EW: How Game of Thrones enters a new age with House of the Dragon

The prequel series’ cast and creators go back to the heyday of the Targaryen empire in Westeros… and the civil war that tore it all down.

Before approaching the Iron Throne at King’s Landing, one must acknowledge the cautionary yellow hazard sign: “Warning: Risk of Impalement.” Like a bladed sun rising behind a menacing field of thorns, contorted melted swords cascade down the steps around the Westeros seat of power — but there’s little danger of bloodshed on this early December afternoon. Here on a new set constructed at London’s Leavesden Studios for Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, green tennis balls adorn the tips of the blades that line the walkway when not in use to prevent accidental injury.

“Literally we had to put [up] fences when we first built it,” co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik tells EW, taking a breather from rehearsing a climactic throne room scene. “Some of them are real swords. It is as dangerous as it is [described] in the books.”

The redesigned throne feels a lot closer to what Game of Thrones creator and author George R.R. Martin envisioned in the pages of his A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which began with 1996’s A Game of Thrones. Martin notably had some fearless feedback for the version in the original show, but Sapochnik promises they got his blessing this time around. The co-showrunner, famous in the fandom for directing such Thrones episodes as “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” estimates around 2,500 swords were used for the build, including prop blades borrowed from several major productions, such as the Warcraft movie and Netflix’s The Witcher series. There just weren’t enough swords to go around, but the ingenuity makes the royal seat an inadvertent mirror of the show’s mythology: Just as Aegon “The Conqueror” Targaryen first forged the Iron Throne from the weapons of his defeated foes, HBO built this new one for House of the Dragon from the remains of their opponents — other fantasy titles that tried to replicate the magic of Game of Thrones.

Ever since Thrones ended in 2019, everyone in Hollywood seems to want their own version of a high-fantasy Emmy-winning blockbuster series. In fact, just two weeks after House of the Dragon premieres on Aug. 21, Amazon will follow up the 2021 debut of its Wheel of Time adaptation with an even bigger swing at the brass ring (crown?) with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

In an interview with The Independent in May, Martin said he’s happy for Rings of Power to succeed, but wants House of the Dragon to do better. “If they win six Emmys, and I hope they do, I hope we win seven,” he said. And maybe the next Game of Thrones is indeed Game of Thrones. It’s possible. That is, if viewers can get past the discourse surrounding the original.

Time to wake the dragon

For better or worse, everyone had (and still has) something to say about how Thrones series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ended the final season of their adaptation of Martin’s core novels. The most barbarous critics suggested it ruined their entire Thrones experience, which Paddy Considine — who plays King Viserys I on House of the Dragon — can understand, even if he doesn’t wholly agree. “When you live with something for so many years and watch those characters on that adventure, I think people start to write their own endings,” says the Peaky Blinders alum. “I feel like a bit of that probably happened. And I was probably one of them, as well.”

“People are always going to have something to say about the way a beloved thing comes to an end,” adds co-showrunner Ryan Condal (Colony, Rampage), who co-created House of the Dragon with Martin. “What they say doesn’t really affect the way we approach this. We have this huge legacy to carry forward. [And we want to] do that in the best way that honors what came before, but also doesn’t do the thing that I think a lot of sequels do: Here’s [what] you love wrapped up in a different packaging.”

It’s hard to disagree with him when having these conversations in front of man-made sets like Dragonstone, the ancestral seat of Targaryen power, where a boiler embedded beneath the stage pumps smoke up through the floors and around the sharp, black stone to evoke the active volcano that encases the castle. At the same time, it’s also hard to not see House of the Dragon as a response, in some ways, to fan feedback.

Throughout the show’s eight seasons, the depiction of Thrones’ female characters became a core talking point among viewers — particularly what some felt to be gratuitous violence and the undermining of various women’s journeys to power. The prequel now puts women more at the forefront, with a focus on Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and her childhood best friend Alicent Hightower, the Hand of the King’s daughter. Their relationship is at the center of a chasm that threatens to tear Westeros apart — for reasons that are already clear to book readers.

Based on Martin’s Fire and Blood, which chronicles the rich history of House Targaryen, House of the Dragon goes back 200 years before the time of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to a pivotal historical event: the Dance of the Dragons. It’s the height of Targaryen rule in Westeros, and Considine’s King Viserys has chosen his firstborn, Rhaenyra, as heir to the Iron Throne. The Lords of Westeros swear fealty to her, but when Viserys conceives a son, the young Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney), in the proceeding years, the once-unified House is split in two over the matter of succession. The conflict — framed on the series through the relationship between Rhaenyra and Alicent — leads to perhaps the bloodiest civil war the country has ever seen.

(The events building up to and during the war span decades, according to Martin’s text. House of the Dragon will play out linearly over those decades, with Milly Alcock and Emily Carey playing Rhaenyra and Alicent as young girls before Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke take over the roles as adults.)

Condal says the Dance of the Dragons — first mentioned in the books through ballads sung by bards — was always Martin’s “chosen prequel” idea when HBO began debating what Ice and Fire story to tell next. (The network previously greenlit a completely separate Thrones prequel that went even further back in time to the age involving the Long Night war against the white walkers. A pilot was shot with a cast led by Naomi Watts, but the series never moved forward.) “This particular time period,” says Condal, “was the story that George thought was the thing that had the most direct, if not indirect linkage tonally to that first episode of Game of Thrones.”

Reign of fire

There’s a saying in Westeros: Every time a new Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin in the air and the world holds its breath to see how it will land. (Madness and greatness are the two sides.) Well, there are a lot of Targaryens in House of the Dragon — and also a lot of dragons.

Under the rule of King Viserys, the country has seen more than 70 years of peace. It’s a time of great wealth, decadence, and prosperity, which is partly why the Iron Throne is so decked out before things come crashing down. It’s also the age when the most dragons roamed the skies of Westeros. Just about every Targaryen has their own to mount, a stark contrast to Thrones, which saw Daenerys as one of the last remaining Targaryens and dragons virtually extinct. “I wanted to tell a story about the height of Rome before the fall and see the Targaryen dynasty at its very apex so that we can understand the thing that was lost when it all fell apart,” Condal explains.

At the center of this story is D’Arcy’s Rhaenyra, whom the executive producer says “is the most important role in the show, in many ways.” Sapochnik, who also directs three of the season’s 10 episodes, agrees: “I’m so excited about them being the face of the show.”

Before D’Arcy, who uses they/them pronouns, could wrap their head around Rhaenyra, they had to figure out how to throw together a makeshift wig. The actor, 30, remembers whipping up a “very speedy audition tape” in the middle of the pandemic for what they thought was “a Game of Thrones rip-off” — not knowing it was for the actual Game of Thrones prequel series. D’Arcy recorded themself on an iPhone propped up against a bag of chips, sent the video off, and figured that would be the end of that. What followed was round after round of taped auditions, and eventually a virtual conversation with Condal and Sapochnik, where the showrunners asked if D’Arcy owned a wig. The actor, speaking to EW over Zoom in June sporting short hair with buzzed sides, remembers replying, “Do I look like I own a wig?” Because of the pandemic, most stores were shut down. So D’Arcy had to improvise.

“All I had were some hair extensions left over from a job. No way of attaching them to me, no idea how to do that,” D’Arcy recalls. “For 24 hours, me and my partner just tried — I can’t put more emphasis behind that word. My hair was about as long as it is now. We hot glued these hair extensions to these wig grips. We would send photos to Miguel, and we thought we’d cracked it. And he said, ‘Can you keep trying?’ We kept trying until we found something that gave me the illusion I had long hair. And then, every time we taped after that, I would sit in front of the telly, and my partner would do my hair extensions for an hour and a half before we taped anything.” The wig work paid off. The global search to find adult Rhaenyra, involving dozens of actors, had finally ended.

Rhaenyra is not your typical princess, even by Thrones standards. The Westeros public gave her the name the Realm’s Delight — but instead of busying her days with needlework and elocution classes, Rhaenyra serves as her father’s cupbearer and rides dragons. In other words, she enjoys the freedoms usually afforded to male heirs. “She has an understanding of history and famous dragonriders, especially female dragonriders,” Alcock, 22, says of her character. The Aussie actress feels there’s a little bit of Arya Stark in Rhaenyra, and not just because Alcock auditioned for the role with Arya dialogue from Game of Thrones. “They’re both women who don’t behave the way that they’re expected to,” she says. “There is that rebellious and cheeky spirit that they both possess, which I think is why people are going to adore her.”

D’Arcy sees Rhaenyra as “pushing at the edges of womanhood.” They explain how she’s “obsessed with masculinity,” equating “maleness” to freedom. “She is a person who feels at odds with the way that she is read by the world — even this label the Realm’s Delight, which implies a passivity, being an object of people’s ogling,” they say. “It’s like she has a doppelgänger. The doppelgänger is Rhaenyra born male, who has access to all the things that she craves and feels to be hers. She has this amazing connection with her uncle Daemon,” D’Arcy continues, referring to a character played by Doctor Who veteran Matt Smith. “In some ways, they’re [of] the same fabric, and yet the rules are completely different [for them].”

If the gods tossed a coin for the birth of Prince Daemon, the volatile brother of Viserys and another heir to the throne, Smith, 39, says that coin is still in motion: “It hasn’t quite hit the ground yet. And until it’s final doom, [we won’t] find out which side he’s on.”

Daemon is perhaps the Targaryen of the age most skilled in combat, wielding the famed Valyrian steel sword Dark Sister, one of two ancestral blades of his House. To understand the heart of Daemon, you need only look at his dragon, Caraxes, a gargantuan winged red steed. Smith thinks of the beast as “a very grumpy, tough, surly sort.” Caraxes is constantly annoyed, but Daemon loves that about him. “He’s like a huge rabid dog, in many ways, who only calms and soothes around Daemon,” Smith says. “He’s almost an untrainable dragon in many respects.”

One could say the same of the prince. At any given point, Daemon could be honoring his brother’s decrees or spending time in brothels with his closest confidante, Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), a woman who’s made a life for herself after being sold more times than she could count. Smith, going back to the coin analogy, says Daemon is constantly “flipping sides” in this way — whether that’s siding with Viserys or his own interests. “I don’t think it’s about an ambition to the throne and all that,” the actor clarifies. “I think a lot of it is about his brother.”

Unlike his sibling (and certainly unlike his future descendent in Game of Thrones), Viserys’ coin has already landed. Those around him seek to pressure the king into conflict, but he wishes to maintain calm within his country — and his own House — above all else. Viserys doesn’t even ride a dragon anymore, yet he was capable of mounting Balerion, a.k.a. the Black Dread, the beast that once bonded with Aegon Targaryen, the conqueror of Westeros.

Viserys understands the responsibility that comes with commanding dragons and their “potential to destroy the world,” says Considine, 48, who wanted to bring a tragic tone to the character. “The mantra we had for him was that he’s a good man, bad king, because he just wants to please people and keep the peace. But also, Viserys has an ego,” The World’s End and The Outsider vet explains. “He’s got a great tragedy in his life, but there’s a part of him that’s going, ‘How am I going to be remembered in hundreds of years?’ They don’t remember peaceful kings. They don’t remember good people. They remember warriors. They remember tyrants.”

“Nobody alive in this story has ever seen a war or a meaningful conflict,” Condal elaborates. “Yes, there have been skirmishes and tournaments, but we’re living in this society based on conflicts for power. We’re watching a period of time where every man has been trained for battle since birth, but battle doesn’t happen. That pent-up energy leaks out between the cracks and starts to wear on itself where you almost need the release of war in order to keep the whole thing from boiling over.”

Hightower-ing inferno

About four months before the start of rehearsals in London in 2020, the showrunners assembled their two main leads, D’Arcy and Cooke, for dinner. Though they’d chatted over the phone and Zoom, it was the first time the actors met in person. There was barely any shop talk, it was about getting to know each other before their cinematic dance was to begin. D’Arcy remembers their adrenaline in the moment.

“I don’t know what Liv would say, but I think I fell in love with her in about 45 seconds. Well, I probably worked quite hard to cover that up,” D’Arcy says of Cooke with a blushing smile. “You know those chance meetings that happen where there’s a familiarity? For some unknown reason, I really felt that with Liv.”

Though the Targaryens and their dragons are in the title, House of the Dragon is truly anchored by Rhaenyra and Alicent, who we’ll first see in that honeymoon glow of friendship before their adult lives become consumed with the titular fire and blood. “They are central female characters who are at once credited and also blamed with this particular war,” Condal says. “Because the history is written by men, we were really interested in the dynamic forces that a certain medieval level of innate chauvinism puts on the two women.”

Alicent grew up in the Red Keep as the daughter of the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). With virtually no life outside of King’s Landing, she forms a fast and immediate bond with Rhaenyra. Both Carey and Cooke feel Alicent is misunderstood based on how she’s written in Fire and Blood, but that’s by design. Martin’s book is less of a literary narrative and more of a historical document, penned by Archmaester Gyldayn, who often describes events through the dueling perspectives of those who claim to know what happened. It makes separating truth from fiction in this fictional world puzzling. “There’s a preconceived notion that she’s [always] scheming,” the 19-year-old Carey, who uses she/they pronouns, says of Alicent in Fire and Blood.

“You can understand why,” Cooke, 28, adds. “The woman whispering into a powerful man’s ear has never been positively written about. So the fun was to try to find the nuance.” But even those who have read Fire and Blood only have the general timeline of events. It’s not the whole story. Condal confirms House of the Dragon, which he hopes will be a “companion” piece to the book, will be “the objective account” of the Dance of the Dragons. That means, as Cooke puts it, “you can take a strand of the history and then completely embellish it” to paint the fuller picture. History, as viewers will come to find, rarely gets any of these characters right.

Cooke describes the younger Alicent as being “hermetically sealed in this kingdom” with her dad. She has an unyielding love for Otto after the death of her mother, but the Hand of the King — in a manner akin to Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) — has his own intentions for the kingdom, having served as Hand for multiple rulers. His greatest fear is that Daemon perchance might ascend the Iron Throne. The last thing they need is another tyrant like the Targaryen ancestor Maegor the Cruel, who’s a lingering memory on the collective consciousness. “He’s an astute, high-functioning political creature,” Ifans, 54, says of Otto. “He knows the machinations of this court better than anyone. He’s kind of his own CCTV system, in terms of knowledge of what’s going on at any place with whom at any time. He’s ruthless, but he struggles with some of the decisions he is forced to make as Hand of the King.”

Alicent’s relationship with Otto isn’t like the one between Rhaenyra and Viserys, which subconsciously puts pressure on the daughters’ friendship. “She’s quite an anxious rule-follower in comparison to how free and mischievous Rhaenyra is,” Cooke says of Alicent. “When you realize that you haven’t been nurtured in the way that Rhaenyra has — her best friend that she’s seen grow up, have everything given to her, and had the unbridled love of her father — that is a real tough pill to swallow.”

D’Arcy believes the princess, too, has a part to play in the tension. “Rhaenyra has a real history of abandonment,” they say. “It’s something that keeps happening, and she’s also very much culpable in that abandonment. She really presses relationships, often to the point where they cannot continue, and then she fulfills the prophecy again.”

“Friendship is such a wild, intense journey,” sums up Carey. “You feel so much at that age for your friends. That was definitely something that we played around with. They go through a lot as people, individually and together. Their relationship with each other changes them as the story line continues.”

The weight of the crown

Condal and Sapochnik have been living with these ideas for House of the Dragon for two, going on three years. To say it’s been a journey to make the first Game of Thrones successor show is an understatement. But D’Arcy, wearing a professional-grade Rhaenyra wig in their tent on the Dragonstone set in December, has a strategy to “repress” the pressure they’re all feeling. “My tactic is called, ‘Don’t think about it,'” they say. “At the moment, we’re in quite a special place. None of it is in the ether yet, and no one knows who I am.” Picking up months later over Zoom from Albany, N.Y., mere weeks away from House of the Dragon’s premiere, Cooke selfishly hopes the show won’t be as big as the mothership series. “I love my life, and I love the anonymity that I’ve managed to hold onto, even after having a decade’s worth of credits,” says the Ready Player One and Bates Motel actress. “But I am excited for people to see all the hard work that everyone’s done because, God, people slogged for a year, and it is f—ing great.”

The showrunners know just about everyone will have something to say about all the choices they made for House of the Dragon. All they could do was make something they, as Game of Thrones fans, would enjoy and approve of. “That was always the bar I was setting,” Condal remarks.

The embellished Iron Throne is a clear indication of how high that bar was. “We have to come out of the box with a greater resource pool than David and [D.B.] did when they were starting Game of Thrones,” Condal concludes. “They had to build an audience and earn it. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants” — or rather, dragons.

Written by Nick Romano
Published July 13, 2022