Buyer beware: you may not like what you read.
General housekeeping information: for those born on an island or amongst the Amish, Dragon is a sequel/prequel to Game Of Thrones. The George RR Martin saga ran for eight fun-filled seasons on the pay channel network, often time garnering headlines for its somewhat violent weddings, gratuitous sex, and big action sequences. As I’ve mentioned before, it ended with some controversy – a debate still rages in unquiet corners of the Internet where folks secretly hope for a do-over – but I felt that anyway convinced it was all somehow going to end happily really weren’t watching the same program I was. But because it was so popular with audiences and critics, HBO smartly hitched their wagon to the franchise and will be rolling out additional series in perpetuity.
“Okay … and how was House Of The Dragon’s first season?” you ask.
In a word: uneven.
In some ways, an unevenness can be a good thing, right? It can make a show feel edgy or contemporary in ways that other programs can’t. Life itself rarely makes perfect sense, so why not explore the lives, loves, and lessons of some real royal bastards and badasses in a way mankind may not have seen before. There’s an unpredictability to some of the developments; they still should feel organic, or one risks being dubbed gratuitous for gratuitous’ sake. And there’s a boldness to trying something not so much out-of-the-norm as it is just to the left (or right) of sane. Critics often embrace the extraordinary over the ordinary, so who’s to say weaving this particular tapestry as unconventionally as you can is a bad idea?
One would think that given the vastness of the source material that a room of screenwriters working in concert might be able to recognize some of the downsides to their ten episodes as designed. Characters come and go – some of them seemingly very important, but the audience is given fairly little substance with which to get to know them in any functional way – and more than a few of them get introduced solely to be killed off moments later. Were this a half hour sitcom, then perhaps laughs would’ve been scored; but in the context of a period Fantasy with so many stories, backstories, and incorporated fictional mythology I found it occasionally difficult to know what to make of the sudden death. Why him? Why her? Why now? Did I miss the significance? Something about it tells me these once-living folks were important – why else would they appear in this story – but I just can’t tell the difference between those with greater import and those people who were truly, ultimately disposable. Most of this confusion is because there seem to be absolutely no consequences to murdering anyone in this version of the Seven Kingdoms, and I don’t quite understand why that is.
All shows are required to have a measure of conflict, if for no other reason is the fact that good drama often evolves from the intersection of these issues. The players are meant to clash, both in words and action. They must take sides. Brothers turn on fathers. Daughters defy their mothers. Peasants rebel because of their plight. Often times, fledgling writers mistake high tension or screaming arguments as great theater because – in most instances – that’s all they know. Yet Dragon benefits largely as it’s evolved from a novel (or series of them), so author Martin has provided a spine about which these creative folks are building a body. In the process, I can’t help but wonder if they’ve sidelined whatever Martin wanted his bold tale to be about in favor of highlighting these equally nefarious characters.
Thus far, however, Dragon isn’t anything like a contemporary good vs. evil story as I heard one person recently describe it to friends.
I say this because – quite frankly – there are no good people in it. None that I see, at least. As a consequence, we’re left with “the lesser of the evils” story, and that’s a tough sell for a long haul. Why? Well, viewers want to root for someone. It’s kinda/sorta part of being along for the vicarious thrill. But when you’re given no hero – just a never-ending stream of anti-heroes – you’re fundamentally rooting for a villain because everyone is one. There’s been no effective character development to suggest otherwise (not that I’ve seen), so viewers can’t quite find the show’s moral core. (I know I can’t.) Stories lacking a moral center – even if it isn’t a code you and I believe in – flounder and flail because they’re always slaves to their respective circumstance. When events alone propel the tale – and not a foundation of right confronting wrong – then the stories go nowhere fast. This one, however, is going pretty slowly.
In fact, one might easily conclude that all of the first season – the time jumps, the imperfect characters, etc. – was little more than an expansive if not exhaustive set-up for an inevitable conflict. A lot of ground is covered (ten years? fifteen years?), and – as I hope I’ve been clear – context is certainly not these showrunners’ strength. Today’s screenwriters like to christen this “long-form storytelling,” and I suppose that’s probably about as accurate a moniker as it is inaccurate. There’s little story – again, a never-ending parade of events linked solely by the people who experience them – and viewers won’t know what to make of it until, when, and if it all concludes. That can be a long, long, long wait. Game Of Thrones – by comparison – felt as if it was narratively staged around big events – ones that often explored cause and effect – so it was reasonably easy to go with the flow, as they say. Dragon lacks an organic tide; instead, we’re hurled ahead months if not years, all by a script’s convention, with only the hope that we’ll recognize everything when we get there.
I’m not sure we will.