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So, Uh, What Is House of the Dragon, Anyway?

Photo: HBO

Is something missing in your life, and is that thing preternaturally blonde actors riding CGI dragons? Then you’re in luck: Three years after Game of Thrones went off the air in infamy, HBO returns us to the world of Westeros with the premiere of spinoff House of the Dragon. What do you need to know before Ramin Djawadi’s score starts to swell Sunday night? Read on for a guide to the who-what-when-where-and-why of all things House of the Dragon.

What is House of the Dragon?

House of the Dragon is the first fruit of HBO’s long-germinating plan to expand the Game of Thrones universe beyond the titular series. It’s about the Dance of the Dragons, a Targaryen civil war that pitted sister against brother, uncle-husband against brother-husband, and dragon against dragon. (Also an entity entirely separate from the most recent entry in the Song of Ice and Fire novels, 2011’s A Dance With Dragons.) The bones of House of the Dragon’s story come from supplementary material George R.R. Martin released in the years since, including the history tome Fire & Blood and the novellas The Princess and the Queen and The Rogue Prince. Which means that, if you so choose, you can head to a bookstore right now and find out how it’s going to end. Considering the way Thrones wrapped up its run, that may be a good thing!

When is House of the Dragon?

House of the Dragon takes place in the century after Aegon the Conqueror first united the Seven Kingdoms, an era when the Targaryens were at the height of their power in Westeros — around 175 years before the events of Thrones. Unlike the original series, which more or less progressed in real time over its eight-season run, this new show will span over 30 years, covering the long-simmering family disputes that led to the civil war. (A few prominent characters will be played, The Crown style, by multiple actors over the course of the series, with two big re-castings occurring in the middle of season one.) It’s unclear at this junction when they’ll actually get around to the war, but if you waited five years for winter to come in Thrones, you can give it a season or two for the sweet dragon-fighting action to kick off.

Who is House of the Dragon?

This prequel centers on the court of the good-natured-but-vacillating King Viserys I (Paddy Considine), whose reign is troubled by that scourge of medieval monarchs, the lack of a male heir. Succession is split between two suboptimal candidates: his proto-fascist little brother, Daemon (Matt Smith), and his only child, the regrettably female Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock as an adolescent and Emma D’Arcy as an adult), a dragon-rider whom the House of the Dragon marketing team is clearly hoping will remind viewers of Daenerys Targaryen. Of course, if Viserys were to find himself with a living son, then there’d be a whole ’nother heir to account for, and what a mess that would be!

Also hanging around are the hand of the king, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) and his daughter, Alicent (Emily Carey, then Olivia Cooke), Rhaenyra’s closest friend; Viserys’s cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best), whose superior claim to the throne was passed over on account of her gender, and her husband, Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), a powerful naval commander; plus the usual Thrones mix of bearded British character actors playing lords, knights, and maesters. If you’ve read the source material, you’ll know that characters who begin the series at loggerheads may find themselves unlikely allies, while close friends may evolve into bitterest enemies. And since many of these people are Targaryens for whom incest is a fun family tradition, characters you might not think would get married to each other can totally get married to each other. I’d give you a family tree, but it might just look like a trunk.

Where is House of the Dragon?

Every episode of Game of Thrones began with a map that helped viewers get their bearings in this fantasy kingdom. House of the Dragon refrains from repeating this trick, not just because viewers likely already know their way around Westeros, but also because the majority of the action is confined to King’s Landing: palace intrigue in the Red Keep, jousting matches outside the city walls, and the obligatory orgies in the capital’s thriving brothels. Foreign policy does come into play around a set of islands called the Stepstones, a location we didn’t visit in Game of Thrones, but all you need to know is that they’re an archipelago connecting Dorne (which is not yet a part of the Seven Kingdoms) with the Free Cities, and they’re traditionally a haven for pirates.

Why is House of the Dragon?

The Ironborn have a saying, “What is dead may never die.” You could say the same about intellectual property. If Warner Brothers was capable of turning children’s books set in a magical boarding school into a CGI blockbuster about fighting Wizard Hitler, you can bet the studio wasn’t going to let that Thrones finale be the final word in the Song of Ice and Fire on premium cable — particularly when Martin had reams of supplemental material just waiting to be turned into more shows. HBO first considered a story set thousands of years before the events of Game of Thrones, but that series, working title Bloodmoon, was scrapped after its Naomi Watts–led pilot was deemed unsatisfactory. (A lucky break, perhaps, considering Amazon’s forthcoming Lord of the Rings prequel was basically the same pitch.) You can see why House of the Dragon proved more appealing: Though the characters and dragons are different, it’s the same struggle-for-the-Iron-Throne plot you remember from Thrones, with familiar themes (the brutality of medieval life, the challenges of navigating an intensely patriarchal society), too.

Still, the series faces its own hurdles. While Thrones was based on a set of novels, with all the characterization and interiority inherent to that medium, the books House of the Dragon is based on are written in the style of history textbooks. They feature little dialogue and few glimpses inside anyone’s heads. On one hand, that gives the show’s writers free rein to flesh out each character as they see fit; on the other, it means they have little support from the text, where even the most important figures might as well be mannequins.

Another potential issue: While the rooting interests in the War of the Five Kings were pretty clear (no matter how much we loved Tyrion, the war itself was always a “Starks good, Lannisters bad” situation), the Dance of the Dragons of the books is a little more morally ambiguous. Both sides have valid points, and both sides do terrible things. If the series maintains that black-and-gray morality, it may be slightly harder to hook new viewers into this story. But after seeing how the fandom reacted when their beloved Daenerys made her heel turn in Thrones’ final season, maybe they’re just trying to spare us the eventual cognitive dissonance?

How is House of the Dragon?

Sorry — you’ll have to wait for our official review for that one.

So, Uh, What Is House of the Dragon, Anyway?