‘House of the Dragon’ review: Season 2 dazzles the eyes, boggles the mind

At one point amid the swirling pools of violence, beauty, darkness, deviant sexuality, familial feuding and treachery of Season 2 of HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” a major character references the Iron Throne and then deadpans: “It’s a big chair. Made of swords.”

Got it. That much we know for certain after the eight-season run of the mostly beloved (we said “mostly,” we’re not getting into that final season) and iconic “Game of Thrones” (2011-19), and the first season of the prequel, “House of the Dragon,” which was set nearly 200 years before the events of the original. As always, pretty much everything else is up for grabs.

Some 602 days after the shocking and game-changing events of the Season 1 finale, the sophomore season is a visually glorious epic that once again feels like appointment TV (HBO and Max are releasing one episode per week for the next eight weeks), even though it’s nearly impossible to keep up with what has to be one of the largest ensemble casts in TV history, and it’s a bit of a slow build before we get to the dragons clashing in the skies. (The first four of eight total episodes were made available to critics.)

‘House of the Dragon’ Season 2

With Matt Smith, Emma D’Arcy, Olivia Cooke, Rhys Ifans and Ewan Mitchell leading that impressive cast; some of the most expansive and stunning location shoots, VFX and production design of any series in the world, and a tangled and Shakespearean storyline punctuated by some gruesome and shocking deaths, “HOTD” is cinematic entertainment that, to invoke the cliché, you should see on the biggest possible home screen. (Put. That. Phone. Away.)

There’s no “Previously, on ‘House of the Dragon’ ” recap to kick off Season 2; we’re plunged right into the aftermath of the Season 1 finale, with viewers expected to either have studied up on past events, or deciding they’ll just sit back and enjoy the ride, even if things get confusing from time to time. Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) is in deep mourning after the revenge-minded and icy-veined Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) killed her son Lucerys, an act that all but seals the deal for a prolonged and bloody war between two factions.

On the island of Dragonstone, we have Team Black, which includes:

  • Rhaenyra , the eldest child of King Viserys, who aims to take back what is rightfully hers: the Iron Throne.
  • Daemon (a scene-stealing Matt Smith), who is the uncle/husband (!) to Rhaenyra and a formidable warrior who can never be trusted.
  • The wise and world-weary Rhaenys (Eve Best), aka “The Queen Who Never Was,” and her husband, Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), who is in charge of a powerful navy.

At King’s Landing, we have Team Green, which includes:

  • The petulant and unsteady and nasty King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney), the “HOTD” counterpart to Joffrey from “GOT.”
  • Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), the widow of King Viserys I and Rhaenyra’s childhood friend.
  • Otto Hightower (reliable old hand Rhys Ifans), Alicent’s father and the Hand of the King, who urges prudence every time Aegon pounds the table and calls for war.
  • The aforementioned Prince Aemond, who is spoiling for war and struts about like a 1980s hair band rock star.
  • Ser Criston Cole (Fabian Frankel), the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard.

These are just some of the main players in a series that includes characters named Jacaerys, Alyn, Alys, Arryk, Erryk, Larys and Mysaria — and we’re not even getting into the names of the various dragons. With juicy bits of dialogue such as, “They no longer breathe our air,” and, “She is to be treated as a traitor to the crown,” not to mention some wickedly funny asides, as when a couple of characters are referred to as “imbecilic lickspittles,” and all that swordplay and the great costumes, “HOTD” has to be irresistible material for the cast, and they’re all superb. (In addition to the aforementioned group, other standouts include Sonoya Mizuno as the resourceful Mysaria, aka “The White Worm,” and Matthew Needham as the club-footed Lord Larys Strong, who is the “HOTD” version of the Master of Whisperers Varys from “GOT.”)

Even when things slow to a crawl as one side or another plots, schemes, argues and/or tries to make alliances, the production values are never less than excellent, what with all the cavernous interiors and the abundance of candles and ooh, they have such great maps. There are a few scenes of explicit sex, including some full-frontal male nudity, but these are dark times, even darker than usual, and there’s not much time for frivolity. On at least three occasions, there are incidents of violence that leave us stunned, including a massive, fourth-episode battle sequence that sets the stage for what promises to be an exciting second half of Season 2. The gods and the dragons will see to that.

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