‘House of the Dragon’ braces for war

June 9, 2024 5:24 pm

[Source: CNN Entertainment]

If the first season of “House of the Dragon” challenged viewers with its dizzying list of introductions and disorienting time jumps, the second involves a more straightforward build-up toward a great civil war, where strategy often takes a back seat to vengeance and emotion.

Still not the series “Game of Thrones” was, this prequel now mirrors its barbaric take on palace intrigue well enough to have become bloody good.

Once again, the battle for the throne has “You win or you die” stakes, pitting Queen Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), her uncle/husband Daemon (Matt Smith) and their assorted forces against Rhaenyra’s childhood friend Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and her sons (who happen to be Rhaenyra’s half-siblings), one of whom, Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), currently claims their late father’s mantle.

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Living up to the show’s title, both sides of this Targaryen-on-Targaryen faceoff have an arsenal of dragons, which amount to a version of air power in these medieval times, and an almost nuclear-style deterrent against ill-thought-out behavior.

While the dragons took a while to grow into players in the original series, here they figure prominently in calculations about military action and seldom disappoint once unleashed.

In that sense, while other series have sought to match “Thrones” in conjuring spectacle and grandeur (none more so than “The Lord of the Rings” on Amazon’s Prime Video, whose deficiencies owe more to character and story), little on television can truly rival “House of the Dragon’s” scope and scale.

Happily, under executive producer Ryan Condal (who shares “created by” credit with author George R.R. Martin), the new season feels cleaner and more tightly focused, despite juggling existing players while adding a few key new ones.

At its core, the women still hold the center, as the initially grieving Rhaenyra must deal with the headstrong Daemon, while Alicent and her father, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), struggle to manage Aegon, another weak, erratic ruler prone to actions and decisions that risk undermining their cause.

HBO made four episodes available, or half of this season, and they certainly don’t rush things in setting up the chess pieces.

Still, each hour contains at least one jaw-dropping moment, clearing the high bar set by the pilot episode’s child-birth sequence with this season’s not-for-the-faint-of-heart first episode, which nicely sets the table for much of what’s to come.

“The path to victory now is one of violence,” the Hand to the King, Hightower, muses with grave seriousness.

As the latest “Star Wars” series, “The Acolyte,” reminds us, going back in time (in “Dragon’s” case, about two centuries) in some respects means starting from scratch, at least developing audience allegiance to the characters and keeping track of elaborate timelines and mythologies.

After a somewhat rocky takeoff, “House of the Dragon” has seemingly reached its cruising altitude, while continuing to take big creative swings.

Although the Emmy-winning “Game of Thrones” might not have stuck the landing, that clearly did little to dampen demand for its muscular, visceral brand of storytelling.

Prosecuting the Targaryen war comes with risks, both for those in the show and those responsible for making it.

For now, though, this has become a genuinely worthy successor, allowing those with a taste for the wickedness of Westeros to kick back and enjoy the ride.

“House of the Dragon” begins its second season June 16 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.