Warning, series spoilers for Game of Thrones. Spoilers for House of the Dragon will be indicated in the article. Mentions of sexual assault and abuse.

The Rise and Fall of Game of Thrones

Once upon a time, there was a show called Game of Thrones. What began as a humble adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s unfinished fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, soon burgeoned into arguably one of the greatest entertainment phenomenons in recent history. By the time the series drew to a close, millions of viewers from near and far gathered around their screens each week to see what would happen next; curious as to how the writers would wrap up nearly ten years of suspense and drama. Yet the satisfactory ending which was promised did not come to pass. Book fans, show fans, and casual viewers alike were deceived, and together they decried the bad writing, the contrivances, and the rushed pacing which befell their once celebrated show. Thus, the king of television died not with a roar, but a whimper. Its renowned name was soon forgotten, its loyal followers dispersed, with nigh to none to remember it by.

Until one day, a new show was announced.

Nearly four years after the final episode of Game of Thrones, if you were to type “bad writers” into Google, you’ll still be greeted with images of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss: the showrunners of the oncetime great series. To their credit, when it came to adapting Martin’s voluminous source material they were masters in knowing what to cut, what to keep, and broadly speaking, what to add. Of course when the first episode aired in 2011, A Song of Ice and Fire was still unfinished, but even so they had seasons of material to work with, and Martin provided ammunition for more with the release of A Dance with Dragons. The first four seasons of Game of Thrones became some of the best television put to screen. What they could not have anticipated, however, was that Martin would go on not to finish the books by the time they caught up. At the time of this publication, readers are still waiting for the next book in the series, The Winds of Winter. And so, Benioff and Weiss who succeeded so terrifically in their initial adaptation had to try their hands at creation, ultimately failing just as much as they had succeeded earlier.

The miasma began to take shape long before the disastrous conclusion of Season 8, and for fans of the books, even earlier than that. The absence of various plot threads from the books led others to go nowhere: Dorne becomes a shell of its book counterpart; Stannis is unceremoniously ejected from the plot, and the absence of Aegon Targaryen’s landing in Westeros from the books leaves King’s Landing and Varys dead in the (Black)water. In a series once infamous for illustrating the vulnerability of its characters: Jon Snow’s plot armor allows him to survive impossible odds at the Battle of the Bastards, Arya survives numerous stab wounds and a journey through medieval canal water, and in perhaps the moment the show officially jumped the shark— Jon Snow, the Hound, and the whole rest of the Scooby Gang gather together in a Captain Kirk-esque adventure to locate a wight at the end of Season 7; to which all survive but one inconsequential character (and a number of unnamed redshirts). Tyrion loses all his intelligence and wit; Littlefinger is left with nothing to do besides lurking around the corners like Snidely Whiplash until his character is both literally and figuratively assassinated, foreshadowing the fates which await most of the cast come the final season. Jon turns out not to be the prince that was promised, but instead has his entire plotline hijacked by Arya who ends the existential threat of the White Walkers (a threat Martin has likened to climate change) by stabbing it to death. The true enemy turns out not to be the White Walkers— whom we meet in the very first scene of the show— but Cersei Lannister. Jaime rescinds his character arc, and Daenerys goes from zero to a hundred far too fast to make her insanity in any way believable. All of this ends with King Bran ruling Westeros, for “who has a better story,” asks Tyrion, “than Bran the Broken?” A character with a story so mesmerizing, that the writers decided to not include him in an entire season of the show.

With that, Game of Thrones seemed finished. There was nothing left. What was once great was ruined, and all we could do was move on.

Happy? Most audiences weren’t. It is inevitable that when adapting material there are going to be ardent book readers left unsatisfied with some of the changes, but D&D (Dave and Dan) somehow succeeded in angering even the casual viewer. In an effort to “subvert expectations,” the writers failed to recognize what made those subversions of earlier seasons work so well in the first place. Ned Stark’s execution is one of the most iconic moments in all of fantasy; we expected him to survive because that would have been the convention, but he doesn’t. His actions had consequences, and there was no deus ex machina waiting to bail him out of them. Once the well of book material dried up, D&D relied on sheer shock value: Arya kills the Night King not because it made any narrative sense for her to do so, rather, according to Benioff, “Jon Snow has always been the hero, the one who’s been the savior, but it just didn’t seem right to us for this . . . moment.”

With that, Game of Thrones seemed finished. There was nothing left. What was once great was ruined, and all we could do was move on.

Or at least, that was the audience perception. HBO on the other hand, had other plans, for the Game of Thrones license was too much of a money maker for them to abandon. Numerous spin-off shows set in the Game of Thrones universe were announced, one after the other, with one eventually sticking and going into full production: House of the Dragon. The show would adapt the Targaryen civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons as described in Martin’s fictional history book, Fire and Blood. While the knowledge that D&D would be nowhere near the writing room for this show proved fair tidings, one could not help but feel a general skepticism toward the show. It felt like an ex coming back and promising that this time would be different, except you remember how it was before. How can you be sure this time you won’t just be met with the same disappointment you were met with the first time around?

Nevertheless, as fans gathered in uneasy anticipation, the months rolled by, and House of the Dragon aired its first episode. From there, the world watched with bated breath; waiting to see if it would carry the esteemed origins of its forebear, or follow into its demise.

A Return to Form

Contains Minor Spoilers for House of the Dragon

Instead of an ex, House of the Dragon felt like reuniting with an old friend. It was a return to form for the Game of Thrones universe; where D&D gradually relied more and more on spectacle as the series went on, HoTD takes us back to what made those first seasons of the show so great— the dialogue, interiority, subtlety, and conflicts between the characters on screen.

Created by Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik in conjunction with Martin himself, House of the Dragon stars Milly Alcock and later Emma D’Arcy as the unorthodox and fiercely independent Rhaenyra Targaryen, Princess to the Iron Throne. Rhaenyra serves as one of, if not the primary protagonist throughout the series, in a sense echoing Daenerys from Game of Thrones. She shares the limelight with her father King Viserys played by Paddy Considine, and his brother Daemon, played by Doctor Who star himself, Matt Smith. Other important members of the cast include Rhaenyra’s childhood friend, Alicent Hightower, played by Emily Carey and later Olivia Cooke, as well as her father and Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, played by Rhys Ifans. When Viserys’s succession comes into question he names Rhaenyra— a female in a strictly patriarchal society— as his heir. Through the machinations and mistakes of various characters throughout the story, the family is ultimately driven headlong into the abyss.

Unlike Game of Thrones which primarily saw D&D having to cut material, HoTD is forced into having to expand the source material. As a matter of fact, at ten episodes a season with an expected four season run time, all that HoTD adapts is only a handful of chapters from Fire and Blood itself, and what is in those chapters isn’t very descriptive nor character driven, with various accounts held by different historical figures of what happened in any given event. HoTD thus presents itself as the definitive take on what did happen. More so, HoTD must breathe life into characters which had little to none before. All in all, a trying task, but the writers succeed with flying colors.

Paddy Considine steals the show in his portrayal of the amicable but indecisive Viserys, who in seeking to please everyone, pleases no one. Viserys proves an excellent example to the success of HoTD’s changes to Fire and Blood; in the book Viserys comes off very much in the same vein as Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones: a lazy, uninterested king more interested in drinking and feasting than ruling, and is thus rather hard to sympathize with as a result. Considine’s Viserys is a man who truly strives to do the right thing, to rule his people to the best of his ability— but his best isn’t good enough in this world, and he fails, time and time again.

The show depicts a myriad of themes, but none are perhaps as explicit as how patriarchal society proves detrimental to people of all genders. Agency is determined by sex in Westeros. Women such as Rhaenyra and Alicent are expected to stay at home and produce heirs; one’s opportunity is seldom expected to venture beyond submissive acquiescence to slavery via forced marriage. As for men, Westeros is depicted as a society which lauds violence and treats mercy as weakness. Viserys only becomes king due to a vote amongst the lords of the realm when his grandfather’s succession is called into question; his elder cousin Rhaenys has the better claim and is far more politically suited to the task of ruling than he is, yet he becomes king by virtue of his manhood alone. Despite this, Viserys’s personality does not conform with the traditionally masculine mold expected of him. He is nonaggressive, forgiving, noncommittal, bookish, yet is nonetheless forced into a role society has laid out, as is the case with nearly all the men and women in this world. He is contrasted by his brother, Daemon, who is hyper-aggressive, vengeful, and rash— but at the same time internally craves validation and love. It illustrates the absurdity, not just of putting so much power in the hands of any single individual, but of the arbitrariness of patriarchy and how it can be reflected from Westeros into our own.

The writers of this show succeed in doing a lot with a little, and while it may not hit the same highs that the first season of Game of Thrones did, it doesn’t even come close to the lows of the show’s later seasons.

Viserys is far from perfect, however. While he subverts the patriarchy in some moments, he perpetuates it in others. It is this complex character building and exploration of human grayness which is the gravitas that later Game of Thrones severely lacked. The writers of this show succeed in doing a lot with a little, and while it may not hit the same highs that the first season of Game of Thrones did, it doesn’t even come close to the lows of the show’s later seasons. While there are a few moments which echo the senseless spectacle of later Game of Thrones, they are thankfully few and far between; if anything, they feel born from an unfortunate anxiety that the audience will get bored if such scenes aren’t included, when in reality, like early Game of Thrones, the best scenes are typically the simple ones. The first season of House of the Dragon is highly condensed and far less world-spanning than Game of Thrones, more of a family and political drama than a fantasy epic, though that is likely to change with future seasons. Martin himself perhaps best describes the show as such: “It’s powerful, it’s visceral, it’s dark, it’s like a Shakespearean tragedy . . . There’s no Arya — a character everybody’s going to love. They’re all flawed. They’re all human. They do good things. They do bad things. They’re driven by lust for power, jealousy, old wounds — just like human beings. Just like I wrote them.”

If you do not wish for total Season 1 of HoTD spoilers, skip to the conclusion.

Spoiler Section

While the show is excellent, there are elements which bring it down from where it could be.

Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room comes at the end of Episode 1, and propels itself all the way up as a catalyst for Alicent’s decision to sit Aegon on the Iron Throne. This being the invention of Aegon’s dream, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” where he foresaw the coming of evil from the North and that a Targaryen must rule over Westeros in order to save it; possessing a dagger inscribed with the prophecy of the prince that was promised, the very same one Arya would use hundreds of years later to kill the Night King. It should be noted that this story beat does not exist in Fire and Blood, and in A Song of Ice and Fire the dagger plays a fairly minor role. Prophecy in and of itself is not without precedent: Targaryens such as Helaena have dragon dreams which give them vague visions of the future, Viserys himself in his prophecy of having a son, yet they typically end up distorted from how one envisions them. Viserys’s son does end up sitting the Iron Throne; his dream comes true, yet it is nowhere near in the way he envisioned it happening.

Attempting to tie House of the Dragon in with the prophecy of Season 8 feels awkward, and rather out of place for the otherwise very grounded approach the rest of the series takes. While I don’t think retconning Season 8’s existence would be the right decision, I don’t believe being reminded of its presence is right either, especially in a story about a conflict which has nothing to do with that of Game of Thrones. It worries me about what they will do with it later. Perhaps it will be satisfying, but as is it feels unneeded, and comes across more as an attempt to rectify or make sense of how the prophecy didn’t come true in Season 8. It is a question I believe can best be left unanswered, considering it stems more from poor writing than purposeful ambiguity.

While not directly related to the prophecy itself, this leads me into another main gripe I have with the show, which is Alicent’s misinterpretation of Viserys’s dying words, believing he is referring to their son Aegon, and not Aegon the Conqueror. We do get the sense that Alicent is simply hearing what she wants to hear from the delirious Viserys, but it nevertheless takes some of the culpability of her actions away from her and onto the Targaryen propensity for seemingly naming every single male in their family Aegon. Stories such as this are best when the actions and failings of the characters drive conflict along; when conflict is pushed due to happenstance, it diminishes the character’s agency. While the war would have started regardless as evidenced by the scheming of the small council, I believe there could have been better ways of having us sympathize with Alicent than chalking her decision to place Aegon on the throne up to chance misinterpretation.

In regards to the needless spectacle, two scenes in particular stick out as such. The first of which comes from Daemon’s adventure in the Stepstones where he slays the Crabfeeder. This gave me unfortunate memories of Jon Snow’s survival of the Battle of the Bastards, where the only reason he survived was thanks to plot armor. Secondly is Rhaenys bursting out from the dragon pit, killing however many dozens or hundreds of smallfolk. The deaths of the smallfolk are barely addressed or focused on, and it comes across that we should be lauding Rhaenys for giving mercy to the Greens (Aegon’s side)— when she just murdered countless innocent bystanders. It felt unneeded and rather gratuitous, especially seeing how the ramifications of it aren’t explored, though perhaps it will be in the next season.

With that said, the changes made to the source material have largely been excellent, and have even enhanced it. One noticeable divergence for readers of the books is casting the Velaryon family as Black, whereas in the books they are white. This proves a clever way to incorporate diversity into a genre largely known for its fictional European-themed settings whilst still keeping true to the lore, seeing as though the old Valyrian empire was a multicultural one. However, the consequence of this is that in the books there is more plausible deniability that Rhaenyra’s first three children’s father is actually Laenor Velaryon, instead of Harwin Strong. This is because Laenor’s mother, Rhaenys Targaryen, has black hair thanks to her Baratheon mother (remember Game of Thrones: “the seed is strong”). In the show she has Targaryen silver, likely to prevent audiences from becoming confused. Because of this though, book Jace, Luke, and Joff may very well be Laenor’s due to recessive Baratheon genes. In the show it is ultimately much more obvious that they are bastards; especially when one compares their appearance to that of Daemon and Laena’s children.

As for Rhaenyra herself, there have been some general changes which may irk some book fans. In the source material Laenor does indeed die, and it is implied that Daemon orchestrated his assassination. In the show on the other hand, Rhaenyra and Daemon fake Laenor’s death and he escapes with his lover Qarl from Westeros. Furthermore, Rhaenyra appears much more amicable to peace versus her book counterpart: seeking to marry her son Jace to Alicent’s daughter Haelana in order to mend their families, in addition to showing restraint when Aegon is crowned in an attempt to carry the legacy of Viserys’s peace. Judging by Rhaenrya’s expression in the final shot of the season after learning of Luke’s death, we will likely see more of a vengeful Rhaenryra come Season 2, but much of what we have described nevertheless seems garnered for the purpose of having us sympathize with Rhaenyra. While the Greens in the book are still thought of as being more villainous and responsible for starting the war, the way the show depicts the conflict definitely furthers this divide, succeeding in having us feel for Rhaenyra and her struggles, but at the same setting up more distinct battles lines of good and bad.

It says something that Rhaenyra’s biggest sin in this world was birthing children out of wedlock, a crime serious enough to ostracize her and put both Rhaenyra and her children in jeopardy. Whereas Aegon— an evil rapist with numerous bastards himself— is rewarded for his proclivities with a crown because of his status as a man in this world; even if he quite literally attempts to run away from becoming king. Sexual agency and its effects on the world prove a profound theme which carries its way throughout the show. Viserys wields power over Alicent in his marital rape of her in Episode 4; Daemon exerts sexual coercion through the grooming of his niece alongside the abuse we see from him later on in the show; Rhaenyra practices nonconsensual sex with Criston by continuing their encounter when it is evident he is uncomfortable with what is happening, and Larys holds sexual power over Alicent as well, extorting her to satisfy his fetish.

Even when the adults are somehow able to set aside their differences as exhibited in Episode 8, the children have inherited their parents’ grievances, being taught to fight and share in their parents’ hatred, thus perpetuating it. The war is kicked off not by the adults, but by the children. While the show depicts Aemond’s murder of his nephew Luke as a mistake, in the books no such suggestion is made. It is either way the inevitable result of years of conditioning, and when children are given weapons of war, disaster ensues. It is generational conflict at its heart, and this is in large part what fuels the tragedy of House of the Dragon.


When Game of Thrones ended, I was sure any excitement for future shows set in that universe had died along with it. I entered House of the Dragon with zero hopes and my only expectation was to be ready for disappointment.

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised.

In an age of oversaturation with media created for the express purpose of filling the coffers of corporate overlords and capitalizing on IPs, you can tell that this was a story the writers wanted to tell; one which had tender, love, and care put into both the production and the script. As a piece of fiction which stands apart from Game of Thrones, it succeeds, and is something anyone can enjoy whether they have seen what came before it or not. As a narrative which carries the tarnished legacy of the show, HoTD resurrects it.

And for the first time in a long time— I’m excited to be in Westeros again.

—Frank Mirabella, Fall 2022 Staff

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