'House of the Dragon' review: Season 2 is good, bad and very ugly all at once

The dragons are back, but the fire is still lacking.

HBO's very blond and very expensive "Game of Thrones" spinoff "House of the Dragon" returns after a two-year break for a second season of incest and infighting. So get ready for dragons, battles, ridiculous misconceptions and a host of petty man-children who can't get over their own drama. And get ready to be just a bit disappointed all over again.

Season 1 of the much-hyped series arrived to mixed reviews, in part because a series of time jumps led to an scattershot, often dull story arc that really only took off in a fast-paced, "Thrones"-style way in the warmongering season finale. And even that blood-soaked episode lacked enough emotional oomph to back up all its violence.

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Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" Season 2.
Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" Season 2.

So perhaps it was inevitable that in response to such criticism, creators Ryan Condal and George R.R. Martin (author of the "Thrones" books and the "Fire and Ice" prequel/encyclopedia on which "Dragon" is based) would go overboard trying to fix perceived mistakes. If they have conveyed a unifying theme to "Dragon" Season 2 (Sundays, 9 EDT/PDT and streaming on Max, ★★ out of four), it's certainly a belief that "more is more." More dragons. More death. More brutality. More twists. More confusion. More plot holes. More waiting around for something interesting to happen.

So yes, there is more good stuff this time (they finally have figured out, at least by Episode 4, what to do with those darned dragons), but there is also more bad stuff: Multiple scenes in which common sense and logic has flown out the window, more twists and surprises introduced without context or feeling to back them up and more gratuitous violence that borders on outright indecency. There are too many side quests and not enough stakes to make me care about the battle for the Iron Throne that is meant to be the crux of the series.

So yeah, what's happening with that battle? When we left our terrible Targaryens, we had two heads of state vying for that pointy chair: Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), the petulant child of the late king and Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), who thinks being king means he gets to play with all the cool toys. He is being propped up by his mother, grandfather Otto (Rhys Ifans) and psychopathic brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell).

Glowering over on an island is Aegon's older half-sister, Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy), who was promised the throne by her late father but has a nasty habit of angering everyone else at court. She's backed by husband (and uncle!) Daemon (Matt Smith), in-laws/cousins the Velaryons (Eve Best and Steve Toussaint) and her kids (whom everyone knows are bastards but have to pretend otherwise).

Olivia Cooke as Alicent Hightower and Ewan Mitchell as Aemond Targaryen in "House of the Dragon."
Olivia Cooke as Alicent Hightower and Ewan Mitchell as Aemond Targaryen in "House of the Dragon."

There are a few dozen other characters that you may or may not remember, and it would take more time to explain them than the show spends reintroducing them. They're all angry and either fighting a dumb war or on the verge of one. The writers (and the marketing team) would like to boil it down to a simple conflict of "green versus black." That's green for Aegon and Alicent, black for and Rhaenyra and Daemon, and bloody death for everyone else.

In the first four (of eight) episodes made available for review, these disparate characters mix together to create something bad, but also fine, and maybe sometimes good. Smith, one of the great actors of his generation, is completely wasted, puttering and pouting about. The battles are better, and (finally) adequately lit. But the plot twists are based on logical fallacies and require too much suspension of disbelief. Some things are far too easy − assassins creep into castles unchallenged, dragons fly across vast expanses of land in the blink of an eye − and some things are far too difficult and convoluted. Who's fighting? Where? Why? Who is loyal to whom, or is it all just arbitrary? How many sons does Alicent have? And is Cooke really only two years older than the actor who plays her son?

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" Season 2.
Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" Season 2.

At times, it's hard not to be absolutely furious at this show. The writers consistently pick the less interesting, less challenging storytelling choice. There is so much lost potential in every boring decision and lackluster line reading. When so much time, energy and money is invested in a series like "Dragon," when there is so much labor from so many actors and crew members, the finished product has to be worth all this effort. When I see dragons battling in the sky, their riders had better have as much glory, magnetism and power as those CGI beasts. So far, these bickering Targaryens can't measure up to the great heroes and villains of the best days of "Thrones."

Let's hope the rest of the season can build on a solid fourth episode and reach a climax that thrills and shocks the audience.

But if it collapses under the weight of hype again, this "House" will forever remain a hollow one.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'House of the Dragon' Season 2 review: A lot of dragons, but no fire