House of the Dragon season 2 review: a roaring, blazing return to the world of Game of Thrones

Dragons, insane tyrants and a healthy dollop of incest: yep, it’s a return to the Game of Thrones universe for a second season of House of the Dragon.

Following the first series’ set up of the Dance of the Dragons – a Targaryen civil war several hundred years before the events of Game of Thrones – now there’s the pay off.

Whereas last season made leaps and bounds over years, season two concentrates the action, in initial episodes at least, over weeks, cranking up the powder-keg tension ahead of the inevitable explosion.

There’s a lot of ammunition. Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and Alicent (Olivia Cooke) have found themselves on opposing sides – Rhaenyra as leader of the Blacks faction, and Alicent as part of the Greens. Both of them want the Iron Throne. Of course, only one can have it.

Olivia Cooke as Alicent (Home Box Office)
Olivia Cooke as Alicent (Home Box Office)

Series two starts three weeks after the death of Lucerys at the hands of his cousin Aemond, and things are tense. There’s a naval blockade underway. Spies are being expelled from the Red Keep.

Each side blames the other for what’s happening, and there’s a lot of serious sitting down at council tables to discuss how best to proceed – only for all the plotting to be rendered useless in one swoop by a couple of rash mistakes.

But it’s not just about Greens vs Blacks: each of the parties are beset by internal strife too. While Matt Smith’s Daemon sets out on fun little solo missions without the backing of his wife, Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans, Shakespearean as ever) is trying to keep the show on the road and Ser Criston Cole is still cornering the market in being loathsome.

Westeros slips further into war, things escalate into a deadly pattern of tit-for-tat attacks – secret assassins, reprisals, edge-of-your-seat stuff that had me peering through my fingers at the screen.

The original showrunner, Miguel Sapochnik has left (replaced by Alan Taylor) but the brooding vibe of series one is very much the same. The colour palette is dark. The mood is dark. People stand on clifftops and gaze out at the sea as Ramin Djawadi’s score plays over the top. The CGI dragons still look epic. And yes, people are still having tonnes of sex – and there is one couple in particular – no spoilers here – that will get Internet tongues wagging.

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen (Home Box Office)
Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen (Home Box Office)

And the action isn’t limited to between the sheets: there’s a lot more fighting this time around too. The plot (and betrayals) move at such a pace that each twist is rapidly forgotten, eclipsed by the next. We spend more time with each of the main characters – freed from the timehopping constraints of season one – and as such we get a deeper, more satisfying dive into them.

Cooke, in particular, is great as Alicent: wide-eyed and possessed of a kind of hunted-prey stare that gets ever more pronounced as the series progresses. Whereas Rhaenyra and her brood are clearly made out to be the goodies (none of their number are mad or especially murderous, plus they’re all hot), Alicent’s frantic scheming and attempts to reconcile her “sins” with her love for her children make her a fascinating character study.

All she wants, as she puts it, is “Rhaenyra bending the knee and Aegon sitting the Iron Throne in peace,” but will she get it? Unlikely. If there’s one thing we know about the Targaryens, it’s that some very dark times lie ahead.

House of the Dragon airs on Sky Atlantic and NOW from June 17