"House of the Dragon" Soars Out From Under the Shadow of "Game of Thrones"

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As a "Game of Thrones" fan (and an eventual disappointed "Game of Thrones" fan), I spent a lot of time in the lead up to "House of the Dragon" dreading it a little. Were we really going to do this again? Did I want to do this again? Could a "Game of Thrones" spinoff really justify its own existence? After watching the six episodes of "House of the Dragon" HBO made available to critics, I can answer with a resounding yes. "House of the Dragon" is great television.

The first episode quickly introduces us to the two women at the heart of the series: Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Lady Alicent Hightower. The two teenage girls, played in early episodes by Milly Alcock and Emily Carey, are the best of friends. They're so close that their bond, at times, feels romantic. They're also just about the only two young women in the whirlwind political maelstrom of the Red Keep. Their bond feels doomed from the moment you meet them, and Alcock and Carey do a masterful job of exploring all the shades of emotion the two experience. It's easy to compare them to some of the iconic women of "Game of Thrones," but they bring something unique to their roles that lets them easily step out of their predecessors' shadows. Platinum blond wig aside, Rhaenyra won't make you wish she was Daenerys instead.

The first season of "House of the Dragon" is heavily invested in the struggle of women under patriarchy, but it doesn't have a simplistic "girl boss" message.

Between episodes five and six, there's a 10-year time jump, and we lose Alcock and Carey for Emma D'Arcy and Olivia Cooke as Rhaenyra and Alicent, respectively. I regretted it a little; there are some events that happen in the interim that I would've loved to experience firsthand as a viewer, but it seems the show wants to get to some big climaxes that come later in their lives before season one's culmination. The two older actors do a great job of drawing a line from their younger selves to their adult incarnations and make clear quickly their new, even messier dynamic.

Then there's Matt Smith. When "Morbius" came out earlier this year, the movie's one bright spot was Smith's chaotic, fun performance as the villain. Smith brings that same energy to "House of the Dragon" as Daemon Targaryen, the king's brother and Rhaenyra's uncle. He can be evil, sweet, thoughtful, cruel, sympathetic, and bloodthirsty at different times. He's the closest thing the show has to a clear villain and, even then, sometimes you think, "This guy's got a point." Smith is magnetic, and it's great to see him in something that deserves his talents.

Yes, there is sex, and yes there is violence. But because the ensemble isn't quite as big as it was in "Game of Thrones," we have a chance to sit in these moments of pain — especially in the early episodes — a little bit longer. We can feel the characters' grief, and season one explores how those moments of anguish can affect people for a lifetime — sometimes in ways they don't even realize. And almost every sex scene has heavy, heavy consequences for the cast of characters. As the season continues, the tension and stress ratchets up with each episode as things slowly — and then rapidly — fall apart.

The first season of "House of the Dragon" is heavily invested in the struggle of women under patriarchy, but it doesn't have a simplistic "girl boss" message. Every character makes major mistakes, and the show presents them as deeply flawed and morally complex people doing their best in an archaic system. It's not just Smith's presence that might make early episodes reminiscent of "The Crown."

The series is pretty faithful to George R. R. Martin's "Fire and Blood," though, as the episode goes on, it plays around with the timeline and compresses events here and there. "House of the Dragon" also adds some major details to the Targaryen backstory that give their dragon obsession and thirst for the throne higher stakes. And we haven't even talked about the dragons! The dragons are stunningly beautiful — and no less exciting despite there being way more than three of them.

Overall, "House of the Dragon" is heavy, heart-wrenching, thrilling television. Get ready for another ride.

Sign up for HBO Max now to watch "House of the Dragon" when it premieres on Aug. 21, 2022.