Emma D’Arcy was feeling like a bit of a cheat. It was July of 2022 at the world premiere of House of the Dragon in Los Angeles. Stylishly dressed in an oversized suit and drop earrings, D’Arcy worked the red carpet like an old pro but never felt completely at ease among the hundreds of eager fans who packed the Academy Museum theater. “It’s like finding yourself in someone else’s life,” recalls the actor, who plays Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen in the HBO drama that’s based on George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood. “It’s quite wild having never done that before, and certainly not on that scale, obviously, with one of the biggest shows in the world. And I am quite camera shy, which is obviously a disaster.”
But when the lights went down and the Game of Thrones theme music filled the theater, D’Arcy’s anxiety was replaced by an inescapable euphoria. “We were so thrilled because we heard initially how they were sort of holding their cards close to their chests about what the theme would be,” says the actor. “I sort of felt like, ‘come on, you cowards, use the music!’ Like, put your money where your mouth is. It’s embarrassing, but when I used to watch Game of Thrones when it was on TV, I got chills every time. I would never skip the titles, you know? They were so good. So good.”
Though it’s impossible to continue the Westeros franchise without featuring various towheads, dragons and that indelible title music, Martin and co-creator Ryan Condal weren’t looking to straight-up copy what David Benioff and D.B. Weiss achieved over eight, Emmy-winning seasons on Game of Thrones. Rather, their goal was to tell more of an intimate family story that takes place 172 years before the birth of Daenerys (played in Thrones by Emilia Clarke) by focusing on three main characters within the House Targaryen — the reluctant King Viserys (Paddy Considine), who ends up marrying Alicent (Olivia Cooke), the best friend of his daughter Rhaenyra whom he dubbed the heir apparent to the throne. Add in a reckless uncle named Daemon (Matt Smith) who falls hard for his brother’s dragon-riding daughter, and you’ve got a jam-packed first season full of treachery, incest and familial violence.
“The trick was really to show this generational conflict that began with Viserys’s generation,” said Condal at Deadline’s Contenders event. (Because of the WGA strike, Condal would not do interviews for this story). “Viserys and his hand Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) passed it down to their children, Rhaenyra and Alicent, who were young women and used as pawns in the game of thrones. And then as they grew up and became adults and had children of their own, and this bitter rivalry and grasp for power gets passed on to their children. So it’s a three-generational story and we needed to get through that in the course of one season.”
That meant beginning the prequel with two younger actresses playing Rhaenyra and Alicent — a risky proposition that meant switching out actresses Milly Alcock and Emily Carey for D’Arcy and Cooke halfway through the 10-episode season and possibly raising fan ire (which ended up happening since Alcock, in particular, was so well-liked).
“It’s rarely done,” admitted Cooke to Deadline in 2022. “I think while watching it, I felt more pressure than when I actually filmed it. It never felt like we were replacing the others. It just felt like the first five episodes were a sort of a time capsule.”
Fortunately, Cooke and D’Arcy never felt a need to constantly share notes with their younger counterparts to maintain some continuity in their roles. “There was no laying down of the law for Rhaenyra. I also didn’t feel like that was necessary,” D’Arcy says. “I think something that’s so nice about how the first series is constructed is that it does give sort of a tangible distance from one’s childhood. I definitely feel my childhood self to be quite separate from me and I can sort of see the edges of the person that I was as a child in a way that I’m not as good at seeing my edges now. I loved how that was literalized in the show. It was also just a huge honor because Millie is such a brilliant actor, and it was very lovely to come in after they’ve taken care so beautifully in the first five episodes. It was a very generous springboard for me and Olivia, I think.”
But while fans learned to love the changing faces of Rhaenyra and Alicent, they remained somewhat skeptical of Considine’s Viserys — especially after the death of his wife Aemma Arryn and their newborn son in the first episode. People assumed he ordered her death to save his male heir, even though both were going to die regardless. (That’s medieval medicine for you!). And to make matters worse, Viserys was then encouraged to marry Alicent, a kind and rather timid teen less than half his age.
“I was sort of shocked in the first episode or so when people commented that they hated him,” Considine says. “I didn’t understand that. Why would you hate him? I don’t think that fans were used to a character like that in that world, a king who wasn’t corrupted by power or entitlement. I think it was difficult for people to place him because he wasn’t particularly archetypal and he wasn’t what they were expecting from what they’d read in the books, either.” That in itself is what made Viserys such a provocative character — and why Considine, whose previous credits included The Death of Stalin and Peaky Blinders, was the perfect man to play him. (Condal likes to describe Considine’s casting as “celestial” after both he and director Miguel Sapochnik singled him out from a long list of candidates).
As for writing Viserys, “We started with the desire to portray this very complicated character who we always said was a really good man but was not a good king,” Condal said. “The reason for that is because he’s actually quite a modern politician. He’s not quick to move. He takes consensus. He finds the middle often. Those aren’t qualities that work in a feudal medieval society. They are things we look for in our contemporary leaders. We were really excited to populate this world with a character like that. There’s a certain weakness seen in that.”
No one recognizes his brother’s shortcomings more than Daemon, who serves as the King’s Landing watch commander by having his soldiers castrate and behead criminals. Despite his malevolent reputation, Daemon was the obvious choice to succeed Viserys on the throne, but Hightower manufactured a scandal by alleging how he denigrated Viserys’ dead infant son at a local pleasure house. No such words were spoken — at least, we never heard them in the pilot episode — but it was enough to convince Viserys to give up any hope of his brother taking over the realm. That led him to anoint Rhaenyra, instead.
“I think Daemon’s got his own sense of morality, so to him, he feels like he’s always doing the right thing,” says Smith. “I think his love for his brother is true. It’s just slightly ill-conceived at times. And when you think he’s doing the right thing, actually, he’s not. And when he thinks he’s doing the wrong thing, he’s not. I don’t know whether there’s a good guy waiting to come out in Daemon, but I certainly think there’s a side of him that is loyal.”
If not a tad, ahem, perverted: Daemon ends up — gasp! — bedding his niece Rhaenyra while she’s still a teen. Even though he doesn’t end up fathering her three dark-haired sons (Ser Harwin Strong was responsible for that), Daemon ends up marrying D’Arcy’s Rhaenyra in the seventh episode. Awkward! But before you clutch your pearls, Smith and D’Arcy actually leaned into the yukiness of it all. “If we’re going to show this relationship and we’re going to do the whole thing justice, the ick factor has to be present because that’s honest,” D’Arcy says. “It can be sexy, and you’ve got to keep the ick in the room because that’s honest.”
“Obviously we’re dealing with events that are hundreds of years old and the morality was different then,” adds Smith. “But ultimately, it’s important to the story. So, therefore, Daemon and Rhaenyra do their thing.”
And thus began the start of the Targaryen civil war, otherwise known as the Dance of Dragons, as Rhaenyra fights for her true birthright. But before we get into gritty details, get ready for the world’s most delayed spoiler alert: Viserys dies in episode 9, but not before he confuses his wife Alicent with a deathbed utterance that leads her to believe their son, Aegon II, would inherit the Iron Throne. (Viserys thought he was talking to Rhaenyra about the Song of Ice and Fire prophecy, and how she is the only one who can unite the realm). Off-camera, Considine knew the day was coming as he was told at the very beginning that his time in Westeros would be short. Besides being delightfully relieved that he would no longer have to wear such ghastly makeup — by the time of his death, his face was sunken, and he had only one eye — Considine thought his prompt passing only made the story better.
“There’s none of that wondering what is going to happen in Season 2, you know?” Considine says. “There were some comments from people who felt that the show moved along too quickly. They wanted to live with the younger versions of Rhaenyra and Alicent, but for my character, I just think he would’ve gotten too drawn out. He would’ve become quite a boring character to spread out over a season. So, I was quite grateful to die.”
And though he was a little disappointed that he never got to ride a dragon (“I would have settled for Pete’s,” he said, in reference to the title character from the 1977 musical fantasy film), he was particularly happy to walk away with high praise from the auteur Martin himself. “His words to me were you played Viserys better than he ever imagined. Your Viserys is better than my Viserys,” Considine recalls.“To get a nod from a creator like that, for him to say that he wants to go back and rewrite Viserys history, that’s really flattering. There was a bit of jealousy when Season 2 started filming and I wasn’t part of it anymore. But at least I made an impact.”
It’s Rhaenyra’s turn now. Bereft that one of her sons was murdered in the season finale, she’ll no doubt be eager to start that civil war with Alicent and Co. when the show returns in 2024. Naturally, Condal is loath to spoil anything about the new episodes, though he did tell fans during an FYC event in March that five new dragons will be introduced in Season 2. (Deadline also broke that Season 2 will only consist of eight episodes, down two from Season 1. That’s part of a long-term plan for the drama, which means HBO is already mulling a green light for a third season.)
“I’m excited to pick up where we left off,” Condal said. “We did the hard, complex work of setting up this entirely new dynasty and family and all the players in Season 1 and took the time to do all the character work so you understood where everybody fell along the line of are they on Alicent’s side of the equation, Aegon’s side or are they on Rhaenyra’s side and Daemon’s side. The excitement now is that we get to fall into the more traditional rhythms of storytelling and see where that story is going to go. We’ve always talked about this particular tale, and George has talked about it too, about this being a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy.
Whereas the original series is like this big epic sweeping fantasy, about light and darkness, ice and fire, this series is very much about a house tearing itself apart from within. Now that all those pieces have been set on the board, I’m really excited to tell the next chapter, to see what happens now that Viserys is gone and is no longer keeping a lid on things.”
As for D’Arcy, simply donning those long blonde locks helps them prepare for the battle that’s yet to come. “The wig is amazing. It does all the work,” they admit. “It changes everything about your reality. It’s funny, when we come in on a weekend to rehearse or something, I would be as I am. I come in and I’m completely invisible. People are barging around, and I can just sort of lurk about and no one really notices that I’m there until we’re doing the work. Obviously as an actor it’s a total gift because I leave the makeup trailer with that platinum blonde hair and the world is different. When you come in wearing a blonde wig, people want to hold the door open for you. Honestly, I can’t stress this enough. People should try it. People should go out in the reverse of however they look or present and see how different the world is. It’s wild.”
Written by Lynette Rice
Published June 14, 2023