Scott D. Pierce: ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel stinks of dragons in the best possible way

There’s a battle for the Iron Throne and plenty of fire breathers.

(Ollie Upton | HBO) Paddy Considine as King Viserys and Milly Alcock as Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra in "House of the Dragon."

I prepared myself to be disappointed by the “Game of Thrones” prequel, “House of the Dragon,” because I absolutely loved “Game of Thrones.” Even the ending.

I just rewatched the final episodes of the original series, and they’re very good. The series finale is excellent. I’m more convinced than ever that most of the viewers who didn’t like it (a) wanted a happy ending and hadn’t been paying attention to the previous 72 episodes; and (b) represent a minority who, caught in a social media echo chamber, spent way too much time trying to out-snark each other.

But I digress. Honestly, I never thought “House of the Dragon” would live up to “GOT.” And I am pleasantly surprised to be wrong about that.

The prequel, which airs Sunday at 7, 8:10, 9:55 and 11:40 p.m. on HBO and streams on HBO Max, gets off to a very strong start. I’ve seen six of the 10 episodes, which range from good to great.

We see our first full-grown dragon just three minutes in. And, shortly thereafter, its rider, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Mily Alcock), is scolded by her mother.

“Now take a bath,” says Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke). “You stink of dragon.”

The whole show stinks of dragons — in the best possible way.

(HBO) A dragon flies over King's Landing in "House of the Dragon."

Based on the book

The story (as told in the book “Blood & Fire”) begins about a century after Aegon the Conquerer conquered the Seven Kingdoms and brought them under the rule of the Targaryens. It’s 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, who figured so prominently in “GOT.”

King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) sits on the iron throne, which looks somewhat different from what we’re accustomed to. Viserys is a pretty good man but not a particularly strong king. He has no male heir, so he designates his daughter Rhaenyra as his successor. And that rankles his previous heir, his brother, Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) — who is NOT a good guy. Plus, nobles in the Seven Kingdoms have previously made it clear they want a king, not a queen.

No spoilers here, but “House of the Dragon” is filled with palace intrigue and all about the considerable conflict in the extended Targaryen family over the succession, and it’s going to get a lot worse toward the end of season 1. And both sides have dragons.

Unlike “Game of Thrones,” the show’s detractors won’t be able to say it would’ve been done differently if author George R.R. Martin was involved. He’s an executive producer, and his book on which this part of the Targaryen tale is based was published in 2018. As opposed to his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, which seemingly will never see publication of the final two books.

(Ollie Upton | HBO) Emma D’Arcy as the adult Princess Rhaenyra Matt Smith as Prince Daemon in "House of the Dragon."

As was the case with “GOT,” the storyline from the book is streamlined for TV — fewer characters, more focus on the primary plot. There are mentions of houses familiar to us from “GOT” — the Hightowers, Arryns, Lannisters, Martells, Tullys and even the Starks — but the action focuses mostly on the Targaryens and their cousins, the Velaryons.

And, as was the case with “GOT,” the streamlining is a good thing. It takes a while to figure out who all the characters in “House of the Dragon” are as it is. If all the characters from the book had been included, it would have been impossible to do so.

There’s a time jump between the fifth and sixth episodes — adults have aged, adolescents are suddenly adults, children have grown considerably and more children have been born. Several of the characters are played by older actors. And that requires a bit of figuring out who’s who all over again.

Bigger budget

“House of the Dragon” starts out both smaller and bigger than “Game of Thrones.” It’s smaller, in a way, because most of the action takes place in King’s Landing. Although there are trips to Dragonstone and Casterly Rock — and a war (complete with dragons) is fought in a chain of islands known as the Stepstones.

The prequel also starts out vastly bigger than the early seasons of “Game of Thrones.” If you go back and watch season 1 of “GOT,” it was produced on a much smaller scale. Back then, King’s Landing looked and felt like more of a village than the massive city it became in later seasons. The only dragon effects in season 1 were the babies just after they hatched in the season finale. Even the Battle of the Blackwater (season 2, episode 9) leaves a lot of what happened up to the viewers’ imagination, with smaller bits of the battle suggesting the larger war — clearly done on a tight budget.

“House of the Dragon” starts out looking big. King’s Landing is a metropolis, there are full-grown dragons flying around, and there’s a jousting tournament in episode 1 that’s just spectacular. The comparison to the jousting tournament in season 1, episode 4 of “Game of Thrones” is startling.

(HBO) Paddy Considine as King Viserys in "House of the Dragon."

As the seasons passed, the “GOT” budget grew and the production became positively enormous. “House of the Dragon” starts out looking like “GOT” did at the end.

There are a lot of other similarities, which shouldn’t be surprising since they’re both based on Martin’s books. It’s violent to the point of being grotesque. There’s nudity and relatively explicit sex scenes. There’s family and political intrigue, surprisingly shifts to alliances and startling plot twists.

And, while we saw in-flight battles between two living dragons and an ice-zombie dragon in “Game of Thrones,” we have battles among living dragons to look forward in “House of the Dragon.”

“House of the Dragon” is the best thing like “Game of Thrones” since that show ended its run more than three years ago — but there was no guarantee that was going to be true.

If you loved or even liked “Game of Thrones,” you’ll like and possibly love “House of the Dragon.” Even if you were not happy with how “Game of Thrones” ended, you’ll want to watch this.

And, by the way, you don’t have to watch a single episode of “Game of Thrones” before you watch “House of the Dragon.” You won’t get the flashes of foreshadowing, but it won’t harm the viewing experience at all.

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