House of the Dragons season 2 Review: Bigger, Bleaker, Better

House of the Dragon
House of the Dragon

The first season of “House of the Dragon,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel and the network’s first spinoff, was a huge hit. However, it was essentially 10 hours of setup, wading through decades of allusions to bring viewers to the edge of the Westerosi civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons.

Despite its many strengths, the show began as a structural contradiction: too hasty to lay out the patient plotting and character-building that gave its parent show such a strong foundation; too slow to get to the heart of its story until the final stretch of episodes, which saw King Viserys (Paddy Considine) die and factions form around his two potential successors.

In Season 2, “House of the Dragon” seems like it’s finally becoming the show it was supposed to be. What all that runway was leading up to turned out to be an epic tragedy, bleaker than even the famously brutal and cynical “Game of Thrones” could have imagined. There are no victors in the conflict between two scions of the long-reigning Targaryen line, least of all the realms each competitor seeks to govern.

The new episodes, four of which were pre-screened for reviewers, include much of what their predecessors lacked, including the development of crucial relationships and the dragon-on-dragon bloodshed promised by the title. “House of the Dragon” has been lifted, sharpened, and expanded in scope — all for the benefit of a drama that is now as black symbolically as it was literally.

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Showrunner Ryan Condal and co-creator George R.R. Martin, the series’ source material author, struggled to fit all of the political and human backdrop for the Dance of the Dragons within a full season of primers. However, at the start of Season 2, the combatants are helpfully divided into two color-coded contingents: the Blacks, who support Viserys’ eldest child Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), and the Greens, who support Rhaenyra’s half-brother Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), the progeny of Viserys’ second marriage to Rhaenyra’s childhood friend Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke). For what it’s worth, the show’s sympathies are plainly tilted against Blacks.

Rhaenyra’s succession claim is being questioned, in part due to gross misogyny, and in last season’s conclusion, she suffered the first genuine defeat of the war when Aegon’s vicious, spiteful brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) murdered her little son Lucerys (Elliot Grihault). However, the conceptual essence of “House of the Dragon” is that, as the bodies begin to fall, pity loses relevance in the face of a self-perpetuating spiral of annihilation.

Season 2’s opening shot indicates an aim to extend its gaze beyond palace intrigue within a single mixed family across two castles. We begin not in King’s Landing or Dragonstone, but at Winterfell, the home of the Stark family, whose collapse served as the foundation for “Game of Thrones.”

The journey north isn’t only to show historical connections; it’s to signal that “House of the Dragon” is moving its attention away from the Targaryens’ inner relationships and toward their terrible, continent-wide implications. “When princes lose their temper,” one character cautions, “others often suffer.”

This argument is presented clearly, and it is only emphasized by the horrifying images intended to counter Truffaut’s fictitious claim that there is no such thing as an anti-war film. (Or a TV show with the budget of a movie office blockbuster.) A fight between two arguing teens leads to a battlefield strewn with dead, while an ordinary family in a blockaded city frets about rising food costs. These encounters occur not between our main antiheroes, but between lesser, even anonymous, people we may never see again. Overall, they represent individuals who have nothing to gain from two sides filled with the magical equivalent of nuclear weapons, fighting in mutually assured destruction.

This thread expands on existing issues in the “Game of Thrones” realm. (Martin’s original “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels demonstrated that soldiers on both sides, no matter how noble their leaders’ cause, can commit minor crimes like as rape and robbery if given the opportunity.) There’s still a feeling of hopelessness in “House of the Dragon.”

Though somewhat naive, Ned Stark’s early quest for the truth had a distinct morality to it that Rhaenyra lacks. Like Ned’s rival Cersei Lannister, Rhaenyra is a brazen philanderer who clings to her inheritance solely out of personal grievance. Also, as the conflict heats up, more level-headed individuals in both sides are progressively marginalized in favor of ruthless extremists like Aemond and Rhaenyra’s uncle/husband Daemon (Matt Smith), whose one-upsmanship makes peace a more improbable scenario.

Aunt Rhaenys (Eve Best) laments that “soon, they won’t even remember why they started the war in the first place.” Once, Rhaenys, one of the even-tempered sorts on the losing side of this made-up history, was denied the Iron Throne herself. She has lived long enough to witness history being repeated, and the audience adds their own perspective about future generations.

That future, of course, involves a swarm of ice zombies descending on a kingdom devoid of the dragons that serve as its best defense, a near-extinction intimately linked to the Dance and its winged victims. At first, I was perplexed by how “House of the Dragon” retrospectively transformed dynasty founder Aegon the Conqueror into a prophet who passed down his apocalyptic vision down the centuries. However, in Season 2, this method brilliantly emphasizes the devastating effects of war. Rhaenyra professes to be operating in accordance with the prophecy’s predictions; yet, she is merely ensuring their fulfillment.

The suffocating atmosphere might make watching “House of the Dragon” difficult, but this is a credit to the film’s strength. (Any show that causes awful nightmares, like these episodes did for me, has fully bored its way into my mind.) There are occasional challenges to the show’s carefully crafted sense of reality, such as the plainly absurd idea that Cooke, 30, is a grandmother.

However, for the most part, the broad-based empathy that “Game of Thrones” generated for its numerous heroes is now utilized to explain what may cause otherwise rational individuals to murder their family members in cold blood and honestly feel they had no other option. It’s an uncommonly large-scale depiction of a worldview. Most blockbusters require a joyful conclusion to draw in the audience. With a narrative where blood flows freely and incest is normalized the biggest draw on TV, “House of the Dragon” sees no need to spare our feelings.



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