Dragons, horrifying murders, and gratuitous sex scenes? Yeah, we're thinking Game of Thrones is back.
House of the Dragon's series premiere brings the franchise back to basics, putting the chess pieces in place for another juicy battle for the throne. But it can be difficult to keep track of everything if you haven't read the books, especially considering we have two major characters with nearly identical names. So let's break down that brutal debut episode alongside some helpful context from the source material, George R.R. Martin's Fire & Blood.
We open with a crucial event that will define the series: About 200 years before Game of Thrones, King Jaehaerys Targaryen assembles a council at Harrenhal, where lords from across the realm are tasked with choosing his heir. The king's heir was his son Aemon. When Aemon died, his other son, Baelon, became heir. But then when Baelon also died, it wasn't clear who should be his successor.
There were a whopping 14 claims to the throne, but only two were seen as real possibilities: Viserys (Paddy Considine), the king's grandson and son of Baelon, and Rhaenys (Eve Best), the king's granddaughter and daughter of Aemon. (Fire & Blood describes how Rhaenys' claim was quickly rejected and her son, Laenor, was more seriously considered, but the show doesn't mention that.)
Ultimately, Viserys is selected, and Rhaenys is ruled out largely because she's a woman. This was Rhaenys' second time being passed over for the throne, according to Fire & Blood, as years earlier, Jaehaerys picked Baelon as his heir instead of her. Now, she's stuck with the hilariously brutal nickname of the "The Queen Who Never Was." After the Harrenhal council, it's believed a precedent has been set that the Iron Throne can't pass to a woman, and it can't even pass to a man through a woman, e.g. Rhaenys' son.
Waiting on a miracle
Cut to nine years into King Viserys' reign, and he and his queen, Aemma (Sian Brooke), have a precocious young daughter: Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock), who seems more preoccupied with dreams of riding into battle and flying dragons than becoming queen. Fire & Blood describes Rhaenyra, nicknamed the "Realm's Delight," as "cherished and adored by all," having become a dragonrider at seven and the king's cupbearer at eight.
But the great council's precedent would seemingly suggest a male heir must succeed the king. So when Aemma once again becomes pregnant after losing five children, Viserys puts all his faith into the notion that she'll finally give him a son — going as far as to assemble a week-long tournament in honor of a child who not only hasn't been born, but might not even be a boy. What could go wrong?
Aemma tells Rhaenyra that for women in Westeros, "the child bed is our battlefield," and in this case, it turns into a tragically bloody one. In a shockingly brutal sequence, Viserys, having learned that Aemma is unwilling to get pregnant again, lets her die during childbirth in hopes of saving his son … only for the boy, Baelon, to die anyway. History, therefore, is repeating itself: The king's son (again named Baelon) has died, prompting infighting over who is his rightful heir. Let the games begin.
A future mad king?
The most obvious candidate is the king's brother, Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), but he appears sadistic enough for that to be a troubling notion. "Until your mother brings forth a son," he arrogantly tells Rhaenyra while on the throne, "you are all cursed with me."
Daemon serves as commander of the City Watch and leads his armed "gold cloaks" in a series of horrifyingly cruel killings of alleged criminals, insisting that brutally dismembering them is totally necessary to clean up the streets. Though Viserys lightly chides Daemon, he seems surprisingly supportive of his brother's efforts. Fire & Blood describes how the king has always been "fond" of Daemon and "quick to forgive his many offenses," even if ultimately, he doesn't want Daemon to succeed him.
Daemon, by the way, isn't exactly the most loving of husbands. When Jaehaerys was king, he married the lady of Runestone, Rhea Royce. But he quickly began to dislike his wife and grow bored with Runestone, located in the Vale of Arryn. When Viserys became king, Daemon even tried to get his marriage set aside, according to Fire & Blood, but the request was denied. In the premiere, our mandatory gratuitous sex scene is between Daemon and Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), a dancer described in Fire & Blood as his favorite of the women he's come across as a regular brothel patron.
Daemon is also Princess Rhaenyra's uncle, and the premiere suggests their relationship is friendlier than you'd think given the show has set them up to both vie for the throne. Indeed, Fire & Blood points out that Rhaenyra was "enamored" with Daemon, who was "ever attentive" to her and brings her a gift every time he crosses the Narrow Sea. In this episode, Daemon presents her with a Valyrian steel necklace — "like Dark Sister," she notes, the famed sword passed down to Daemon by the previous king.
But by the end of the episode, Viserys is done forgiving Daemon after discovering that he delighted in the death of his son and mocked him as the "heir for a day." (Fire & Blood suggests a captain in the City Watch was the snitch). That leads the king to not only rule out Daemon as his heir, but order him back to Runestone with that wife he can't stand. Have fun!
The high towers
Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), meanwhile, hated Daemon before it was cool. The premiere establishes a rivalry between Daemon and the Hand of the King, and Otto is outraged over the prince's "unchecked impunity" killing criminals with his City Watch. Otto is a holdover from King Jaehaerys, whom he also served as Hand. "Many great lords and princes came to resent his manner and envy him his access to the Iron Throne," Fire & Blood says of Otto. He lobbied Viserys to remove Daemon from his previous positions as master of coin and master of laws, and he strongly feels the king's brother must not ascend to the throne, instead supporting Rhaenyra's claim.
"Daemon would be a second Maegor," Otto warns, referring to Maegor I Targaryen, Jaehaerys's predecessor who was dubbed "Maegor the Cruel." Daemon, meanwhile, escalates the feud by specifically choosing Otto's son to battle at the tournament, nearly killing him.
The premiere also establishes a key relationship between Rhaenyra and Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), Otto's daughter and best friend of the princess, with whom Rhaenyra studies and trades gossip. Amid all the succession drama, Otto urges his daughter to comfort the king in his chambers wearing one of her mother's dresses, something she's clearly uncomfortable doing. Keep a close eye on that and on Otto's motives for pushing those two together. According to Fire & Blood, Alicent previously became close with the prior king, Jaehaerys, to the point that he started mistaking her for one of his children in his old age. When Jaehaerys died, Alicent was reading to him.
The princess' favor
When the much-anticipated tournament comes, Daemon is embarrassingly defeated by a "mystery knight" named Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), a swordsman who forces him to yield. In Fire & Blood, it's said that defeating Daemon during a melee is what brought Criston to the court's attention, and he quickly "became a favorite of all the ladies at court" — including Rhaenyra, so expect to see more of him in the coming weeks.
The Sea Snake
Another key player is Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), the Lord of the Tides nicknamed the Sea Snake and described in Fire & Blood as the "greatest seafarer Westeros had ever known." Corlys's House, the Velaryons, are quite wealthy and have long been close allies of the Targaryens. He's married to Rhaenys, and Fire & Blood notes he was "bitterly disappointed" when she was passed over for the throne years ago. (In fact, the book says that when Jaehaerys picked Baelon as his heir over Rhaenys, Corlys was so mad, he quit the small council.)
So when the question of succession comes up, he attempts to politely point out Rhaenys would still be a strong candidate to be named heir — to no avail. Stop trying to make Queen Rhaenys happen ... it's not going to happen!
It's also worth remembering that early dialogue about an alliance among the free cities called the Triarchy, which is seeking to rid Bloodstone of pirates led by a prince admiral nicknamed the Crabfeeder. Corlys' concern about these off-screen events will become important soon.
May she reign?
The question of who Viserys will name heir is resolved by the end of the episode, as he officially picks his daughter, Rhaenyra. Daemon just had to go make fun of a guy's dead son. She seems relieved to no longer feel her father is disappointed in her for not being a boy. But is she ready to be queen?
Viserys also reveals to Rhaenyra that the very first king of the Seven Kingdoms, Aegon I Targaryen, foresaw "the end of the world of men" and a "terrible winter," foreshadowing the final battle of Game of Thrones. The show suggests Aegon's original conquest of Westeros, which led to creation of the Iron Throne in the first place, was actually driven by his knowledge that the White Walkers were coming and the realm would need to stand united against them. As every previous king has secretly been aware of this future "great winter," the revelation recontextualizes the entire history of House Targaryen and Westeros itself.
For now, though, it's safe to say that while Viserys may have made his succession decision, the battle for the throne is barely getting started.