‘House of the Dragon’ Rebounds in Its Shocking, X-Rated Season 2

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/HBO
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/HBO

From its theme music and credit sequence, to its costumes and locales, to its lore and themes, to its narrative focus on the ceaseless competition for the Iron Throne, House of the Dragon sought, in its first season, to not simply be a faithful prequel to Game of Thrones, but a veritable carbon copy. Nonetheless, if it got off to a rocky start marred by excessively familiar action and too many leaps forward in time, it eventually found its footing by its finale. In electric fashion, that capper culminated with eye-patched Prince Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) getting revenge on his bastard cousin Luke Velaryon (Elliot Grihault) by chomping him and his dragon in half via his own winged beast, the gargantuan Vhagar. While it may have required 10 uneven hours, the show finally appeared to have found its footing on the ground and in the sky, thereby setting up the savage dragon war destined to dominate the remainder of its tale.

Returning to HBO nearly two years after the end of Season 1, House of the Dragon takes true flight from the outset of its superior and stirring second season (June 16 on HBO), diving right into the fallout from that fateful murder with political jockeying and, more calamitously, a series of assassination attempts that compromise any lasting hopes for peace. Over the course of its first four episodes (which were all that were provided to press), showrunner Ryan Condal—aided by co-creator George R.R. Martin and GoT-vet director Alan Taylor, who helms the premiere and phenomenal fourth installment—devises a raft of intricate machinations involving parties who are torn between wanting the best for themselves, their allies, and their houses. He delivers shocking bombshells in spades, and better yet, he stages the franchise’s finest dragon fight to date: a larger-than-life skirmish that results in a death that once again radically rewrites the fate of the seven kingdoms.

Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen.

Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen.

Theo Whiteman/HBO

House of the Dragon begins in the north with the Night Watch at The Wall and references to the Starks, but the Song of Ice and Fire—though a relevant prophesy courtesy of the late King Viserys I (Paddy Considine)—is still on the distant horizon as this saga kicks into gear. At King’s Landing, newly coronated King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) has turned out to be a petulant young punk unfit to rule, much to the frustration of his Hand, Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). As Otto and his daughter Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke) patiently try to guide the sovereign toward responsibility and reason, war becomes more unavoidable thanks to Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy), whose grief has fueled her anger over Aegon usurping the throne (with Alicent’s help), and whose shipping blockades have exacerbated tensions between the two kingdoms. Rhaenyra hasn’t lost her burning ambition for the crown, but her sorrow has left her distracted. Her diplomatic caution worries her council advisors, and it also rankles her uncle-husband Prince Daemon (Matt Smith), who endeavors to escalate matters to outrageous degrees—purportedly in order to fulfill his Queen’s wishes, but in reality out of his own cunning self-interest.

In every direction, incestuously intertwined characters conspire to improve their stations by manipulating frictions and exacerbating hostilities. Lord Commander of the Kingsguard Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) is a zealously intimate confidant of Alicent, as is club-footed Lord Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), albeit in different devious ways. Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) strives to keep Rhaenyra on solid footing with her supporters as well as takes curious note of the relationship between her husband Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) and the man who saved his life in battle. On both sides of this regional divide, countless schemers start ramping up their calls for wide-scale conflict, putting pressure on the matriarchs tasked with charting their houses’ courses into the future. Of those forces, perhaps none is quite as malevolent as Aemond, whose reserved, steely demeanor suggests that he’s two steps ahead of his rivals in this game—and which makes him, along with Ifans’ commanding Otto, the most compelling of the series’ myriad major and minor players.

‘House of the Dragon’ Season 1 Finale: Our Seven Biggest Lingering Questions

Although there are numerous threads strewn throughout House of the Dragon, the show’s primary concern remains the difficulties of its two female protagonists—Rhaenyra and Alicent—to avoid bloodshed in a system, and world, dominated by impulsive and greedy men who stupidly see violence as the surest means to achieve their ends. As with every member of the cast, Cooke and D’Arcy have become increasingly comfortable in their respective roles, and their performances are bolstered by scripts that strike a confident balance between introspective character-building drama and wily plotting. Everyone is colored in various shades of crimson-streaked gray, and now that the story has a clear thrust—i.e., the efforts to avoid and/or instigate ruinous war—they’re all substantially more compelling.

House of the Dragon’s sophomore run is propelled by a monstrous early fatality and a similarly bold retaliation, and Condal infuses his material with an urgency that was often lacking before. There’s no ignoring that all of this is prelude to a more cataclysmic chapter of this fantasy epic—a notion that’s intrusively emphasized whenever anyone alludes to the Song of Ice and Fire. Fortunately, those moments are rare; the pressing importance of Rhaenyra’s quest for her birthright, and Alicent and Otto’s concurrent maneuvers to maintain Aegon’s claim to the crown, is gripping enough in its own right to distract attention away from the proceedings’ fundamental nature as backstory. It’s no easy feat to elicit passionate engagement with a tale whose real ending is already known, and Condal’s success in that regard is, especially in these episodes, impressive.

Spoiler considerations mean that House of the Dragon’s biggest surprises must stay under lock and key for the time being. Still, GoT fans won’t be stunned to hear that the show continues to indulge in gory decapitations, deviant sexuality (including one X-rated brothel scene), and treachery most foul, not to mention out-of-left-field deaths that are designed to shock and thrill in equal measure. And that they do, in the process proving that even when it too closely resembles its legendary predecessor, Condal’s series is a gripping portrait of the eternal hunger for wealth, pleasure, power, and supremacy.

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