House of the Dragon, HBO’s spin-off of Game of Thrones, premiered on August 21, 2022. Due to the massive viewership that the show has been getting, HBO already renewed it for a second season.
Audiences and critics alike sing its praises.
However, a black cloud still looms over the show. Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series, also started off with a rave audience and critical reviews. Its shocking twists and cathartic tragedies kept fans riveted.
Sadly, by the end, the biggest shock and most painful tragedy for fans was the show itself. HBO and the showrunners simply did not know how to end the series, leaving fans with a largely disappointing finale. Season 8 is widely panned as one of the worst finales ever. Making one wonder how House of the Dragon will do with fans and critics alike long-term.
How could not only the writers, but the producers at HBO, approve the story for air? There are so many writing mistakes, a middle school teacher would have failed them. As a result, many book fans are highly skeptical and reluctant to engage with House of the Dragon.
What if it’s just a quick cash grab?
That could be the case. However, there are several reasons to hope House of the Dragon won’t implode like its predecessor. In fact, it could even redeem elements of the story.
Warning: there will be some non-specific spoilers from Fire & Blood, the book House of the Dragon is based on, as well as detailed ones for Game of Thrones.
GRRM Is Involved With House Of The Dragon
The main A Song of Ice and Fire series remains stalled at five books, but author George R.R. Martin has penned spin-offs in the meantime. In 2018, Martin published Fire & Blood, a collection of short stories about the history of House Targaryen.
One of these stories, “The Dying of the Dragons,” is the basis for House of the Dragon.
“The Dying of the Dragons” is actually itself a further adaptation of another short story Martin wrote back in 2013 for a fantasy anthology. That story, “The Princess and the Queen,” has Rhaenyra and Alicent as its title characters.
The original show went downhill after the writers ran out of novels to adapt. In addition, Martin withdrew from his involvement in the show around the same time. In fact, he’s stated that the Game of Thrones showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, kept him “out of the loop” starting around season five, and he doesn’t know why.
Compare that with what Martin stated in August 2022 about House of the Dragon. Martin stated:
I don’t have any creative control, as you say. … What I do have is… creative influence. But that depends largely on the relationship between myself and the showrunners… I can make points, I can argue, and they can listen, but if they decide not to listen, then you know, I can try to persuade them… I don’t have the power to dictate things, but what I have [is influence], if they listen to me, and I can be fairly persuasive.
In the same interview, Martin also said he had “a great relationship” with Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnick.
The Science Of Writing Twists
One of Game of Thrones‘ primary hooks was how unpredictable the first few seasons were. Even the main characters weren’t safe! Everyone was excited to see what came next.
However, none of these twists were shock value for shock value’s sake. What made events like Ned Stark’s death work was properly setting up audience expectations, thereby inviting the audience to participate in the experience. Fans get excited to follow clues.
A good twist gives the audience enough clues to look back and say, “how did I miss that?”
Think of the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones, season 3, episode 9. Everyone loved Robb and Catelyn Stark, so they had to be safe from harm, right? Not so fast! For two seasons the characters made bad political decisions after even worse political decisions. No one gets away with this in Westeros. Protagonists don’t have halos.
Looking back, we can see the tragedy coming. We were just too invested in them to believe they’d die.
Contrast that with season 8 of Game of Thrones. There were no real clues for the finale, and twists came out of…forgetfulness. Daenerys “forgot” about the Iron Fleet, and so apparently did her entire team of strategists. Was forgetfulness ever a major flaw of Dany’s before? No, the answer is obviously “no.”
House of the Dragon should have twists. Anyone who has read Fire & Blood knows it will. As long as it sets up its twists well, it will shock and satisfy its audience.
Themes: For Shows And Eighth-Grade Book Reports!
One of Game of Thrones‘ primary writers once said, “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports.”
Technically, they aren’t wrong. If the writers had paid careful attention to their own past words and read an eighth-grade book report on their own show, they might’ve written a better finale.
Themes are one of the most important elements of a story, and they aren’t complicated. A theme is just the main idea of the story. It can be a message. Yet it can also be a question the story wants you to ask.
To be clear, a question theme doesn’t always have an answer. In fact, the lack of one is sometimes great to have.
Lord of the Rings, for example, asks us whether we can recover from a lot of hardship. The answer is different for every character. Sam marries and has a dozen kids. Frodo sails away, leaving Middle-earth.
One of the easiest ways to avoid a bad ending is for House of the Dragon to have a theme. Currently, the show’s exploring George R.R. Martin’s favorite idea: the human heart against itself.
Viserys, Daemon, Rhaenyra, Alicent, and Otto all face a conflict of duty. They desire to live their own lives and care for their loved ones. In their world, no one can have all three. However, no character is willing to accept that.
Hence, the stage is set for tragedy.
A Clear Genre: Tragedy
When we think of tragedy, we think of William Shakespeare or ancient Greek disasters marrying their parents. Everyone dies. It’s sad. However, not all tragedies are created equal.
Sometimes tragic characters get consumed by their worst traits and become parodies of what they once represented. Macbeth is a good example of this. Game of Thrones has Stannis Baratheon, who went from righteousness to burning his own child alive.
However, then you have tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, or Ned Stark’s death. They die, but their lives and the way they loved help save the world even after they’re gone.
The ending of the original Game of Thrones tried to be a tragedy, but it turned into a nihilistic mess instead. Every tragedy tells its audience at the start that it is a tragedy. Sometimes it does it outright, like with a Greek chorus. Sometimes it tells you in the title. Other times, it does it through framing.
Framing House Of The Dragon
What is framing? Well, the circumstances around a plot point or character decision tell the audience what to think of it. Should we root for a character? Should we see a victorious battle as just, or as a war crime?
For example, let’s compare Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon’s… unconventional romances. Why do people root for the incestuous relationships of Rhaenyra and Daemon, or Jon and Daenerys, but not Cersei and Jaime?
Cersei and Jaime’s relationship was introduced in a scene where they literally attempt to murder a child who is also our protagonist. Thus, the framing indicates death and destruction. In contrast, Jon and Dany’s relationship in season seven saves many characters and even hints at a new life. You know, with the seven million hints they’d have a baby.
Rhaenyra and Daemon’s relationship is framed as illicit, but so is Viserys marrying his daughter’s best friend. Yet, the characters believe in each other when others don’t.
Positive framing? Not entirely.
Negative framing? Not entirely.
Tragic Foreshadowing In House Of The Dragon
The framing of the overall series is that people tend to die from their mistakes in Westeros. If a character isn’t willing to learn from their mistakes, well, it probably means they’re doomed. Regardless of how endearing their spunkiness happens to be for fans and characters in the universe.
Even if you watch House of the Dragon without having seen Game of Thrones, it’s pretty clear Rhaenyra isn’t heading for happily ever after. The framing foreshadows a dark end.
Funnily enough, Rhaenyra’s strong will and Daemon’s roguishness make us like them. They also warn us about what could happen. Boldness and determination are admirable in some contexts. However, in new contexts, that determination will be framed as stubbornness, that boldness as an entitlement.
Actually, what makes for great tragedy is that the same trait that leads to a hero’s downfall is also what made them heroic. For example, Ned Stark’s honor, Robb’s love (and honor in the books), and Catelyn’s devotion to her daughters. We love these characters for these traits, yet these same traits get them killed.
Therefore, House of the Dragon is setting up appropriate expectations.
The Hand Of The Writer: Setting Expectations
Writers work backstage. They set audience expectations by showing characters and the world. Yet, there is a difference between setting expectations and being a puppet master. Characters should bring about their own fates, whether that’s happiness or tragedy.
To do this, you’ve gotta keep a character consistently motivated. When their motives change, you have to show the audience what caused the change. Game of Thrones didn’t do this towards the end. Character motives and traits changed at the will of the writers, not out of natural development.
For example, in season 8 of Game of Thrones, Cersei and Jaime’s relationship, which started with child murder, ends with them dying together wishing they could protect their child. However, it made no sense for Cersei’s character to go out like this. She didn’t care when her last child jumped out a window, so why was she suddenly a sympathetic mother again?
Clearly, the writers used this to paint another character as “Her Satanic Majesty” by comparison. In this, the audience sees the writer’s hand from backstage.
In comparison, House of the Dragon’s writers leaves the fates in the hands of their characters (so far). We can see the tension between Rhaenyra and her brother depicted in episode four. We see Rhaenyra’s desire to live her own life despite how Westeros says a woman should live.
If the world only existed around Rhaenyra, everything might work out for her. We’ve been given intercutting scenes of Rhaneyra and Daemon’s almost sex scene with scenes of Alicent submitting unhappily to her husband the king. Thus, the show gives us a grim reminder.
The Westeros world still expects women to submit to men. Queens are not exempt. Even if the world is wrong, that doesn’t mean the world isn’t powerful enough to enforce its injustice.
Text, Subtext, & Sexism In GoT Vs House Of The Dragon
One of Game of Thrones‘s lingering controversies was how it treated its female characters. People have debated where realistic, historical misogyny fits into medieval fantasy since season one.
Game of Thrones season 8 didn’t exactly help matters.
The revolutionary female leader, our primary heroine, saves the world and then goes insane and had to be put down like a mad dog by her intimate partner. The two heroines who live don’t ever show emotion, because emotions are icky girl stuff.
Oh, and in the final scene? The newly elected king and his council discuss opening a new brothel despite the fact that the world just burned down. Priorities, right gentlemen?
House of the Dragon revived some of these debates with Queen Aemma’s graphic birth scene in the first episode. Viserys, Aemma’s husband, orders a forced c-section despite Aemma begging for her life. Both Aemma and the baby die.
Thus, House of the Dragon begins with a public outcry about a woman’s wishes being ignored. Along with her brutally dying as a result. Bookending the series with the brutal deaths of other women, as Fire & Blood tells us will happen, seems unlikely to change the discourse anytime soon.
Or, could it?
Tragic framing might save the day. The show invites us to empathize with Rhaenyra and even Alicent. We see the misogynistic world as a system that creates pain for individual characters and for the worlds they rule. We know it didn’t have to be this way.
If characters like Rhaenyra and Alicent were treated with agency, they wouldn’t become the mad queens they end up as.
That’s a far cry from the bleak nihilism of bad genes and “it’s your fault for rooting for a character we told you to root for” that tarnished Game of Thrones.
In Conclusion: Trust
As YouTuber Jenny Nicholson once said:
the worst thing a franchise ending can do is make you feel… stupid and embarrassed for being excited about it in the first place.”
There’s a difference between fan service, which usually creates terrible writing, and respecting your audience. Giving clues respects an audience. Telling them a character forgot something insults their intelligence. Killing a hero like Robb Stark can be more respectful than portraying killing a villain like Cersei as an inhuman crime.
While we don’t know how the show will ultimately play out, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic. Thus far, House of the Dragon‘s writers seems to be properly setting audience expectations for plot twists, character arcs, and overall genre. If they maintain the story’s themes and keep a line open to Martin, the story could transcend the ashes of Game of Thrones.
Hopefully, the line to Martin won’t be too open, though. There’s still a place on many of our shelves that only The Winds of Winter can fill!