SPOILER ALERT: This story contains a discussion of several major plot developments for the Season 1 finale of HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” currently streaming on HBO Max.
Ever since Ned Stark lost his head in the ninth ever episode of “Game of Thrones,” audiences have understood that death and tragedy spare no one in George R.R. Martin’s unforgiving fantasy world of Westeros. The season finale of the “Game of Thrones” prequel series, “House of the Dragon,” again proved that to be true.
To wit, in the episode, aptly named “The Black Queen,” after Rhaenys (Eve Best) informs Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) that King Viserys is dead and Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) have usurped her claim and placed Prince Aegon (Tom Gynn-Carney) on the Iron Throne, the shock of the news leads Rhaenyra to miscarry a stillborn baby on her own with no aid. Later, her husband (and uncle) Daemon (Matt Smith) abruptly chokes Rhaenyra when she mentions the Song of Ice and Fire, not realizing Viserys never told Daemon of it. And Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) finally returns from his long naval battle among the Stepstones to proclaim his house allied with Rhaenyra and the Blacks in her effort to regain the Iron Throne from the Greens.
Most shockingly, Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) taunts his nephew, Lucerys “Luke” Velaryon (Elliot Grihault), while on dragonback amid a raging storm — until Luke’s dragon, Arrax, and Aemond’s much larger dragon, Vhagar, go rogue and begin sniping at each other in defiance of their riders, leading to Vhagar eviscerating Arrax, and young Luke, with one bite. In the following scene — unfolding in single, wordless take — news of her son’s death pushes Rhaenyra away from her measured attempt to wrest back control of Westeros from the Greens, and into all-out war.
That conflict, known as the Dance of the Dragons, will consume the rest of the series starting with Season 2, which co-creator and executive producer Ryan Condal tells Variety will begin shooting in early 2023. (As for whether Season 2 will also premiere next year, Condal says that’s “to be determined.”) Unlike “Game of Thrones,” Condal — who is now the sole showrunner after Miguel Sapochnik departed the series after Season 1 finished production — has the benefit of knowing precisely how Martin intended this saga to end, as it all comes from Martin’s 2018 book “Fire & Blood.” But also unlike “Game of Thrones,” “Fire & Blood” is written as a history book, drawn from sometimes conflicting accounts by maesters who have, as Condal ruefully notes, “their own agendas.”
That has given Condal and his writing team license at times to veer far afield from how events were recorded, so to speak, in “Fire & Blood,” a conceit Condal uses a few times over in “The Black Queen.” He spoke to Variety from his London home about those changes, how the season finale pays off threads laid down at the very start of the show, what led to Daemon lashing out against Rhaenyra, and whether we should expect to see Cregan Stark and Daeron Targaryen in future seasons. (Also, hardcore fans and TikTokers please note: Condal pronounces those names as “Cray-gan” and “Dare-on.”)
Did you always know that Luke’s death was how you were going to end the season?
You didn’t explore any other endings?
Maybe, at some point? But no, I looked back at the original bible that I wrote for the series back in May of 2019, and that was in there as the endpoint. It just felt like the one-two punch of Viserys dying, the Greens seizing the throne and telling that story from Alicent’s team’s perspective, Rhaenyra’s team finding out and putting in place the engines of war and then setting the dragons off and having this horrible thing happened over Storm’s End — the story is called the Dance of the Dragons. To kick off the war/end the first act of our story with the first dragons dancing seemed to be the right dramatic place to leave everybody off.
In the book, Aemond means to kill Luke. So how did you decide to shift it to an accident instead?
Historians have told us that Aemond intended to kill Luke, but I don’t think any of them could purport to know what was going on in Aemond’s head the time. And I would also dispute the word “accident” a bit. I mean, Aemond got on his giant dragon and chased his nephew on his much smaller dragon through the clouds screaming and yelling at him, incensing his dragon and starting a fight. He didn’t know how Arrax or Luke were going to respond, and it ended in tragedy. I don’t think that was what Aemond intended when he threw his leg over the saddle, but he did a horrible, dangerous thing. That is the point: This is a war of many cuts that lead to a really, really bloody wound. It adds complexity and nuance to the character that’s potentially interesting. There’s lots of runway to go on with Aemond as a character and the story of the Dance. This is his first act as a dragon rider and a warrior and it’s gone very wrong. Now what happens as a result, and how does he respond? Those are the questions I’m interested in as dramatist.
Along with Alicent’s misunderstanding of Viserys’ deathbed ranting about the Prince Who Was Promised, is that something that we should be expecting through the run of this show: critical events unfolding as much by tragic happenstance as by clear intent?
We’re trying to make this as much like a real history is possible, and history is messy. The pieces for the Dance of the Dragons were put into place a long time ago. Whether or not Viserys has that conversation or doesn’t with Alicent, very likely the next morning they’re still having the same meeting. And I don’t know that Alicent actually has the power at that point to put a stop to them. So it’s more about how Alicent reacts to it. Her counsel, obviously, had this whole plan that they concocted without consulting her, you know, to find Aegon and place him on the throne. So does history change if that [conversation] doesn’t happen? Maybe things play out a little differently, I don’t know.
What we’re fascinated with, on a meta narrative level with this story, is showing how messy and unreliable history is. I mean, this is a book written by one author with an agenda trying to filter through the accounts of three other authors, all with their own agendas. And were expected to take the one true history out of this book? No. The thing that George is laughing at on the side is how anybody can read “Fire & Blood” and think that this is the one true official account of anything. It’s an expression of this story. There are things that happen in it that are very well documented and are real, and there are other things where there are huge gaps and we don’t know quite why this happened or who quite who this character was. Our story is trying to apply the whys, and the nuances to it. So I think there are things that are can be perceived as accidental are not quite as intended in real history, and that will happen in the show. But there’s plenty of instances through Season 1 where that thing happened exactly as was intended, and then you see the results.
Another example of that is, in the book, Rhaenyra pushes for war immediately, but she errs on caution on the show. At one point, she even says she doesn’t want to rule over a realm of smoldering ash — was that meant as a nod to Daenerys laying waste to King’s Landing at the end of “Game of Thrones”?
I mean, we’re writers. There’s a meta literary narrative going on at all times. Whether that was intentional or not, you know, take it as as you will.
But certainly, we want all of our characters to be as nuanced and complex as possible, and while there will be times when people are faced with a situation and come out with a clear decision, this did not feel like the time for it. Rhaenyra is very upset. She’s learned all in the space of a few minutes that her father has died, that her former best friend has betrayed her, and her evil stepbrother has usurped her claim to the throne. It upsets her enough that she has a miscarriage. She’s going through a whole lot in this episode, but I don’t think the Rhaenyra that we’ve seen up to this point would would believably just turn immediately and say, you know, “Launch all the nukes, we’re going to war.”