Editor’s Note: Lindsey Mantoan is an associate professor of theater and resident dramaturg at Linfield University. She is the co-editor of “Vying for the Iron Throne” and four other books. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
“House of the Dragon,” HBO’s new prequel to its blockbuster series “Game of Thrones,” is complicated for me. Since its premiere on Sunday, fans and critics have been comparing notes about how this new show stacks up against its forerunner’s epic scale – and its abysmal finale.
And many – especially this fan – are wondering if their hearts, shattered by the nonsensical storytelling in many of “Game of Thrones” last episodes, might be mended.
It’s worth asking if this new show, which focuses on one thread of the complex tapestry of the “Game of Thrones” universe, matters despite its smaller scale, and what it might have to say about our current moment in culture, over a decade after the original series first aired. I haven’t answered those questions for myself yet, but as a fan of the original series who remains viscerally angry at its ending – particularly the way the writers betrayed their characters as well as rules of time and space – I’m left wondering what it means to be a fan of the franchise after all these years and why I’m watching “House of the Dragon” at all.
There’s a lot we’ve been asked to forgive, and I’m embarking on the “House of the Dragon” journey wondering if that forgiveness is possible.
After two and a half years of living amid a global pandemic, with the isolation of lockdowns, the heartbreak of positive tests derailing family gatherings, and the frustration of canceled vacations, perhaps there’s comfort in returning to familiar plotlines and characters, even if what fans are now seeing are their ancestors. The “House of the Dragon” writers keenly tap into this nostalgia, including in the premiere episode a throne room scene in which the heads of significant Westerosi houses swear fealty to the King, Viserys Targaryen, and his named heir, Princess Rhaenyra.
There’s a thrill of excitement in seeing a Stark ancestor of Jon, Sansa and Arya bend the knee to House Targaryen (though bending the knee didn’t work out so well for Jon) and a Baratheon patriarch vow to support a new (female) Targaryen heir, even as fans know his descendant Robert later attempts to assassinate Daenerys Targaryen.
And the Easter eggs don’t stop there – the premiere concludes with King Viserys disclosing a secret to his daughter, a prediction he says has been passed down from monarch to heir since the Targaryans first conquered Westeros: that “a terrible winter gusting out of the distant north” would someday threaten to “destroy the world of the living,” and “all of Westeros must stand against it.”
In case viewers aren’t clear that Viserys is referencing the entire plotline of “Game of Thrones,” he concludes his speech by calling this vision “The Song of Ice and Fire,” the overarching name author George R. R. Martin gives to books the original series is based on.
These nods of recognition feel like rewards for loyal viewers who have dedicated years to Martin’s labyrinthine world. They also create a sense of community across the fandom, with friends separated by geography or the pandemic reaching out to trade reactions and draw connections.
Of course, it’s not clear how long fans or even the network will stick with the series, with critics raising questions about a fantasy head-to-head between HBO’s “House of the Dragon” and Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” But the viewership numbers for the premiere – HBO, which shares a parent company with CNN, has said it was the most-watched premiere in HBO and HBO Max history – demonstrate at least an initial appetite to return to Westeros and its often incestual and always bloody intrigue.
Spin-off shows that effectively deploy nostalgia dominate the streaming landscape these days, with Disney+ capitalizing on both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars franchise via series narrowly focused on the development of characters fans have already grown to love. The success of shows like “WandaVision,” “The Mandalorian,” and “Obi-Wan Kenobi” have proved fans will tune in for screentime zeroed in on a small slice of a beloved epic landscape, which essentially describes the relationship between “House of the Dragon” and “Game of Thrones.”
But the uneven reception of shows such as the Sex and the City continuation, “And Just Like That,” and “The Book of Boba Fett” prove that a spin-off’s success is not a foregone conclusion. It requires a careful blend of reinforcing the franchise’s brand while adapting to new contemporary contexts, and throwing in something innovative and new for spice.
Fans tune in seek the comfort of the themes and aesthetics they know while also searching for the new. To this effect, the premiere of “House of the Dragon” self-consciously addresses the misogyny and sexual violence all too often apparent in “Game of Thrones,” and given that the narrative begins with the King asking Westeros to accept a future female monarch, there’s hope that representation of female characters might be an improvement over the original series.
But as with any prequel, we already kind of know how this one ends: patriarchy, White supremacy and misogyny will win out, and last in the Westerosi world for at least 200 more years. The first episode of “House of the Dragon” maintains the investment “Game of Thrones” made in portraying medieval brutality, including mutilation and dismemberment, nudity and shocking violations of female bodily autonomy. The show’s producers dance around the post-MeToo context they must work in now, relocating violence against women from sexual coercion to, horrifyingly, childbirth, which has profoundly uncomfortable resonances in a post-Roe United States.
So why are we watching? To catch a glimpse of a familiar castle, a Dornish prince or a prophecy we’ve watched play out centuries later? To see incest ruin a great dynasty? To see the look on the face of King Viserys’s cousin, The Queen Who Never Was, when she’s passed over as monarch because of her gender and think, “I know that look?”
Or maybe, after everything we’ve been through the past few years, we just want to watch dragons light things on fire.