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‘House of the Dragon’ Episode 1 Breakdown: Dreams and Prophecies

A spoiler-free deep dive into the ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel’s premiere, which included a major lore reveal from the mind of George R.R. Martin

HBO/Ringer illustration

We’re back! After more than three years, Westeros has returned to the screen in House of the Dragon, a prequel series set some two centuries before the events of Game of Thrones. The premiere episode was full of new lore, references, callbacks, and Easter eggs, and I’m here to help guide you through it all in this spoiler-free column. This week, I’ll dive into Aegon’s prophetic dream, which Viserys detailed at the end of the episode—plus hit on additional tidbits and takeaways.

Deep Dive of the Week: The Targaryen Prophecy

The ending of the House of the Dragon premiere contained a bombshell for Thrones lore: Aegon the Conqueror didn’t just set his sights on Westeros because it was a fertile continent ripe for the taking. He did so because he dreamed of the great White Walker threat to come, as “a terrible winter, gusting out of the distant north.” Now, that vision is passed down from each Targaryen ruler to the next, and Rhaenyra is the latest to hold the secret.

This is a big reveal for the A Song of Ice and Fire series as a whole, one that recontextualizes much of what we know about the Targaryens and recent Westerosi history. And as showrunner Ryan Condal told Vanity Fair, it came straight from author George R.R. Martin.

But this reveal also raises some questions. One big one: Why would Viserys (and his ancestors) treat Aegon’s dream as an ironclad vision of what’s to come? “I dreamed of a cold winter” doesn’t seem like a particularly strong basis for conquering a continent and establishing dominion over all of its inhabitants.

Let’s dig into that question by winding the clock back to 114 BC—that is, 114 years before Aegon’s Conquest and more than 200 years before the events of Dragon. Back then, there were dozens of houses of dragonlords like the Targaryens. Only, these dragonlords weren’t in Westeros, but in a city-state called Valyria, located on a peninsula in Essos, far to the south and east of Westeros. The Valyrians had, over the preceding couple of centuries, carved out a large empire in Essos that they called the Valyrian Freehold, on account of them having no king but rather a system of government in which every land-holding citizen had a voice. The Freehold was the wealthiest and most powerful kingdom in the known world, the center of civilization and a land of splendor. It was a golden age.

In Valyria, the Targaryens were not royalty. They were just one of the many dragonlords—no more special than any of the others. Then, a young Targaryen maiden named Daenys had a dream. Daenys saw the destruction of Valyria by fire. Her father, Aenar Targaryen, decided to heed his daughter’s dream as a warning, and uprooted the family to the westernmost point of the Valyrian empire—the island of Dragonstone, just off the coast of Westeros in Blackwater Bay. The other dragonlords thought the Targaryens were fools … and then the Doom came to Valyria 12 years later.

Little is known about the Doom, except that within hours the most powerful city in the history of the known world had fallen, and all the dragonlords therein were destroyed. In this episode of Dragon, Viserys implied that the Doom had something to do with the dragons. But the truth is lost to history, and even the archaeological record is impossible to examine, as the peninsula was reduced to a series of shattered, smoking islands inhabited by greyscale-plagued monsters. Tyrion and Jorah got a first-hand view of the wreckage of Old Valyria in Season 5 of Thrones:

The Targaryen family were the only surviving dragonlords, and they spent the next century entangled in affairs in the east—in the old Valyrian Freehold—before Aegon finally had his own dream of an apocalypse and turned his eyes west to become the Conqueror.

Daenys and Aegon are not the only Targaryens known to have prophetic dreams. Daenerys has many such dreams, especially in A Game of Thrones when she is married to Khal Drogo. She frequently dreams of a black dragon—one that eventually bathes her in a fire that does not harm her but rather makes her feel “strong and new and fierce.” And that’s, well, pretty much what happened.

Maester Aemon, the elderly maester at the Wall when Jon Snow arrives there, also dreams of dragons and fire, though the way he describes his dreams seems more scrambled and less prophetic. At one point, as Aemon is nearing his death, he tells Sam Tarly that “It must be you. Tell them. The prophecy ... my brother’s dream ... Lady Melisandre has misread the signs. Stannis ... Stannis has some of the dragon blood in him, yes. His brothers did as well.”

This comes as part of a longer, delirious monologue from Aemon, and Sam has no idea what to make of it. But Aemon’s emphasis on Stannis having “dragon blood” is interesting. It’s true that the Baratheons have Valyrian blood in them. The first Baratheon, Orys Baratheon, was widely believed to be a bastard half-brother of Aegon the Conqueror, and the Baratheons long had close ties to the Targaryens (until a young Baratheon named Robert overthrew the entire dynasty). In fact, Robert Baratheon’s grandmother was Rhaelle Targaryen, who was Aemon’s niece. Aemon’s focus on “dragon blood” here could line up with King Viserys emphasizing that a Targaryen must sit the Iron Throne … only Aemon is too far gone at that point to really explain what he means.

Still other Targaryens had prophetic dreams, most notably Daeron the Drunken, who was born in 190 AC (so about 80 years after the events of Dragon and a century before Thrones) and appears in the Dunk and Egg novellas. Daeron’s dreams terrified him so greatly that he became an alcoholic. In the novellas, he tells the hedge knight Duncan the Tall that a dragon would die and fall on him. Later, in a tournament melee, prince Baelor Targaryen was dealt a mortal blow and died in Duncan’s arms. In another of the Dunk and Egg novellas, Daemon Blackfyre (the Blackfyres are a Targaryen offshoot branch) tells Duncan that he had a dream of Duncan in all-white armor, and Duncan later becomes a knight in Aegon V’s Kingsguard. Daemon II also dreams of dragons, which went extinct before he was born, hatching from stone eggs.

So, Targaryens have dreams that often come true, and we now know that one of these was Aegon the Conqueror’s dream of the White Walker threat. This knowledge could also help explain some of the more mysterious but consequential events in Targaryen history.

Let’s start with the Tragedy at Summerhall. In 259 AC, King Aegon V Targaryen—the Egg of the Dunk and Egg novellas—convened with several of his closest advisors at the castle of Summerhall, in the Dornish Marches. Aegon desperately wanted to restore dragons to the Targaryen dynasty. No one knows exactly what happened at Summerhall, but a fire broke out, killing Aegon, his eldest son Duncan, and Ser Duncan the Tall, now the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. It’s easy to connect the dots: Aegon V and Co. thought some kind of ritual involving fire would hatch dragons in some way, or bring them out by magic. But readers know Aegon V through the Dunk and Egg novellas, and while only a child in those texts, he doesn’t seem like one of the Targaryens whose coin landed on the wrong side. What made him so obsessed with saving dragons from extinction? Of course, the explanation could be as simple as, “They’re dragons! They’re freaking awesome!” But it could also be, “We need them to save the world from impending doom.”

The Tragedy at Summerhall isn’t just a story of death, though; it is also one of life. Prince Rhaegar Targaryen was born there in 259 AC, the same year of the tragedy. Rhaegar was obsessed with the “prince that was promised” prophecy, which states that a savior would be “born amidst salt and smoke, beneath a bleeding star.” In his youth, Rhaegar thought he might be the prince that was promised—with the fire of Summerhall representing the smoke and the tears of those who died representing the salt. Later, though, Rhaegar became convinced that his son would be the prince. First, he thought that prince was his son Aegon, whom he had with Elia Martell. But then Rhaegar left Elia for Lyanna Stark—perhaps focusing on the “song of ice and fire” part of the prophecy.

An interest in this prophecy alone is enough to explain Rhaegar’s actions. But the added pressure of a vision of apocalypse from Aegon could help shed some light on why Rhaegar was so obsessed with it. It could also explain why Rhaegar ditched his first wife when she was no longer able to have children, something that seems somewhat out of character for him based on how those who knew Rhaegar described him. (We also know that Rhaegar ran away with Lyanna at the end of the year of the false spring, when “winter returned to Westeros with a vengeance,” per The World of Ice & Fire. Perhaps Rhaegar thought that the terrible winter Aegon had dreamed of was beginning.)

We could continue to go in circles about prophecy in this series and how different characters interpret it. Aemon ends up becoming convinced that Daenerys is the prince that was promised, noting that in Valyrian, the word “prince” has no gender. And Targaryens aren’t the only characters who have prophetic dreams—remember Jojen Reed and his green dreams? Or Maggy the Frog and her prophecy for Cersei? Or Daenerys’s visions at the House of the Undying? Or Quaithe?

Additionally, while Viserys’s revelation about Aegon provides for some exciting new examinations of past events, it also prompts plenty of questions: Why keep Aegon’s dream a secret? Why didn’t the Targaryens do more to garrison the North? When was this dream lost to history? How was the secret passed from Aenys to Maegor and from Maegor to Jaehaerys, when both of those successions were less than amicable? If the dragons were supposed to be essential in warding off this threat, why in Thrones did they become arguably a net negative in the fight against the Night King? And why were the White Walkers ultimately destroyed by Arya, someone with no Targaryen blood whatsoever? The more you think about it, the more this bombshell starts to feel like a retcon.

Daenerys said it best in A Dance With Dragons: “Dreams and prophecies. Why must they always be in riddles? I hate this.”

Quick Hits

Saying goodbye to Aemma Arryn

This week we said hello and goodbye to Aemma Arryn, the wife of Viserys, mother of Rhaenyra, and Queen of the Seven Kingdoms for nine years. As she tells her daughter in this episode, “You will lie in this bed soon enough, Rhaenyra. This discomfort is how we serve the realm.” Her life—and death—offers a look at the role most royal women in Westeros are forced to play.

If you couldn’t tell from her silver locks, Aemma had Targaryen blood. Her mother was Daella Targaryen, making her a cousin to her husband Viserys. That would make their marriage almost normal by Westerosi standards, except that she was married when she was 11 years old. (Fire & Blood assures us that the marriage wasn’t consummated until Aemma had “flowered” … a whole two years later. It appears the show has aged her up significantly, as she is supposed to be in her 20s when she dies but Sian Brooke, the actress playing her, is 42.)

As this episode detailed, Aemma suffered many miscarriages and had a previous son who died in the cradle before finally birthing Rhaenyra, her only healthy child. Aemma’s death during childbirth is all too indicative of the violence that women cannot escape in Westeros, even during times of peace. Aemma’s mother also died after a difficult labor, as did Viserys’s. When Aemma calls childbirth a battlefield, she’s not kidding around—it seems to be by far the most common way for women of the realm to die.

Aemma’s death—as well as the death of her son, Prince Baelon—spurs Viserys to rethink his line of succession and name Rhaenyra his heir. And as Viserys tells his daughter, the Iron Throne is the most dangerous seat in the realm. Maybe even more dangerous than a birthing bed.

The meaning behind Viserys cutting himself on the throne

Early in the episode, some attendants are examining a festering wound on Viserys’s back, one which is growing and won’t seem to heal. Viserys brushes it off as just a cut he got from sitting on the Iron Throne. Otto Hightower, the king’s hand, remarks to Maester Mellos that “whatever it is, it needs to be kept quiet.” Whether that wound is from the throne or not, Viserys clearly cuts himself on the throne when he is exiling his brother Daemon near the conclusion of the episode. And here Otto is right—this is bad news.

Aegon the Conqueror forged the Iron Throne out of the blades of his enemies not just to create a symbol of power over his subjects, but also to establish a throne that isn’t comfortable to sit on, because “a king should never sit easy.” Getting cut by the throne is widely seen as a sign that the king isn’t fit to rule. King Maegor the Cruel, who ruled from 42 to 48 AC (roughly 60 years before the events of this episode), was known as an exceptionally terrible, violent, and downright evil ruler. Maegor fought a bloody war to claim the throne, took multiple wives, and placed bounties on the members of the Faith who opposed him. He killed his nephew in combat, brought entire great houses to extinction, and tortured those at court who opposed him.

When the realm rebelled and the walls were closing in on Maegor, the king who was called by some “The Abomination on the Iron Throne” was, one morning, simply found dead on the Iron Throne. His wrists had been cut open, and one of the blades from the throne itself was sticking through his neck. No one knows who killed Maegor, but many in Westeros believe it was the Iron Throne itself that rejected his tyrannical rule. (Knowing this context, it’s pretty bizarre that Viserys threw out the Iron Throne as an explanation for the wound on his back. That’d make most in Westeros worry more, not less.)

Fast-forward to the Thrones timeline, and we find more figures who cut themselves on the throne. The mad king Aerys—the one Robert rebelled against—was known for cutting himself on the throne so frequently that he was nicknamed “King Scab.” In A Clash of Kings, Joffrey cuts himself on the throne when he orders a man’s execution. “The throne denies him!” the man yells before the gold cloaks take him away to die. “He is no king!”

Viserys is certainly no second Maegor. Nor is he a precursor to Aerys or Joffrey. But he may not be fit to rule all the same.

A couple of Thrones references sneak into a pivotal scene

When Viserys asks Rhaenyra to keep the secret of the White Walker threat, he asks her to “promise me, Rhaenyra. Promise me.” This is a direct callback (or callforward?) to Lyanna asking Ned to “promise me, Ned. Promise me” to keep the secret of Jon Snow’s parentage from the rest of the realm. And it’s not the only Thrones reference in this scene.

As Viserys is telling Rhaenyra about the long-held Targaryen secret, he clutches at the dagger he’s been wearing at his hip in the episode. It’s the same dagger that will become known as the catspaw dagger, named by fans because it’s used by a catspaw in the assassination attempt on Bran Stark in Season 1. It’s also the same dagger that Arya ultimately uses to kill the Night King and end the White Walker threat in Season 8. That makes this scene a true full-circle moment for both shows (and, yeah, it’s probably a little too on the nose).

The importance of Princess Nymeria

When Rhaenyra and Alicent are in the godswood, Alicent reads aloud from a book about Princess Nymeria, who led the Rhoynar people to Dorne hundreds of years before the events of Dragon. Rhaenyra at first isn’t too interested—but the subject of their study and the rest of this scene reveal something important.

The Rhoynar are named after the long river in Essos along which they lived, and among the Rhoynar, men and women live as equals. Nymeria and the Rhoynar were, however, forced out of their homes as the Valyrian Freehold expanded under the dragonlords. The story of Nymeria is more legend than history, but the legends tell us that she commanded 10,000 ships and took her people from island to island searching for a place beyond the reach of the dragons. She first landed at the Basilisk Isles, then the Isle of Toads, then the mysterious southern continent of Sothoryos, then Naath, then the Summer Isles. Everywhere, Nymeria and the Rhoynar found violence, disease, or devastation. It wasn’t until she brought her people to Dorne, then a thinly populated and desolate region, that she found a permanent home. She took Mors Martell, the lord of House Martell, as her husband and burned her ships, showing the Rhoynar that they were done running.

In Dorne, Nymeria continued to fight wars for supremacy, assuming command of armies in battle as the Martells fought with the other houses in the region. Her reign lasted for 27 years, and by the time she was done, Dorne was under the control of House Martell and the Dornish people had adopted the laws and customs of the Rhoynar—including allowing women to rule. Nymeria remains an inspiration to many women in Westeros; in Thrones, Arya names her direwolf after the warrior princess.

In this scene in the godswood, Rhaenyra says that she doesn’t want to rule. She just wants to fly, explore, and eat cake. She even professes to want her father Viserys to have the son he’s always dreamed of. But other moments in this episode—like the little pauses she gives when Viserys talks about his “heir” or the way she shows Alicent that actually, yes, she has studied Nymeria—reveal the truth. Rhaenyra wishes to rule. Knowing all she can about Nymeria may help her in that.

So … who is Criston Cole?

You may have picked up on the idea that Criston Cole, the knight who unhorses Daemon at the tournament and catches Rhaenyra’s eye, is an important character. Harrold Westerling, the commander of the Kingsguard, tells Rhaenyra that Criston is a common-born son of a steward of House Dondarrion (you may remember Beric Dondarrion from Thrones). And as Alicent remarks, Criston is Dornish, as the Dondarrions rule over the region called the Dornish Marches, which separates Dorne from the Stormlands.

As can be seen from his performance in the tourney, Criston is an exceptionally skilled fighter, especially with his weapon of choice, the morning star. There’s little else to say about Criston at this point, but many knights in Westeros have improved their station with strong performances at important tournaments. Criston certainly got noticed at this one.

What was up with the Baratheons at the tourney?

The vote at the Great Council of 101 AC that we see in the opening scenes of this episode was not close. Though the exact count was never revealed, the rumor is that Viserys won by a margin of 20-to-1. The lords of Westeros really, really didn’t want the Iron Throne to pass through Jaehaerys’s female line.

Still, Rhaenys had some strong support on her side. (And, just to be technically correct, on her 7-year-old son Laenor Velaryon’s side. In Fire & Blood, she’s pushing his claim to be king through herself, not her own claim to be queen.) That included Corlys Velaryon, her husband and the wealthiest and arguably most powerful man in the realm at this time, outside of the Targaryen dynasty. It also included the Baratheons.

As previously noted, the Baratheons have strong ties to the Targaryens. They also, at this point in history, have strong ties to the Velaryons. Boremund Baratheon was the lord of House Baratheon at the time of the Great Council, and his mother was Alyssa Velaryon, who was probably an aunt or grand aunt of Corlys (Corlys’s parents are never named, so the Velaryon family tree is a bit murky). But the family connection goes even further, because Rhaenys isn’t just connected to the Baratheons on account of her marriage to Corlys. Her mother was Jocelyn Baratheon, the daughter of Alyssa and Boremund’s sister. That makes Rhaenys Boremund’s niece, and accordingly he threw his weight behind her at the Great Council. It wasn’t close to enough, but clearly the house’s support of Rhaenys hasn’t diminished nine years later.

That’s why Rhaenys calls Borros Baratheon (Boremund’s son, and the guy who asked for Rhaenys’s favor in the tourney) her cousin. Otto remarks to Viserys that he could have Borros’s tongue out for calling Rhaenys “the queen who never was” in public, while Viserys shrugs it off. “Tongues will not change the succession,” he says. “Let them wag.” Viserys is right—and Otto is kind of unhinged in jumping straight to dismemberment—but Otto’s wariness isn’t totally out of left field. The Velaryons are already a powerful family in the realm, and the Baratheons are strong allies.

What happened to the opening title sequence?

Don’t worry. It’s coming back next week.

Meanwhile, the cold open ended with a dragon sigil splashing onto the screen:

Only, this sigil isn’t the red dragon on a black field that represents House Targaryen. It’s a gold one.

Audiences should understand at this point that House of the Dragon tells the story of a civil war. Sigils are important in Westerosi warfare, because they let combatants know who is on whose side. But what do armies do when the war is between two sides of the same house, and both sides carry the same sigil? The answer is: Someone makes a change to avoid confusion. Without saying any more, let’s just say viewers should keep an eye out for this gold dragon making a return later in the series.

What the hell is up with this tapestry behind Aemma when she’s in labor??

I noticed this (as did some of the actors), so now you all have to, as well. This is the artwork Viserys and Aemma want to look at when their son is born???? THERE ARE DRAGONS IN THERE WITH THE HUMANS OH MY GOD.

Family Tree Watch

Welcome to the space where we’ll keep track of the tangle of branches this royal family calls a “tree.” In the opening of the premiere, we met King Jaehaerys, who ruled over Westeros for 55 years before succumbing to old age in 103 AC. He and his wife Alysanne (who, you guessed it, was also his sister) had a total of 13 children … yet somehow managed to produce no obvious heirs. That’s because Jaehaerys outlived 11 of those children. The only two still alive at the time of the Great Council were Vaegon, who had long ago set aside any royal ambitions to pursue a maester’s chain, and Saera, who was estranged from the family and lived across the Narrow Sea.

That makes many of the characters in Dragon Jaehaerys’s grandchildren, including Viserys, Daemon, and Rhaenys. If you’re wondering about the connections in more detail, here’s what it looks like on paper:

We didn’t really meet Laena and Laenor in this episode, but they are seen sitting in the royal box at the tournament and will become more central to the story later, so don’t forget about them. Rhea Royce, meanwhile, is the wife whom Daemon speaks so fondly of and is being forced to return to. Perhaps we’ll see her soon.

Next Time On …

Here’s your preview for “the weeks ahead”:

They are really leaning into Aegon’s prophecy. But my guess is that soon enough, that dream won’t be front of mind for even Rhaenyra. As Daemon says in this trailer, “Dreams didn’t make us kings.” The Long Night is nearly 200 years away. The war for the Iron Throne is about to begin.