'House of the Dragon' Knows How to Take Flight in the 'Game of Thrones' Prequel's Civil War-Fuelled Second Season

The fiery feuds keep coming in this engaging — and characteristically bloody, and long-awaited — return to Westeros' past.
Sarah Ward
Published on June 17, 2024

It's a chair made out of swords. So notes Daemon Targaryen's (Matt Smith, Morbius) description of TV's most-fought-over piece of furniture of the past 13 years: the Iron Throne. Not one but two hit HBO shows have put squabbles about the sought-after seat at their centre so far, and the second keeps proving a chip off the old block in a fantasy franchise where almost everyone meets that description. If the family trees sprawling throughout Game of Thrones for eight seasons across 2011–19 and now House of the Dragon for two since 2022 (with a third on the way) weren't so closely intertwined in all of their limbs, would feuding over everything, especially the line of succession, be such a birthright?

Set within the Targaryens 172 years before Daenerys is born, House of the Dragon could've always cribbed the name of another HBO success. In season two from Monday, June 17 Down Under — via Binge in Australia and Neon in New Zealand — season one's black-versus-green factionalism remains a civil war-esque showdown over which two offspring of the late King Viserys the Peaceful (Paddy Considine, The Third Day) should wear the crown and plonk themselves in the blade-lined chair. The monarch long ago named Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy, Mothering Sunday) as his heir. But with his last breaths, his wife Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke, Slow Horses) — also Rhaenyra's childhood best friend-turned-stepmother — claims that he changed his pick to their eldest son Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney, Rogue Heroes) instead. In King's Landing, the response was speedy, with Rhaenyra supplanted as the next ruler before she'd even heard over at Dragonstone that her father had passed away.

Based on Fire & Blood, which George RR Martin penned as backstory after A Song of Ice and Fire's first five books A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, House of the Dragon has also long painted Rhaenyra as the preferred type of chip off the old block. She too wants peace, not war. She also seeks stability for the realm over personal glory. If Viserys spotted that in her as a girl (Milly Alcock, Upright) when he chose her over Daemon, his brother who is now Rhaenyra's husband, he might've also predicted the dedication that she sports towards doing his legacy, and those before him, proud. Aegon, also the grandson of Viserys' hand Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans, The King's Man), sees only entitlement above all else.

Martin's tales of family dynasties — the names Stark, Tully, Lannister, Baratheon and more also pop up again — trade in the cycles that course through the bonds of blood, especially in House of the Dragon. Everyone watching knows what's to come for the Targaryens in Daenerys' time, right down to an aunt-nephew romance as the counterpart to Daemon and Rhaenyra's uncle-niece relationship. (No one watching has started this prequel series, the first spinoff of likely many to Game of Thrones, without being familiar with its predecessor). Ice-blonde hair, ambition that soars as high as the dragons they raise and fly, said flame-roaring beasts of the sky, the inability to host happy reunions: these are traits passed down through generations. Some are a matter of genes. Martin continues to explore why the others persist.

Season one took to its role as the next on-screen trek across Westeros with seriousness, devotion and reverence, leading to a front-ended run intrigue-wise with talk — scheming, plotting, proclaiming who should be next to sit upon several thrones — and laying the groundwork for more seasons to come monopolising the ten-years-later back half. It was exactly what fans of this TV franchise could've wanted, in no small part thanks to its fondness for overt mirroring that stresses the point that some things trickle down from parent to child no matter what. Season two has less establishing to do, and therefore a quicker pace and tighter focus. It's content in one time period. It also has not just the aftermath of a usurpation but also of a tragic death at the hands of Aegon's younger brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell, Saltburn), who bears a grudge and wears an eyepatch (the two are connected), to traverse.

Rhaenys (Eve Best, Nurse Jackie), cousin to Viserys and Daemon, sums up one of the tragedies that House of the Dragon has committed itself to unpacking: that skirmishes will become such a given that no one will recall or care why the blacks (Rhaenyra's camp) and greens (Aegon and Alicent's) took up weapons and began torching each other with dragons in the first place. The audience won't forget. With images thankfully easier to discern — there's no repeat in the first four episodes of the dull-looking day-for-night atrocity of season one, its low point — the show's return witnesses the cost of pursuing the Iron Throne. It spends more time with the smallfolk, aka those beyond the royals and their cronies. It observes their reaction to the bad blood's brutality at its cruellest. And it does so even while making good on the big promise of Targaryens tearing into each other in a Seven Kingdoms period when dragons weren't a rarity: those mid-air sweeping and snapping dragon frays, which are gloriously brought to life.

Scaling back the scene-setting and future-plotting is a gift to House of Dragon's cast in season two, especially to D'Arcy and Cooke. Rhaenyra's battle is really a battle with Alicent more than her son — and the two actors behind the parts expertly handle the task of conveying not only the duelling ambitions feeding the Targaryen tussle for the crown and throne, but also the emotional stakes and costs in their friends-turned-enemies portrayals. Best, as another Targaryen who should've been queen but was overlooked for Viserys, joins them in expressing what it means to walk every step with Westeros' engrained malice shaping your path beyond your control. Seeing their characters team up may now be left to fan fiction, but House of Dragon is a better series with their performances at its heart.

As uttered with the snarling glibness that Smith oozes so well in his scene-stealing role, that aforementioned account from Daemon of what everyone is fighting over might sound flippant. It's designed to. But trust House of Dragon to encapsulate the undying source of its heat, and of the perpetual clashes within this conflict-riddled saga, with such a seemingly easy and ordinary turn of phrase. When the fact that leading means climbing across a path of violence, then sitting atop one, even if you're devoted to eschewing bloodshed — again, the Iron Throne is literally a chair made out of swords — and when that fact is such a routine aspect of life that no one thinks twice about it, what else but more feuding can spring?

Check out the full trailer for House of the Dragon season two below:

House of the Dragon season two streams Down Under via Foxtel and Binge in Australia, and SoHo, Sky Go and Neon in New Zealand, from Monday, June 17, 2024. Read our review of season one.

Images: HBO.

Published on June 17, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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