House of the Dragon is behind us now and we sadly won’t be returning to Westeros until 2024. That’s unfortunate, but it gives us ample time for rewatches, exploring George R.R. Martin’s material and hoping for The Winds of Winter. So this seemed like a good time to look back on the debut seasons of both House of the Dragon and Game of Thrones and look at how each fared in certain categories. Very curious to see if you agree or disagree, let us know your thoughts in the comments or on our social accounts!
Ouf this is a hard one. If there’s one thing that both of these shows are good at, is finding talented actors to deliver. In some way shape or form, we get invested in this story because we care so much about the characters, whether they be villains or heroes or somewhere in between. I could just cop out and call it a tie and I think that would be fair, but we don’t want a cop-out. So I’m going to give it to Game of Thrones, but it’s a close one so let’s give some love to both.
The characters in House of the Dragon are far more complex than their Game of Thrones counterparts overall, which requires a lot more nuance in the performance of the acting. This is particularly true of Paddy Considine’s portrayal of King Viserys, a leader who just wants peace and for everyone to get along, but whose greed leads to the death of his wife and his ignorance will kickstart a war. We both root for and criticize this figure during the whole season and Considine owned every scene he was in. Matt Smith as Daemon was another highlight, as we bounced from hating him to liking to being uncertain about him over the course of the season. Being able to play with our emotions like that is no easy feat, so House of the Dragon’s complex characters being realized by a talented cast made this engrossing drama to watch. The cast of Dragon have that freedom of being morally dubious, which allows for more complex and nuanced acting. Do we love or hate Daemon, for instance? Is Viserys a bad king? These questions are harder to answer thanks in part to the great acting on display.
In Game of Thrones, we were just being introduced to this world so we had to get invested quickly, considering there were so many subplots and locations. But by the time the credits rolled on episode one, we all needed to know what happens next. That’s because the cast really brought to life these complex and layered characters to get behind, whether they be heroes or villains. We knew who to root for and who was bad from the get-go, but that allowed us to love to hate some and hate to love others. If the characters weren’t completely engaging, then we wouldn’t have made Game of Thrones the phenomenon that it was.
A bigger budget isn’t always everything. House of the Dragons was allocated a much larger budget than Game of Thrones did in its first season, largely off the goodwill and hype that the franchise built over its run. While season eight of Thrones cost $90 million or $15 million an episode (six episodes total), season one (ten episodes) is estimated at $50-60 million total. House of the Dragon (also ten episodes) topped that, with an estimated budget of $20 million per episode, with a good chunk of that going to the VFX, which includes numerous dragons, the volume and lavish sets.
But despite that extra budget, the VFX in House of the Dragon felt inconsistent with the rest of the franchise. I’ve been fairly critical of the effects on House of the Dragon, noting that the dragons themselves felt very CGI, the backgrounds were noticeably digital and the show had a sense of being largely filmed on a set, whereas Game of Thrones benefitted by a lot of outdoor shoots and an international production. Game of Thrones was light on the fantastical elements at first, but I think that worked in its favour, both in terms of visuals and building intrigue. House of the Dragon was largely confined to an English production, with a few scenes shot in Spain, while Thrones had camps set up in Belfast, Dubrovnik and Malta during the first season, with Iceland and Spain being added later on. Both shows used extensive sets and VFX to bolster the shots, but something about the natural sunlight on-location makes Game of Thrones pop that much more. This shot of two people being filmed outdoors looks far more dynamic than anything we saw on House of the Dragons.
While the volume is an impressive piece of tech, that allows for “frozen” sunsets, it can also lead to a flat-looking backdrop if used incorrectly and I found the digital backdrops weren’t anywhere as convincing as shown in The Mandalorian, the show that launched the volume. Then there was the jarring day for night scenes used in episode Dragon’s muted colour pallet, noticeable CGI and diminished lack of outdoor photography mean that Game of Thrones comes out on top in this category.
While Game of Thrones’ first season had a better-looking debut season in terms of visual effects, sometimes due to the lack of VFX, House of the Dragon will claim the award for production design. Building off the pre-established name and hype from the previous show, House of the Dragon was able to debut with a budget far outweighing that of Game of Thrones’ debut.
Chiefly, the set of King’s Landing on House of the Dragon is nothing short of exceptional. It has multiple levels and the rooms are all connected on one soundstage. Normally, each room would have its own stage, but the show made this huge set with connecting corridors, making the mega-set feel like a section of a real castle. Just check out the documentary above about the construction of the set (among other things) and you’ll see what I mean. Game of Thrones could only dream that big in its debut.
Much like acting, this is a difficult category to determine, as both shows excelled in this field. But I’m going to have to award the writing to Game of Thrones. House of the Dragon covered decades worth of time, utilizing time jumps and recasts to tell its story, which was largely all the setup for the war to come. As such, the show can feel disjointed and choppy at times, but it also offers far more morally grey characters than Game of Thrones did at first. As a debut season, this does make it a little hard to empathize with our leads.
Game of Thrones‘ debut had to introduce the world, characters and lore to us in such a way as to not alienate the viewer. It managed to suck casual viewers into this complex fantasy world and launched the genre into the mainstream. The show managed to juggle numerous characters and plotlines without ever making us confused or bored and I think that’s a testament to the success of the writers. Likewise, it was able to be funny at times, mainly thanks to Tyrion, which was a much-needed source of levity in such a grim tale while also never comprising on its drama. Game of Thrones sadly doesn’t hold to its own standards by the end, but looking objectively at the debut, it’s the winner.
Here’s a short but easy one. I’m going to have to award this one to House of the Dragon. Ramin Dawadi’s work in Westeros has only improved with each season, so he’s a much more confident and seasoned composer during his ninth season based on George R.R. Martin’s works. Notable tracks in the first season include Protector of the Realm, which was played when Viserys enters the throne room in episode eight, and Lament, which plays at the start of episode nine after his passing.
This one can be tied into writing, but I wanted to focus solely on the story, rather than the writing as a whole. Despite Game of Thrones coming out ahead in the writing department, I think the narrative introduced in the first season of House of the Dragon was more compelling. It showcased how war isn’t something that happens overnight or over the course of a few months. It’s something that can build up over generations of mistrust, misinformation and bias. Not having to bounce around the map to various subplots works in favour of the plot compared to Game of Thrones, which was always on the move.
House of the Dragon opens up some 172 years before Daenerys’ time and goes through the childhood and womanhood years of both Rhaenerya and Alicent. It can be a bit disorienting, which is part of the reason it lost out on writing, but looking at the canvas of generational grievances building up to a three-year war, we as the audience now have so much context and history for the events to come that allow us to understand and sympathize with events to come. It isn’t sprung on us but instilled into us and viewers are actively picking sides in the conflict as well, trying to decide who is “more right”. Considering how just about every character is complex, layered and morally bankrupt in House of the Dragon, it creates great tension and drama despite us being somewhat unsure about who to root for at times. For that, I’ll award Dragon the narrative award.
Perhaps this is a dead giveaway with the heading, but House of the Dragons felt a lot like Game of Thrones, perhaps even to a fault. But when Game of Thrones’ debuted, it was fresh and original. There was nothing quite like it on TV and it caused a slew of imitators to hit the scene since. Heck, a different Thrones prequel, Bloodmoon, was apparently canceled for not being “Game of Thrones-y” enough, with WarnerMedia chairman Robert Greenblatt stating: “It was very well produced and looked extraordinary. But it didn’t take me to the same place as the original series. It didn’t have that depth and richness that the original series’ pilot did.” and an insider stating that “having a show that’s pure invention and had George scratching his head at various moments was troubling at times”. So House of the Dragons was designed to make us think of Game of Thrones, down to using the same theme song, which made it feel a little derivative. So we’ll give this one to Thrones for shaking up the genre and television as a whole.
So that’s our take on the debut seasons of both Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon. It’s a close one, but Game of Thrones inches across the finish line. Do you agree? Disagree? What do you think? Let us know in the comments!