House of the Dragon season 2 is a bloody and blazingly brilliant return to form for HBO's Game of Thrones franchise

A piece of House of the Dragon season 2 key art showing Alicent Hightower and Rhaenyra Targaryen facing each other
Houses Hightower and Targaryen go to war in House of the Dragon's epic second season (Image credit: HBO)

Full spoilers follow for House of the Dragon season 1.

Game of Thrones (GoT) is back – in more ways than one. Thanks to Thrones' underwhelming final season, HBO's live-action retelling of George RR Martin's engrossing and brutal fantasy world isn't, as an overall package, fondly remembered by viewers.

That was the case, anyway, until House of the Dragon redeemed Thrones' TV universe in many people's eyes. With its juicy soap opera narratives that harkened back to Thrones' captivating early seasons, vengeance-fueled barbarism, and riveting time period where dragons roamed the skies, the GoT prequel's hugely popular first season marked a return to form for the serialized fantasy series. Rumors of Thrones' demise, then, had been greatly exaggerated.

Now, with House of the Dragon season 2 set to debut on June 16 (US) and June 17 (UK and Australia), the spin-off can demonstrate it wasn't a one-hit wonder. Four episodes in, I can say that the hit Max show's latest entry proves beyond doubt – if further evidence was needed – that one of HBO's most successful franchises is back to its volatile, merciless, and masterful best.

Reign of fire

Rhaenyra Targaryen looks injured and sad in House of the Dragon season 2

Season 2 finds Rhaenyra Targaryen grieving for her middle child Lucerys (Image credit: HBO)

Set in the days following the death of Rhaenyra Targaryen's (Emma D'Arcy) second-born Lucerys 'Luke' Velaryon, season 2 finds Westeros on the brink of civil war. King Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) sits upon The Iron Throne following the usurpation of Queen Dowager Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), while the warring families find themselves enveloped by the fallout from Luke's death at the hands of Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) – Alicent and the recently deceased Viserys' eldest child. Another false and/or emotionally charged move, then, will surely spark a cataclysmic, history-defining conflict that there'll be no turning back from.

That's unless Rhaenyra and Alicent, Westeros' two most powerful women and friends-turned-enemies, can prevent all-out war before it's begun. Separated by thousands of miles and with their previously tight bond now irreparable, though, the pair's desperate attempts to individually keep their camps' blood-thirsty and hot-headed male kin in check seems doomed to fail.

House of the Dragon's supporting cast – especially its younger members – gets more to do this season

Alicent – played with a wonderfully Machiavellian quality by Cooke – has numerous, stress-inducing issues to deal with, but it's Rhaenyra who has the tougher job of the two. Understandably grieving over Luke, House Targaryen's AWOL queen leaves her clan leaderless and rudderless; a fateful decision that not only leads her uncle and husband Daemon (Matt Smith) to take matters into his own hands, but also results in her command being undermined by conspiratorial forces within her own restless council.

Alicent looks at Aemond in House of the Dragon season 2

The conniving Aemond (right)'s decision to murder Luke is the pivot around which House of the Dragon season 2's events play out (Image credit: Theo Whitman/HBO)

With her middle child murdered, her birth right stolen by her former best friend, coup-based murmurings, and reluctance to trigger a full-blown war, Rhaenyra's emotions are stretched to the limits in season 2's first half. Indeed, the show's sophomore outing is only eight episodes long – a creative decision that co-creator Ryan Condal has defended. Nonetheless, D'Arcy delivers a potently majestic performance that traverses the emotional spectrum. Whether it's a powerfully poignant scene of few or no words, such as Rhaenyra's discovery of Luke's tattered cloak or the lump-in-throat reunion with her first-born Jacaerys (Harry Collett) after Luke's death, or her steely command of Team Black as hostilities with Team Green reach their peak, D'Arcy is a multidimensional acting delight.

Daemon Targaryen sits wearing his suit of armor in House of the Dragon season 2

Daemon's impetuousness gets the better of him in episode 1 (Image credit: Ollie Upton/HBO)

Speaking of the escalating conflict, it's the impulsive and malicious Daemon – once more played with impish relish by the as-ever charismatic Smith – who, spoilers notwithstanding, pores cold water on the dying embers of Targaryen-Hightower peace talks.

Emma D'Arcy is a multidimensional acting delight

The problematic, disempowered prince of Dragonstone's rash quest for retribution over Luke's death (on Rhaenyra's behalf, he claims) is a powder keg moment that adds to the never-ending spiral of tragedies befalling each House. It's a covert operation that punctuates the slew of political scheming and familial infighting, which Thrones and its prequel are renowned for, in season 2's slow-burning premiere. Sure, there's a necessity to methodically ratchet up the tension for shocking episodic instances to be more effective. Tonally, though, episode 1 would be a slightly monotonous return, if not for Daemon's proactive, albeit incredibly misguided behavior.

King Aegon II listens to some off-camera peasants as he sits on the Iron Throne in House of the Dragon season 2

Glynn-Carney's Aegon II is more involved narratively in season 2 than House of the Dragon's first entry (Image credit: Ollie Upton/HBO)

House of the Dragon's supporting cast – especially its younger members – gets more to do this season. Aegon II, Westeros' new royal, is the biggest beneficiary of more extensive screen time, with Glynn-Carney bringing some much needed levity – plus youthful impatience, reckless naivety – to bear in episode 1 and, in later entries, deep humanization to a character, who we're supposed to despise, in the only way that a GoT series can. Jacaerys, Baela (Bethany Antonio), and Halaena's (Phia Saban) roles are also pleasingly expanded; the former acting as fascinating foils to one another in their devotion to Rhaenyra, while the eccentric and cryptic Halaena becomes central to key storylines leading up to this season's jaw-dropping fourth episode.

All must choose

Jacaerys Velaryon walks along the Wall with Cregan Stark in House of the Dragon season 2

Houses Targaryen and Hightower call upon the oaths made to them by Westeros' other clans, including House Stark, in season 2 (Image credit: Ollie Upton/HBO)

House of the Dragon season 2 doesn't retread the same narrative ground as its forebear by only focusing on Houses Targaryen and Hightower, though. One of the best Max shows' latest chapter also zooms out to explore the intensifying interfamilial conflict's impact on the whole of Westeros. Opening with a nostalgia-fuelled return trip to Winterfell – a fleeting visit that reminds us of the ever-looming threat beyond The Wall – in its very first scene, season 2 slowly lays bare the wider effects of the increasingly bitter Targaryen-Hightower feud on Thrones' famous continent.

Season 2 zooms out to explore the intensifying interfamilial conflict's impact on the whole of Westeros

Indeed, it inadvertently acts as the catalyst for smaller scale battles to erupt between long-warring families, such as Houses Blackwood and Bracken. We don't see said action spectacle come to pass, which may disappoint viewers hoping for more than the odd one-on-one fight we see in the first three episodes. After all, season 2 marks the official start of the devastating, years-long civil war known as The Dance of the Dragons, so I certainly hoped for more action. Nonetheless, observing the blood-curdling, silent horror-imbued aftermath of the Blackwood-Bracken battle made my imagination run wild about how this barbaric struggle played out.

Alyn of Hull walks alongside Corlys Velaryon at a port in House of the Dragon season 2

Season 2 sees the introduction of new key players, including Alyn of Hull (left) (Image credit: Ollie Upton/HBO)

House of the Dragon makes good on its promise to deliver some explosive, dragon-centric action at its season 2 midpoint, mind you. I'm not allowed to elaborate further for spoiler reasons, but it's certainly another heart-pounding and harrowing example of the Thrones franchise's ability to deliver soul-crushing story beats at any given moment.

Broadening the series' scope also provides the opportunity to introduce new characters with complexities and love-hate natures that typify the Thrones universe's multifaceted ensemble. It's impossible to cover them all here, but I was most intrigued by the additions of the steadfast Alyn of Hull (Abubakar Salim), the curious Hugh Hammer (Kieran Bew), and the enigmatic Alys Rivers (Gayle Rankin). The latter of that trio, whose mysterious arrival was teased in season 2's final trailer, was particularly fascinating to me, not least due to her involvement in Daemon's Harrenhal-situated season 2 arc; a personal subplot with the unsettling, almost Macbethian atmosphere and twisty-turny narrative of a psychological horror movie.

My verdict

House Of The Dragon Season 2 | Official Trailer (2024) - YouTube House Of The Dragon Season 2 | Official Trailer (2024) - YouTube
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Like its new drapery-based title sequence, House of the Dragon season 2 weaves another thrilling and epic chapter full of political paranoia and machinations, intriguing familial melodrama, and monstrous violence. A masterclass in gripping storytelling, it depicts an increasingly fraught continental crisis, which snowballs with each new shot fired across the Targaryen and Hightower bows, with suspense-filled aplomb and emotional whiplash aplenty.

This might be a bold claim to make without seeing its final four episodes, but I genuinely believe it's one of the best seasons of Game of Thrones. As good as House of the Dragon season 1 was, it had to put in a lot of legwork to set up the shocking events to come in future installments. Max also failed to make good use of House of the Dragon's soaring popularity in late 2022, too. I suspect with the show's suspense-riddled, hyperviolent, and increasingly melodramatic sophomore entry, the streaming titan won't make the same mistake this time around.

Regardless, I feel vindicated in my decision to select House of the Dragon season 2 as one of 10 unmissable, epic shows that'll be worth watching in mid-2024. It's the sign of a triumphantly engrossing series that I'm desperate for season 2's last four episodes, House of the Dragon's third season that's already being written (NB: season 3 is officially in the works now), and a fittingly ruminative end to the show (whenever that'll be) that speaks to the futility of war. And hey, if you're not overly concerned with House of the Dragon's thematic resonance or topical exploration, watching some dragons beat the crap out of each other is nevertheless wonderfully entertaining.

House of the Dragon season 2's first episode debuts on Max (in the US) on Sunday, June 16, and on Monday, June 17 on Sky/Now TV (UK) and Foxtel/Binge (Australia). New episodes air weekly.

Senior Entertainment Reporter

As TechRadar's senior entertainment reporter, Tom covers all of the latest movies, TV shows, and streaming service news that you need to know about. You'll regularly find him writing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, and many other topics of interest.

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