House of the Dragon and Rings of Power

I’m a few weeks late to the party, but the nice thing about streaming services is that one can watch shows at their own pace. I will give my thoughts on these two high-budget, high-anticipation shows on HBO (HotD) and Amazon (RoP) and make some comparisons.

I was a fan of Game of Thrones while it was on and have given a retrospective of it here. Needless to say, like most people, I thought the ending of the show (indeed, the last couple seasons) left something to be desired. The rushed pacing, easy defeat of the white walkers, and Daenerys’s heel turn that went largely un-telegraphed were just the three weakest points. What I would not have changed about the last season of GoT, however, was in making the war amongst the humans the final battle rather than the war against the white walkers, which I go into more in my retrospective of the show.

I’ve read the main A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF) books, but haven’t read the HotD book yet. I read them when the show was around season four, and I remember not enjoying the show as much after I read the books. Part of that may be due to a downturn in the show’s quality, especially as it began taking more liberties from the source material, but I think it’s also just that issue where books are almost always better than the show or movie. As such, I don’t plan to read HotD yet, at least not until the show is done.

As far as Lord of the Rings, I’ve read The Hobbit and the trilogy books through a couple times (though not in probably at least two decades; I haven’t read any of the other books related to LotR) and I’ve seen the movies a handful of times. In the case of LotR, even having read the books, I still find the movies (the original trilogy, anyway) enjoyable. I also enjoy the lore as presented by the Youtube channel Nerd of the Rings. As such, my attachment to LotR is both sentimental and nostalgic, as I’m sure it is for many people.

That being said, the ASoIaF franchise and the LotR franchise are very different. As such, comparing them is a bit of an apples and oranges situation. They are both stylistically and tonally different, they both have different themes and messages, and they come from different times and from different minds.

So, with all the prefacing out of the way, what did I think of both shows? I’ll start with RoP. The show is obviously hampered by the fact that it doesn’t have rights to “We do not have the rights to The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-earth, or any of those other books” (according to showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne) since those are the stories that LotR fans probably most wanted to see brought to life on the screen. Given that the show doesn’t have those rights, they are working with an arm tied behind their back. One could argue that, since they don’t have those rights, perhaps they shouldn’t have gone ahead with making the show in the first place.

But, if we set that aside, do the show’s makers still produce something of entertainment value? Here are my thoughts: the acting is good and the special effects are amazing. The dialogue tends to get the spirit of Tolkien right. The story, however, feels rushed and yet also kind of bland. I do like that the show doesn’t shy away from some of the darker elements (I actually kind of liked how, after rescuing the people being terrorized by the orcs, the good guys still ended up losing; and the discovery that many of the people they killed were their own people). The reveal of Sauron was acceptable, I suppose, but then they had him go walking off the Mordor instead of sticking around to spread lies and deceit (as was Sauron’s MO back in the second age) felt very rushed. One scene, too, that stuck out to me as unnecessary was when they revealed the balrog down inside the mine. I thought it would have worked better to just show that leaf fall down there and then burn, without showing the balrog, as a way to tease the great evil lurking beneath rather than making it explicit. In other words, there were some choices made for the show that I would have done differently.

Now, to HotD (which I cannot help but read as “hot D”). Like a lot of people, I think this prequel gets back to what people fell in love with in GoT. Political intrigue is the bread-and-butter of the ASoIaF franchise. The George R.R. Martin is a master at writing political intrigue. What makes his storytelling so compelling is that his characters are always forced to make choices, either option of which is sure to lead to some undesirable outcome. It makes clear what people’s motivations are (although he relies heavily on the motivation of ambition, though that comes with the territory when writing about nobility and royalty). His characters are always forced to work within a system of powerful restraints and obstacles (especially his female characters)

One thing that Martin does a good job of showing is that peace, and the compromises required to keep the peace, does not mean everyone is happy. In fact, it probably means everyone (at least the nobility, anyway), are unhappy. People know that peace must be kept only because it is less worse than war. As I said in my GoT retrospective:

The idea being that peace rarely makes anyone happy. Peace is more than just the absence of fighting, but is instead a constant struggle through compromise – both in diplomatic agreements, but also the compromising of one’s own principles. In the show, but more so in the books, this is explored quite a bit when Daenerys is ruling Meereen and is constantly having to face compromises, which she often either rejects or ends up reneging on, to disastrous effects. This is, of course, a very pessimistic reflection of humankind that says our myriad problems are an intractable aspect of our human nature. We can either choose to adhere to our principles, leading to our doom, or consistently compromise ourselves and live on in misery.

This difficulty of peace is exemplified in the real world with the so-called appeasement policy for Hitler back in the 1930’s. It’s easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight, to criticize Neville Chamberlain, but we have to remember that at the time of the Munich agreement, the world was still in the midst of a great depression, and people still had the bitter taste of the First World War in their mouths. Knowing how terrible that war was, and how much worse it was likely to be 20 years later, the “appeasement” approach makes sense. But, just because (from the point of view of 1938) it was the right decision, that certainly doesn’t mean it was a good decision. Such is the difficulty of peace and any efforts to maintain it.

Anyway, the point is that HotD does a great job of keeping to this theme of how peace is more than just the absence of war. I think, as the above video by The Take discusses, HotD does a great job in its portrayal of women, too. There were great portrayals of women in GoT, too, and it could have been easy for HotD to simply duplicate them and stick them into this show, but Queen Alicent Hightower, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, and Princess Rhaenys Targaryen are all distinct characters in their own right.

Aside from the themes, the show is also just very well written, both the dialogue and the pacing. The actors are all good, the special effects are all at least sufficient (in the scene in the first episode when Rhaenyra’s dragon Syrax burns the body of her mother Queen Aemma Arryn, the fire effect looked really bad, but other than that one scene the effects have all been fine). But also, the show has a lot more dragons, which are awesome, so that adds some points to the tally in HotD’s favor.

I have to admit that after the disappointing end to GoT I was skeptical of HotD. When the first episode began with a voice over, I started bracing myself for it to be quite bad. But it didn’t take long for the show really grow on me. Now that I’ve seen the entire first season, I look forward to where the show goes in the future.