House of the Dragon season two review: Full of scheming, staring and flashes of provocation

If Game of Thrones was, in the immortally blunt words of Ian McShane, a series about “t**s and dragons”, what, then, might he call House of the Dragon? It’s another series about dragons – and people behaving like t**s.

The opulent fantasy spin-off returns to Max (and Sky/NOW in the UK) this month for an eight-episode second outing, opening with the ominously titled “A Son for a Son”. The first season, released back in autumn 2022, traversed a tumultuous two decades between its first episode and its last. The action this time around, in the four episodes available to reviewers at least, is rather more condensed. We pick up more or less where the finale left off: King Viserys (Paddy Considine) is dead; Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) is king, and young Prince Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) has been murdered by the one-eyed Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) in a sort of dragonback fender-bender.

As the grief-stricken “Black Queen” Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy, harrowed and compelling) reels from the death of her son, her clan of supporters ready themselves for vengeance. What we get, essentially, is an episode of table-setting and terse conversations, as both factions sense war in the air. On the opposing side, Glynn Carney’s king struggles to assert his authority, naively flip-flopping his way through meetings with his subjects. His main adviser, “Hand to the King” Otto Hightower (a wan weaselly Rhys Ifans), tries his best to rudder him.

Scheming, betrayal, and political game-playing: these are House of the Dragon’s bread and butter, and – in lieu of the usual sex, which is conspicuously scant for now – also where most of the spice can be found. The writing is always something of a disorienting stew, an attempt to mix HBO coarseness with faux-medieval syntax. “His faith is in steel and bone; he has not the long view,” one character augustly observes at one point. At another, a grubby assassin remarks that he knows the terrain “better than the shape of my own c**k”. OK then.

Critics have been told to keep schtum about much of the plotting, though readers of George RR Martin’s source material will know the gist. While it takes a few episodes for House of the Dragon to crescendo into the sort of grand, violent spectacle that the series (and its predecessor) does better than pretty much anything else on TV, there are enough nuggets of incident in the opening couple of hours to satisfy viewers’ bloodlust. A grimly horrible moment at the end of this opener is, mercifully, staged with a good and uncharacteristic amount of restraint.

Perhaps House of the Dragon’s biggest problem is one of tone. It is all very dour and self-serious, with none of the human levity that is often needed to elevate a TV show from adequacy to greatness. But the acting is solid, and superlative in places – Olivia Cooke’s shrewd and conflicted Alicent Hightower remains a scene-stealer – and the whole production is just lush to look at. Whether gazing at bucolic vistas, or stately castle interiors, you’re always a little awed by the sheer amount of money that’s on screen.

King shaming: Tom Glynn-Carney in ‘House of the Dragon' (HBO/Sky)
King shaming: Tom Glynn-Carney in ‘House of the Dragon' (HBO/Sky)

The first season’s real strength may have been in its plotting, the patiently matrixed telling of a large and unwieldy story. Whether this season will have the same sense of build, the same panache for a pay-off, remains to be seen. But it seems these dragons still have plenty of fire left in them.

‘House of the Dragon’ season two will be available from 17 June on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW