‘House of the Dragon’ Vs. ‘The Rings of Power’

Two shows not in the same universe, or league

Remember two months ago when we were all talking about the two upcoming big-budget TV series, postulating that this might be a new golden age of fantasy TV? How naive we were! We’re coming up on the seasons finale of both House of the Dragon on HBO and The Rings of Power on Amazon Prime, and the results are in. One of them is an all-time classic, a thrilling trash soap-operatic melodrama. The other is pathetic, wooden, and dull, the worst big-budget IP debacle since The Rise of Skywalker. I think you all know which is which. Let’s review.

House on fire

After its disappointing and divisive final season, people were altogether ready to pop Game of Thrones into the pop-culture memory bin. So it’s pretty surprising that House of the Dragon is one of the year’s best TV shows. A few of the supporting characters are a little wooden, and there was that one weird episode where the characters spent most of the time running around in the dark. But mostly, the show has done everything right.

If there were any complaints about House of the Dragon early on, it’s that the show seemed too insularly focused on the Targaryen family dynamics, and spent most of its time inside the castle walls of King’s Landing, the seat of power that defines the Game of Thrones universe. The only major battle scene involved the defeat of a guy called the Crab Feeder, a grotesque weirdo who proved so important to the show’s dynamics that he didn’t have a single line until the show turned him into lunchmeat.

At its best, and it’s often at its best, House of the Dragon is like watching a previously unproduced Shakespeare tragedy. The stakes are that high, the mistakes are that huge, the flaws of the major characters that pronounced. And while the unfolding of a multiple-decades plot has some people saying that the show moves too fast, I feel like it gives House of the Dragon depth and scope that most TV shows, which linger around the same scenarios with a completely unclear timeline, lack.

But in House of the Dragon, We know exactly how much time has passed. Twenty-eight years. Long enough so that the show has had to recast nearly every major character, some of them twice. It has no precedence in TV history except for I, Claudius, which I’m old enough to remember and which remains one of the great TV shows of all time. But Claudius was definitely a cheap BBC studio production (with Shakespearian-level actors), while House of the Dragon is pure cinema.

Matt Smith, the most famous cast member, has received most of the praise for playing the perverted anti-hero Daemon, and rightfully so. But if Paddy Considine, as the pathetically deluded and eternally decaying monarch Viserys Targaryen, doesn’t win every acting award imaginable, I will eat my beloved Tommy Lasorda Garden Gnome. This scene alone, where, at the very end of his life and his strength, he staggers into the throne room one last time to hold the kingdom together, is one of the most quietly epic in TV history. The other characters put their petty squabbles aside to pay respect to this act of incredible courage.

No character has ever been more well-meaning, nor made as many tragically bad choices, as Viserys. The rest of the cast, at least the rest of the cast that counts, has also been uniformly excellent. And in every episode, there’s at least one gory, crazy “oh shit!” moment. I find myself wanting to watch every episode as quickly as possible, to avoid spoilers. That’s the sign of a successful show.

Bored of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, on the other hand, is a billion-dollar disaster without precedence in TV history, a turgid, ponderous, pompous meander through Middle Earth that no one wanted, but were willing to give a try anyway because of near-universal love for the source material. Unlike in House of the Dragon, the timeline of the show is incredibly unclear. The first episode covers thousands of years in five minutes, while the rest of them unfold over a period of what could be five years or five days, it’s hard to tell, even though nothing really happens until episode six.

With the exception of a dwarf prince who really hams it up, and a sea captain who looks ready to call his agency to cuss them out for casting him in the wrong show, the rest of the cast is uniformly awful. They run the gamut of emotions, to paraphrase one of Dorothy Parker’s greatest lines “from A to B.” Morfyyd Clark, who plays the elf warrior Galadriel, seems eternally constipated, wryly smile-grimacing through a series of increasingly dire circumstances.

For all of The House of the Dragon’s twists and turns, the show leaves you asking “what’s going to happen next”? The Rings of Power, on the other hand, has you constantly thinking, “What’s happening right now?” Scenes take forever, and nothing occurs. In House of the Dragon, we see an old king in bed and his eye is rotting out and he makes a tragic blunder. In The Rings of Power, we see an old king in bed and he whispers something nonsensical that leads to the characters making the exact same decision they were going to make anyway. Besides, we have no idea who half the characters are, what their names are, or what they’re doing and why at any particular minute.

The Hollywood Reporter ran a pathetic interview with ROP show runners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne, essentially providing a smokescreen for some of the lamest TV writing of this or any other year. “This is the most earnest production,” one of them said. “This is not a paycheck job for anybody. This is a labor of love.” They also said that the Rings of Power is getting all its shit because it’s on the “front lines of the culture war.” But that is a thick tree to hide behind. No one but the trolliest trolls cares that the show has Black elves and dwarves. If those Black elves or dwarves had anything interesting to say or do, no one would care. Hell, half the cast of House of the Dragon is Black. And no one cares. Because the characters are cool, and well-cast, and, like everyone else in that show, have fascinating arcs that feed into the main storyline.

And just as the most recent House of the Dragon gave us one of the best scenes in TV history, The Rings of Power gave us one of the worst. At the end of the second to last episode of Rings of Power, the bad guy, Adar, wanders out into the hot-wing-colored day, created by the explosion of Mount Doom, which itself was born because apparently some water activated some hot rocks underground.

“Hail, Adar, Lord of the Southlands!” says a wandering man, in a line that sounds like every other line in the series.

“No,” says Adar. “That is a place that no longer exists.”

“Then what shall we call it?” asks the man.

And instead of answering him, Adar looks off at the mountain in the blood-red sky. We see the words “The Southlands” in Gothic script. It fades away, and the word “Mordor” replaces it. Like we’re all morons and didn’t know what was already going on. It may be the dumbest TV moment since Fonzie jumped the shark.

Besides, we didn’t need to see the creation of Mordor. By watching the Rings of Power, we were already in hell.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

2 thoughts on “‘House of the Dragon’ Vs. ‘The Rings of Power’

  • October 11, 2022 at 5:34 pm

    The first half of your review is a great read, even if you disagree with me on a few points and are therefore wrong. But on Paddy Considine and most everything else, you are so right, your minor wrongs are hereby canceled out.

    I haven’t seen a bit of That Other Show everyone keeps trying to compare HOTD to, but it sounds so deadly dull that even your description couldn’t keep me from skimming.

  • October 19, 2022 at 4:09 pm

    I promise you nothing.


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