Vogue: In House of the Dragon, Star Emma D’Arcy Changes the Gaze

Even before HBO’s mega-hit series Game of Thrones wrapped the last episode of its $90 million final season, author and series creator George R. R. Martin was making plans for a prequel. After four years, a pandemic, and a lot of speculation about how the fantasy franchise would play in the current landscape, that next chapter, House of the Dragon, has arrived.

Based on Martin’s book Fire & Blood, the new series, which takes place 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, focuses on the platinum-haired Targaryen dynasty at a time when the family’s only real challenge to power was itself. At the center of the story is Rhaenyra Targaryen, who ignites a fierce battle for succession when she’s named the first female heir to the Iron Throne.

“She’s grappling with these questions of identity and the restriction of womanhood from very early on,” Emma D’Arcy, who plays Rhaenyra as an adult, tells Vogue. “That was the aspect of the text that really spoke to me—reading someone on the page who’s so young and already aware that the rules apply differently to men and women.”

When D’Arcy, who is nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns, auditioned for the role, they had no idea they were reading for one of the most-anticipated projects of recent years—nor had they seen the original series. “I’m very naive, and the job was untitled, so I thought it was just another fantasy series,” the London-born actor says. “I just don’t think there’s any way that I would have dealt with the pressure of the auditions process if, at that time, I had the love for Game of Thrones that I have now.”

They sent in self-tapes to co-creator Ryan Condal and showrunner Miguel Sapochnik, recorded in the middle of lockdown, which at one point featured D’Arcy wearing a homemade wig pieced together from extensions. Although they initially read only a small selection of scenes, they were immediately drawn to Rhaenyra as a character who finds herself unable to submit to the conventions of the world around her. Even when it makes her an outsider, she rejects the idea that she was born to birth heirs, rather than to rule over the Seven Kingdoms.

The series opens with Rhaenyra’s father, Viserys (Paddy Considine), ascending to the throne over his older female cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best), who has a stronger claim. That precedent looms large when, years later, Viserys passes over his brother and names a teenage Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) as his heir. The future queen then finds that her former closest allies—her uncle, Daemon (Matt Smith), and her best friend and the daughter of the Hand, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey and Olivia Cooke)—have turned into her biggest rivals.

“Rhaenyra and Alicent are kind of ‘chalk and cheese,’ and that’s what enables such an intense friendship in childhood,” D’Arcy says about the dynamic between the future monarch and her shrewd confidante. “Alicent is able to decode a system that Rhaenyra doesn’t really understand. And Rhaenyra offers Alicent a rebellious energy that is sorely lacking in other aspects of her life.

“Meanwhile, Daemon and Rhaenyra are sort of made of the same matter. They’re both humming with this Targaryen fire,” D’Arcy adds. “But Rhaenyra notices early on that, despite feeling incredibly akin to this man, the rules apply to him in a completely different way.”
Rhaenyra and Alicent’s friendship, like the relationship between uncle and niece, is laced through with erotic energy. Yet those feelings quickly fade when Alicent’s father (played by Rhys Ifans) pushes her into the arms of the much older king Viserys, creating yet another roadblock to Rhaenyra’s ascension. Soon, it seems like the real battle for the throne will be waged on the scorched earth of their former bond—or, as Rhaenys prophetically tells her cousin, “Men would rather put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.”

“The foundations for everything that happens are in the wounds and the trauma that are enacted on both of them early on in the story, and those wounds become the mechanism that drives behaviors later,” D’Arcy says. “When there’s been a fundamental hurt that has come to define you, forgiveness is a big ask—even with someone who’s been what Alicent is to Rhaenyra.”

While D’Arcy wasn’t all that familiar with Game of Thrones when they signed on for the project, they’ve long been a fan of fantasy and science fiction, and not only for the costumes, wigs, and big-budget effects. (That said, they do have plenty of amusing stories about riding the mechanical buck that stands in for the dragons on set.) What appeals to them most about the genres is that they hold a mirror up to society.

“What House of the Dragon does well is identify that the patriarchal structure that [Rhaenyra and Alicent] live within is seeking to drive a wedge between them—that the way you consolidate male power and continue to sublimate women is to undo friendships that create solidarity and enable the imagining of new realities,” D’Arcy says.

In the past, the franchise has been heavily criticized for using, and defending the use of, sexual violence to get this very message across. But in the run-up to the prequel’s premiere, HBO and the show’s executive producers have been touting the message that House of the Dragon will not repeat past mistakes by showing violence against women on screen.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of bloodshed—including dismemberments, brutal hand-to-hand combat, and body-littered battle fields—and questionably consensual sex. But, as D’Arcy explains it, those elements are in service of a very different message this time around. “One of the fundamental differences is that this is a show built around two women, that attempts to tell a story from their perspectives. So, immediately, you’re talking about a different gaze,” they say.

“It’s a show that is investigating patriarchal violence, as opposed to taking it as a foundational landscape for a fantasy story,” they continue. “I don’t think it glorifies or romanticizes predatory, oppressive figures. But it does identify that they’re there.”

Written by Elaina Patton
Published August 19, 2022