The current state of fantasy TV is such that everyone everywhere wants a piece of the pie. The Game of Thrones Effect has, for better or worse, led to an influx of fantasy programming across both streaming platforms and linear TV. On the one hand, it’s a welcome change because it means fantasy no longer exists on the fringes. Fans of the genre now have choices and aren’t made to feel like outsiders. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate because Game of Thrones, as it exists on screen, is often a poor example of what’s possible in the world of fantasy.
For much of the series’ eight-season run, the writers did the bare minimum, only lightly engaging with the story’s high fantasy elements after proving to be an adept political drama full of intrigue and battling houses. This has had a detrimental effect on the rest of the genre, as network and studio executives rushed to find the next Game of Thrones. Some shows are inaccessible to new viewers (HBO’s His Dark Materials), while others are shallow and far too generic (Amazon Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time). Even those offering exciting and fresh new worlds to explore (Netflix’s Shadow and Bone) sometimes feel flat in comparison to their source material, making for a lopsided viewing experience. Knowing this, perhaps it makes sense that pop culture has returned (regressed?) to what we as a society find comforting and familiar: the worlds of Westeros and Middle-earth.
HBO launched House of the Dragon, a prequel focusing on the beginning of the end of the complicated Targaryen dynasty, on August 21, while Amazon debuted the long-awaited The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power just a short time later, on September 1. The latter, a prequel to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, is set during the Second Age and follows the rise of Sauron, the forging of the Rings of Power, and the fall of the island of Númenor.
There was never a world in which HBO would not try to franchise Game of Thrones—once the biggest show on the planet, the series had multiple spinoffs in development at one point. Meanwhile, the most surprising thing about The Lord of the Rings is that the TV rights to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien weren’t sold before 2017 given how critically and commercially successful Peter Jackson’s epic film trilogy was at the beginning of the new millennium (related: we are so old). So it’s not shocking we now find ourselves here, with prequel series from the two properties that best represent expensive, blockbuster fantasy made attractive to the masses. Nor is it terribly surprising that only one show feels like it has succeeded in expanding upon its parent property.
Based on the relatively sparse appendix of The Return of the King, The Rings of Power wastes no time whisking viewers back to the jaw-dropping vistas of Middle-earth, immersing them first in the idyllic existence of the Elves and eventually the mines of the Dwarves and the world of Men too. With determined warrior Galadriel (played by Morfydd Clark) as our entry point, and with a familiar objective in stopping the nefarious Sauron (Charlie Vickers)—as identifiable a villain as one is likely to find in pop culture—the picture being painted across the first season’s eight episodes is plenty recognizable even as we’re introduced to new characters and locations that we didn’t see in Jackson’s trilogy.
And yet, there is still plenty that is new and exciting as well. This world, which sees the lush Southlands transformed into the desolate crags of Mordor under the watch of wayward elf Adar (Joseph Mawle), expands upon what we know in ways that fills in cracks while creating endless possibilities. Although the episodes are sometimes overwritten and often lack urgency, and even though the Harfoot Nori (Markella Kavenagh) is a poor stand-in for Frodo (Elijah Wood), with every quasi-questionable storytelling decision also comes an intriguing development. Yes, even the reveal that Halbrand was Sauron all along. As obvious as this detail was—the character was perfectly designed to make viewers like him so his betrayal would sting all the more—one cannot deny that the complex relationship that now exists between Sauron and Galadriel strengthens the series’ overall narrative.
If only the same could be said for House of the Dragon. Like Game of Thrones before it, the prequel series only loosely engages with its fantasy core. Yes, there are numerous dragons in the show, and yes, they are used to good effect, swooping in at opportune moments for various members of House Targaryen and essentially giving them a cheat code in whatever disagreement has darkened their doorstep, be it conflict in the Stepstones or internal family politics that lead to a civil war of succession (RIP Luke and Arrax). Outside of these moments, though, the show is merely the Westeros version of The Crown.
With a narrative that centers on the Targaryen line of succession after Viserys’ (Paddy Considine) first wife dies during childbirth and his newborn son follows shortly after, the series is essentially a lesson in the failures of the patriarchy and the limitations of monarchy as a system of government. It could be compelling, in theory, but the writers chose to prioritize plot over character (another thing Game of Thrones did to its detriment in its later years), leading to wild, uneven pacing and out-of-nowhere time jumps that make it difficult to explore anything or anyone beyond surface level. And with so much time spent inside the walls of the Red Keep or Dragonstone while focusing on the incestuous relationships of the Targaryens and the power hungry men and women who revolve around them, the series is also too focused on internal affairs to have much room to expand upon the world we know.
Perhaps the series’ biggest flaw, though—underscored by the fact the show aired concurrently with The Rings of Power—is that it feels limited by its connection to its parent property in a way the Amazon series does not. The best spinoffs build upon the mythology and narrative of their parent series, eventually escaping their shadows to stand on their own (see: Better Call Saul, Angel, The Good Fight). House of the Dragon feels determined to remind us that it’s basically just Game of Thrones, but with more blonde wigs and fewer sympathetic characters. Meanwhile, constant references to the Song of Ice and Fire prophecy are clunky at best and act like flashbacks to something that happened only moments ago. It’s as if the writers don’t trust us to understand the importance of what’s happening or what’s at stake.
But there is hope for something better. Now that the series has set the table and positioned Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and the Blacks against Aegon (Tom Glynn Carney) and the Greens, there exists a possibility for House of the Dragon to finally put to use some of Game of Thrones’ better qualities from its earlier seasons, like its ability to balance spectacle with surprisingly nuanced character arcs. Until that happens, though, it won’t stand much of a chance in the ongoing battle for Best Fantasy Prequel Show.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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