'House of the Dragon' fires up Targaryens Matt Smith and Emma D’Arcy as Westeros returns

The 'Game of Thrones' prequel soars high with an explosive combination of secrets, alliances and burning desires

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One thing is very clear from the first scene of HBO’s House of the Dragon. This is a story about family.

While the Targaryens may not be the most conventional family, they are the most powerful. And, power is the central source of desire and motivation for a new set of characters, intricately linked through blood, marriage and lofty alliances.

“They eat, they sleep, they bleed, they feel pain, fear, they feel exposed,” Matt Smith, who plays Prince Daemon Targaryen, tells The National. “For all the madness and the extremes they go to, they are human beings.

"They experience all of the foils and are fallible, just like any normal human beings feel. They are experiencing normal family life as they know it.”

As is to be expected from the prequel to Game of Thrones, the minutiae of family dynamics and how they intersect with power is the driving force of the show.

While this theme was also central to the original Westeros series, House of the Dragon takes an intimate look at the immediate and lasting effects of the fight to sit on the Iron Throne.

Set to be released in the UAE on August 22, the trailer has already generated more than 18 million views since being released four weeks ago.

The series is set 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones. Its plot details the complex web of deep-seated rivalries between the many great houses of Westeros, with the central issue being the question of rightful royal succession.

During this time, the Targaryens are at the height of their dominance, with 17 dragons under their control. But with this power comes great vulnerability.

Due to unforeseen events, the current King Viserys (Paddy Considine), who has ruled the Seven Kingdoms for nearly 26 years, names his firstborn, Princess Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy and Milly Alcock), as his sole heir.

The councilmen of Westeros aren’t pleased with their King’s choice, firmly believing a woman cannot sit on the Iron Throne. While Princess Rhaenyra is determined to claim her birthright, she is not alone.

Her uncle, Daemon, ambitious and prone to extreme acts of violence, stakes his own claim to the throne. Complicating matters further, Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke and Emily Carey), Princess Rhaenyra's childhood best friend, marries King Viserys and later conceives a son — stirring up her own desire for the Iron throne.

And, so the stage is set for a story akin to a Shakespearean tragedy, with dragons.

The challenge of staying true to the universe of Game of Thrones, while establishing a new identity, fell to the creators, Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik.

“I think its populating that world with interesting and specific characters that each have their own wants and needs and ambitions and desires and loves and hatreds and painting it on this amazing canvas that George R R Martin created of Westeros,” Condal says.

“Letting those different elements, the world-building and the character creation, interplay in such a way to present something that feels new and fresh and leans into the idea that feels like you’re in a similar place until suddenly you take a left turn and you’re not.”

Scroll through the gallery below to see the real-life filming locations in the show

As the characters take their positions, the audience is faced with a powerful question: whose side are we on?

Good and evil, right and wrong, war and peace — these themes are never black or white in the Seven Kingdoms. They also live poignantly, if not violently conflicting, within the characters of the show.

Aside from a thoughtfully conceived and highly immersive world — beautifully filmed with a plot that is both satisfying and gratuitously violent — it was the flawed characters who audiences obsessed over in the original show.

“I think all the characters are flawed because they reflect real people,” says Alcock, who plays a young Princess Rhaenyra. “Ultimately people are going to hate Rhaenyra as much as they love her.”

Carey, who portrays young Alicent Hightower, shares Alcock’s thoughts, saying: “That’s what takes them from characters on paper to complex human beings, with emotions, experiences and character progression that changes over time.

“There’s so much more to these two women, which is why I think it was important to bring them in when they were much younger to show how they will become the women they are expected to be.”

Milly Alcock as Young Rhaenyra, Emily Carey as Young Alicent. Photo: HBO

The world in which House of the Dragon is set is more archaic than the one audiences are familiar with in Game of Thrones — which is made clear through the patriarchal system, which acts as the central point of resistance for Princess Rhaenyra.

“She’s [Princess Rhaenyra] lived her whole life with this constant conversation that her mother needs to have a son,” says Alcock.

“She’s been born into the world knowing that she isn’t enough as she is. By nature, she is quite a strong person and has a palpable power that sits within her. And, so she devotes herself to proving that she’s just as good as a man.”

It’s within this dichotomy between freedom and tradition, strength and vulnerability, that Princess Rhaenyra’s story breeds, and ultimately seeps into the lives of other characters, shaping events that will forever change the fate of the Seven Kingdoms.

D’Arcy, who plays the adult Princess Rhaenyra, found another divide within the character's contrasting elements.

“Rhaenyra’s strength is that everything in her life is to do with a question of identity,” says D’Arcy. “And, so in answering a political question, she’s simultaneously answering an identity question. That desire to be known is really powerful in all of us."

Princess Rhaenyra’s father King Viserys, wonderfully played by Considine, is another figure whose opposing traits paint a multifaceted character.

“I loved him from the first episode,” says Considine. “With all the best characters I’ve ever played, when you read the script, even though there is a lot work to do, you can kind of see them. And I saw Viserys and I thought he was a character with a lot of depth. As an actor that’s all you want to play."

Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen. Photo: HBO

Considine reveals his own feelings toward Viserys helped him craft a fully fleshed-out character on screen.

“It used to secretly annoy me that people perceived him as being weak and vulnerable because he's not,” he says. “That started to make me angry. As a result of that, I started getting a bit angrier and less tolerant, as a character. He’s a dragon and we need to see that too.”

In spite of their identical silver hair, not all Targaryens are the same. However, they are all dragons with a lust for power.

Whether loved, hated, feared or respected, there is a strong sense of loyalty and ownership among fans on how characters from the world of George R R Martin are expected to be portrayed.

And, here is where House of the Dragon has succeeded. We meet a family, who, while they ride dragons and rule over kingdoms, are unhappy, flawed, vulnerable, likeable and eerily relatable.

Scroll through the 'House of the Dragon' world premiere — in pictures

Updated: August 22, 2022, 9:58 AM
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