“House of the Dragon” had an incredibly high bar to clear. Not only was it following in the footsteps of the juggernaut that was “Game of Thrones,” but in contrast to other TV sequels or spinoffs, this prequel had zero character crossover beyond the Targaryen name. It’s an all-new cast of characters in a very different Westeros, and getting viewers to care about that was not a given.
And yet, HBO’s “House of the Dragon” is a massive success. In addition to widespread critical acclaim, it debuted to 9.99 million viewers on its first night — the largest single-day debut for a series in HBO Max history. And that success both critically and commercially is due to the innovative creative decisions made by showrunner and co-creator Ryan Condal and his team.
In telling the story of the beginning of the end of the Targaryen reign, centering the show on two women was already “baked into the DNA” (as Condal put it), thanks to George R.R. Martin’s books. The series focuses on Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (played by Milly Alcock in the first five episodes and Emma D’Arcy in the latter half of the season as the character reaches adulthood) and Queen Alicent Hightower (Emma Carey and later, Olivia Cooke), childhood best friends whose bond breaks under the weight of politics and tradition.
“What we did was decided to go back deeper into their history and tell the story of these two women as young girls and make them peers that had grown up together and were quite fond of each other and had a close friendship, only to have it broken apart by the male pressures around them,” Condal, who exec-produced Season 1 with “Game of Thrones” veteran producer and director Miguel Sapochnick, told TheWrap. “The pressure of the patriarchy, particularly their fathers, who both have political responsibilities in their life, and in this world where marriage is duty and power, seeing how those pressures get applied to them in their lives, and then seeing how it busts them apart.”
One of the biggest burdens that the show’s female characters face is bearing heirs. To more accurately depict childbirth in all its wrenching pain and gore, Condal knew a woman’s perspective behind the camera was critical.
“That was always really important to me and to HBO, to have a fully represented cast and crew in front of and behind the camera,” Condal said. “My writing partner in the show, Sarah Hess, who I’ve made no secret about — I could not have done the show without her. She was the very first person that I recruited in the building of the writing staff because I knew I was making a show about two women. I have a wife, I have two daughters, I think I have forged through the female experience quite a bit as a man, but I am still a man. And I think it’s important to see that perspective from the inside of somebody who’s a woman, was a mother and had all these experiences that I could not. That I have seen from the outside, but not experienced internally.”
Another aspect of “House of the Dragon” that Condal and his team embraced is its intimate nature. For Condal (who previously created USA’s 2016 sci-fi series “Colony” with Carlton Cuse), if the sprawling, epic “Game of Thrones” was a “Homeric tale,” then the more contained prequel is Greek tragedy.
The intrigue unfolds around just one family, House Targaryen, which is populated with fascinating, morally dubious characters like Matt Smith’s mercurial Prince Daemon Targaryen, Steve Toussaint’s ambitious Lord Corlys Valeryon and Paddy Considine’s mild (and ailing) King Vicerys.
“It lets you live with individual characters more intimately than you would be able to in the original series simply because you have to serve more characters because it’s a story of diaspora, and following characters all over the map as they slowly come back together,” he said. “Whereas this starts with characters when they’re together and then slowly breaks them apart.”
As for why his show has struck such a nerve with audiences, Condal said, “I think the success of ‘House of the Dragon,’ if I have to put my finger on it, is offering up the same thing but in a different way to ‘Game of Thrones,’ because people come to ‘Game of Thrones’ now expecting a certain thing: They expect high political intrigue, they expect interesting, great characters who do unexpected but totally set up things all the time, and they want surprising storytelling. I think that comes from centering on, hopefully, well-drawn characters that you spend a lot of time with and get to know and then get horrified when they start making questionable decisions.”
Knowing the people of Westeros, there will be plenty more of those to come.