Those ominous violins ringing in your ears? That’s the sound of a Red Wedding–level event looming on the pop-culture horizon: Game of Thrones, reborn.
Three years after signing off the air, the Thrones franchise returns to HBO in the form of House of the Dragon, debuting August 21. Set roughly two centuries before Daenerys Targaryen’s determined pursuit of the Iron Throne, House of the Dragon centers on the erstwhile Khaleesi’s ancestors: House Targaryen, the dragon-riding dynasty that reigned over Westeros until their near-extinction just before Game of Thrones’ opening acts.
Once upon a time, the prospect of another show set within author George R.R. Martin’s brutal fantasy universe was among the soundest decisions in the business. In the wake of Game of Thrones’ divisive ending, it’s still sound enough to move forward—but perhaps not without the sound of “The Rains of Castamere” faintly humming in the background.
Still, there are several reasons why the Thrones devotee who felt burned (sorry) by the show’s ending should feel more optimistic about HBO’s next act of fire and blood. As for the fans in the back of the house who still love Game of Thrones, warts and all, there’s a glorious feast on its way. And for complete franchise newcomers who somehow never pulled into the world of Westeros? A prequel with few narrative ties to the original series, House is wide open for you as well. No matter where you fall, here’s everything you need to know heading into House of the Dragon.
Heir to the Throne
Here’s news that’s either good or bad depending on how the show ultimately landed with you: Game of Thrones executive producers and creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are not involved in House of the Dragon. Instead, Dragon springs from the minds of coshowrunners Ryan J. Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, with series cocreator Martin himself serving as a hands-on executive producer.
Both Condal and Sapochnik come to HBO’s first Thrones successor (at least, the first to make it to air) with impressive feathers in their cap. Sapochnik directed some of the most celebrated episodes of Game of Thrones, including the war-movie caliber “Battle of the Bastards” and the riveting season six finale, “The Winds of Winter.” Bombastic as both of those episodes were, they were also deeply rooted in characters’ points of view, complete with stunning thematic-driven imagery—such as the snowfall in Westeros signaling the arrival of the much-hyped winter. With some other major credits including an episode of Netflix’s big-budget Altered Carbon, Sapochnik shows up here as one of the most experienced filmmakers Westeros has ever known.
House of the Dragon’s other showrunner arrives with the seal of approval from Westeros’s one true king: George R.R. Martin himself, who handpicked Condal for the job. A huge fan of the Song of Ice and Fire novel series, Condal sports the intimate book loyalist’s perspective, and a stated desire to adhere closely to Martin’s written narrative.
If Condal’s Flea Bottom street cred isn’t enough on its own, consider his and Carlton Cuse’s tragically short-lived and overlooked USA Network sci-fi series, Colony, about humanity’s struggle to survive an alien-occupied Earth. The Josh Holloway–starring show explored a grand concept through a deeply personal lens, loaded with the grandeur and casual barbarity expected from the Targaryens (and the harsh treatment toward its cast one would expect from Thrones itself). Add the lessons learned from that hidden gem to the equation, and House of the Dragon appears to be in very good hands.
Book of the Dragon
Condal’s adherence to the written Westeros word might strike some as funny, considering the running joke around these parts: Martin’s books are still not finished, with his sixth and penultimate book in the Ice and Fire saga, The Winds of Winter, yet to be published. Of course, the author insists he’s still plugging away, with one recent update offering a relatively optimistic outlook on the book’s status. In the case of House of the Dragon, though, these future winds are beside the point.
House of the Dragon draws instead on a different book: Fire & Blood, Martin’s sprawling fictional history of the Targaryen kings, written from the perspective of a maester of Westeros. The first of a planned duology (hold the laughs), Fire & Blood chronicles the ascent of numerous dragon-riding kings in Westeros. It tells complete stories about each of them without much dialogue, leaving plenty of room to explore between the bullet points.
Where Benioff and Weiss’s Thrones had a whole paved road to drive on—right up until it met a cliff—Condal and Sapochnik have almost the opposite opportunity. They know the start and end points of the House of the Dragon route. But because Fire & Blood is a history tome told by an unreliable narrator and sources, the showrunners can pick and choose the milestones they want to focus on and embellish, and the ones they want to ignore altogether.
The other side of that double-edged Valyrian sword: House of the Dragon is based on parts of a completed novel, which means when discussing this material, spoilers abound. If you want to experience the series without any knowledge of what happens to the characters, it’s best to google with extreme caution.
A Matter of Succession
Basic Targaryen premise aside, what is House of the Dragon actually about? You could crack open Fire & Blood to find out for yourself, but even then, you won’t yield an immediate answer.
Yes, House of the Dragon is an adaptation of Fire & Blood, but not the earliest pages of the book. Prospective viewers who dive into the text before the show might be disappointed to learn the first few hundred pages featuring Aegon’s conquest and his two immediate successors aren’t the focus of the show, and may not appear on it at all. (That said, the powers that be have indicated House of the Dragon could eventually become an anthology in future seasons, with the ability to explore the stories of other Tagaryens.)
Instead, House of the Dragon leans on the middle portion of Fire & Blood, beginning with the tail end of the fourth Targaryen king’s long and peaceful reign. Despite a prosperous run for more than 50 years, the so-called Jaehaerys the Wise faces extraordinary hardship when anointing an heir for emotional and practical reasons alike. Without a clear way to proceed, he tasks a council with casting votes for Westeros’s next leader, resulting in the ascension of House of the Dragon’s King Viserys (Paddy Considine). Despite being the namesake of Harry Lloyd’s golden-crowned Targaryen from Game of Thrones’ first season, this Viserys is a far cry from that character in terms of temperament. Still, his ascension remains divisive to some, leading us straight into the heart of House of the Dragon.
As Viserys moves through his time as king, he finds himself faced with the same problem as his predecessor: the question of succession. Who will sit on the Iron Throne when he’s no longer around? It’s the central conflict of this period of Targaryen history, simmering with familial in-fighting before boiling over into actual in-fighting in an event known as the Dance of the Dragons.
More simply: House of the Dragon is easily billed as “Game of Thrones meets Succession.” Except instead of Logan Roy and his large adult children ruining the world with mergers and tweets, Viserys and his family stand to ruin theirs with nuclearly powerful dragons.
Seven Kingdoms, Several Characters
With a focus on King’s Landing and the political operators therein, House of the Dragon promises a rich cast of characters for viewers to root both for and against. Viserys aside, some of the most prominent figures on the board include Viserys’s brother, Daemon (Matt Smith), a warmongering warrior with a chip on his shoulder; Viserys’s beloved daughter, Rhaenyra, played by Milly Alcock in her earliest years before the role turns over to Emma D’Arcy (who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns) as the adult version of the character, a young princess whom many believe should be the next ruler of Westeros; and Rhaenyra’s dear friend Alicent Hightower, also played by two performers, Emily Carey and Olivia Cooke, at different points in time. The less said about her vitally important role for now, the better.
Still, the fact that two different characters are played by two different actors should tell you something very important: House of the Dragon spins a decades-spanning yarn, with years and years of major and minor grievances fueling the action. It’s a key difference from Thrones, which told its story over a relatively truncated period of time, swift-growing Bran Stark notwithstanding. In other words: Yes, many of your favorite characters will die. But some of your favorite actors will also vanish from the screen as they age out of the story.
Viserys, Daemon, Rhaenyra, and Alicent are an easily identifiable core four, but the narrative expands far beyond their purview. For instance, there’s Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon, also known as the Sea Snake, the greatest sailor Westeros has ever known and a descendant of the Old Valyrians just like the Targaryens. (Indeed, the Sea Snake is so electric that HBO is reportedly also developing a spin-off about his earliest exploits.) Among the wealthier men in Westeros with a fleet rivaled only by the Iron Islands at his disposal, Lord Corlys draws comparisons to Tywin Lannister for his political acumen. But there are other House of the Dragon characters vying for that same parallel, such as Alicent’s father and King Viserys’s hand, Otto Hightower, played by Spider-Man: No Way Home villain Rhys Ifans. As for the next Littlefinger and Varys? There are several contenders, but make sure to keep an eye on Larys Strong (Matthew Needham), because he certainly has his eye on you.
Some of the most important individuals in this story are yet to be born at the outset of House of the Dragon, such as a pair of Aegons and even a smiling-eyed Aemond. Others will take their time, possibly full seasons, before they step out of the shadows and into the light, such as the enigmatically named Shepherd and a less-enigmatic but no-less-important Stark named Cregan.
Then, of course, there are the titular dragons. In Game of Thrones, there were only three, the first of their kind after many generations of presumed extinction. Just as House of the Dragon rolls out countless Targaryens compared to the few featured on Thrones, the latest series also comes loaded with firepower in the form of nearly 20 dragons. What’s more, these dragons aren’t just here for spectacle; in many cases, they’re full-on characters in their own right, with specific arcs, appearances, and personalities that distinguish their individual roles in the story. The names Vhagar and Caraxes might not mean much to you now (and if that’s the case, again, think twice before googling), but they will be utterly unforgettable by the time House of the Dragon takes its final breath of fire.
A Word of Warning
In her quest to win the Iron Throne, prospective Queen Daenerys hoped to “break the wheel.” It didn’t quite work out that way. HBO, though, is sticking to a familiar idea: If the wheel ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Put another way: House of the Dragon and Game of Thrones share many commonalities beyond existing in the same universe. While the White Walkers aren’t a pressing threat here (but were they on Game of Thrones, ultimately?), the King’s Landing wheeling and dealing that defined the earliest seasons of Benioff and Weiss’s show is very much the bread and butter here on House of the Dragon. The long arcs are similar too, both in terms of the thematic engines revving underneath the characters and their competing agendas, as well as literal set pieces involving familiar iconography and levels of destruction.
Another way House of the Dragon will likely echo Game of Thrones: deeply disturbing content. While those involved with the show insist it won’t depict explicit sexual violence, many other forms of trauma are inevitable parts of the equation: grooming, incest, systemic oppression, and the requisite levels of violence this world is known for. Viewers are advised to proceed accordingly.
As for Red Wedding–level events? House of the Dragon has those to spare, with at least one or two that will make Robb Stark’s final moments look like a tea party. Read Fire & Blood if you want the early heads-up on which of your darlings House of the Dragon aims to maim and kill in horrific fashion. But if you don’t have the time, here’s one heads-up: Cheese? Very bad news indeed.
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