When Ryan Condal found out he’d be co-showrunning “House of the Dragon,” the highly anticipated prequel series to “Game of Thrones,” he had a moment of elation followed by a moment of immense pressure.
“It went from, ‘Oh, this is interesting’ to, ‘Oh my God, I think they’re actually going to pursue making this very quickly,’ which is great,” Condal told TheWrap during a panel for TheGrill. “But then I think the pressure is just realizing that you have to follow the Beatles, and how the hell do you follow the Beatles? And the answer is you don’t. You just make your own thing and hope that people will come along and watch it.”
People have come along and watched it. “House of the Dragon” scored the largest single-day debut for a series in HBO Max history and has earned critical and audience acclaim as its first season has continued these last few weeks.
Set 200 years before the events of “Game of Thrones,” it tells the story of the beginning of the end of the Targaryen reign, based on George R.R. Martin’s “Fire and Blood.” 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.
During TheGrill panel, Condal discussed the decision to take inspiration from “The Crown” and recast the roles multiple times throughout the first season in order to cover a lot of ground. It was a risk, but one that appears to have worked.
“We looked at what ‘The Crown’ did and really admired it. And I think it’s one of the shows that certainly I, as the showrunner and lead writer, when we’re in the room pointed to ‘The Crown’ as one of our references in terms of the kind of drama that we were aspiring to create,” Condal explained. “And I think an aspiration just in terms of what I think is a high watermark in the art form. ‘The Crown’ is very successful at taking well-known characters and then recasting them. They did it between seasons, we did it in the midst of the season. I think that was the big thing is just doing it midseason with a brand new show and trusting that the audience would sink their teeth into the characters and then stay with you as you swap them out. And so far, I think it’s paid off.”
Condal’s original pitch to HBO for a “Game of Thrones” spinoff was much smaller in scale, though it covered similar ground.
“Everybody knows at this point that I was a super nerd for George R.R. Martin’s world and I’ve read his books multiple times, and particularly ‘Dunk and Egg’ which, other than the original books, was my favorite of his. It happened in Westeros and it was a different story. It’s a completely different tone and feeling, and two years before I actually got this job I had pitched that to HBO,” Condal explained of the tale of the realm’s future Lord Commander and a young Aegon V Tagaryen. “I still, frankly, love the idea of that story as a counterpoint to the original ‘Game of Thrones’ and to what we’re doing, because it’s more of a ‘Lone Wolf and Cub.’ It’s more of ‘The Mandalorian’ versus the original ‘Star Wars’ where it’s just two guys making their way through this very complex and dangerous and highly political world that aren’t necessarily political themselves, which I always thought was interesting as an adventure tale to tell in Westeros.”
Condal describes “House of the Dragon” as a “Greek tragedy” in contrast to the “sprawling Homeric tale” of “Game of Thrones,” and Season 1 is giving us all the backstory to Rhaenyra and Allicent’s relationship ahead of the bloody civil war to come.
“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 executive produced Season 1 with “Game of Thrones” veteran producer and director Miguel Sapochnick, said. “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.”
The showrunner said it was important to have a representative cast and crew while telling the story of two women, and also outlined the decision – “controversial” in some fan circles – to make the Velaryons Black.
“I think the reason that it’s been a successful choice – I mean, not everybody’s ever going to be happy – is because it was thought out, it wasn’t just done perfunctorily or wasn’t just done to tick a box or to be seen as progressive or to be seen as somebody that’s covering the bases or anything like that,” Condal explained of casting Black actors in the roles of the Velaryons, particularly the Sea Snake himself Lord Corlys, played by Steve Toussaint.
“It’s 2022, it’s a different era than the one the shows used to be made in, we have an incredibly diverse audience that’s not only across America, but in multiple countries that speak all sorts of different languages that represent all the colors under the sun,” he continued. “And it was really important to see some of that reflected up on screen. This is a fantasy world. I think if this was a historical fiction piece, it’d be a more nuanced discussion. But I think simply because of the fantasy world, if we believe in dragons and shapeshifters and direwolves, we can believe everybody in the story is not white.”
Condal even touched on the show’s supposed rivalry with Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings,” saying that as long as more high quality fantasy TV shows are being made, he’s happy.
“I don’t think that somebody watching ‘Rings of Power’ means they’re not watching ‘House of the Dragon,’ I don’t see it that way,” he continued. “I see one feeds the other, and I think the more good quality genre entertainment on television the more it’s gonna draw in the general public who might not be so predisposed to watching this.”
And while Condal doesn’t see “House of the Dragon” running for as long as “Game of Thrones” did (“I don’t think this series has as much mileage to be mined out of it”), the future of Westeros on HBO is bright.
“As long as there’s a willing audience, there is plenty of Targaryen to come.”
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