Dragons are coming. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel, “House of the Dragon” draws nearer and nearer, like the Night King north of the wall as he marched for Westeros.
But this isn’t about him.
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“House of the Dragon” takes place nearly 200 years before “Game of Thrones,” with an entirely new cast of characters, different battles (personal and physical), and an unfamiliar Westeros that viewers will soon get to know. The series recounts events laid out in George R.R. Martin’s “Fire & Blood,” but for those unable to catch up on centuries of fantasy folklore ahead of the August 21 HBO premiere, here’s what you need to know.
Source Material (and a Grain of Salt)
“House of the Dragon” has what later seasons of “Game of Thrones” didn’t: Source material. Martin outlines the basic events of Targaryen history in “Fire & Blood” — but this isn’t your average adaptation.
Unlike the novels behind “Game of Thrones,” “Fire & Blood” has an omniscient narrator: Martin himself. He documents the histories based on various accounts from maesters, septons, other literature, and a guy literally called Mushroom. During the years covered in “House of the Dragon,” a lot of these histories conflict (Mushroom’s is particularly colorful). Showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan J. Condal have multiple versions to choose from, and the option create a new one entirely — using Martin’s work, as “Thrones” eventually did, as a template but not an exact blueprint.
The Targaryen Lineage
A whole mess of Targaryens in “House of the Dragon.” – Credit: Ollie Upton/HBO
“Fire & Blood” and “House of the Dragon” are chock-full of dragon-blooded Targaryens, but not to the point where viewers will get lost. The premiere introduces King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), wife Aemma (Sian Brooke), daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), brother Daemon (Matt Smith), and cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best). They’re easy enough to keep straight, but early episodes also drop the names of some previous Targaryen heavy hitters that provide further context.
The Targaryen rule of Westeros started with Aegon I, who conquered the seven kingdoms with his dragons and his sister-wives. “House of the Dragon” name-drops Aegon, crediting him for uniting the kingdoms and bringing his family to power. It also mentions Aegon’s wife Visenya, who outlived both her siblings and was known for her prowess on dragonback and in battle. Her sword, Dark Sister, is the Valyrian steel blade wielded by Daemon Targaryen, and Viserys wields Blackfyre, Aegon’s own blade.
It’s worth noting that Visenya’s son Maegor, who did not have the strongest claim to the throne, eventually forced his way onto it and was so bloodthirsty as a ruler that he became known as Maegor the Cruel. “House of the Dragon” mentions Maegor strategically, in a comparison that chills the characters who hear it and should warn the audience as well, for Maegor set the bar for Targaryen-on-Targaryen warfare.
Hello Incest My Old Friend
“Game of Thrones” fans will recall the incest, but during one of its early acknowledgements in Season 1, Cersei tells Ned Stark that the Targaryens wed brother to sister for generations in order to keep their bloodlines pure. This is true and very much thriving in the era of “House of the Dragon” with all kinds of relatives either married or giving off disconcertingly flirty vibes.
When they first took the throne, the Targaryens faced resistance to this practice from the Faith, the religion sect of most Westerosi. Numerous Septons and their followers have declared Targaryen marriages invalid and abominable, leading to escalating conflicts, wars, and unstable regimes — but that was before Exceptionalism, an actual doctrine that basically just declares Targaryens exempt from the same norms as other humans because they are allegedly closer to the gods. They can ride dragons! Let them have a little incest, as a treat.
A Family Affair
Steve Toussaint in “House of the Dragon.”
Prominent “Game of Thrones” families like houses Baratheon, Stark, Lannister, and others are very much alive and well in the age of “House of the Dragon,” but don’t expect to see much of them. Instead, the Targaryens keep close company with houses like Velaryon and Hightower, bloodlines which were less involved in rule and court by the time Robert Baratheon became king ahead of “Game of Thrones” (for reasons that may or may not be revealed).
The Velaryon family, like the Targaryens, are descended from Old Valyria, an Eastern city destroyed by a volcano long before this series takes place. Key players include Lord Corlys (Steve Toussaint), Rhaenys’s husband and commander of powerful ships and fleets. The Velaryons are tied closely to the Targaryens — not least by this marriage — but they’re deeply bitter about being so close to the Throne and still denied rule. Rhaenys’s father was older than Viserys’ father, but a High Council determined that right of rule would not pass through the female bloodline. This will come back to haunt everyone involved when Viserys names Rhaenyra as his heir.
Another major family in “House of the Dragon” is the Hightowers, starting with Lady Alicent (Emily Carey; Olivia Cooke) and her father Otto (Rhys Ifans), Hand of the King. Otto Hightower has been Hand since before Viserys took the throne, and he makes his grander plans all but explicit in Episode 1. And as the trailers show, Alicent is about to find herself going toe-to-toe with Viserys’ daughter Rhaenyra, heir to the Throne.
The Dance of Dragons
Viserys’ rule ultimately sets up the Dance of Dragons, a major Targaryen civil war, and tensions are simmering from the outset. House Targaryen is a ticking time bomb (dragon egg?), and this series will ignite it sooner or later.
“The Dance was a war unlike any other ever fought in the long history of the Seven Kingdoms,” Martin writes. “Though armies marched and met in savage battle, much of the slaughter took place on water, and…especially…in the air, as dragon fought dragon with tooth and claw and flame. It was a war marked by stealth, murder, and betrayal as well, a war fought in shadows and stairwells, council chambers and castle yards with knives and lies and poison.”
“House of the Dragon” premieres August 21 on HBO.
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