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Review: ‘House of the Dragon’ hits stride in bigger, bleaker season 2

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The first season of “House of the Dragon,” HBO’s prequel to “Game of Thrones” and the first spinoff in network history, was widely considered a success. But it was also, in essence, 10 hours of set-up, speeding through decades of context to take audiences to the brink of the Westerosi civil war known as the Dance of the Dragons. Despite its many strengths, the show began as a structural oxymoron: too rushed to do the patient plotting and character-building that gave its parent show such a strong foundation; too slow to sink its teeth into the real meat of its story until the final stretch of episodes, which saw the death of King Viserys (Paddy Considine) and the formation of factions around his two potential heirs.

In Season 2, “House of the Dragon” feels like it’s finally the show it was always meant to be. What all that runway was leading up to, it turns out, is a tragedy of epic proportions, bleaker than even the famously violent and cynical “Game of Thrones” could ever dream. In the war between two scions of the long-reigning Targaryen clan, there are no winners, least of all the realm each contender hopes to rule.

The new episodes, four of which were screened for critics in advance, contain much of what their predecessors lacked, from the development of key relationships to the dragon-on-dragon violence promised by the title. “House of the Dragon” has been elevated, sharpened, and broadened in scope — all in service of a show now as dark figuratively as it already was literally.

Showrunner Ryan Condal and co-creator George R.R. Martin, the author of the series’ source material, could barely cram all the political and personal context for the Dance of the Dragons into a full season of primer. But at the start of Season 2, the combatants are helpfully sorted into color-coded contingents: the Blacks, loyalists to Viserys’ eldest child Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), and the Greens, who back Rhaenyra’s half-brother Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), the progeny of Viserys’ second marriage to Rhaenyra’s childhood friend Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke).

For what it’s worth, the show’s sympathies are clearly skewed toward the Blacks. Rhaenyra’s succession claim is contested, in part out of rank misogyny, and in last season’s finale, she suffered the first true loss of the war when Aegon’s sadistic, vindictive brother Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) killed her young son Lucerys (Elliot Grihault). Yet the thematic gist of “House of the Dragon” is that, once the bodies start to fall, sympathy ceases to matter in the face of a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.

From the very first shot, Season 2 signals an intention to widen its lens beyond the palace intrigue among a single blended family in a couple of castles. We open not in King’s Landing or on Dragonstone, but at Winterfell, the seat of the Stark family whose own dissolution formed the spine of “Game of Thrones.” The point of the excursion north isn’t just to highlight historical parallels; it’s to indicate that “House of the Dragon” is shifting its focus from the intimate dynamics of the Targaryens to their disastrous, continent-spanning consequences. “When princes lose their temper,” one character warns, “it is often others who suffer.”

The point is bluntly put, and only reinforced by grim spectacles seemingly designed to refute the apocryphal Truffaut quote that there’s no such thing as an anti-war film. (Or TV show with the budget of a box-office tentpole.) A dispute between two squabbling teens cuts directly to a battlefield strewn with corpses; a humble family in a blockaded city worries over the spiking price of food. These exchanges take place not between our primary antiheroes, but minor, even anonymous, characters we may never hear from again. Cumulatively, they stand in for the masses who stand to gain nothing from two sides armed with the magical equivalent of nuclear bombs engaged in mutually assured annihilation.

This thread builds on longstanding themes of the “Game of Thrones” universe. (Martin’s original “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels made clear that armies on all sides, no matter how righteous their commanders’ cause, will engage in petty atrocities like rape and theft if given the excuse.) There’s still an added sense of futility to “House of the Dragon.” Ned Stark may have been naïve, but there was a clear-cut morality to his initial search for truth that’s less applicable to Rhaenyra, a flagrant philanderer — just like Ned’s adversary Cersei Lannister! — who clings to her birthright primarily out of personal grievance. And as the war ramps up, cooler heads in both camps are gradually sidelined in favor of bloodthirsty hard-liners like Aemond and Rhaenyra’s uncle/husband Daemon (Matt Smith), whose one-upmanship makes peace an increasingly certain impossibility. “Soon, they won’t even remember why they started the war in the first place,” Rhaenyra’s aunt Rhaenys (Eve Best) laments.

One of the even-tempered types on the losing side of this fictional history, Rhaenys was once passed over for the Iron Throne herself. She’s lived long enough to see history repeat itself, and the viewer brings their own knowledge of what’s coming generations down the line.

That future, of course, includes a horde of ice zombies coming for a kingdom left without the dragons who serve as its best defense, a near-extinction directly tied to the Dance and its winged casualties. At first, I balked at how “House of the Dragon” retroactively turned dynasty founder Aegon the Conqueror into a prophet passing his apocalyptic dream down through the generations. But in Season 2, this device effectively underscores the damage war will do. Rhaenyra claims to be acting with the prophecy’s predictions in mind; in reality, she’s only guaranteeing they come to pass.

The oppressive mood can make “House of the Dragon” a trial to watch, albeit in a way that’s a testament to its power. (Any show that gives you bad dreams, as these episodes did for me, has thoroughly bored its way into the subconscious.) There are occasionally challenges to the show’s cultivated sense of reality, like the patently absurd idea that the 30-year-old Cooke is a grandmother.

But for the most part, the broad-based empathy “Game of Thrones” cultivated for its many protagonists is here deployed to explain what could lead otherwise sensible people to murder their family members in cold blood, and honestly believe they had no other choice. It’s a worldview rarely illustrated at this scale. Most blockbusters need a happy ending to bring in the crowds. Having made a saga where blood flows freely and incest is normalized the biggest draw on TV, “House of the Dragon” feels no need to spare our feelings.

‘House of the Dragon’ Season 2 will premiere on HBO and Max on June 16 at 9 p.m. ET, with remaining episodes airing weekly on Sundays.

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‘Spider-Man Noir’ live-action series in the works at Amazon

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A Spider-Man Noir live-action series is in the works at Amazon, GeekAfrique has learned via a Variety report. The untitled series will follow an older, grizzled superhero in 1930s New York City. An individual with knowledge of the project says that the show will be set in its own universe and the main character will not be Peter Parker.

This is the second known project based on the Sony-controlled Marvel characters at Amazon Prime Video and MGM+. It was previously announced that Amazon was moving forward with the series ‘Silk: Spider Society’ from showrunner Angela Kang, with several other shows in the works. It is unknown at this time which other Marvel characters will be featured in the other Amazon shows, though Sony currently controls over 900 such characters associated with the Spider-Man franchise.

The Spider-Man Noir comics originally debuted in 2009 as part of the Marvel Noir universe. That version of the iconic superhero lives in New York during the Great Depression. He is bitten by a spider hidden inside a stolen artifact, causing him to have visions of a spider-god who grants him superpowers. Nicolas Cage voiced the character in ‘Into the Spider-Verse’.

The Amazon show will be the first live-action iteration of Spider-Man Noir.

Sony has released multiple Spider-Man live-action films in the past and currently works with Marvel Studios on the rebooted film franchise starring Tom Holland via Columbia Pictures. Sony is also behind ‘Into the Spider-Verse’, which won the Academy Award for best animated film in 2019. Two sequels to that film are currently in the works, with the first — ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ — due out in June 2023.

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‘Spartacus’ sequel series in the works

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A sequel to hit historical drama series ‘Spartacus’ is in development, with Steven S. DeKnight, who created the original series, serving as showrunner and executive producer. ‘Spartacus’ was inspired by the story of the gladiator of the same name who incited a massive slave rebellion against Rome in the year 73 BC. Per the logline, the sequel series will be set after the defeat of Spartacus and his revolution, depicting “a new tale of treachery, deceit and blood unfolding beneath the foreboding shadow of Rome.”

The original show debuted in 2010, with Season 1 carrying the title ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’. Starz then debuted a prequel limited series, ‘Spartacus: Gods of the Arena’ in 2011, before producing two more seasons of the flagship titled ‘Vengeance’ (2012) and ‘War of the Damned’ (2013).

The sequel series will be produced by Lionsgate Television.

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‘God of War’ live-action TV series ordered at Amazon

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A live-action adaptation of PlayStation’s hit video game franchise ‘God of War’ has been ordered to series at Amazon’s Prime Video, with ‘Wheel of Time’ boss Rafe Judkins set as showrunner. Based on the massively popular 2018 video game, the show follows Kratos, the God of War, who, after exiling himself from his blood-soaked past in ancient Greece, hangs up his weapons forever in the Norse realm of Midgard, per Amazon’s description. When his beloved wife dies, Kratos sets off on a dangerous journey with his estranged son Atreus to spread her ashes from the highest peak — his wife’s final wish. Kratos soon realizes the journey is an epic quest in disguise, one which will test the bonds between father and son, and force Kratos to battle new gods and monsters for the fate of the world.

“‘God of War’ is a compelling, character-driven franchise that we believe will captivate our global customers as much with its expansive and immersive worlds as its rich storytelling,” Vernon Sanders, head of global television at Amazon Studios, said. “We are honored to share in the adventure of exploring the God of War mythology in such a momentous way with Sony Pictures Television, PlayStation Productions, and Santa Monica Studio.”

The ‘God of War’ TV series marks the latest show based on a video game that is either in the works or in production, including Amazon’s ‘Fallout’ adaptation from ‘Westworld’ creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ (based on another PlayStation property), Paramount+’s ‘Halo’, the Anthony Mackie-led ‘Twisted Metal’ at Peacock, among others.

“We are so proud and excited to be working with our friends at Amazon Studios and our partners at PlayStation Productions to adapt this beautiful and heart-breaking game into a premium live-action series,” Katherine Pope, president of Sony Pictures Television Studios, said.”

A sequel to the 2018 ‘God of War’ game, titled ‘God of War: Ragnarok’, was just released last month. At last week’s Game Awards, it won for best narrative, action/adventure game, score/music, audio design, performance for Kratos actor Christopher Judge and innovation in accessibility.

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