House Of The Dragon vs. Rings Of Power: How do they stack up?

·8 min read
Image:  Ollie Upton/HBO and Matt Grace/Prime Video
Image: Ollie Upton/HBO and Matt Grace/Prime Video

If the executives at HBO and Amazon didn’t want us to be comparing House Of The Dragon and The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power, they shouldn’t have released two massive series based on popular fantasy franchises at almost the same time.

But since they did—and not everyone gets paid to watch TV day and night like we do here at The A.V. Club (not really, but it would be nice)—we are kind of forced to do our readers a service and pit them against each other in a winner-take-all fantasy grudge match for the ages.

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Which one will come out on top and earn the coveted and not-at-all-made-up title of Best Fantasy Show Airing on TV Right Now? Keep reading to find out. Of course, n the end it doesn’t really matter, because when you have two shows this good to choose from, we’re all winners.

Round 1: Tone

Scenic view from The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power
Scenic view from The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power

House Of The Dragon

Despite the presence of dragons and some magical elements at the fringes of society, The Song of Ice and Fire is set in a world not dissimilar to our own. The fictional history in George R.R. Martin’s novels was inspired by the actual history of our world, and history isn’t always nice or comforting. It’s full of complexities and nuance. Few people in this series are purely good or purely evil. They’re mostly just humans, with basic human needs, prone to human failings. Some are more damaged than others, and they in turn inflict damage themselves, either purposefully or inadvertently. Most of them are doing the best they can. It may be realistic, but it’s not the place to look to if you want to be optimistic about the potential of mankind.

The Rings Of Power

Tolkien’s world is more black and white. Evil in Middle-earth is pure, and it’s easy to spot. There’s no need to explain it or justify the reasons why Sauron is evil. He just is. There’s room for nuance, sure, but it’s not hard to tell the good guys from the villains. The elves and the good-hearted harfoots are bathed in radiant light, while the orcs and trolls are shadowed in darkness. We know from the beginning what kind of story this is and who the heroes will be. Admirable qualities like love, loyalty, and kindness are rewarded. And the story always assures us, even through each setback, that good will eventually prevail. It’s refreshingly uplifting.

Winner: The Rings Of Power

Round 2: World Building

Image:  Ollie Upton/HBO
Image: Ollie Upton/HBO

House Of The Dragon

Game Of Thrones did a great job of taking details based in reality and tweaking them just slightly for its own purposes, and House Of The Dragon is expanding that further. Every noble house in Westeros has its own sigil, which is carried through in the production design, including costumes, props, and set design. The hardy people of the north are instantly distinguishable from the mannered houses of The Reach and the fiercely independent citizens of Dorne. And that’s just on one continent. Over in Essos we have the Free Cities, Slaver’s Bay, and the grass sea of the Dothraki, all with their own distinctive looks and customs.

The Rings Of Power

The creative team for The Lord Of The Rings had a slightly easier shorthand to go by, since they were dealing with entirely different races of beings, rather than human family dynasties or nation states. In The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies the lines between societies are more clearly drawn. The delicate spires of elvish cities are vastly different from the dwarven mountain strongholds and the earthy, rough-and-ready Harfoot camp. There’s no mistaking one for the other, and each is lavish and beautiful in its own way. If we were going strictly by the books, Tolkien would have the clear advantage, but we’re going to give this one to House Of The Dragon based solely on the level of difficulty and the amount of excruciating detail put into every scene.

Winner: House Of The Dragon

Round 3: Romance

Ismael Cruz Cordova as Arondir in The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power
Ismael Cruz Cordova as Arondir in The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power

House Of The Dragon

Have you noticed that couples who marry for love tend not to do so well in Westeros? Take Robb Stark and Jeyne Westerling, for instance. If he’d only married Walder Frey’s daughter like he was supposed to, there wouldn’t have been a red wedding. Following your heart before your head is a recipe for disaster in Martin’s world. Not that arranged marriages always work out either. The best-case scenario seems to be falling for the person your family matches you up with, like King Viserys and Queen Aemma. What we saw of their love was genuine, though we didn’t get to see much of it before she died in the premiere. Even Rhaenyra’s crush on Ser Criston Cole can’t lead anywhere good, since his position on the kingsguard prevents him from taking a wife. Not that it’s stopped either one of them from shamelessly flirting.

The Rings Of Power

The Lord Of The Rings saga, on the other hand, has shown that love can triumph over seemingly impossible circumstances. That philosophy is carried through in The Rings Of Power. The first episode introduced us to Arondir, an elvish archer tasked with watching over a human village. He’s done a poor job hiding his affection toward one of the villagers, a human healer named Bronwyn, and she seems to return his feelings. All signs point to them becoming the Arwen and Aragorn of this series—an elf-mortal romance to root for. At least in Middle-earth we can hope they have some chance at happiness.

Winner: The Rings Of Power

Round 4: Political Intrigue

Viserys confers with Otto Hightower in House Of The Dragon
Viserys confers with Otto Hightower in House Of The Dragon

House Of The Dragon

It’s right there in the title: Game Of Thrones. That’s the whole ball of wax when it comes to The Song of Ice and Fire. We may get side quests and storylines outside of King’s Landing, but the fight for power is the driving force behind the entire saga. Watching the game unfold as the players strategize and try to outmaneuver each other is what makes it fun. Even the characters who aren’t playing the game directly are drawn into the struggle, and then we get to see the different ways they handle the challenges thrown their way. They can be tests of strength, cunning, or endurance, but they’re always interesting. Even when the most unsympathetic player wins a battle, you’ve got to respect their game.

The Rings Of Power

While there is some intrigue in Middle-earth, the political struggles are splintered into factions. Humans, elves, dwarves, and the other races all have their own autonomous systems of government, mostly monarchies. In a way, this world is already at the point Game Of Thrones doesn’t reach until the very end of its run, when all the disparate societies must come together to fight an outside threat to all. That makes their individual in-fighting less urgent than the greater looming danger, which never seems to be truly vanquished.

Winner: House Of The Dragon

Round 5: Visual Effects

A landscape in The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power
A landscape in The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power

House Of The Dragon

The best visual effects are the ones you don’t notice. Obviously we know that the dragons in the show aren’t real, but when we see two opposite forces facing down each other on a bridge with the hazy sun hanging low in the background, you can accept that they’re really standing there. The sweeping overhead shots of King’s Landing and the battle on Bloodstone are both impressive and give us a good sense of where the action is. It’s hard to tell at times where the effects end and the practical sets begin.

The Rings Of Power

If you counted the number of effects shots per episode, The Rings Of Power would probably have way more. Most of them are beautifully rendered, but with that much CGI they’re not all going to be perfect. Still, this series does a great job of matching the look and feel of Peter Jackson’s films, expanding on them, and adding some new flavors to the mix. Every scene is lovely to look at. It’s everything we could ask of a fantasy series and more.

Winner: Draw

Round 6: Audience

Viserys talks to Laena in House Of The Dargon
Viserys talks to Laena in House Of The Dargon

House Of The Dragon

HBO is courting the same mature audience who watched Game Of Thrones, and it made that immediately clear with the graphic sex and violence in the first episode. Don’t expect much restraint when it comes to explicit content in House Of The Dragon. If you don’t have to worry about kids wandering into the room while you’re watching, House Of The Dragon is the edgier option.

The Rings Of Power

A TV-14 rating makes this a much more welcoming show for viewers of all ages to watch together. There’s no nudity or sex, and the violence is mainly perpetrated against mythological creatures. It’s still probably too scary for the young ones, but older kids can safely join in. For those who want to follow along with the whole family, Rings Of Power is the clear choice here.

Winner: Draw

Final Score

Image:  Ben Rothstein/Prime Video
Image: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video

We have two rounds for House Of The Dragon, two for The Lord Of The Rings, and two draws. So it’s a tie. Funny how that worked out. The best conclusion we can offer is that there’s something for everyone to like (and perhaps not like) in both of these shows. But this match-up should at least help you make an informed decision about which to watch first.