It’s been three years since the much-discussed finale of Game of Thrones aired, and nothing since has quite matched its heady mix of internecine politics, incest, rampant duplicity and, um, dragons. Which is why expectation is stratospheric for House of the Dragon, which premieres this weekend. Set nearly two centuries before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, it follows her clan’s infighting as they struggle to retain the Iron Throne. As with any intermarried dynastic strife, it’s insanely complicated stuff, so here’s everything you need to know about the main players, and what they’re fighting for.
What do we know?
The love/hate sibling relationship between Daenerys and her brother Viserys was pretty dysfunctional (standard for Westeros, let’s face it) and it clearly has precedent. House of the Dragon takes its inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s written history of House Targaryen, specifically his account of the Targaryen civil war, known as Dance of the Dragons. Taking place 172 years before Daenerys’ birth, this story focuses on King Viserys I (Paddy Considine), who came to the throne in 103 AC (after Aegon’s Conquest of Westeros), and the struggle for power that occurs after his death.
Scrapping it out for the Iron Throne are Viserys’ daughter Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy; the character is played as a young girl by the Australian actress Milly Alcock), whom he named as his heir but comes up against a hundred years of precedent dictating that only men may rule; his brother Daemon (Matt Smith), who is both ambitious and cruel, and Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke; played as a young girl by Emily Carey), a noblewoman whose children with Viserys also become contenders for power in the years after his death.
Safe to say, it’s going to be messy.
What’s it based on?
While Martin hasn’t written any full books chronicling the lives of the characters we’ll be seeing on screen, he has written an 80,000 word history of the war as part of his Fire & Blood anthology, and a short novella called The Princess and The Queen, which he has previously described as “the true (mostly) story of the origins of the Dance of the Dragons.”
Who are the Targaryens?
The original ruling family of Westeros doesn’t get much of a look-in during Game of Thrones (by the time Daenerys comes along, most of them have been brutally murdered), so we’ll be learning a lot more about this most interesting (and incestuous) of families in House of the Dragon.
The Targaryen family originally hails from Valyria, a land across the ocean, which rose to power long ago due to its peoples’ liberal use of magic and knack for taming dragons. However, it fell just as quickly (and mysteriously), leaving nothing behind but some ruins said to be haunted by demons.
Fortunately, the Targaryens (along with the Velaryon family) fled Valyria to Dragonstone island before the Doom, as it’s known, and as the only dragonlords left in the world, quickly rose to power. By the start of House of the Dragon, they’ve been ruling Westeros for over a hundred years.
“We’re two hundred years in the past, but we were at the height of the Targaryen empire, which was a time of decadence,” says one of the showrunners, Miguel Sapochnik. “By definition the height of an empire usually means the height of its technology, the height of its hubris. We had to show this idea that this was an opulent and decadent group of people. No war for sixty years; I mean, they’re a happy bunch.”
Thanks to their penchant for marrying their own relatives, this family have managed to keep power concentrated in the hands of a few (while also developing some fairly unhinged characteristics). Now, it is whispered, the only family with the ability to bring down the Targaryens are the Targaryens themselves…
The main players
King Viserys I
Viserys is the fifth Targaryen king to rule the Seven Kingdoms, who has inherited the realm from his grandfather after fifty years of peace. “Viserys struggles with being the King. I think Viserys feels a duty to keep peace,” Considine has said. “[He] has an awareness of just how dangerous it is to sit on the Iron Throne.”
Ser Otto Hightower
As the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) is pragmatic, cold and ambitious: not the best traits to have when trying to stay popular at court. Fortunately, he has a secret weapon: his beautiful daughter, Alicent.
Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen
The first-born daughter of Viserys, Rhaenyra is pronounced heir to the Seven Kingdoms after the death of her mother Aemma. However, on her father’s death, she’s about to find out that the path to power doesn’t run smooth.
Prince Daemon Targaryen
Viserys’ younger brother can safely be described as a wild card. Cruel, unpredictable and power-hungry, he’s long been called the heir to the Iron Throne - but Viserys is about to throw a spanner in the works, with destructive consequences.
The daughter of Otto Hightower, Alicent is described as the most comely woman in the Seven Kingdoms. With beauty as her only weapon, she’s a pawn in the hands of her father, who has determined that she will bring the Hightowers glory at last.
Princess Rhaenys Velaryon
Otherwise known as the Queen Who Never Was, Rhaenys (Eve Best) challenged Viserys for the throne after the death of their grandfather, Jaehaerys, but a council of Westerosi Lords ultimately chose Viserys as their King. Bitter? Who’s bitter?
Lord Corlys Velaryon
The husband of Rhaenys and a powerful Valyrian lord in his own right. A member of one of the ancient families to escape Valyria before the Doom, Corlys has built a shipping empire and is now one of the richest men in Westeros.
Who hates whom?
Where do we start?
Daemon Targaryen resents his niece Rhaenyra for usurping his position as heir to the Seven Kingdoms, and has a complicated relationship with his brother Viserys.
“Daemon has a great affiliation and love and admiration for his brother,” Smith has said. “But Daemon’s all swords and knives really. I do think on some level he wants to cause chaos. I think he’s interested in chaos, I think he survives in chaos quite well.”
Rhaenyra hates Alicent Hightower, who marries Viserys shortly after her mother, Aemma, dies in childbirth, and has several sons by him (who ultimately become rivals for the Iron Throne). Though Rhaenyra and Alicent were childhood friends, it’s clear that this feeling becomes mutual; in one upcoming scene from House of the Dragon, Alicent attacks Rhaenyra with a dagger.
To complicate matters, Rhaenys (aka The Queen Who Never Was) hates Viserys for usurping her position as Queen of Westeros, but supports Rhaenyra as a female Targaryen ruler (it seems Rhaenys’s sex counted against her when she was vying for power); Ser Otto Hightower, meanwhile, hates anybody who stands against his own family’s rise (aka all of the Targaryens, barring Viserys).
Expect these positions to, er, evolve.
Will it hold a candle to Game of Thrones?
One of the great joys of GoT was watching its characters’ schemes unfold across several seasons, and there are also plenty of political machinations at play here. Whether they’re Lannisters or Targaryens, people are still fighting for the Iron Throne - with sometimes fatal repercussions for their enemies (or themselves).
“The original Game of Thrones was very much an epic that was weaving together various different threads,” executive producer Sara Hess says. “It still has that scale and scope but it’s really just the story of one family, slowly tearing itself apart.”
“There’s a wish fulfilment [list] for an audience of things they want to see,” Sapochnik adds. “We’re not here to not give it to them. We’re here to give them the thing that they want, just not in the way that they’re expecting.”
The iconic Iron Throne will also be making an appearance, but not as you know it: instead, House of the Dragon’s other showrunner Ryan J. Condal has described it as a “hybrid” throne, closer to the version we see in the books, containing “thousands of swords”.
The original series courted controversy with its lavish and shocking violence, in particular sexual violence against women. Hess has said that the new series will not feature any sexual violence, but there’s plenty of the other kind, and it’s still pretty shocking. As well as one character losing an important part of his anatomy, there’s a medieval caesarian which is likely to cause a major stir.
How can I watch it?
House of the Dragon starts exclusively on Sky Atlantic and the streaming service NOW on August 22, with new episodes landing weekly