House of the Dragon is back, off to a flying (and terrifying) start

The tragedy that ended season one is joined by another horrific one in the first new episode of House of the Dragon. This first ep is quintessential Game of Thrones stuff, says Daniel Rutledge.

“Duty is sacrifice. It eclipses all things, even blood. All men of honour must pay its price.”

So intones an unmistakably Northern Westerosi man as the first episode of season two opens. Those beautiful words are matched with beautiful pictures of a raven flying through misty pine woodlands, over a lake and rocky hillside before majestic Winterfell is revealed. If that wasn’t enough, Ramin Djawadi plays a version of his House Stark motif over the top, which pulls at the heartstrings as it did in the likes of ‘Goodbye Brother’ and ‘Home’.

This is a powerful way to kick things off, delivering great sentimentality for all of us who loved Game of Thrones. It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since we’ve been in Winterfell, but it has, and it’s so nice to be back—even if just for the episode’s first scene. That opening line not only hits directly on some of the show’s themes and specifically on the primary values of House Stark, it also echoes one of the most memorable exchanges in House of the Dragon‘s first season, from the throne room confrontation following Aemond’s losing an eye.

“Where is duty? Where is sacrifice? Trampled under your pretty foot again!” raged Alicent, blade in hand. Rhaenyra responded: “Exhausting, wasn’t it? Hiding beneath the cloak of your own righteousness—but now they see you as you are.”

This sort of writing as the payoff to painstakingly built drama is one of the main reasons I love this show. And season two hits the ground running, with the Green and Black divisions of House Targaryen edging ever closer to all-out war. We’re thrown into the aftermath of the tragedy that occurred in the final minutes of season one and drastically escalated hostilities. Each side continues to amass armies, call in allies and draw up war plans. But very quickly, these carefully laid plans appear to start coming undone, as vengeful characters give in to their impulses and act rashly.

The tragedy that ended season one is quickly followed by another in season two, with more set to rapidly pile on top of each other. Despite how brilliant the above lines from Alicent and Rhaenyra may be, neither of them is a brilliant strategist. House of the Dragon actually has very few of those and the ones it does have are never truly powerful enough to execute their schemes fully. The drama is driven through the powerful making bad decisions more than clever ones, with plenty of dreadful mistakes and tragic coincidences. You don’t have to look around our real world very far to see how clearly that rings true. The lack of cunning is also a factor that smartly differentiates the prequel series.

House of the Dragon is more successful than many likely expected it to be, given how harshly the masses viewed the final season or two of Game of Thrones. The prequel has a lot more dragon content, of course, but doesn’t lose itself in CG beast battles. Rather, it doubles down on the power struggles and political machinations that true heads really loved in the original series. But while Game of Thrones had to juggle a couple dozen main characters across several parts of Westeros and even Essos as well, House of the Dragon is focused instead on just one house with two divisions, with far fewer main characters to track.

The final sequence of the first episode is incredible—and incredibly disturbing. It’s an intensely sinister several minutes inside the Red Keep of King’s Landing, chillingly done as a great bit of horror filmmaking. It features a depraved act of violence that is expressed largely through a brutal piece of sound design sure to make many people squirm, even if they’ve got their eyes closed. The act also terrifyingly raises the story’s stakes to a new level. It’s quintessential Game of Thrones stuff—just the greatest adult fantasy TV show we’ve got, doing what it does best again. Hell yeah.