This image is from episode one of “House of the Dragon,” distributed by HBO Max.

Three years later, we are back in Westeros. We’re not here to revisit the aftermath of the tragedy that was the original “Game of Thrones,” but rather to bear witness to another, earlier, clash for the Iron Throne. This time, it stays in the family — in more ways than one.

HBO Max’s “House of the Dragon” centers on the all-powerful Targaryen dynasty — ancestors of the now-infamous Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke, “Last Christmas”). Episode one, titled “The Heirs of the Dragon,” starts at the peak of the Targaryen’s reign over the Seven Kingdoms and sets us up for a bloody civil war, spurred, as always, by that ugly Iron Throne — which has now been updated with more swords to look even more menacing. In that vein, “House of the Dragon” stays true to its parent show. The Iron Throne causes the same bloodlust, anxiety and anger as it did in “GoT.” This, in conjunction with faces getting smashed in by axes, explicit brothel scenes and some incestuous tension, is a reminder from showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal that yes, this is still the same world.

The plot of “House of the Dragon” is adapted from a section of George R.R. Martin’s “Fire and Blood,” a novel detailing the Targaryen family history written in the form of a history textbook. What this means is that the showrunners were tasked with reconciling objective history with emotion, taking the time to flesh out historical accounts with rich storytelling. The episode opens with a prologue scene detailing the ascension of Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine, “The Outsider”) to the Iron Throne over his elder cousin, Rhaenys (Eve Best, “Nurse Jackie”). The episode then cuts forward to Viserys’s eldest child, the young princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock, “The Gloaming”), standing by as the lords of the small council discuss the matter of Viserys’s succession. In doing so, the show quickly establishes the strict patriarchal nature of the lords of Westeros, who refuse to put a woman on the Iron Throne (sound familiar?).

The cast does a wonderful job of establishing their characters’ motivations and personalities early on. Matt Smith (“The Crown”) shines as Prince Daemon Targaryen, the younger brother of the king with a propensity for violence befitting the genre. The conversations between Daemon and Rhaenyra in the High Valyrian language serve to establish both the strong bond that the Targaryens have with each other and the superiority they feel over others. Considine displays King Viserys’s anxious and fragile nature aptly, although the ill-fitting platinum blonde wig takes a while to get used to. Rhys Ifans (“The King’s Man”) plays Otto Hightower, the Hand of the King, with cunning and a drawl evocative of Tywin Lannister. Emily Carey (“Get Even”) plays Otto’s daughter, Alicent Hightower, and together with Alcock, the two establish Alicent and Rhaenyra’s tender and complex friendship — one that is bound for a major falling out as the story progresses. Steve Toussaint (“Judge Dredd”) and Fabien Frankel (“The Serpent”) leave a lasting impression as the commanding Lord Corlys Velaryon and the charming Ser Criston Cole, respectively. 

Cinematically, “House of the Dragon” doesn’t miss a beat. This era of Targaryen rule is demarcated by an abundance of dragons, paired with a new score by composer Ramin Djawadi, which incorporates familiar melodies from previous pieces like “The Iron Throne.” Director Sapochnik brings the same talent that he brought to past “GoT” episodes like “Hardhome” and “The Winds of Winter.” He cuts back and forth between scenes of the jousting tournament to the labor of Queen Aemma Arryn (Sian Brooke, “Sherlock”), both of which are incredibly violent and bloody.

The best moments of the pilot episode are near the end. We learn that both Queen Aemma and her newborn son Baelon die shortly after the birth, as evidenced by a funeral scene in which Rhaenyra unleashes her very first “Dracarys!” Viserys must now choose between allowing his reckless brother Daemon to remain his heir by default or breaking tradition and naming his daughter Rhaenyra as his successor. In a rapid turn of events involving a brothel, the king’s brother and the words “heir for a day,” Viserys names his daughter as his heir and banishes Daemon. In the dragon skull cellar, the king reveals to his daughter a prophecy that has been passed from ruler to ruler. He says that the first Targaryen conqueror, Aegon, had a dream of “the end of the world of men” brought forth by a great winter from the North — one that can only be stopped if Westeros is united under a Targaryen ruler. As Viserys tells his daughter about this “Song of Ice and Fire,” he places a firm hand on his dagger, which watchful viewers will recognize as the same dagger used to vanquish the Night King over a century later. This well-placed information frames the last events of “GoT” in a new light and gives book readers more information regarding the still unfinished series.

In a universe as dense as “GoT,” the pilot episode of “House of the Dragon” does a stellar job of laying the groundwork for this new conflict. With a new episode to be released every Sunday until Oct. 23, we can expect to see rising tensions between old and new Targaryens, as well as a time jump during which Emma D’Arcy (“Wanderlust”) and Olivia Cooke (“Sound of Metal”) will grace the screen as the older versions of Rhaenyra and Alicent, respectively. 

“House of the Dragon” is a stellar demonstration of maintaining a source material’s integrity while adding its own magic. While “GoT” tells the story of a shattered world torn apart by war, “House of the Dragon” follows the descent of a powerful dynasty from strength to despair.

Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at