EW: Emma D’Arcy on the ‘grueling’ season 1 finale and Negronis

A Black Queen and a viral meme.

Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, the two stars of House of the Dragon, gathered their friends to watch the premiere season’s final two episodes Monday night in London. They collectively threw up their hands and bobbed their heads back and forth to the show’s theme music as if it were some raucous rock anthem. (In fairness, to some viewers, the classic Game of Thrones banger is that.) D’Arcy, who uses they/them pronouns, admits their friend group “can be relied on to scream to the point where you miss a huge amount of the episode.”

“Which, honestly, is my idea of bliss,” D’Arcy says.

Cooke, who plays Alicent Hightower opposite D’Arcy’s Rhaenyra Targaryen, was spotted drinking glasses of a House of the Dragon-branded wine during the night — the Cabernet Shiraz from U.K. supermarket Morrisons. Were the stars also drinking what everyone now knows to be their drinks of choice, a Negroni Sbagliato with Prosecco for D’Arcy and a gin martini with a twist for Cooke? “I could not possibly say,” D’Arcy tells EW with a laugh from their home over Zoom.

D’Arcy is still attempting to comprehend the meme-ification of themselves, which happened when nonbinary and gender-nonconforming TikTok users began posting thirsty clips of the actor answering a question from Cooke for an HBO promo. There’s since been a surge of Negroni orders, all because of a charming, pure exchange between two friends.

“I find that a perfect cocktail of surprising, bemusing, and intensely flattering,” D’Arcy says. “All of my body wants to give a flippant answer in terms of a great drink finally getting the recognition that it deserves. Very surreal and very lovely.” After more consideration, they add, “I don’t have anything illuminating to say on it because it’s very hard to know how to react when you become a meme. Someone should write an essay on that, actually. I would definitely read it.”

D’Arcy is still navigating the platform they’ve been given as a result of starring in House of the Dragon, the Game of Thrones prequel series about a civil war that splintered the once-thriving Targaryen empire over succession. The showrunners have said that D’Arcy’s character, Rhaenyra Targaryen, the late king’s chosen heir who just had her throne stolen by her childhood best friend in Sunday’s season finale, is “the most important role in the show, in many ways.”

On stepping into the public domain, D’Arcy says, “Suddenly there’s like an avatar of you that exists in the world and it’s separate from you, and yet maybe it still requires you as an energy source somehow. I’m learning about that relationship and learning to admire the avatar and allow the avatar a separate life and its own profession. And it’s got its own occupation. I would like to read something on that, as well, actually.”

A benefit is that D’Arcy is now moving the needle forward for nonbinary visibility, just by getting the role of Rhaenyra. As the lead of a Game of Thrones series, people are now actively thinking about gender and considering proper gender pronouns, the kinds of discussions that might not have happened had D’Arcy not won the part. House of the Dragon director Greg Yaitanes, in a separate conversation with EW, has a slip and accidentally refers to D’Arcy as she, mainly because he’s come to think of D’Arcy almost as Rhaenyra and not an actor playing the Black Queen. “I’m very aware of everyone’s pronouns and put special care on that,” he says.

“I probably have a complicated relationship, I’m sure as most people do, with having a public profile, but I suppose being able to help the broad spectrum of gender identities sounds like a good reason to have one,” D’Arcy remarks. “So I feel very lucky to just continue what for me is a very exciting plane of discussion — and nice to be able to do that both to an extent onscreen and separately offscreen.”

Gender politics was one allure of House of the Dragon for D’Arcy. Without trying to shoehorn an agenda into the character of Rhaenyra, that’s what the actor read in the scripts: a young woman highly aware of how her gender is treated within patriarchal structures. It’s apparent in the season finale, titled “The Black Queen” after Rhaenyra’s new moniker.

From director Yaitanes and writer Ryan Condal, the show’s co-creator, we see the Targaryen princess induced into premature labor from the news that her father, the king, is dead and her childhood best friend has stolen her throne and crowned Rhaenyra’s half-brother instead. Despite her orders, Rhaenyra’s husband, Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), is already making plays from the painted table (the Dragonstone war table) for retaliation. Rhaenyra is stuck in her chambers, enduring the torment of a miscarriage in what amounts to the show’s fourth hard-to-watch birthing sequence. Yaitanes says “all eyes were on the birth” during the shoot. “It was such a moment that needed everybody’s attention and sensitivity and focus.”

“Emma had a lot of input,” Yaitanes continues. “We worked on it in many forms. Emma went on their own on the weekend to try to work out some of what they wanted to do. Matt did a variety of different things in terms of how [Daemon] was reacting and how he was connected or not connected to what was going on. So it had a lot of conversation around it because it’s always something you want to handle very sensitively. I looked at the other birthing scenes done in the season and, as a parent, it should be hard to watch.”

D’Arcy admits to feeling a sense of dread leading up to the filming of the miscarriage. They wanted to make sure the show had earned that moment. They knew the responsibility that came with depicting a miscarriage on screen, particularly one so graphic, and it needed to be warranted.

They explain, “One of the reasons that moment is so important within the scope of the whole show is that, for a character who has been seeking this masculine freedom and who so early had this fear of the possible incapacitation brought by motherhood and childbearing and the mortality associated with childbearing, at the same moment, she finally receives the message that she’s waited a lifetime for: Your father has passed and it’s time for your ascension. It almost felt to me like she was finally being given a direct choice to be a king or to be a mother. And within that, there’s a question about whether one can be neither or both.”

D’Arcy believes Rhaenyra chooses bodily autonomy in the moment when she screams, “Get it out” and then pulls her stillborn daughter Visenya out of her womb herself. “She refuses help and she won’t heed the advice to have patience and lie in bed,” D’Arcy continues. “I think she chooses herself in that moment, and by doing so, chooses her right to rule.”

Yaitanes added an element to this sequence that we hadn’t seen before, highlighting the psychic connection between a Targaryen and their dragon — seemingly a new addition House of the Dragon is introducing to the mythology. The camera cuts between close-ups of Rhaenyra’s screaming face and flashes of Syrax empathically shrieking. After Yaitanes rendered a cut of the miscarriage scene, the filmmaker asked storyboard artist Adam Prescott to draft concept drawings that matched Syrax’s physicality with D’Arcy.

“I’m glad that those found their way in, those roars and those moments,” Yaitanes remarks. “I had more. They were a little wider in my storyboard, so you saw the similar contortions and movement and that the dragon was physically responding, as well. We tried different stuff with Emma crawling and doing different things that felt right.”

Unlike psychic Syrax, Daemon is absent for the miscarriage with Rhaenyra, instead choosing to plan his war against the usurpers. The stark shift in their relationship is heightened further in the episode with an exchange that saw some viewers cringe.

The funeral of Visenya turns into a coronation for Rhaenyra, who is named queen of Westeros at Dragonstone and given her father’s crown. She walks into the war room for the first time, visibly adjusting to her new position. It becomes clear that, though she is queen, the men on her Black Council have left her in the dust to plot revenge schemes. Rhaenyra is the only one at the painted table to hold the rest back from so immediately plunging the realm into full-on war. In a private moment, Daemon grabs Rhaenyra by the throat in anger. She had mentioned Aegon’s prophecy, something his brother never relayed to him.

This was another development D’Arcy wanted to feel warranted, considering Daemon’s love for Rhaenyra on display earlier in the season. “We were both hyper aware that that act of violence could possibly mark a shift in their relationship or dynamic,” they say, referring to Smith. “You have two people who are grieving in different ways, and perhaps Daemon’s grief is less eloquently managed than Rhaenyra’s.” D’Arcy believes this confrontation is ultimately about two people suddenly receiving a message from beyond the grave from the person they lost. Rhaenyra, who always felt as though her father didn’t support her ascent to the throne, realizes that King Viserys (Paddy Considine) only told her the prophecy and not Daemon.

“For Rhaenyra, realizing that Daemon was never told about the prophecy is to suddenly, finally receive legitimacy,” D’Arcy elaborates. “And the same message for Daemon is to be finally humiliated. It’s sort of perfect for Daemon because he can claim not to believe in this stuff. He wasn’t trusted with it anyway.”

Rhaenyra’s restraint to engage in war becomes a tribute to Viserys and the diplomacy he evoked as king. As D’Arcy puts it, “She’s trying to be the mediating force within the room, and part of that is to repress her own nature.” Then another tragedy befalls her House and she becomes the Black Queen we read about in the Targaryen histories.

Rhaenyra’s adolescent son Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) is sent to Storm’s End as an envoy for the queen to ensure the support of Lord Borros Baratheon as she’s about to fight for her throne. Alicent’s son Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) beat him there. The encounter leads to a skirmish (more like a chase, really) on dragonback in the rain-drenched clouds above the fortress. Lucerys is killed when Aemond loses control of his mount, Vhagar, the winged monolith that sends the small boy to a watery grave.

Yaitanes shot the final sequence with a crane that began in the back of the room at Dragonstone, following Smith’s Daemon as he delivers the news of Lucerys to Rhaenyra and observing the queen buckle before the fireplace. Yaitanes wanted to mirror the end of the first episode, which concludes with a close-up of young Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) as the Lords of Westeros swear fealty to her as their future queen. The finale closes with a similar tight shot of adult Rhaenyra staring down the camera. Her tear-stained cheeks now flush with rage. “Her greatest day at her highest point [versus] her lowest point,” Yaitanes notes.

“The moment that she receives the news of Luke’s passing, that attempt at mediation crumbles,” D’Arcy adds. “I don’t think there is any longer the bandwidths to suppress and repress her nature… I am excited to discover what happens when Rhaenyra does less navigating and more acting on her instincts and desires. For so many very legitimate reasons, she has her hands tied practically throughout season 1. I have a feeling that the rain might be off for season 2.”

D’Arcy says the season finale “was quite a grueling episode to shoot.” Part of that was due to their own personal fears. “When I read it on the page, I was so aware that it wasn’t just a mountain of an episode. It’s like the Alps,” they say. “It’s literally a rocky, hilly landscape where these state-changing events happen one after another after another. Practically, as an actor, you need to find definition between those events. You also need to leave yourself somewhere to go, especially when the episode ends with something that ultimately moves the goal posts for Rhaenyra completely. It was grueling because I had fear about making sure that each of those big traumatic moments is given time and treated honestly, and that within the shape of the whole show, you leave yourself a destination. You have to not run out the resource too quickly.”

Season 2 will start filming in the first half of 2023, the actor has heard. That’s plenty of time for D’Arcy to recharge their resources before the Black Queen shows Westeros her true nature. Perhaps some Negronis will help them decompress.

Written by Nick Romano
Published October 27, 2022