(standing, from left) Emma D'Arcy, Rhys Ifans, Olivia Cooke, Eve Best, Matt Smith and (seated) Steve Toussaint and Paddy Considine of HBO's House of the Dragon

Robert Ascroft

From left: Eve Best, Emma D'Arcy, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Olivia Cooke, Steve Toussaint and Paddy Considine

Robert Ascroft
Fill 1
Fill 1
August 11, 2022

House of the Dragon, Heir to the Throne

Three years after the finale of Game of Thrones, a prequel unfolds in Westeros. How does HBO's House of the Dragon follow in the wake of its audacious, Emmy-amassing forebear? Proudly and boldly. "We're trying... if not to replicate it, then certainly to honor it in what we're doing," says cocreator Ryan Condal. "We want this to feel like a different time and place."

"Have you thought about making it about the women?"

That suggestion to Miguel Sapochnik, the British director–executive producer of Game of Thrones who won an Emmy and a DGA Award for helming the episode "Battle of the Bastards," came — not surprisingly — from his wife, Alexis Raben, who is also his production partner.

Sapochnik, it should be explained, also directed Game of Thrones episodes such as "Hardhome" and "The Long Night." These, along with "Battle of the Bastards," stand as technical masterpieces, as well as the grandest of Grand Guignol splatterfests — the kind of testosterone-fueled, blood-and-thunder spectacles that have become archetypes both for the series and for the possibilities of premium TV.



But when it came to a discussion of a GOT spinoff — and that question from Raben — Sapochnik was of two minds. Every season he'd done of Game of Thrones (he directed two episodes in seasons five, six and eight and also executive-produced on eight) had turned into a year's work. He had other projects in development, like a Conan series, that would grant him a break from Westeros for the first time in a long time.

Watch our Under the Cover interview with the House of the Dragon cast.

Then again, HBO had a script for him to look at, set 200 years before Game of Thrones and chronicling the implosion of House Targaryen. It was good. It had been developed from George R.R. Martin's book Fire & Blood by Sapochnik's friend (and confirmed Throniac) Ryan Condal. Sapochnik, who lives in London, went to L.A. to meet HBO's chief content officer, Casey Bloys, and the network's head of drama development and production, Francesca Orsi. They asked if he was ready to sign up.

His answer? Maybe.

"I was interested in working with Ryan, but I wasn't sure I wanted to board that same train again," he says.

Sapochnik needed a reason to do it. And he was well aware that, justifiably or not, Game of Thrones had a reputation as a particularly male-oriented and manly show.

"Let me clarify..." he says. "Game of Thrones has [some] really strong female characters. It also [depicts the] mistreatment of these female characters. That perception has followed it — at times, wrongly so."



Sapochnik was equally aware that his own work had come to be lauded for its battle sequences and associated with visceral depictions of violence. "As I'm getting older," he says, "I find that violence hard to watch. I don't want to be putting it on screen without there being some point to it."

So he showed the script to Raben, who said: How about switching the focus to the victims? To the women who were crushed by, and then rallied against, the patriarchy that dominates George R.R. Martin's quasi-medieval world?

"It was a light bulb moment," Sapochnik says. "Suddenly I was looking at these characters and thinking, 'Why don't we make a show about the patriarchy, its relationship to women and the fact that they don't want women to rule?'"

It was also a moment of communion — though the parties involved were not yet aware of each other's thinking. Sapochnik's reflections about the women characters in fact mirrored those of Condal. So the men who would become coshowrunners of House of the Dragon were already on the same wavelength.

And those lights that ignited for Sapochnik and Condal — and before them, of course, for Martin — will be shining widely as of August 21. That's when House of the Dragon — one of a handful of GOT spinoffs under consideration as the original series reached its end in 2019 — debuts the first of its ten episodes on HBO and HBO Max, sending viewers back to Westeros once more.

The cast of House of the Dragon at their emmy magazine cover shoot

Photographs, GIFs and video by Robert Ascroft

Of course, there would be no Westeros — no IP, no stories, no characters, no world-building, no mythology — without the mind and the imprimatur of Martin, the author of the fantasy novels on which GOT — and now House of the Dragon — was based. And Condal was Dragon's link to the man they call "GRRM."

"I came to his books at a period when they really imprinted on me," Condal says. "It was a time when I was starting to write myself."

Condal got to know Martin personally a decade ago, when his first TV pilot (The Sixth Gun, a fantasy Western) was being made. The production was filming in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Martin lives, so Condal gave him a call and the two went for dinner.

They got on well and stayed in touch. When Martin would come to L.A. — usually in September to pick up his Emmy Awards for Game of Thrones — he and Condal would meet. About four years ago, when Martin came to town for GOT's seventh season of awards, he suggested Condal for the adaptation of Fire & Blood as House of the Dragon.

It's no coincidence that of the many GOT adaptations proposed, House of the Dragon is the first to screen.

"My sense," Condal says, "is that [Martin] cares the most about adaptations of his written work. A lot of the other stories that [HBO] was pursuing have been what I would call 'expanded universe' stuff. They're not direct adaptations, whereas Fire & Blood is something that he's written, obviously."

And the Targaryen history is particularly close to Martin's heart, Condal says. "Other than A Song of Ice and Fire [the source novels for Game of Thrones], I think this particular story is the closest to him because there's a lot of his love of English medieval history in there — he's studied that period extensively.

"King Viserys [a lead character in HOTD, played by Paddy Considine] is very near and dear to him — he's one of those tragic Martin characters that I think he holds very close. I think he wanted all that to be handled by somebody who began with the prose and loves the prose. And that happened to be me."

Together, Condal and Sapochnik formed a unique partnership — a showrunning team made up of a director and a writer rather than two scribes. Where Condal brought the writing room and encyclopedic knowledge of Martin's work, Sapochnik brought a director's aesthetic and a continuity of method from the original series.

"Miguel always says, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" Condal recounts. "One of many things that worked incredibly well with the original series was the tone and the way it was presented — it was this very real and tactile and violent and funny and dark and sexy and vulgar world. We're trying... if not to replicate it, then certainly to honor it in what we're doing. But because our show takes place 200 years earlier, we want it to feel like a different time and place."



Martin's Fire & Blood, a pre-history of the Targaryen family, was carefully chosen. It is a patchwork account, relayed by three unreliable narrators who are clearly recording their versions many years after the fact.

"It leaves a lot of opportunity for invention," Condal points out, "and it's a wonderful place to begin as an adapter. I mean, you don't have as much material to work with, so it requires a lot more origination. But if I know what points A, B, C, D, E, F, G are, and the things that happen, I get to write the reasoning and the stuff in between — like the private conversations that the king and the queen have in their bedchamber that would have never been part of the court record. It's about knowing the characters and then trying to write to that."

The first season begins with House Targaryen at peace. King Viserys, for all his weaknesses as a ruler, is a good man who wants stability for his family and his kingdom. But a struggle for succession among his roguish younger brother Daemon (Matt Smith), his daughter Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy) and her onetime friend Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) soon rends the kingdom asunder.

"It's a civil war," Condal summarizes. "The family fights itself."

It's also a war fought on gender lines. Princess Rhaenys (Eve Best) — dubbed "The Queen Who Never Was" — had been seen as the best candidate to rule, but she was passed over by a council of men in favor of her cousin Viserys. Her dignity, subtle resentment and self-realization set the tone for the series.

"At my very first meeting, Miguel said to me that the heart of the show is my line, 'Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne,'" Best recalls.

Together with Rhaenys, Alicent and Rhaenyra make up the female axis of House of the Dragon, with the latter two depicted both as young friends (played by Emily Carey and Milly Alcock, respectively) and grown-up rivals (Cooke and D'Arcy).

"At the start of the story," D'Arcy says, "we understand that Rhaenys was meant to be next to take the throne, but in a consolidation of male power, the role is given instead to Rhaenyra's father, Viserys. So straightaway we're in a context where women get shafted. For a woman to take power, you have to convince the electorate and the supporters and the allies that a woman is not 'other.' So the question of the show is, how do you do that?"



(She can't help but note the contemporary relevance. "We haven't managed it yet — it's 2022, guys. Be serious!")

Cooke, as grown-up Alicent — daughter of Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) — enters mid-season after a ten-year story gap. "By that point, she has found her autonomy within the straitjacket of her role in the kingdom," Cooke says. "And she's realizing that she's got a lot more power than she thought. She is a product of the patriarchy — she has been so indoctrinated by her father [whose title is the Hand of the King] that she doesn't understand the full extent of her power."

Like Sapochnik, Cooke points out that though Game of Thrones may have been perceived as a male show, the characters of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) ended up as nuanced, fully drawn women.

"Our show feels as if it has followed on in the same vein of those characters," Cooke says. "The scripts are really, really good. I spoke to Miguel and Ryan about what they wanted to take from the old show and what they wanted to be different: I know this is a prequel, but it did seem really fresh as well."



To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.

This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, under the title, "Heirs to the Throne."

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