Game of Thrones Prequel House of the Dragon Enters Roaring

Matt Smith and Emma D'Arcy star in HBO's dragon-fuelled prequel to Game of Thrones

Matt Smith and Emma D’Arcy star in HBO’s dragon-fuelled prequel to Game of Thrones 

You don’t have to be an avid watcher of Game of Thrones to understand the high stakes of its prequel. In the first hour of the anticipated series from GoT newcomer Ryan J. Condal (Colony) and the director of many of the origin series’ most pivotal episodes Miguel Sapochnik, not only is a connection quickly drawn to what comes around 200 years later (war and winter, remember?), the matter of who will lead the Seven Kingdoms in this direction immediately becomes a matter of life and death. Not that bloodshed is unusual for the dragon-filled franchise derived from the books of George R. R. Martin (also a producer here).  House of the DragonHBO CanadaWhat sets the prequel apart, for the new showrunners at least, is the approach that the series takes to its storytelling. At the centre of the deadly power play are Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock)—King Viserys’s (Paddy Considine) firstborn child, if not quite heir apparent—and her friendship with Lady Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), the daughter of the King’s Hand. “Originally, it was much more a show about Viserys and [Viserys’s younger brother] Daemon [Matt Smith]. Then Alicent and Rhaenyra became an opportunity to tell the story through a female perspective,” says Sapochnik. “That’s something that has not been done before in Game of Thrones and therefore took precedence.”

GoT neophytes Alcock and Carey dove into the original series only after landing their parts in the prequel. It was then that they understood the magnitude of what they were embarking on. “When I watched it, I was like, ‘Oh, I get it now. I understand why this has been such a success,’” says Alcock, who was eight when the show premiered. “Miguel and Ryan really did an amazing job at making a [new] series that had the same themes and ideas that we fell in love with, such as family, love, loss, power and vengeance.”

While Alcock and Carey were excited to join a franchise they knew the world would watch, their older counterparts, Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke were more hesitant to jump onboard the legacy train. “I literally sat down and wrote a pros and cons list,” says D’Arcy. After a conversation with the showrunners, the pros won out. “I think everyone in the production knew really early that it would be naïve to try and do anything other than make a series that can stand alone,” D’Arcy continues. “Obviously, there’s a relationship there, but I think it’s fundamentally important that we produced work that can live in its own right.” House of the DragonHBO CanadaWhat piqued the interest of Cooke was the dedicated focus on these two women who go from best friends to being at odds with each other, once Alicent marries King Viserys and gives the Targaryen family a male heir, possibly knocking Rhaenyra off her position as the potential first queen regnant of the Seven Kingdoms. “Their relationship becomes quite fractious,” says Cooke, whose character according to speculation walks in the same villainous footsteps as Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). “It’s my job to find the humanity in her and try to find the truth, so I could understand why she does these things. I think the viewers will understand the decisions she makes. I’m not saying that everything she does is good, and she’s very morally wonky, but I don’t think it’s black-and-white with any of these characters.” House of the DragonHBO CanadaFor Sapochnik, the return to hallowed ground was made less daunting by the fact that while there was a rich history to explore, there was also room to create new narratives and character arcs. “The original series introduced the idea of Targaryens; this preternatural race that came from the equivalent of Atlantis in Old Valyria and had conquered Westeros, then reigned for 300 years and fallen,” he explains. “We get into their heads through the story of Daenerys [Emilia Clarke], but what she knows is largely a myth of the Targaryen dynasty. This series gets to go back and show you the reality.” 

Indeed, House of the Dragon shows the Targaryen family at their height of power, wealth and influence. “It’s a really interesting story to tell, because you get to dramatize what it is that Daenerys lost and what it is that she is trying to win back through the course of the original Game of Thrones,” says Sapochnik. “Even though 170 years have passed between the two, there is a lot of story resonance that exists between the prequel of this story and its successor.”  House of the DragonHBO CanadaAll of this amounts to great expectations, something Doctor Who alum Smith is quite familiar with. “Ultimately, it’s a good pressure,” he says. “There’s a huge fan base there, really ardent. They’re into it, they love it. We’re going to try and deliver something that’s original and entertaining and move the story forward—even though we’re moving the story backwards. There’s some wonderful performances and really brilliant characters, and I think they will speak to people.”  

House of the Dragon premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. & 11:30 p.m. on HBO Canada