This story first appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
George R.R. Martin is no newcomer to transformation. After “Game of Thrones” revolutionized the fantasy landscape and paved the way for genre series to achieve mainstream acclaim, he and “House of the Dragon” showrunner Ryan Condal set their sights on another mighty challenge by crafting a female-centric spin-off.
“If you’re going to make a successful spin-off or sequel, it has to have a reason to exist,” Condal said. “There were great female characters in the original show, but really, other than Cersei, no [woman] really ascends to power the way that both Alicent and Rhaenyra do in their own ways.”
That would be Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) and Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy), the dueling heroines of HBO’s prequel series that takes place almost 200 years before the events of “Game of Thrones.” Whereas that show featured female characters asserting themselves from the shadows of the male-dominated kingdom, “House of the Dragon” tells the story of two women vying for the very nexus of power in Westeros: the Iron Throne. We first meet them as adolescent best friends (played by Emily Carey as Alicent and Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra). But their bond falters when Alicent marries Rhaenyra’s ailing father, King Viserys (Paddy Considine), and sisterly confidences give way to ruthless betrayals.
This is quite a heel turn from “Game of Thrones,” which was often accused of misogyny. (Martin has said that Westeros was not “particularly more anti-woman or more misogynistic than real life and what we call history.”) The new series also explores female sexual awakening and the nitty gritty of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood — all themes that the predominantly female writers room (which included executive producer Sara Hess) could infuse with an authenticity that, Condal said, would not have existed “even with the best intended all-male creative team.”
“We wanted a genuine female perspective presented, warts and all, with these women who are both very flawed and make bad decisions — as do any characters — and seeing how they wrestle with it and grow from it,” Condal said.
The battle for female power is established as the heartbeat of the series in the first episode, when the Great Council moves to continue House Targaryen’s tradition of male succession and King Viserys goes against them, resolving to name Rhaenyra as his heir.
“The realm prefers the male ruler,” Condal said. “Viserys, at the bookend of that episode, is going against the realm. That creates the ripple that leads to the war.”
Martin said that developing a female-centric narrative within the Westeros universe made perfect sense, since his work is rooted in medieval history, the era of such formidable figures as Queen Isabella “the She-Wolf” of France, Joan of Arc and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
“History is full of fascinating women,” he said, but “fantasy hasn’t always done good service to them.” He noted the “barely present” female characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series, quipping, “There are no Hobbit girls that go on a quest.”
Originally pitched in 2016 alongside a spin-off idea for Martin’s “Tales of Dunk and Egg” novellas (recently ordered to series by HBO), “House of the Dragon” appears to have maintained a solid bloc of the “GoT” fan base: 10 million viewers tuned into the premiere, making it the most-watched new show in HBO history.
But the show took a risk in Episode 6, when it jumps forward 10 years and introduces the adult Rhaenyra and Alicent, played by D’Arcy and Cooke. The skip ahead, Condal said, was necessary to convey the series’ epic scope.
“The leap we were taking in the middle of the season — and in the first season — is definitely a strong choice to make, but it felt like the only way to satisfy the history and to deliver a show that was going to build to a point of zenith of drama and action at the end of the first season,” he said.
“There was some resistance, because [fans] love Emily and Milly so much,” Martin said. “But for the most part, I think people love both sets of characters.”