House of the Dragon First Reviews: HBO's Game of Thrones Prequel Is 'Beautifully Crafted' and 'Compelling,' Critics Say

Living up to the legacy of HBO's hit fantasy series is no small undertaking. House of the Dragon stars Matt Smith, Paddy Considine, Olivia Cooke, and Emma D’Arcy.

by | August 19, 2022 | Comments

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House of the Dragon is the first Game of Thrones spinoff to land since HBO’s landmark series, inspired by George R.R. Martin’s epic book series, concluded in 2019. The prequel explores a bloody civil war that transpired within House Targaryen (aka the Dance of Dragons) centuries before Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and all that war-for-the-Iron Throne Westeros drama.

Starring in the big budget series are Emma D’Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, Olivia Cooke as Queen Alicent Hightower, Paddy Considine as King Viserys I, Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen, Fabien Frankel as Ser Criston Cole, Sonoya Mizuno as Mysaria, Rhys Ifans as Ser Otto Hightower, Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon/The Sea Snake, and Eve Best as his wife, Princess Rhaenya Velaryon.

Obviously, the anticipation is high for the spinoff. But does it deliver the goods? Here’s what critics are saying about season 1 of HBO’s House of the Dragon:

How does it compare to Game of Thrones?

House of the Dragon

(Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

In this first spin-off show, much is different, and much is familiar. There is still gruesome violence, well-placed swearing, and abundant orgies. The peroxide wigs still look resolutely like wigs. There are whispers, too, of a “Great Winter” and the “Prince That Was Promised”, along with occasional appearances from Baratheons, Starks and Lannisters — hints of players in the game to come. —John Nugent, Empire Magazine

For better and for worse, “Game of Thrones” made it increasingly difficult to shock us with its gore, cruelty, gratuitous sexual displays and twists of fate. The scenes where “House of the Dragon” strives to outdo its predecessor in those regards seldom succeed; it’s where the prequel feels most like a cheap knockoff. —Inkoo Kang, Washington Post

House of the Dragon may never be the next Game of Thrones… but it’s poised to at least step out of the giant shadow. —Daniel Van Boom, CNET

Dragon plays it safe. From the succession premise to a horror subplot unfolding at the fringes of civilization to Thrones and Westworld composer Ramin Djawadi’s elegant score, the show sometimes seems excessively preoccupied with hitting all of its predecessor’s marks. —Judy Berman, TIME Magazine

“House of the Dragon” captures much of the magic and glory of GoT. It’s a compelling mix of dastardly schemes, bloody battles and Shakespearean plots, with various noble factions conspiring to bring each other down. —Christopher Lloyd, The Film Yap

House of the Dragon’s rote mimicry of its predecessor undermines character development and dampens any sparks generated by its ensemble. —Roxana Hadadi, New York Magazine/Vulture

How is the cast?

(Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

Two performances stand out, and a third turns extraordinary. Alcock is an outright discovery, playing a young royal with shades of over-it indifference and wounded ambition. She evokes a very Targaryen paradox, the sense that the incestuous family floats ethereally but also rains hell. Smith’s Daemon is a veritable hell hurricane, bringing faint nobility to his wild-card impetuousness. —Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly

Most intriguing among the ensemble is Matt Smith, tremendous as a petulant, hissable villain sharing more than a few traits with the future Prince Joffrey, though Smith finds shreds of humanity to add to the bloodthirsty Targaryen supremacism. —John Nugent, Empire Magazine

The performances by D’Arcy and Cooke, too, easily stand out among those of a largely lackluster cast. —Inkoo Kang, Washington Post

Considine shines with his warm turn as Viserys, a character made tragic by his desire to do good and right by his daughter while always seeming to make the wrong choices. There’s not a poor performance among the cast of these first five episodes, with Rhys Ifans’ calm and confident take on Otto Hightower, the King’s Hand, contrasting beautifully with Emily Carey’s nerve-wracked turn as Otto’s daughter, Alicent. —Jamie Lovett,

I cannot wait to see more of Cooke, who chews every ounce of scenery she’s in as the adult Alicent. Give this woman an Emmy already. —Danielle Ryan, Slashfilm

What about the production value and action sequences?

(Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

Watching House of the Dragon, I could easily spot where the money in producing the show has been spent — besides the lavish costumes and sets. There sure is a special allocation in the budget for silver wigs, fake blood and digital dragons. —Patricia Puentes, Ask

The visuals, here, are certainly grander than those of “Game of Thrones” in its early going; anyone impressed by Daenerys Targaryen’s trio of dragons will have plenty to feast on here. And when it comes to the ways in which “Game of Thrones” weaponized HBO’s willingness to broadcast the grotesque, “House of the Dragon” goes still further, with sequences of genuinely nauseating violence unlike any this critic can recall. —Daniel D’Addario, Variety

Sapochnik’s involvement – and a sizeable $US200 million season budget – means House of the Dragon boasts the high-end production values you expect. Its scale is impressive and yes, apparently more dragons (17 of them!) is better than just three. —Wenlei Ma,

While the vast majority of “House of the Dragon” focuses on the political intrigue between the many houses of Westeros, there’s still plenty of the ridiculous R-rated Renaissance fair craziness that made “Game of Thrones” fun to watch. There’s jousting, knights battling with flails and swords, and plenty of dragon-riding. The dragon-riding looks a lot better than it did on “Game of Thrones,” which is good, because there’s a lot more of it. —Danielle Ryan, Slashfilm

And it all looks gorgeous. The medieval grandeur of the sets and fantastic special effects that fans of Game of Thrones all remain intact. The directing is impeccable, especially the debut episode directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who creates captivating frames with light and shadow. Game of Thrones’ signature graphicness is also intact, with plenty of violence and flesh. —Jamie Lovett,

How is the writing and character-development?

(Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

Despite an eye-popping (and face-axing) amount of hyper-violence — especially in the exhausting pilot — the first three installments are particularly generic in their plotlines and turgid in pacing, with certain characters displaying an exasperating naivete considering the abrupt bloodshed they frequently witness firsthand. —Inkoo Kang, Washington Post

These are all minor problems compared with the show’s awkward pacing. Dragon speeds through something like 14 years in its first half-season, leapfrogging viewers from one morass of court intrigue to the next without adequately smoothing the transitions. —Judy Berman, TIME Magazine

The writing so far lacks the sparkle of Thrones’ most profound moments: there is no equivalent to the witty drinking-and-knowing-things of Tyrion, no petty scheming of Littlefinger’s level, no revealing character moments as startling as Robert and Cersei finally having an honest conversation. —John Nugent, Empire Magazine

Scenes tend toward the short and pointedly written, giving us much data but only the general contours of characters. —Daniel D’Addario, Variety

Any final thoughts?

Emma D’Arcy and Matt Smith star in House of the Dragon

(Photo by Ollie Upton/HBO)

Does the show work if you’re coming in cold? My guess: It may leave newcomers wondering what all the “Game of Thrones” fuss was about.
Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune

It might never dazzle or thrill or provoke thought or drive the cultural conversation the way Thrones did, but it does often entertain. —Judy Berman, TIME Magazine

Sentimentality, a bunch of dragons and copious amounts of violence and sex only get you so far. The series still needs something more. —Joey Morona, Cleveland Plain Dealer

If you’re someone who has been frothing for more Game of Thrones, then this will more than satiate. —Wenlei Ma,

The problem is not just that the dragons here feel less physically tangible than they did before or that they lack definitive personalities. It’s that House of the Dragon takes them for granted, just as it does our attention. —Roxana Hadadi, New York Magazine/Vulture

But even if the remainder of House of the Dragon falls into a too-familiar pattern, that cannot take away from these first five episodes being beautifully crafted and compelling television. Game of Thrones fans and newcomers should settle in for an excellent five weeks, and maybe more. —Jamie Lovett,

Dragon doesn’t soar immediately, but no House was built in a day.—Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly

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