CW: graphic violence, rape, incest, and child marriage.

Cue the Game of Thrones (Thrones) theme music, which once may have made your toes curl with excitement and sent chills down your spine, but nowadays might just make you groan. Yet the feuding nobles seem to have made a comeback with House of the Dragon (House), the prequel to Thrones. This new show is the recent winner of the Golden Globe for Best Television Series (Drama), with Emma D’Arcy scoring a nomination for Best Lead Actress in a Television Series (Drama). After a disappointing end to the most popular show in the world, how did HBO return with such success?

House returns to Westeros 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, when the Targaryen dynasty is at the height of its power. After his queen dies in childbirth, King Viserys I Targaryen names his only living child—his daughter Rhaenyra—heir to the Iron Throne. However, Rhaenyra’s succession is jeopardised when her father marries Alicent Hightower, who gives birth to a son. This leads to a crisis of succession and a civil war which almost destroys House Targaryen, a conflict known in Westerosi history as the Dance of the Dragons.

I was optimistic going into this show; Thrones was adapted from an unfinished series and was highly praised until the later seasons, when the showrunners ran out of books. In contrast, House has a completed story for its source. The show is based on the second half of George R. R. Martin’s novel Fire and Blood, which details the history of the Targaryen family’s reign from its founding to the end of the civil war. HBO has proven that they can successfully adapt material concerning this world, and I believe I was right in predicting that this would apply to House; my first impression after watching the pilot was that it felt like a typical episode of Thrones.

However, House does try new things and take some risks in the narrative, like introducing a time skip and a major cast change halfway through the season. Milly Alcock and Emily Carey respectively play Rhaenyra and Alicent as teenagers for the first five episodes, after which they are replaced by Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke as older versions of the characters. While I think with a healthy suspension of disbelief and some modern cinematic tricks it would have been possible to do without the cast change, it became clear to me even before the first appearance of D’Arcy and Cooke that what the showrunners had envisioned thematically for these characters in the first half of the show was very different from the second half and the switch was not only necessary but a calculated artistic choice.

Alcock and Carey play Rhaenyra and Alicent at a time in their lives when neither of them yet know how to play the “game of thrones.” Teenage Rhaenyra is headstrong but does not seem to grasp that she cannot change society through sheer will power. Alcock has an assertive presence on screen, and when D’Arcy steps into the role, they continue to bring this to the character, with an added sense of wisdom and humility. Young Alicent, on the other hand, is a girl who has accepted her role in a world of men. Carey’s performance is layered: she shows Alicent’s innocence and the charming face she puts on, as well as the cracks in the façade, and the despair she feels at being nothing but a vessel for childbearing. When Cooke takes over the role, Alicent becomes a regal, domineering figure, who still shows signs of strain and heartache.

Paddy Considine and Rhys Ifans have been praised for their performances as Viserys and Otto Hightower (Alicent’s father and the Hand of the King). While Considine effectively portrays Viserys as a man who tries to do right by his family and kingdom and feels the pressures of failing, and Ifans is subtle in showing Otto’s determination to have his grandson on the throne, Matt Smith steals the show as Prince Daemon, Viserys’s brother and Rhaenyra’s uncle. Smith’s performance is filled with swagger, shrewdness, and unapologetic corruption, and his scenes are among the best.

The supporting cast includes Steve Toussaint and Eve Best as Lord Corlys Velaryon and his wife, Princess Rhaenys Targaryen. Their scenes were always intriguing as they are both cunning characters who work as a team, but also genuinely care about each other and their family. Finally, Fabien Frankel is Ser Criston Cole and Sonoya Mizuno is Mysaria; both gave commendable performances, although I felt like the writing undermined their acting. Criston Cole seems to only be there for the audience to hate him, so when there is a plot hole halfway through the season which does not explain why he is not removed from the Kingsguard, you notice it. Mysaria drops out of the story after a couple episodes and comes back much later with little context; I simply wished she could’ve had more scenes.

Upon first encounter, the Dance of the Dragons storyline appears to be about two factions pursuing power for power’s sake, however the showrunners seem determined to make heroes out of some of these characters, especially Rhaenyra and Alicent. Several dialogues are added where they discuss how to avoid conflict and death for as long as possible, so the audience can sympathise with them. People usually end up dying anyway because of the inherent brutality of the setting, the inability of anyone to compromise, or the dragons just deciding to not obey commands that day and running amok.

Behind the scenes of the show, the production team is working hard to bring Westeros back to life. What’s interesting about the sets is that many of them are present in Thrones, but in House they are noticeably grander and more opulent, the Watsonian explanation being that the architecture in Westeros has not yet been damaged by several wars and the Doylist one that HBO now has a larger production budget. Certain costumes were clearly designed to recall characters from Thrones (Rhaenyra’s black coats look a lot like Dany’s wardrobe in season 7) but I personally loved Alicent’s elegant green dresses.

I have just a few final notes on this show: without spoiling anything, there is an interesting connection to Thrones which adds greater depth to several characters’ motivations, the downside being that many people in the audience want no reminder of the final season and cringe each time this plot point is brought up. Another newsflash: HBO still has the money to create CGI dragons, and since there are a lot more dragons in this show, they get to play with some different designs. They also keep the same theme song for the opening sequence, apparently deciding that there was no beating it.

Maybe the final season of Thrones ruined Westeros for you, and you have no interest in watching HBO’s attempt to redeem the franchise. However, House has a stellar cast, engaging writing, and the same dazzling costumes, sets, and special effects. Perhaps you dismissed House at first but are now intrigued by its critical success; rest assured that it has all the gravitas of its predecessor, if not quite the same impact, simply because the old show did it first. House of the Dragon feels like Game of Thrones while it was still good, and that was quality entertainment.