(Bloomberg) -- The first season of House of the Dragon moved extremely fast—arguably, too fast. The inaugural outing of the Game of Thrones prequel spanned decades and featured one massive time jump, during which the two lead actresses were swapped out for older performers. 

Season 2 has the opposite problem. 

Now that the battle for the Iron Throne among members of House Targaryen has reached the meat of its story, things drag(on) along at an almost glacial pace. Admittedly, by the end of the fourth episode—the latest provided to critics—there’s that now-signature, shockingly gruesome GoT moment that kicks the plot into high gear. Before that, there’s a lot of hand-wringing and table setting. Loyal devotees of the series probably won’t mind that so much, but the fair-weather fantasy fans that HBO hooked for Thrones might have a harder time getting on board. 

After Game of Thrones ended in 2019, HBO scrambled to find a way to mine George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros for more blockbuster TV. The network settled on House of the Dragon, based on Martin’s history text Fire & Blood. For the most part, it’s been a success. The finale drew 9.3 million viewers, the most for an HBO finale since Thrones itself. (That’s still about 10 million fewer than the utterly disappointing farewell to Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow and pals.) 

Set about two centuries before the events of Thrones, House of the Dragon centers on two warring branches of the same family, the dragon-riding Targaryens. As is typical of Martin, it’s a byzantine cast of characters. On one side, there’s Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) who was married off as a child bride to King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine). Dead as of the second season, Viserys was the father of Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy), Alicent’s former best friend. Rhaenyra thinks she has the right to his throne; Alicent has claimed it for her son Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney), believing this to be her dying husband’s last wish.

At the end of the first season, tensions reach new heights between these frenemies. Alicent’s other son, the nasty Aemond (Ewan Mitchell), kills Rhaenerya’s son Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) when his very large dragon takes a huge bite of Lucerys’ smaller dragon. The death is an accident—Aemond meant only to scare the younger boy as revenge for Lucerys having slashed his eye—but his big, fire-breathing beastie had a mind of its own. 

The second season picks up in the aftermath of this tragedy. Rhaenyra is grieving while her husband-slash-uncle, the power-hungry Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), seeks revenge. (Incest abounds in HBO’s Westeros.) Alicent feels guilty, but also has her own problems, not least of all that Aegon is a petulant and unfit ruler. 

I recommend having Wikipedia handy for the premiere. It’s been two long years since House of the Dragon was last on the air, and these new episodes plunge the viewer right into the action. It’s difficult keeping all the names straight, especially when they sound extremely similar. For example, there’s a “Rhaena” (Phoebe Campbell), the daughter of Daemon from a previous marriage, in addition to Rhaenyra. 

But that’s all right. Being a little bit confused is the name of the game when it comes to Thrones. 

Being bored, though, is unacceptable. It’s frustrating how little seems to happen in the series’ initial hours. There’s an upsetting moment involving dismemberment that concludes the first episode. Following that, though, there’s a lot of hemming and hawing from the characters about what to do in response. We know war is on the horizon, so the strategy required to get to that war feels like thumb twiddling. When a battle finally does occur, it’s as much a relief as it is thrilling. 

A further annoying development: The show’s two best characters, played by Cooke and D’Arcy, are sidelined by grief in the early episodes. This might be fine in a different kind of series but not in a Game of Thrones property, where the backstabbing (real and figurative) is the best part. 

Meanwhile, the scope of House of the Dragon still feels bizarrely small. Even as the two factions venture to gain allies, the world of Westeros remains underdeveloped. The action keeps flitting back between Rhaenyra’s base of Dragonstone and Alicent’s in King’s Landing, the continental seat of power. There are plenty of side characters, but most are thinly rendered. The few new faces the show does introduce this season are welcome additions, especially Gayle Rankin as a mysteriously witchy woman in the decrepit castle of Harrenhal. 

For all its issues, there’s still a lot of fun to be had in House of the Dragon, including some deliciously hammy performances, thanks to Mitchell and Smith, and some incomparable production design.

Given the fiery conclusion of the fourth episode, I fully expect the action to pick up in the back half of the season. But to truly capture the Thrones crown, Dragon needs to figure out its pacing problems—fast.

(Updates to remove a plot spoiler.)

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