clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘House of the Dragon’ Introduces a Very Different Time for Targaryens

The Targaryens were a fallen, former dynasty at the beginning of ‘Game of Thrones,’ but HBO’s prequel series distinguishes itself from its predecessor by showing the family at the peak of its power

HBO/Ringer illustration

As early as the opening credits, the differences between Game of Thrones and its prequel spinoff, the newly premiered House of the Dragon, are stark. (Or Stark, given the shift in families featured in this new show.)

Thrones’ thrilling title sequence formed a map that zoomed around George R.R. Martin’s fictional world, fitting for a show that, in its pilot episode, journeyed north to Winterfell, the Wall, and the woods beyond; south to King’s Landing; and east to Pentos. From the get-go, the series’ canvas spanned continents and vast sets of characters and their families.

But in its first episode Sunday night, House of the Dragon restricts its scope to King’s Landing the entire time, aside from an opening scene heavy with expositional narration. This is a contained story about (mostly) one place and (mostly) one family, and an internal civil war rather than external strife. Dragon expresses this dynamic from the very beginning: Rather than a large map, its opening title unfolds much more simply, as a three-headed dragon, the Targaryen sigil, appears in the center of the screen.

Dragon’s pilot episode showcases the might and majesty of the Targaryen dynasty at its peak, never losing that focus from the jump. Immediately after the family’s logo fades, the camera shoots skyward to track a dragon ride. Princess Rhaenyra, daughter of King Viserys I, soars atop her mount, Syrax—and the very pattern of her flight reveals plenty of new information about the world these characters inhabit, nearly 200 years before the events of Thrones.

In that show, when Daenerys’s dragons take to the skies, crowds watch in wonder and terror because they’ve never viewed a dragon before; when Rhaenyra flies above King’s Landing, the masses below scarcely notice the common, if wondrous, occurrence above. And when she lands, the details more fully flesh out the difference from Dany’s day: Rhaenyra has a true saddle with which to ride, and dragon keepers to care for Syrax, and a massive structure—the Dragonpit, thriving and active—for her dragon to call home. In this age, dragons are not a miraculous rarity, but the reason for an entire infrastructure built up around their unique abilities and needs.

Viserys’s reign is “the apex of Targaryen power in Westeros,” featuring more living dragons than any previous or subsequent time, explains Fire & Blood, the historical tome that serves as the basis of the Dragon adaptation. The Targaryens’ power is absolute, their ultimate weapons flourishing, their realm at relative peace for decades. “These knights are as green as summer grass. None have known real war,” Rhaenys, the so-called Queen Who Never Was, says during a jousting tournament, calling back to Catelyn Stark’s “knights of summer” jab in Thrones.

War is coming eventually, of course; such is the premise of the show. But for now, the Targaryens thrive, and their aesthetics—relatively new to the screen, after families like the Starks and Lannisters dominated Thrones—overwhelm the pilot episode. Silver hair seemingly fills the screen, and banners bearing the Targaryen sigil drape over every wall. A more elaborate Iron Throne sprawls in the Red Keep, and dragon statues dot the capital city. The immense skull of Balerion the Black Dread—the largest dragon in Westeros, the former mount of both Viserys and Aegon the Conqueror, and thus the symbol and source of Targaryen might—towers over the king and his daughter in a crucial conversation near episode’s end.

The episode also contains numerous reminders of the Targaryens’ origins in Valyria, their ancestral home—which only the Velaryons, among all other Westerosi powers, share. Characters speak the language of High Valyrian not just to issue the dracarys command (though that comes, too), but to converse casually. They have readily available Valyrian steel, for both weapons and jewelry.

And the dragons themselves date from Valyria; even if the now-dead Balerion was the last actually born there, the dragons come from Valyria’s volcanic Fourteen Flames just as much as the human Targaryens do. And just one episode of Dragon already offers a broader variety of dragons than Thrones—with its similar look for Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion—ever did. Just gaze on the beauty of Caraxes, Prince Daemon’s blood-red beast, with its serpentine design and slithery movements, once it spreads its wings.

Dragon doesn’t merely display all the trappings of the Targaryen apex to flex its HBO budget, which is considerably larger than Thrones had early on. Over its planned three- or four-season arc, this show aims to detail the Dance of the Dragons, the intrafamilial civil war that foretells the beginning of the dynasty’s (admittedly far-off) downfall—so by showing that dynasty at its peak, Dragon implicitly illustrates just how far the family will fall, and just how much it will lose in the process.

That eventual demise is perhaps best presaged by the aforementioned conversation between Viserys and Rhaenyra near the episode’s end. Asked what she sees when she looks at dragons, Rhaenyra tells her father, “I suppose I see us. Everyone says Targaryens are closer to gods than to men, but they say that because of our dragons. Without them, we’re just like anyone else.”

The end of that response is almost a word-for-word echo of a quote from Season 7 of Thrones, when Daenerys says the Targaryen dragons eventually “grew small, and we grew small as well. We weren’t extraordinary without them. We were just like everyone else.”

That similarity is just one of many parallels that Dragon draws between Rhaenyra and Daenerys in its first episode, and while both Targaryen women might end up in a similar place, with similar goals—namely, to break through the patriarchy and sit the Iron Throne—their divergent starting points are even more instructive.

Rhaenyra already has a bond with a dragon and is familiar with flight, and she begins the episode walking the halls of the Red Keep freely, serving as the king’s cupbearer, and sitting center stage at the joust. She ends it as her father’s named heir, with oaths of fealty from all the most powerful families in the Seven Kingdoms.

Daenerys, conversely, spends her life destitute and on the run, kept alive and in comfort only by the grace of foreign friends like Pentos’s Illyrio Mopatis. Her family, save Viserys, is all dead. Her dragons hatch only when she’s at her lowest point, with her husband dead and his khalasar crumbling, through an act of unexpected magic that sets her on a course to power.

The differences arise because, in the intervening years, the Targaryens collapse, proving they really are just like everyone else. But the dynasty was splendid, oh so splendid, before it fell. Prequel stories are often fraught with a problem of insufficient stakes, because audiences already know where the story will lead. But in this case, that foreknowledge makes seeing the Targaryens in all their glory even more poignant, because of the inevitable endpoint waiting down the line.