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What You Need to Know Before Seeing ‘House of the Dragon’

Twenty questions (and spoiler-free answers) to prepare you for the premiere of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel

HBO/Ringer illustration

Most Game of Thrones fans probably don’t know much about what to expect in that show’s first spinoff, the prequel series House of the Dragon. Millions of people read the A Song of Ice and Fire books that formed the basis of Thrones, and millions more watched the show.

Yet Fire & Blood, the 2018 source text for House of the Dragon, is far less widely read, with fewer than 10 percent of the number of Goodreads reviews of any of the five core books. And those who picked up F&B might not have finished, given some fans’ frustration with the lack of progress in the main series or F&B’s history textbook-style narrative structure. (I liked it! But it received significant negative reviews; The Verge responded to news about the prequel show by quipping that HBO planned to adapt “George R.R. Martin’s worst book.”)

So with Dragon set to premiere this Sunday, you might have some questions about HBO’s new story set in Westeros. Luckily, I’m here to help. Let’s consider 20 questions that may be on your mind, and I’ll keep my answers spoiler-free beyond what’s already been revealed in trailers.

1. Who and what is this show about?

That’s two questions in one; you’re off to a tricky start, but I’ll allow it. This show is about the lead-up to and progression of the Dance of the Dragons, the Targaryen civil war that took place about 170 years before the events of Game of Thrones. As Shireen Baratheon summarized in Thrones, it’s about two relatives who both “thought they belonged on the Iron Throne. When people started declaring for one of them or the other, their fight divided the kingdoms in two. Brothers fought brothers. Dragons fought dragons. By the time it was over, thousands were dead. And it was a disaster for the Targaryens as well. They never truly recovered.”

Like Thrones, Dragon will feature a large cast of characters—many of whom, as in Thrones, will die gruesome deaths—but the four main players to know early on are:

  • Viserys I Targaryen, the king and grandson of his predecessor, Jaehaerys the Conciliator
  • Daemon Targaryen, the king’s younger brother
  • Rhaenyra Targaryen, Viserys’s eldest child, nicknamed the Realm’s Delight
  • Alicent Hightower, the daughter of the Hand of the King

2. How do the Starks and Lannisters fit in?

They don’t, really. You’ll note that none of the four characters above are Starks or Lannisters. Members of the two families most central to Thrones will be present on the new show, but more as peripheral characters than central protagonists or villains.

Early Thrones was about a civil war between two families; Dragon is about a civil war within a family. The Targaryens will dominate the ranks of major characters.

3. I don’t know much about the Targaryens before Daenerys; the one guy I remember is Aegon the Conqueror. He was important, right?

He sure was. Along with Rhaenys and Visenya, his two sister-wives—incest is a key theme whenever Targaryens are concerned—Aegon used his dragons to conquer all of Westeros north of Dorne and south of the Wall about 300 years before the events of Thrones, thereby transforming a set of disparate kingdoms into one unified (again, except Dorne) realm.

4. How does he relate to this show?

I’ll give a quick rundown of the Iron Throne’s journey from its forging under Aegon to the time of House of the Dragon: Aegon died in the year 37 AC (After the Conquest), after which his eldest son, Aenys, became king. Unlike most Targaryen sovereigns—such as Aegon the Conqueror or Aerys the Mad King or Maegor the Cruel—Aenys didn’t have an epithet. That’s because he was boring, and maybe also because who needs a nickname with a name like Aenys?

When Aenys died young in 42 AC, his brother Maegor wrested control of the crown, eventually defeating Aenys’s eldest son and named heir in battle. Maegor’s epithet was Cruel for all sorts of reasons, and he was an awful king—but he proved in the early days of the Targaryen dynasty that a rival claimant’s strength can be sufficient to scuttle plans of succession.

Once Maegor died in 48 AC, Jaehaerys—Aenys’s last surviving son, and thus Aegon the Conqueror’s grandson—became king. Thus, another precedent was set early: Jaehaerys had an older sister but was himself the oldest male candidate for the throne, so he ascended mostly unopposed.

Jaehaerys ruled for more than half a century but lacked an heir near the end of his life, which takes us to the Great Council at the start of Dragon.

5. Why doesn’t Jaehaerys have an heir?

Jaehaerys and his sister-wife, the Good Queen Alysanne, had 13 kids. You’d think they could’ve found a successor among the baker’s dozen, right? Wrong. Instead, Jaehaerys’s children showcased the breadth of ways to die young in this brutally grimdark world.

Young Aegon, Gaemon, and Valerion all died as infants. Thus 13 becomes 10. Daenerys died of a disease called the Shivers, Maegelle contracted greyscale, and Viserra broke her neck during a drunken horse ride. Thus 13 becomes seven. Daella and Alyssa died in childbirth, and Gael died by suicide after giving birth to a stillborn son. Thus 13 becomes four.

For a while, Prince Aemon was Jaehaerys’s heir—but he died during a skirmish in Tarth (Brienne’s birthplace to be) when a stray crossbow bolt pierced his throat. Then Prince Baelon became the heir—but he died of a “burst belly” in the year 101 AC. Thus 13 becomes two.

Neither of Jaehaerys’s remaining children was a candidate for the throne, either. Vaegon, a sour, bookish, antisocial sort, became an archmaester, conveniently removing him from King’s Landing, and Saera had run away to the Free Cities in Essos years before. Thus 13 becomes zero—and sets the stage for the Great Council to decide how the Targaryen dynasty should proceed.

6. What’s this Great Council you keep mentioning?

After Baelon’s belly bursts—that’s a fun bit of alliteration—King Jaehaerys doesn’t know how to choose a new heir. Does he pick Viserys, Baelon’s eldest son, and thus his oldest eligible male descendant? Or does he pick Rhaenys or her young son Laenor, because they come from the line of Aemon, Baelon’s older brother?

Unsure which claim to the throne should take precedence, Jaehaerys calls a great meeting of Westeros’s lords. It’s a huge event held at Harrenhal, the continent’s largest castle, with more than a thousand lords attending to cast their votes. Their decision not only determines Jaehaerys’s succession, but also casts a long shadow over future contentions over the throne—including the one that blossoms into civil war.

7. What else should I expect from the Targaryen heyday?

I’ll answer with a question of my own: Are you excited for not just a few dragons, but a whopping 17 fire-breathing beasts?

8. Seventeen, that’s a lot! How will I be able to tell them apart?

If the production team accomplishes its goal, you’ll have a few ways to distinguish Caraxes from Syrax from Vhagar. First, the dragons in this story are different colors: reds and blues and silvers and golds.

Second, the dragons have their own individual quirks. “Each new dragon has its own personality,” co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik said. “That’s what’s going on now in our last part of the animation—we’re applying personal character traits to each of the dragons.”

And third, the dragons are different sizes—especially because each successive generation of Targaryen dragons is growing smaller than the last.

9. Wait, the dragons are getting smaller?

Indeed. In the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, Tyrion observes that the three oldest dragon skulls lying around the castle, which belonged to the mounts that Aegon used to conquer the continent, were so massive that “you could have ridden a horse down [their] gullet.” But the more recent skulls were the smallest, “no bigger than mastiff’s skulls.”

Granted, those latter dragons were younger than the three dragons Aegon and his sisters rode—but they weren’t expected to grow nearly as large, even at maturity. The most commonly held in-universe explanation is that the Dragonpit stunted the development of the dragons raised there, because they didn’t have the freedom to (physically and metaphorically) stretch their wings and thrive. There are also conspiracies beyond this tidy explanation, however; a book character named Marwyn the Mage accuses the maesters of running a secret scheme to reduce dragon power.

In any event, a good rule of thumb while watching the show is that the older the dragon, the bigger it is—and thus, in most cases, the more fearsome in battle.

10. Will the dragons fight?

Not only will the dragons fight, they’ll create such spectacles on numerous occasions once war erupts. In Thrones, the only dragon-vs.-dragon battle came in “The Long Night,” when the Night King used the undead Viserion against his brothers. Prepare for many more here.

11. I can’t wait. When will they fight? Who will win?

First of all, that’s more than one question, and second, I’m not spoiling things for you! Try again.

12. OK, fine, enough with the dragons. What about geography? Is King’s Landing different nearly 200 years in the past?

The capital city looks largely the same—with two notable exceptions. The first is that the Sept of Baelor won’t be in this show. That’s the building Cersei blew up with wildfire in one of Thrones’ most thrilling scenes, but it was constructed during and after the reign of Baelor the Blessed, who ruled 30 years after the Dance of the Dragons.

The second change is much more fun. In Thrones, the King’s Landing Dragonpit is a ruin, only appearing in seasons 7 and 8 when it hosts a couple summits between Westeros’s major leaders and Bran becomes king. But in Dragon, the Dragonpit is alive and flourishing, full of stablehands and dragon keepers and, well, dragons themselves. We’ll probably spend a decent amount of time in this hub of dragon activity.

13. Speaking of geography: We’re not going back to Meereen, are we?

Don’t fret, you can put away your Sons of the Harpy mask. We’ll probably also avoid returning to Braavos or Qarth or the rest of Slaver’s Bay. Dragon might cross the Narrow Sea to visit the Free Cities on rare occasions, but it’s unlikely. And in the other direction, we’re not going up to the Wall again, either. Thrones’ famous opening credits map won’t need to range nearly so far for the prequel.

14. Are there any new places to visit?

The wealthy port of Oldtown could play a more prominent role on this show. On Thrones, we saw it only during Sam’s brief internship at the Citadel, but because it’s Westeros’s central hub for both knowledge and religion, as well as the Hightowers’ home base, Dragon could make more frequent visits.

Dragon’s more contained nature means that towns near King’s Landing, like Maidenpool and Tumbleton, will become more important as well. We should at least poke our head inside the famous castle Storm’s End, home of the Baratheons, after skirting by its exterior in Thrones. And out at sea, we’ll probably journey to the Stepstones, a chain of islands down near Dorne, and take tours of a new island central to the plot.

15. What’s the new island?

We’ve already spent time on Dragonstone, the home of the Targaryens, where Stannis kept his headquarters for a while and Daenerys planned her invasion of the Seven Kingdoms. The new island is Dragonstone’s neighbor, Driftmark. It’s the seat of House Velaryon—the second-most important family on the show.

16. Who are the Velaryons? I thought it was spelled “Valyrian.”

It is! They’re two different terms, because all the proper nouns on this show weren’t confusing enough already. Valyrian refers to the ancient, ruined empire of Valyria, where the Targaryens originated before traveling to Westeros. Valyria was destroyed in a mysterious cataclysm called the Doom, hundreds of years before the show.

Velaryon, on the other hand, is a house loyal to the Targaryens, as they both trace their ancestry to Valyria (meaning the Velaryons are also Valyrian). On the show, the Velaryons are Black, and they’re Westeros’s wealthiest family, thanks mainly to the exploits of the daring fleet captain Corlys Velaryon, a.k.a. the Sea Snake.

17. The Sea Snake! Is he as cool as his nickname sounds?

In grand Thrones tradition—see also: the Red Viper, the Young Wolf, the Blackfish, the Queen of Thorns—Corlys Velaryon lives up to his magnificent moniker. If Dragon is a hit, we’ll all learn much more about his backstory down the line: The Sea Snake is one of the many Thrones spinoffs (in this case, a spinoff to a spinoff) in the works at HBO.

18. Are there any other new families worth knowing?

I’ll give you two to remember: First, the Hightowers, as Alicent is a main character and her dad, Otto, is Hand of the King. And second, the Strongs, who hold Harrenhal and prove vital to the politicking in King’s Landing before the war begins.

Speaking of great character nicknames: One of the Strongs, Harwin, is called “Breakbones” because he’s huge and reputed to be the strongest man in the Seven Kingdoms. George R.R. Martin really has a way with names.

19. Ah yes, George R.R. Martin and his words. Will he ever finish the book series?

That’s outside the scope of this Q&A. The ongoing (in the book) adventures of Daenerys and Tyrion and Bran are hundreds of years away in the fictional world, and probably years away in our world, too—even if I retain perhaps quixotic hopes that Martin will announce a publication date sooner.

20. OK, fine, I’ll ask one last question about the show, so level with me: Will Dragon be good and worth watching?

I truly believe it will. I sure hope so, anyway.