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House of the Dragon: sex, violence and top notes of incest

This prequel is still Game of Thrones in all its bloody, deviant glory.

By Rachel Cooke

House of the Dragon, the Game of Thrones prequel, stars, among others, Eve Best, Paddy Considine, Rhys Ifans and (oh, joy) Matt Smith. This lavish new series, based on bits of George RR Martin’s Fire and Blood, also comes with (joy, again) “scenes some viewers may find distressing”. Here are orgies, decapitations, a somewhat rudimentary caesarean section and, most upsetting of all, extreme modelling: in his chamber, King Viserys (Considine) appears to be working on a vast replica of King’s Landing. I’m not sure why, though these days it does at least distract him from the fact that, so badly did he want a son and heir, he sacrificed his wife, Queen Aemma, in childbirth, only for the baby to die, too.

But I’m flying ahead, like one of the Targaryens’ over-enthusiastic dragons! The series is set in the ninth year of the reign of King Viserys Targaryen, some 200 years before we first encountered Westeros in all its bloody, deviant glory. When it begins, his wife is heavily pregnant, and everyone is hoping for a boy; his firstborn and only surviving child is a daughter, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), which means that his heir is currently his naughty brother, Prince Daemon (Smith), a man no one in the king’s council seems much to like. But alas, like the epidural his wife so badly needs, it is not to be. The bodies of Aemma and her sprog are soon bound to a pyre, awaiting the fiery breath of a dragon to light it.

What happens now? The King’s Hand, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), isn’t hanging about. He tells the King he must name a new heir, to avoid uncertainty among his people and disruption from Daemon, who has designs on the Iron Throne (which still looks like a specially commissioned installation at an upmarket Japanese knife store), and now has a small army at his disposal in the men of the City Watch (he has trained them to stamp out crime in King’s Landing, a task they perform by sticking their swords where the sun don’t shine, and amputating so many body parts, it takes two full carriages to remove all the limbs – and, er, reproductive organs – from the streets).

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But the King isn’t having it! He is in mourning, a wimpish state that persists even when Hightower sends his own daughter Alicent (Emily Carey) to him on a “comfort mission”. It seems he really would prefer her to read to him than to, you know, minister to him in some more physical way – though there will be a bouncing pair of breasts along quite soon; naturally, Daemon has his pick in the King’s Landing pleasure houses.

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What to do with this droopy monarch? Worry not: by the end of episode one, he’s found his… spine and we’re all set for a nice little succession drama. A blood feud that will, I’m guessing, take the form of a triangle: think Daemon vs Rhaenyra with some additional more low-key Machiavellian stuff from the King’s sister, Rhaenys Velaryon (Eve Best), who has ambitions of her own. Basically, it’s a bit like the Tory leadership contest, with the notable difference that Daemon’s policies – “I’ll be tough on crime!” – do at least work (if your hands are missing, it’s hard to fondle the nearest prostitute). In fact, this series is strangely resonant all round. “The only thing that could tear down the House of the Dragon was itself,” intones a voiceover: doubtless what Keir Starmer thinks when a new opinion poll comes out.

But, enough! I should do some proper criticism now. Is it any… good? Hmm. I guess you have to take it on its own terms. All you can really ask is whether it’s grisly good fun, and I suppose that it is. The dragons are great, soaring over King’s Landing like a private jet about to land in some bijou Tuscan town, though I do long to know what they smell like (those who ride them stink afterwards). The long chats in High Valyrian are as hilariously solemn as ever, as if it were something you could learn via a summer deal from Rosetta Stone rather than actual gobbledegook. Already there are top notes of incest, if I’m allowed to say this like it’s a good thing.

As for the wigs, they’re triumphant. Matt Smith, like most of the male characters, looks like he’s touring with Sigue Sigue Sputnik, which may be why I detect a certain amusement in his performance. At a jousting tournament organised by the King to celebrate – what hubris! – the birth of his heir, Daemon is indefatigable, but also rather comical: here (and now cast your mind back to Smith’s performance in The Crown)is the young Duke of Edinburgh in full body armour, on speed.

This article was originally published on 22 August 2022.

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars