As you’ve likely heard by now, Jane Goldman’s Game of Thrones prequel, tentatively titled “The Long Night,” is dead, and Ryan Condal’s Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, is going straight to series. Long live the Game of Thrones prequel. This news was met with much fanfare by WarnerMedia, who made it the crown jewel of its HBO Max presentation. The series, which is getting a full 10-episode order out of the gate, will pull liberally from George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood and dive deep into the history of House Targaryen.
These tidings have traveled across the internet faster than news of Jon Snow’s true parentage. And yet, what it means is only beginning to be grasped, as is perhaps why HBO elected this to be its first Game of Thrones spinoff to see airwaves and streaming after putting at least six pilot pitches into development. What news has thus far been unspooled about House of the Dragon suggests it will be based on the origins of House Targaryen, as well as the beginning of its decline, as chronicled in Fire & Blood. But here’s the rub: Fire & Blood is not really a narrative, or at least it’s not a singular one like the five published books in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.
Published in 2018, Fire & Blood is actually a history compendium of the beginning of Targaryen rule in Westeros. Acting like a historical text of half the known history of the Targaryens—as it ends roughly 150 years before the events of Game of Thrones—Fire & Blood chronicles several generations of Targaryen monarchy, beginning with Aegon the Conqueror’s conquest of what became the Seven Kingdoms and ending in the aftermath of “The Dance of Dragons” civil war a hundred years later.
While the series will be pulling from the whole book, it is apparently the Dance of Dragons that House of the Dragon will specifically mine for characters and storylines. This is a wise choice, as adapting Fire & Blood straight would mean each season might focus on a different generation or era. Also building to the Targaryen civil war, and then reveling in the carnage for subsequent seasons, returns to what global audiences generally agreed on was their favorite aspects of Game of Thrones: political intrigue, massive battles, and dragons.
Historically remembered as the “Dance of Dragons,” that Targaryen civil war lasted three years and pitted Aegon II against his half-sister Rhaenyra for the Iron Throne after the death of their father, Viserys I. Rhaenyra was the lone child of Viserys to survive to adulthood after his first marriage, and she was named his successor. But upon becoming a widower, Viserys remarried and had several more children, including a son named Aegon. Sure enough, lords plotted against Rhaenyra after Viserys’ death, as did Aegon’s own family which sought to put him on the throne.
This led to dueling coronations and a civil war that bears much similarity to an English civil war known as “the Anarchy.” That spanned more than a decade in the 12th century after King Henry I, the son of William the Conqueror, died without a living son. He named his daughter Mathilda heir, yet his nephew Stephan claimed the throne with the support of many lords, eventually leading to Mathilda—who by this time was a married empress in the Germanic lands—to invade England and attempt to claim the throne for herself and her son. The resulting anarchy is the alleged reason Henry VIII worried centuries later about not having a male heir, though a perfectly healthy daughter, and broke with the Catholic Church to secure his first divorce.
It is certainly a setup rich with dramatic palace intrigue and filled with a variety of characters who died by murder, execution, and on the battlefield. It also may look a lot like the “War of the Five Kings” that formed the backbone of the first four seasons of Game of Thrones, which in hindsight appear the strongest in the series’ whole run. And its familiarity may be the point.
When Jane Goldman’s The Long Night was announced, it promised a major departure from what we understand Westeros to be. Set in the expansive era known as the “Age of Heroes,” there was massive wiggle room for Goldman to go her own way, given our knowledge of those distant times are intentionally vague and likely embellished by folklore in Martin’s universe. It was a time when Children of the Forest still walked in evergreen land with earthly feet, and when the Starks had yet to legitimize their claim over the whole North by building the mysterious Wall that kept White Walkers out. Westeros wasn’t seven kingdoms but hundreds; the Lannisters and Tyrells were but paupers in kingdoms ruled by the Gardeners and Casterlys; if the Targaryens did exist, they were but one family of many great houses and dragon riders in Old Valyria, an ancient Roman-like city far advanced beyond Westeros; and the series promised to explore Sothoryos, the mysterious African-like continent in Martin’s world that is said to have creatures we’d consider dinosaurs roaming plains.
In short, it would’ve been a very different show from Game of Thrones and explored corners of Martin’s universe that even he has barely mapped out. It was the chance to do something extreme with the material. Now we can only speculate as to why that pilot died and House of the Dragon went straight to series, and there were apparently rumors of a troubled production on The Long Night pilot, however you cannot help but wonder if it offered such a drastic departure from what we know that HBO decided to opt for something closer to home.
When House of the Dragon was first reported on last September, it was suggested it would be focused on a period 300 years ago, which would’ve been specifically the Targaryen conquest of Westeros. It is apt to avoid that direction considering there is little dramatic tension in an army with dragons smiting one legion of foes after another. Also if audiences were turned off by the Game of Thrones ending that saw series icon Daenerys raze King’s Landing, how would they feel about a series revolving around such Targaryen slaughter?
Instead HBO wisely opted for a period of civil unrest where both armies have dragons. They also are leaning into Daenerys Targaryen’s aforementioned iconography. Achieving an almost impossible thing in the age of Peak TV and streaming, Game of Thrones captured the imagination of the world with its grand cinematic visions of medieval warfare, and with the moral ambiguity of real historic-like figures vying for power by any means necessary. But to many viewers, it is probably fair to say that the mental image Game of Thrones leaves behind is that of Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen sitting proud on the back of a dragon, delivering Valyrian gibberish to enraptured armies with sun or snow drifting through her platinum hair. It was, in fact, the inversion of this image where the speeches became fascist, and the carnage her dragons unleashed was no longer fun, that infuriated many about the final two episodes of Game of Thrones.
HBO has now opted to have an entire series dominated by not one fair-haired Targaryen warrior, but nearly a half dozen of them. There will be dragons, burning armies, and we haven’t even gotten to the incest! If you thought Jon and Dany was creepy, watch out for Targaryens in their prime…
Yet, without seeing either series, it feels a bit like a missed opportunity to really explore new corners of Martin’s vast world. His vision extends beyond the civil wars of Westeros and includes cities of shadow with Lovecraftian deities and whole continents yet unexplored. Even among the Westerosi civil wars, the Blackfyre rebellions of about 90 years after House of the Dragon’s setting had a unique quality. Closer to Martin making a high-fantasy, medieval riff on the attitudes and tensions erupting during the American Civil War, the war between the “red” and “black” dragons, and the Lost Cause legacy they left behind, is quite different from the wars we saw on Game of Thrones. However, those rebellions were missing dragons…
House of the Dragon has every opportunity to be amazing, and as a fan of this world and Game of Thrones—yes, even after the last season—I am certainly rooting for it to be just that. But in the age of intellectual property convergence, it is fair to hope that this isn’t a dance we’ve done before.