House of the Dragon episode one recap: Season two premiere is full of scheming, staring and provocation

If Game of Thrones was, in the immortally blunt words of Ian McShane, a series about “t**s and dragons”, what, then, might he call House of the Dragon? It’s another series about dragons – and people behaving like t**s.

The opulent fantasy spin-off returns to Max (and Sky/NOW in the UK) this month for an eight-episode second outing, opening with the ominously titled “A Son for a Son”. The first season, released back in autumn 2022, traversed a tumultuous two decades between its first episode and its last. The action this time around, in the four episodes available to reviewers at least, is rather more condensed. We pick up more or less where the finale left off: King Viserys (Paddy Considine) is dead; Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) is king, and young Prince Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) has been murdered by the one-eyed Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) in a sort of dragonback fender-bender.

Spoilers follow for House of the Dragon season two episode one...

The season premiere sees the grief-stricken “Black Queen” Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy, harrowed and compelling) reeling from the death of her son, as her clan of supporters ready themselves for vengeance. What we get, essentially, is an hour of table-setting and terse conversations, as both factions sense war in the air. On the opposing side, Glynn Carney’s king struggles to assert his authority, naively flip-flopping his way through meetings with his subjects. Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) is introduced in the midst of a covert sexual encounter with Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), Rhaenyra’s former lover.

Aegon’s main adviser, “Hand to the King” Otto Hightower (a wan, weaselly Rhys Ifans), tries his best to rudder him. Otto’s influence is undermined, however, by the whisperings of Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), who speaks to the king of the need for a new “Hand”.

Meanwhile, “The White Worm” Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno) is discovered aboard a ship and brought back to face Daemon (Matt Smith). After initially imprisoning her for treason, he offers her freedom in exchange for a set-up. He meets with two grimy ratcatchers with a grude against the Hightowers, whom he pays to infiltrate the castle and kill Aemon. Once inside, however, they settle for the blood of another Targaryen: one of Aegon and Helena’s (Phia Saban) infant children. Holding Helena at knifepoint, they ask her to identify which of her children is the male heir, which she does. He is then murdered, and a shellshocked Helena walks in on Alicent, who is in bed with Criston.

Scheming, betrayal, and political game-playing: these are House of the Dragon’s bread and butter, and – in lieu of the usual sex, which is conspicuously scant for now – also where most of the spice can be found. The writing is always something of a disorienting stew, an attempt to mix HBO coarseness with faux-medieval syntax. “His faith is in steel and bone; he has not the long view,” one character augustly observes at one point. At another, a grubby assassin remarks that he knows the terrain “better than the shape of my own c**k”. OK then.

King shaming: Tom Glynn-Carney in ‘House of the Dragon' (HBO/Sky)
King shaming: Tom Glynn-Carney in ‘House of the Dragon' (HBO/Sky)

Critics have been told to keep schtum about much of the plotting, though readers of George RR Martin’s source material will know the gist. While it takes a few episodes for House of the Dragon to crescendo into the sort of grand, violent spectacle that the series (and its predecessor) does better than pretty much anything else on TV, there are enough nuggets of incident in the opening couple of hours to satisfy viewers’ bloodlust. The grimly horrible murder at the end of this opener is, mercifully, staged with a good and uncharacteristic amount of restraint.

Perhaps House of the Dragon’s biggest problem is one of tone. It is all very dour and self-serious, with none of the human levity that is often needed to elevate a TV show from adequacy to greatness. But the acting is solid, and superlative in places – Cooke’s shrewd and conflicted Alicent remains a scene-stealer – and the whole production is just lush to look at. Whether gazing at bucolic vistas, or stately castle interiors, you’re always a little awed by the sheer amount of money that’s on screen.

The first season’s real strength may have been in its plotting, the patiently matrixed telling of a large and unwieldy story. Whether this season will have the same sense of build, the same panache for a pay-off, remains to be seen. But it seems these dragons still have plenty of fire left in them.

‘House of the Dragon’ season two will be available from 17 June on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW