With five episodes already come and gone, we are now past the halfway point of the first season of House of the Dragon. Without a doubt, the series has provided some of the best character drama and high-fantasy spectacle to our screens in several years, easily outshining the far weaker seasons that saw out Game of Thrones. Using George RR Martin’s expansive chronology of the Targaryen Dynasty in Fire and Blood, the creative team is doing an impressive job of adapting the key character dynamics and events to the screen, but also finding plenty of room to flesh out *some* of these characters, to save the series from acting as merely an appendix to its predecessor. Gender, sexuality, agency, insecurity, and power are the central themes that, so far, have been woven in very naturally to the season and their delivery has been executed deftly and tastefully. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the season’s central dynamic between Viserys, Rhaenyra, and Daemon, with each consecutive episode allowing the supporting cast to increasingly embellish the nuances of this dynamic. “We Light the Way” is, narratively and thematically, the culmination of many of the arcs that have been developing over the course of the season, with several key moments that are monumental stepping stones towards the brewing civil war between the royal households. These key moments, however, share a common fault: they feel underwhelming.
Is House of the Dragon playing its hand too soon?
“We Light the Way” would have been more fitting as a penultimate episode – or even finale – in a longer season. With the climactic set piece being the arranged wedding festivities for Rhaenyra and Laenor Velaryon (finally given some – though not much – time to shine in the spotlight), Ryan Condal admits the direction of the scene was meant to evoke and play with the uneasy tension of the Red and Purple weddings in Thrones. While the online community styling this episode as the “Green Wedding” is cunningly sharp, its placement right in the middle of the season undermines the dramatic heft of the various character arcs that finally collide and clash in the, admittedly, superbly-directed episode. This is exacerbated by the fact next week will see a time jump of 10 years, introducing a plethora of new actors to age up the characters that we were just beginning to connect with. With Episode 3, I expressed my disappointment that the Velaryons – a central family in the Targaryen lineage – were very underdeveloped, somewhat obfuscating what was very much styled as the ‘epic’ reveal of Laenor riding a dragon to save Daemon’s life. “We Light the Way” is very much symptomatic of the same problem, only now applicable to the majority of the cast of characters, many having key moments before and during the wedding festivities, but undermined by the fact we hardly have been given a chance to learn about these characters more naturally.
The most obvious example of this is the dynamic between Larys Strong (until this episode a background extra) and Alicent Hightower. Evoking the sleazy, conniving dynamic between Sansa Stark and Littlefinger in Thrones, the pair’s first scene together in the Godswood is a near-perfect sequence as Strong begins to chip away at Alicent’s feigning trust in Rhaenyra. The two do not have another direct interaction, with Larys only cropping up to exposit why Alicent’s dramatic entry to the wedding feast is, in fact, a deeply incendiary political move. Larys is therefore emblematic of both the strengths and weaknesses of House of the Dragon: the show is clearly able to establish excellent character dynamics through poignant writing and direction, however, the show then neglects to provide much development or set-up for the larger dramatic pay-offs that should be leaving audiences gobsmacked each and every week. The example of Alicent’s entrance is pivotal here. Interrupting Viserys’ speech and wearing a striking green dress, the episode had done nothing up to that point to establish the poignancy of the choice, ergo needing Larys to murmur that the color infers the Hightowers summoning their banners to war. This moment was particularly clunky, especially when one wonders why the series could not have spent more time introducing these facts about the Hightowers seamlessly, to make the pay-off all the more striking.
The dynamic between Rhaenyra, Viserys, and Daemon feels the strongest over the course of the season because the three have had substantial screen time to establish and develop their increasingly murky dynamic. While Criston Cole’s development in We Light the Way is succinct at highlighting the character’s unspoken faults and preconceived notions of ego and honor, many other supporting characters continually come across as underdeveloped when they are suddenly made the focus of the narrative. This is also the case for Rhaenys and Corlys Velaryon who, despite finally making a return to the season, share only one prominent scene of dialogue between each other before returning to the backdrop once again. Not only does this exacerbate the underwhelming nature of the ‘Green Wedding’ when Corlys and Rhaenys are not given anything to do in the final sequence that heavily revolves around their son, but also because their scene together did not seem to reach a satisfying resolution to their disagreement, cutting off very abruptly just as their dynamic was becoming the most compelling yet.
Laenor is also given more to do this week – his marriage to Rhaenyra reveals his closeted homosexuality leading to some poignant moments between the pair – but Laenor’s sexuality has been the only key characteristic we learn about him. The change from being an underdeveloped character to a one-dimension character is not a fantastic look – especially as this is the one confirmed non-heterosexual character in the current roster – and it really makes me want to challenge why this central role could not have been given more to do over the season. It’s factors such as this that are beginning to dampen my overall enjoyment of House of the Dragon – whether it’s abridging over scenarios that could have made compelling television, or actively omitting scenes from the final cuts. Reports are that several scenes including Rhaenyra preparing Alicent for her wedding and young Leana bonding with the huge dragon Vhagar were left on the cutting room floor. Any particularly compelling rationale behind these omissions I could not find.
House of the Dragon is – regrettably – showing signs of a premise that is catering more to those already familiar with the intricate lore of Fire and Blood. We Light The Way delivers on dramatic twists and turns. Still, just as Cogman wants viewers to use the memory of the Red Wedding to heighten their anticipation, the show relies more on the audience’s expectance of twists and turns, rather than building to them naturally, over a longer season. There is plenty to enjoy about House of the Dragon from a book reader’s perspective: as with last week, the way the show treads a clever middle ground of the conflicting perspectives offered in the book – consequently adding layers of complexity both to character and theme – is where the series is shining thus far. Remove the knowledge and anticipation of the twists and turns in the book, and the show’s execution is simply too much, too soon. House of the Dragon may be fleshing out some elements of Fire and Blood, but there is not yet enough flesh to make the season a satisfying meal on its own.