House of the Dragon season 2 review: "This brutal return evokes the golden era of Game of Thrones"

House of the Dragon season 2
(Image: © Sky/HBO)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Game of Thrones’ redemption arc continues with House of the Dragon season 2, a brutal return for the fantasy epic that sets up a tantalizing conflict where no one is safe.

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House of the Dragon season 2 episodes 1-4 were made available for review.

"The path to victory is now one of violence," Otto Hightower warns in House of the Dragon season 2, setting the tone for a season that will be marred by conflict and revenge – and one that wastes no time getting to it. 

The brutal first four episodes of the Game of Thrones prequel’s return to the screen are up there with its best, as two sides plot their course to power. Navigating a shorter episode count, as well as a different structure to season 1’s time-skipping timeline, House of the Dragon is a different beast this time around, but no less thrilling.

Expect horrifying developments, political scheming, and a heavy load of grief as season 2 begins right in the crosshairs of Lucerys’ and Arrax’s murder at Aemond’s hands. As the consequences of that kingdom-shifting action come into play, both sides navigate their next move in the bloody game, and a sense of dread and unease hover over the lengths they will go to get it. 

Fire and blood

House of the Dragon season 2

(Image credit: Sky/HBO)

It all kicks off with a moment that evokes the golden era of Game of Thrones. Episode one begins with a new credits sequence to rival the iconic original as the action begins in the North. Starks appear and warnings of "winter is coming" send just the right chills down your spine. But, just as quickly as House of the Dragon remembers its fantasy forbearer, we see its growth. 

Where Thrones was critiqued for its handling of sexual violence and gratuitous (often female) nudity, season 2 so far carries these elements much more effectively. Slight tweaks from George R. R. Martin’s source material in a key storyline allow for the horror to still be suitably harrowing, without feeling unnecessary, and while violence and sex are still very much a part of this world, it never feels superfluous.

After all, this is a female-led fantasy show, still anchored by its nuanced and intriguing leads. Following the power of that haunting final shot of season 1, Emma D’Arcy brings so much to the grieving Rhaenyra – they are particularly great at navigating the character’s unmoored existence after Luke’s death. Parallels to Alicent are plentiful too, as we see Olivia Cooke’s dowager queen navigate her place in the machinations of the men around her. 

Season 2 also allows space to expand beyond the leads. There’s more room now for the next generation of Blacks and Greens who were swept along in the relentless pace of season 1’s era-spanning story. Phia Saban’s Helaena is given a particularly harrowing storyline to navigate, while Tom Glynn-Carney’s sniveling, arrogant Aegon gets a fair share of Joffrey-shaded tones. Ewan Mitchell’s disconcerting Aemond and Harry Collett’s grieving Jacaerys get less to tackle early on, but have a fairly solid set-up for the remainder of the series by the halfway point. It’s all enough to bring a feeling of fresh blood being woven into this gory tapestry. 

New additions join the line-up too, including a particularly brilliant Simon Russell Beale putting his Shakespearean background to good use with a character snapped straight from the Bard’s war tragedies. Yet, amongst the newcomers, Matt Smith’s Daemon Targaryen continues to stand out as the MVP. The dangerous and scheming white-haired menace is so captivating to watch as he swaggers back onto the screen, and it’s such a joy to have him back.

There’s more to him this time too, as he finds himself struggling for power in a situation of his own making – a set-up that Smith has described as Daemon becoming "softer, lazier, fatter, slower". The man who murdered his wife to raise his position is softened by his marriage to Rhaenyra. There are glimpses of him, sure, in his smirking demeanor at the battle table, but you can’t help but feel his frustration is hiding something even more dangerous going forward. And while we won’t get into spoiler-specifics in this review, it’s soon clear the cruelty of this conflict has never been more horrific. 

High stakes

House of the Dragon season 2

(Image credit: Sky/HBO)

Along with all the plotting and political machinations, the show remembers its dragons too, with some early spectacular soaring shots. As the season reaches its halfway point too, this only grows more epic. The scaly foes raise the stakes, making for some truly epic battle sequences. 

The direction here from Alan Taylor and Clare Kilner is remarkable, and is just as powerful in these big moments as its smaller interludes. Whether it be the reflection of lighting a candle or petals falling through the air, the attention to detail is a remarkable tool for conveying the emotional sequences that plague both houses. Add in Ramin Djawadi’s magnificent score, and the resulting atmosphere is gripping, meaning that even in its most brutal moments, you won’t be able to tear your eyes away.

If there’s any slight quibbles, it’s with the pacing. Without the momentum of skipping time periods that made season 1 both thrilling and frustrating in equal measure, we’re settling in for a slower build this time around. In particular, the crawling speed of episodes 2 and 3 after the drama of the premiere means they can't quite earn their 60 minutes plus runtimes. There are a lot of men sitting around council tables lecturing women while the promise of battle still feels out of reach. But while this may prove frustrating with the show’s weekly release schedule, it makes the fight all the more worth it when it inevitably comes.

I much prefer this time to build up the situation too, delving into the psyches of these characters, and preparing for the weight of this savage war to come. It may not be a bombastic, dragon-fighting introduction back to this world, but it’s all the better for it as we watch these characters play the chess board set in front of them. And as the hunger for revenge hangs heavy, an eye for an eye turns into a never-ending cycle, we just might be on the cusp of the most intriguing game yet. 

House Of The Dragon is on Max (US) from 16 June and Sky Atlantic (UK) from 17 June. 

For more, check out our guides to all the new TV shows coming out this year.

Fay Watson
Deputy Entertainment Editor

I’m the Deputy Entertainment Editor here at GamesRadar+, covering TV and film for the Total Film and SFX sections online. I previously worked as a Senior Showbiz Reporter and SEO TV reporter at Express Online for three years. I've also written for The Resident magazines and Amateur Photographer, before specializing in entertainment.