Why House of the Dragon Was George R.R. Martin’s First Choice for a Game of Thrones Prequel
Exclusive: Ryan Condal, the co-creator and co-showrunner of House of the Dragon, opens up about being George R.R. Martin's handpicked writer for the Game of Thrones prequel, and why this will be Westeros' bloodiest era.
For many years, George R.R. Martin made it a point to look up Ryan Condal whenever the fantasy author was in Los Angeles. Often that meant on the weekends Martin was in town to pick up another Emmy for the latest season of Game of Thrones, he’d also squeeze in a beer, a coffee, or just a fond hello with the fellow genre writer. The pair had been friendly ever since Condal “stalked” Martin in his hometown of Santa Fe—in truth, Condal had invited him to dinner while shooting a pilot nearby—and through the years, they liked to exchange notes and trade barbs. But on a sunny day in 2018, Martin had more on his mind than simple words and wind.
“I thought we were just getting together socially,” Condal recalls in 2022, “but he said, ‘I need you to write a pilot for me. Would you be up for it?’” Martin had handpicked Condal to take over the Game of Thrones “successor show” the author was most excited about. He wanted Condal to help him create and run what became House of the Dragon for HBO. “Fireworks were going off in my head,” Condal smiles.
House of the Dragon, a prequel based on the ghastly Dance of the Dragons civil war, which pitted Targaryen against Targaryen, and literal dragon against dragon, was the event Martin first mentioned to HBO when they came to him around 2015 to discuss a possible successor to their flagship series Game of Thrones. However, HBO would go on to take a gardening approach while developing its spinoff(s) by commissioning several pitches. They even let Condal, who was then prepping his sci-fi series Colony, pitch an idea he had based on Martin’s Dunk and Egg novellas.
Before that day, Condal had already been a lifelong fan of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series (on which Game of Thrones is based) and the larger Westerosi world. He first read the earliest books after the third novel A Storm of Swords was published in 2000, discovering the saga while fresh out of college. At the time, he was only beginning to nurture dreams of becoming a screenwriter. And as Condal tells it, “I learned more from George’s prose writing than I was learning from reading screenplays.”
The two became acquainted in 2012, and Martin seemed eager to get Condal into Westeros ever since. While HBO was uninterested in a Dunk and Egg show in the mid-2010s, it was only after they struggled to launch a prequel they were happy with—first by passing on a previous House of the Dragon treatment from a different creative team and later by not sending to series a pilot based on the Long Night—that Martin flatly told the network, “Please hire [Condal], because he knows my books and he likes them.”
Now on the other side of managing the production of the first season of House of the Dragon in England, Spain, and other locales, Condal is still very grateful and perhaps a little exhausted. Due to brushes with Omicron last December, the production lost about six weeks in its schedule, and when we catch up with the co-creator/executive producer, they’re currently in “the teeth” of finishing the series’ VFX ahead of its August premiere. Yet there’s an undeniable excitement in Condal’s voice while discussing the new show; he’s eager for fans to discover a different era of Westeros, one set about 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones.
“This is just a very decadent time,” Condal says. “It’s a moment of high wealth and greatness. The Targaryens have been in high power for a hundred years, and they’re really beyond reproach.” Indeed, the series picks up during the reign of King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), the grandson of the wise “Old King” Jaehaerys Targaryen, who ushered in five decades of peace and prosperity—and a time in which each of Viserys’ children, and those children’s children, ride a dragon whose fires can blot out the sun.
“When we were breaking the story in the room, we talked a lot about how this was akin to the United States at the end of the Cold War in 1990, 1991,” Condal says of his writer’s room, which includes Sara Hess and six others (as co-creator, Martin has access to outlines and scripts). “Their great enemy had fallen in the Soviet Empire, democracy had triumphed, and then they find themselves at the very top, this great superpower with all the nuclear weapons they could need, and it began this real period of high decadence. You’re coming in on this story just before the bloom starts to come off the rose… but they don’t know it yet.”
To demonstrate that grandeur, Condal and his co-showrunner, director Miguel Sapochnik (who helmed several of the most visceral Game of Thrones episodes), felt emboldened to develop a preening splendor that may look shocking to those accustomed to the wearied Baratheon court in Game of Thrones. The Iron Throne, for one, is now immense in size.
“If you think about our world, where obviously technology is moving much faster than it did back in this era, a lot changes in 200 years,” Condal explains. “A lot even changes in 200 years in medieval times. If you look at what’s going on in the year 1200 versus what’s going on in the year 1400, fashion, military, strategy, technology they’re all different. But the castles are still standing… So it’s anchoring the world in those things that don’t change, like the thousand-year-old castle that maybe gets a bit more patinated and older-looking as the years pass.”
Also, who lives in those castles can be strikingly different. Whereas Game of Thrones began in the 17th uneasy year of Robert Baratheon’s reign, House of the Dragon picks up 105 years after Aegon Targaryen I conquered Westeros and founded King’s Landing. It is there we’ll be introduced to a host of Targaryens of various political ambitions and a whole palace of new courtiers. Although, the one who promises to make the splashiest initial impression might be Prince Daemon, King Viserys’ younger brother and the rock star of King’s Landing. According to the co-showrunner, casting this role left only one option.
Says Condal, “Matt [Smith] is really the only person we talked about. We would say, ‘Like a Matt Smith or a Matt Smith type’ when talking about Daemon.” The series co-creator even likens the bad boy prince to a surprising figure from our own recent history. “I just absolutely loved his work on The Crown as Prince Philip, who somewhat ironically is a similar character. He’s the second fiddle, in that case to the Queen of England, his own wife, and is a bit adrift. [Daemon] is similarly a bit of a rogue prince trying to find his footing and place in this world.”
Yet, it’s not only Daemon’s story. As with Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon is a vast ensemble piece that will walk you through the bloodiest civil war in Westerosi history (be warned). Thus the hardest thing Condal and Martin faced when creating and outlining the pilot together was picking the exact moment to begin the series—and how to follow the lives of two young women whose families and society pushed them toward a decades-spanning rivalry.
“The trick with this story is it’s multi-generational,” Condal says. “It’s the story of generations within the storied Targaryen dynasty, and we had to figure out a way to convey the passage of time over these generations because it essentially starts with the fathers who then have daughters in Rhaenyra and Alicent, and then those daughters’ children are the ones who, as very young adults, get embroiled in the war.”
That’s why, unlike Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon will be nonlinear, jumping between events separated by about 20 years. This begins with the day Viserys names his firstborn daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock in her youth, Emma D’Arcy later) as his heir, even as he’s urged to take a second wife in hopes of producing a son. So enters Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey as a teenager, Olivia Cooke as an adult), daughter of the Hand. The series will then follow how that question of succession—and the misogyny of a realm’s lords who fear seeing a woman ascend the Iron Throne—can lead to war.
It is the non-conformist lives of these two women that will be the heart of the series.
“This show is about these two women who we meet in their youth when they’re in their mid-teens,” Condal explains, “and it tells the story of these two people who grow up in this deeply political world at the height of power and wealth and influence, and then the pressures that are put upon them by the patriarchal structure which they live in, making them head off into their own directions as they grow into women.” He pauses. “It is very much a story about a patriarchy told through the point-of-view of two women.”
As with Game of Thrones, that comes with its own historical parallels (the English Anarchy in lieu of the War of the Roses), and like those conflicts, there’s a dreary, timeless element about the power men wield to prevent women from claiming what should be theirs by rights. With such overlap, we ask Condal if he thinks audiences can draw parallels between Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen and Princess Rhaenyra, two women that men would go to war against before seeing on the Iron Throne.
He notes the would-be queens share literal DNA, the blood of the dragon, but adds, “Rhaenyra’s story is about trying to hold onto this thing that her family has built over a hundred years whereas Daenerys’ story is about trying to win back something that was lost. Rhaenyra is her own person who was born into this time of extreme power, wealth, and decadence whereas Daenerys was born a pauper because this dynasty fell—largely as a result of events in this story.”
House of the Dragon premieres Aug. 21 on HBO.