At its best, Game of Thrones was about politics, power and the ruthlessness of the truly ambitious. You could see it as a set of metaphors about climbing the corporate ladder. At its worst it was an adolescent male fantasy featuring an uncountable number of nubile young women on their hands and knees. In the end, the series went impenetrably illogical, satisfying no one.
But a series so spectacularly successful was always going to spawn prequels, sequels and offshoots galore. The first to arrive is different in tone, not so sprawling and still, it’s deeply troubling. There’s ruthlessness, but here it seems part of a celebration of the fascist impulse to violence.
House of the Dragon (Sundays, HBO, 9 p.m., streams on Crave) is, at first, blessedly about two young women, Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), who seem to be stuck being child-bearing pawns. Independent-minded Rhaenyra is the only child of King Viserys (Paddy Considine), a doddery monarch who just wants to have a son and heir. As things open, he’s expecting his wife, soon to go into labour, to produce just that for him.
There are dragons flying – make your own interpretations about nuclear weapons and fighter jets – and there’s a scene of knights jousting. There’s a lot of blood and gore. In particular, what happens to Viserys’s pregnant wife is one of the most blood-filled scenes that HBO has shown its viewers.
It’s hard to tell at the start if there’s someone to follow closely and root for. In the absence of that, the viewer is deliberately drawn to the figure of the king’s brother Daemon (Matt Smith, from The Crown and Doctor Who), who is technically next in line to the throne and wants it. If we are in any doubt about this, we see him sit on the spiky throne when nobody’s looking.
Daemon’s day job is Commander of the City Watch, which allows him to unleash terrible violence on the ordinary citizenry and lead a group of thugs who are loyal to him. In the first episode we see what this means – the streets are cleared of people called “scum,” as alleged thieves have their hands hacked off and others have other body parts hacked off.
Now, as things progress Daemon is reprimanded for this. And there’s a lot of gloomy talk about revenge and the uselessness of women. Still later, there’s some ranting about pirates who are pillaging and ruining things for everybody.
What’s interesting is that while we are meant to be drawn to Rhaenyra as the key character, the figure who can’t take your eyes away from is Daemon. He’s no mere psychopath, he’s the fascist urge in every political or family battle depicted here. And he’s vivid while others are opaque. He’s got a handle on using the mob to further his aims. He’s the embodiment of machismo, blood-soaked heroism and, naturally, xenophobia. He’s a walking, talking, sword-wielding fascist.
It’s not wrong to put the label “fascist” on the most compelling character in House of the Dragon. Fascism is often loosely used as a term of insult or slur, but in this instance let’s just say it’s about the impulse toward totalitarian rule achieved by violence. There are many layers to the history of the fascist impulse, and the Italian novelist and theorist Umberto Eco found 14 of them. Among them, “The cult of tradition,” “The rejection of modernism,” “The cult of action for action’s sake” and “Disagreement is treason.”
The thing about House of the Dragon is that it doesn’t take a moral stance on the actions or conduct of Daemon. It doesn’t seem to take a moral stance on anything. It’s a wild ride with dragons, machinations, blood and guts, glorifying what looks like a terribly familiar kind of politics. It may be a fantasy series like Game of Thrones but so far Matt Smith’s smirking delight in what his character does is dangerously alluring to the impressionable.
You’d think that, with the death of the Queen and a new monarch, House of the Dragon might have certain new reverberations. But it’s not the story of the British monarchy that echoes here. What comes to mind is the bluster of former White House chief strategist and senior adviser Steve Bannon, reacting to being indicted again. “They are coming after all of us, not only President Trump and myself,” he told NBC News. “I am never going to stop fighting. In fact, I have not yet begun to fight. They will have to kill me first.”
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