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Opinion ‘House of the Dragon’ offers Americans a new shot at a common culture

Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen in a scene from "House of the Dragon," a prequel to "Game of Thrones." (HBO Max/AP)

If there’s one cultural consensus that still holds about “Game of Thrones,” it’s this: The series ended on such an awkward and maudlin note that it somehow squandered the immense cultural cachet the show had accumulated over the previous 72 episodes.

And yet, I’m still rooting for “House of the Dragon,” the “Game of Thrones” prequel that emerged from an intense bake-off process at HBO and premiered on Sunday, to be a massive success. It’s not just that “Game of Thrones” left behind unfinished conversations. Rather, the show seemed to mark the end of mass, sustained cultural debate period. However poorly “Game of Thrones” went out, we’re worse off for the void it left behind.

“House of the Dragon” turns back the clock from the original series, to an era before dragons went extinct, and when the Targaryens who rode them still ruled Westeros.

King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) came to the throne after a council of the realm’s nobles chose him as heir over Princess Rhaenys Velaryon (Eve Best). Because Viserys lacks a son, his legal heir appears to be his brother Daemon (Matt Smith), a charismatic but violent and impulsive man who serves his own appetite as much as the realm. Viserys’s daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock as a teenager, Emma D’Arcy as an adult) might be a better fit for the role — if she can get it and keep it.

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At first glance — I’ve seen the first four episodes — “House of the Dragon” lacks some of the qualities that made “Game of Thrones” a great debating subject and intermittently great art.

The new series, at least as it starts out, is more family drama than expansive social tapestry. Yes, that family is House Targaryen, and the personality clashes between its members produce not merely awkward dinners but a civil war. Still, in the early going, “House of the Dragon” draws its conflict mainly from the claustrophobia of power.

And while the show features some strong performances, notably from Smith as Prince Daemon; Considine as his mournful, decidedly human-size brother, King Viserys; and Best as Princess Rhaenys, who might have ruled Westeros were it not for her gender, it lacks a figure ripe for audience identification. “House of the Dragon” has no Arya Stark for those of us who remember our tomboy pasts; no wickedly funny Tyrion Lannister for the jokesters in our midst; no Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen, like so many of us desperate to be recognized as worthy.

But “House of the Dragon” offers plenty to chew over — and plenty that’s relevant to current debates, in the same way “Game of Thrones” provided grist for arguments about sexual violence, the impact of trauma and the way empowerment can curdle into absolutism. It’s a series about what happens when the law runs up against personal impulse, about the difficulty of undoing long-established family dynamics, and yes, about gender and power. And if the George R.R. Martin books and stories “House of the Dragon” are based on are any guide, the show will take those themes to some productively unexpected places.

If audiences show up to have those discussions, that would be an encouraging development — or at least a respite from the current dolorous state of affairs, when real political debate is rarely to be found in our great deliberative bodies, and cultural warfare has grown disturbingly literal.

Mass culture has a useful role to play in these circumstances. By providing the public with a set of hypotheticals, shows such as “Game of Thrones” can provide an opportunity to debate big ideas, unencumbered by partisan rancor. Daenerys Targaryen, Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark gave Americans powerful women who weren’t Hillary Clinton to argue over. It would be nice to be able to talk about the transfer of power and the character of public officials in a context outside of the ongoing Trump Show that has so dominated our lives.

If not “House of the Dragon,” maybe some other show or movie franchise will be the catalyst. But binge-watching has left audiences literally out of synch with one another, and a glut of programming means that everyone can vanish down content rabbit holes of their choice. Buzzy limited series such as “Tiger King,” “The Dropout” and “Mare of Easttown” might be great, but they don’t do what a series like “Game of Thrones” did, building a community discussion that continues from year to year. In the fractious year of 2022, it’ll take something as big and fiery as dragons to bring us all back together.