House of the Dragon Season 2 Is a Spy Drama—And All the Better for It

Okay, right, deep breath. Previously on House of the Dragon: owing to a terminal case of Ye Olde Fantasy Illness, season one MVP Paddy Considine’s King Viserys I decomposed to death in the season’s penultimate episode, leaving his wife and kids to squabble over his crown, putting an end to decades of Targaryen-led peace across the realm. Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) insisted that she was chosen as heir, which did happen, but alas ex-bestie Alicent (Olivia Cooke) disagreed, arguing she and Viserys’ son Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) had rightful claim to the throne. So he’s coronated, war beckons, and then Rhaenyra’s son Lucerys is killed by his uncle’s dragon, upping the stakes for a civil conflict that was already inevitable. It’s all kicking off in Westeros.

The first handful of episodes in season two, then—we were given the first four episodes to screen ahead of the series’ premiere on June 16— represent the calm before the storm, or perhaps the poisoned canapés before the dance of dragons. At first Rhaenyra is conspicuously absent, deeply mourning over the loss of her son, trauma compounded by the stress-induced stillbirth of her daughter-dragon-alien-thing; D’Arcy spends much of the first episode emoting into the middle-distance on the coast like a Romantic poet, and as with everything else they do on House of the Dragon, they’re brilliant at it. Elsewhere the pieces move across the chessboard, setting up the great new game of thrones to come (or the old game, given this is nearly two hundred years before the War of the Five Kings).

It’s a slow-burn start, relatively sparing on the thrills and intestine spills we all most associate with Thrones. But that isn’t to say it doesn’t brim with intrigue: said episodes unfold like a spy thriller, concerned with espionage, attempted assassinations, and clandestine operations behind the scenes. It’s not Bourne or Bond, of course, and you’re not going to see Steve Toussaint rocking around in a weapons-equipped supercar, but a good portion of the scenes deal in backroom plots and whispered machinations, a la The Americans and indeed peak Thrones (Littlefinger and Viserys would’ve made formidable Soviet double-agents, I reckon). There are, too, plenty of the expansive set pieces Thrones‘ VFX budget used to buy—the dragon scenes are astounding as they’ve ever been—but it’s refreshing that nü House of the Dragon takes its time at first, centering the smaller moments and character-driven conversations that give the inevitable battles and bigger showpieces their emotional weight.

We’re writing a lot around spoilers, naturally. But it’s a testament to the ensemble of this season of House of the Dragon—especially the various Targaryen kids, who get more screen time — that some of the Thespian losses from season one, not least Considine, the series’ MVP up to Viserys’ bitter end, are hardly felt. Matt Smith continues to chew the scenery as the swaggering, cock-first Daemon, putting in his best work this side of The Crown, also playing his part in the cloak-and-dagger mischief that is variously helpful to Rhaenyra’s cause and, well, fucking calamitous for it. (In some moments Daemon fashions himself as a bit of a Medieval Bond, but really, he wishes.) Matthew Needham also steps up as the slippery, serpentine Larys Strong, “master of whisperers,” who now has a firm grasp on Alicent’s ear. He’s a bit like the guy in your (extended) friend group who’s happy to chat shite on a night out but runs off as soon as it comes to fisticuffs.

Episodes three and four, especially the latter, up the tempo in the wake of a tragic series of events, to be more evocative of traditional Thrones: there’s gore, there’s sex, a big battle scene or two, lords with needlessly long titles get beheaded, all the good stuff. That isn’t to say the shade of mystery that defines the series’ opening few eps is lost: after all, Game of Thrones at its best brimmed with poisonings, assassinations, intel-gathering, double-crosses and disguises, the cornerstones of any good, Heathrow-ready paperback spy thriller. Coupled with its embrace of the human, interpersonal stories that undergird the explosive events of Dragon felt across the realm, this really is a return to Thrones‘ golden age.

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