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Pros/Cons: Breaking Down the ‘Game of Thrones’ Spinoff Shake-up

‘The Long Night’ is out, ‘House of the Dragon’ is in—has HBO made the right call in dumping its Naomi Watts–led White Walker origin story in favor of a series focusing on the Targaryens?

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What is dead may never die, but rises again harder and stronger. Just as one Game of Thrones spinoff met the King’s Justice on Tuesday, another series rose to take its place: HBO confirmed that it is moving forward with a full series order of House of the Dragon, a spinoff that will focus on the Targaryens.

The phrase “house of the dragon” appears only once in Martin’s books, in the first Daenerys chapter of A Game of Thrones. Dany is preparing for her marriage to Khal Drogo with a scalding-hot bath. Her thoughts paint a pretty good picture of what House Targaryen is all about:

They filled her bath with hot water brought up from the kitchen and scented it with fragrant oils. The girl pulled the rough cotton tunic over Dany’s head and helped her into the tub. The water was scalding hot, but Daenerys did not flinch or cry out. She liked the heat. It made her feel clean. Besides, her brother had often told her that it was never too hot for a Targaryen. “Ours is the house of the dragon,” he would say. “The fire is in our blood.”

This scene also plays out in the show, though the phrase “house of the dragon” is not dropped. The show’s tagline, “Fire will reign,” on the other hand, doesn’t appear in any of the books, including Fire & Blood. It appears to be an original phrase created for this new show. I guess “fire and blood,” the words of House Targaryen, would’ve been a little too passe at this point.

But beyond just the Targaryens, what will this show be about? In announcing the new series, HBO president of programming Casey Bloys said, “We look forward to exploring the origins of House Targaryen and the earlier days of Westeros.” That seems to hint at a show that encompasses more than just the Dance of Dragons, as was previously reported. Fire & Blood covers much more than just the Dance, so really any portion of Targaryen history could be on the table for this series. I’m still rooting for a series that begins with Aegon’s Conquest of Westeros and skips forward in time like a Westerosi version of The Crown, complete with dragons, magic, and incest.

There’s little more info than that, but still plenty to break down, so here are the pros and cons of House of the Dragon:

Pro: Dragons

The dragons in Thrones were great, but we really got only one good dragon-on-dragon battle, when the Night King showed up at Winterfell in Episode 3 of Season 8. Every other time they were deployed, the dragons were an overpowering force that burned everything in their paths: soldiers, ships, civilians, warlocks. The dragons were defeated only when Daenerys, uh, flew them directly into the path of giant crossbows or Night King javelins.

House of the Dragon could give us some serious dragon battles. I covered this some when the series was first rumored, but the Dance of Dragons alone would feature some of the coolest on-screen moments in TV history. Just ask any friend who is a huge Song of Ice and Fire fan what Aemond and Daemon did above the Gods Eye and watch their eyes light up. This is going to be fun.

Con: Dragons

If HBO canceled the show that wasn’t called The Long Night and green-lit this series solely because the latter concept features dragons, then it is dramatically misunderstanding the appeal of Game of Thrones. Thrones was at its best in the early seasons when the dragons were not the main focus of the series. If anything, Daenerys’s dragons were such a military advantage by the time she landed in Westeros that the writers had to twist the plot of the show into knots to keep her from just marching to King’s Landing and taking her throne. That spawned a ton of weird decisions and problems, from the heroes’ inexplicable decision to venture north of the Wall to Euron Greyjoy’s pinpoint accuracy with a scorpion.

Dragons will, obviously, play a large role in House of the Dragon. But this series will live or die on the strength of everything else—the writing, characters, world-building, etc.—that populates the world around its CGI beasts.

Pro: Fire & Blood Exists

Most of the best parts of Thrones were the ones that leaned most heavily into Martin’s original texts; if not the exact scenes line by line, then the basic narrative structure. Where The Long Night was going to create most of its story from scratch, House of the Dragon will have plenty to draw from.

Con: Not All of Fire & Blood Exists

Unfortunately, Fire & Blood is a two-volume series, but Martin has released only the first book. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: HBO adapts an unfinished series by writer George R.R. Martin into a big-budget television show on the assumption that he’ll finish his writing before the series ends. Yeah ... uh-oh.

The good news is that even if Martin never finishes the second volume of Fire & Blood, the broad strokes of what happens to House Targaryen is already in his novels. If this new series goes all the way up to Robert’s Rebellion, it won’t be a problem that Martin hasn’t written those chapters of Fire & Blood because we’ve been given tons of detail about that event in the main books.

Pro: No White Walkers

One of the problems with The Long Night was its immense distance from the original series. That show was set to take place 6,000 to 8,000 years before Game of Thrones, and would have explored the Children of the Forest and the White Walkers without any Targaryens or dragons in the mix. For all we know, there may not have been any Starks or Lannisters either—this was to be a very different Westeros.

While I’d love to learn more about the White Walkers, I’m not convinced that Martin himself has figured out all the details yet. And popular interest in the White Walkers has waned with the way their plot was bungled in the show’s final season. How much interest is there in the origins of the great White Walker threat that … was defeated in one night of battle?

House of the Dragon will be able to focus on the fantasy elements that have been well defined (dragons!) instead of the ones that are stuck in limbo (Walkers).

Con: We Know This Story

One of the main selling points that accompanied The Long Night was that “it’s not the story we think we know.” Set thousands of years in the past, that show was going to take a few bits and pieces of mythology from the Thrones world and fill in the rest with new material. That sounds daunting, but also pretty fun! The Long Night could have been anything—each episode would have brought a complete mystery with it.

But House of the Dragon will go back only a few hundred years, and most of it is already detailed in Martin’s book. Major Thrones heads will get to see a story they love come to life, but there won’t be many big surprises waiting.

Pro: Miguel Sapochnik

It’s important that Sapochnik is the co-showrunner of House of the Dragon because he came out and complained about being constrained when working on Thrones. In June, he told IndieWire he “was visually policed for the first three months of my shoot and it made the creation of ‘Hardhome’ really difficult because I pissed [Benioff and Weiss] off.” In that interview he went on to say that he would have “killed everyone” at the Battle of Winterfell, which is honestly exactly what that battle needed.

“I got to really question and argue with them,” he continued. “And I’ve learned with them when to stop arguing because there comes a point when they dig in and you just don’t want to be there.”

Sapochnik directed some of the best episodes of Thrones, including the all-time classic “Hardhome.” And most of the nixed ideas he’s talked about sound good, including this:

He shot a scene of Cersei and Tommen through bars, to symbolize being imprisoned. Then, in shooting Maester Aemon’s deathbed scene, Sapochnik graphically matched the cut, magically transitioning Aemon to his funeral pyre with his bed pillow still under his head.

Thrones could have used more instances in which it expressed its themes visually—but it wasn’t Sapochnik’s show. In House of the Dragon, he’ll have more creative freedom. And as the director responsible for so many of Thrones’ best battles, his involvement is confirmation that any of the incredible dragon fights that are adapted will be given the care they deserve.

Con: The Optics

Consider:

Westeros is a medieval world, so it’s difficult to avoid the violence against women that has been present throughout so much of the series. But Thrones often depicted that violence in a hamfisted way. (The camera lingering on Theon, painting him as a sort of victim while Ramsay rapes Sansa will always be one of the series’ lowest points.) The group leading this project isn’t the same as the one that led Thrones, but the demographics are, and that doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Con: The Straight-to-Series Order

The Long Night shot a pilot before HBO gave it the ax. As my colleague Miles Surrey pointed out, that the series was canned could be an indication that the pilot was really, really bad. At the very least, the pilot process brought to light some sort of problems that prompted HBO to look elsewhere for its Thrones spinoffs.

House of the Dragon won’t be put through the same vetting process. That might not mean a thing—there are experienced people helming the project, after all—or it could portend disaster. Before HBO signed on to Game of Thrones, it ordered a pilot from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. That pilot has never seen the light of day, but reports indicate that it was a complete disaster. Benioff and Weiss had to reshoot nearly the entire thing when the main series was green-lit, and they recast many of the major roles, as well. We’ll likely never see the episode, but there are glimpses of the calamity that have surfaced on the internet. Martin had a cameo, and he was dressed like this:

So, yeah: Pilots can be really important!

Pro: Martin Is Involved

Martin is an experienced television writer himself, and he wrote some of the better episodes of Game of Thrones, including “Blackwater” and “The Lion and the Rose.” And while Martin may not write much anymore, he sure is fantastic when he does. Seriously, if you like Thrones, go pick up Fire & Blood. It’s great. Having Martin on board can only be a good thing for House of the Dragon.

Con: Martin Now Has Another Project on His Plate

We are never getting Winds of Winter.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.