House of the Dragon leaves no room for theories — they’re all doomed

The season 2 premiere of House of the Dragon does viewers a kindness. Instead of following up on nearly every thread from the season 1 finale, “A Son for a Son” mainly concerns itself with one: the shocking death of young Lucerys and his dragon Arrax at the hands of his uncle Aemond. Perhaps it’s strange to call this grim opening “kind,” but in doing this the show is able to lead with feelings, not lore or politicking, although there’s plenty of that, too. Mostly, it’s a story about everyone realizing they started a war, and kind of regretting it.

This is in spite of Dragon’s opening moments on the Wall, hundreds of miles away from King’s Landing, where the bulk of the episode takes place. In this first scene, Jacaerys “Jace” Velaryon (Harry Collett) meets with Cregan Stark (Tom Taylor) to see what men of the Night’s Watch will join his mother Rhaenyra’s cause in the coming civil war. Cregan acquiesces, but not before musing a bit about the Wall and its purpose. The Night’s Watch in this show is not a dead-end job, as it is in Game of Thrones, but a noble calling, and its members remember what the Wall is for, at least symbolically: keeping Death itself at bay, with a line that even dragons fear to cross.

With this callback, House of the Dragon reminds viewers of its mission, and how it differs from Game of Thrones: This is not a show about existential threats. This is a more contained story, about the small and often petty grievances, misunderstandings, and ambitions of a small group of people painfully aware of history’s weight, or desperate to slip its bonds.

Cregan and Jace walk through the snowy trench atop The Wall in the House of the Dragon season 2 premiere Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

To that end, “A Son for a Son” is about the many players in King’s Landing and beyond feebly fretting over how to avert open war, or fiending for it. Young Aegon, the new king, wants to be a kind and magnanimous ruler, but is checked by his Hand, Otto Hightower, who reminds him that his every word sets a precedent. His brother Aemond knows that no amount of goodwill the young king is able to curry will dissuade those who back Rhaenyra’s claim to the throne, and craves action. Rhaenyra herself has withdrawn in grief, seeking the remains of her son and his dragon, while those in her circle — like her husband/uncle, Daemon — impatiently prowl in their chambers, eager to assert the justness of their cause to the denizens of the realm.

But scale is not the only way House of the Dragon differentiates itself from its predecessor. What makes it such a fascinating spinoff series is its source material, and how its showrunners have chosen to adapt it. Fire & Blood is not a novel; it’s an in-universe historical account, complete with differing perspectives on pivotal events. Showrunner Ryan Condal and House of the Dragon’s writing staff have decided to leverage this aspect of Martin’s work as a source of dramatic irony. As Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire used sheer distance and time separating characters to engineer tragic arcs, House of the Dragon finds moments of imprecision or chaos to lean on character flaws and introduce uncertainty. Do two characters actually understand one another? Why would they? Why wouldn’t they?

The young King Aegon sits on the Iron Throne, nearly engulfed by the swords that surround it in the season 2 premiere of House of the Dragon. Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO

The final act of “A Son for a Son” hinges on such a moment of uncertainty, as Daemon (Matt Smith), unwilling to let Lucerys’ death go unanswered, hires a ratcatcher to assassinate Aemond in his bed. But he is careless, arrogant, simply interested in a blood debt being paid, and his brief instructions reflect that. Someone else dies as a result, and the course of history shifts again.

It’s all so human, so trivial, the lapses in judgment or thoughtless acts that turn the gears of power and sweep up countless lives in their wake. House of the Dragon feels built to ruminate on these moments, to leave the viewer bitterly wondering how simply things could have gone another way, if not a better one. Game of Thrones, in its adaptation of an unfinished work and grander storytelling priorities, rarely felt this top-to-bottom reminiscent of Greek tragedy. But in House of the Dragon, fate itself lurks in the halls of King’s Landing. The Iron Throne will rust. People will make terrible choices that will tear through the lives of innocent people. But we will also see, with terrible clarity, the very moments those people nearly chose differently.