Harwin ‘Breakbones’ Strong (Ryan Corr). Many of the supporting characters, such as Alicent and Rhaenyra’s respective children, went through multiple cast changes over the course of the time skips that made it difficult for audiences to connect with them.

Not only did the time skips lessen the emotional impact of some key scenes, but they also caused the writers to omit character development that would have better explained the motivations of some characters. For example, between episodes three and four, Rhaenyra and Alicent seemed to have somewhat resolved the major conflict between them: Alicent’s betrothal to King Viserys I. Seeing the characters’ progression and the conversations that took place before and after the betrayal would have led to a more coherent characterization on the writers’ part.

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This culminates in a slow penultimate episode leading into a finale that does not have as much emotional impact as it could have if narrative consistency was prioritized more. For example, the final episode of the season starts with Rhaenyra losing a child and ends with a harrowing shot of Rhaenyra’s grief-stricken face determined to avenge her son, but the circumstances that led to her son’s death made it less gripping than it could have been. The sudden depiction of Prince Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell), whose dragon caused the death of Rhaenyra’s son, as merciful and almost apologetic renders his previously vicious words meaningless, turning a tragic moment into a confusing one.

This is not to say that all the writing was lackluster. There were some well-written elements that elevated mundane moments to grand ones, such as Viserys’s walk to the throne or the confrontation between Rhaenyra and Alicent that left Rhaenyra wounded. It was just the small character arcs within each episode that often felt unresolved and thrown aside in favor of moving the plot forward. Despite this, the well-rounded performances from the entire cast and earnest interpretations of their characters are enough to compel audiences.

Hopefully, “House of the Dragon” will not just fly but soar in the coming seasons.

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