Game of Thrones’ first spinoff series, House of the Dragon, is finally here. But don’t expect to see any familiar faces. The show is set 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen and the events of Game of Thrones, the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Still, audiences will get to meet plenty of Daenerys’ ancestors.
House of the Dragon draws from Martin’s companion novel to the main series, Fire & Blood, which outlines the history of the Targaryen family. The show kicks off when a Targaryen king, Viserys, names an unexpected heir, a choice that eventually leads to civil war within the powerful family. Targaryen is pitted against Targaryen. Dragon against dragon.
But to understand why, exactly, the Targaryens are so willing to tear one another apart for a chance to sit on the Iron Throne—and how the lords of Westeros respond to this conflict—you have to recall some Westerosi history. Some of those lessons and legends were doled out in conversations between Game of Thrones characters as they discussed their forebears.
Here’s everything you need to remember before watching House of the Dragon.
When does House of the Dragon take place?
House of the Dragon is set 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen and tells the story of her ancestors, the dragon-riding Targaryen clan.
How did the Targaryens become so powerful?
To understand how the Targaryens first took the Iron Throne, we need to rewind several hundred years before the events of Game of Thrones.
Recall that the world of Game of Thrones is divided into two lands: Westeros to the West and Essos in the East. At this time, the Valyrians are the most powerful people in Essos because they are able to tame fire-breathing dragons, the most powerful weapon a ruler can have.
A woman named Daenys Targaryen has a terrible dream about a cataclysmic event that destroys Valryia. Her father, Aenar Targaryen, tells his fellow noblemen about this apocalyptic vision. As often happens with Cassandra-like figures, the Valyrians ignore Daenys’ warnings.
But Aenar heeds his daughter’s vision, gathers up the family and their dragons, and departs Valyria. They sail across the sea to an island where they construct the castle that comes to be known as Dragonstone. In Game of Thrones, Dragonstone guards the entrance to Blackwater Bay. Stannis Baratheon takes refuge there after the Battle of Blackwater until he heads to the Wall to help with the Battle of Castle Black. Dragonstone is also Daenerys’ first stop in Westeros when she finally makes her way across the waters after living in exile in Essos.
Twelve years after Aenar moves his family, Daenys’ dream comes true. Volcanoes erupt; the earth breaks open; Valyria is destroyed; and all its dragons are killed. The event comes to be known as the Doom of Valyria. The Targaryens, safe on Dragonstone, become the only Valyrians left—and the only people who can control dragons. Daenys comes to be known as Daenys the Dreamer.
How did the Targaryens take over Westeros?
A century passes. The Targaryens keep a low profile and work on building their castle at Dragonstone. Then Aegon I decides he wants to explore Westeros. He and his sister-wives (yep, really), Rhaenys and Visenya, take a ride on their dragons and scout out all the kingdoms. Aegon decides that he wants to unite the warring groups of Westeros and rule it all because he can. He builds the big table with a map of Westeros that we see Daenerys use at Dragonstone in Game of Thrones.
And so Aegon’s conquest begins. With three dragons, Aegon, Rhaenys, and Visenya handily defeat the houses of Westeros—with the exception of Dorne—and Aegon becomes king. Aegon takes all of his enemies’ weapons and constructs the incredibly uncomfortable-looking Iron Throne. He places it in a fortress that becomes King’s Landing, the spot where he first landed in Westeros.
How do we get from Aegon I to the characters on House of the Dragon?
The Targaryens are big on keeping their lines “pure,” which means they engage in incest. Unfortunately, as a result, about half the Targaryen offspring turn out relatively normal, and the other half turn out crazy and bloodthirsty. (See: Daenerys and her lunatic brother Viserys at the beginning of Thrones—though arguably Daenerys goes off the deep end by the end of the show, too.)
Aegon has a son with each of his sister-wives. The oldest, Aenys, is nice. The younger, Maegor, is not so sweet: Maegor kills his half-brother and takes the Iron Throne for himself. Maegor rules for six years, is awful, and eventually is discovered impaled on his own Iron Throne (ouch!). His nephew Jaehearys, son of Aenys, succeeds him.
Jaehaerys is the best king ever. He builds roads (including the King’s Road), a sanitation system, and infrastructure—which is boring but important. He and his wife have 13 children, all of whom sleep with dragon eggs in their cribs. Jaeherys’ eldest sons, Aemon and Baelon, are both good men and would make great rulers. But they both die before Jaeherys, forcing the king to choose an heir from among his grandchildren. The succession politics are complicated, but it basically boils down to whether he chooses a granddaughter or grandson.
And, finally, we’re ready to meet some House of the Dragon characters. Aemon’s oldest child is Princess Rhaenys (played by Eve Best in the series). Because Aemon was Jaehaerys’ eldest son, Rhaenys should be the obvious choice as heir. Unfortunately, all the lords in Westeros are super sexist and don’t like the idea of taking orders from a queen. So instead of giving her the Iron Throne, Jaeherys holds a meeting with a bunch of the lords called the Great Council of 101 AC. They decide that Baelon’s son Viserys (Paddy Considine) should inherit the Iron Throne instead.
Princess Rhaenys marries Lord Corlys Valaryon (Steve Toussaint), a powerful shipmaster who goes by the name the Sea Snake. He hails from a family that’s also Valyrian but left Valyria long before the Targaryens for trade purposes. Crucially, the Valaryons can’t ride dragons, but they have become key allies of the Targaryens since Aegon’s conquest.
So who are the players in House of the Dragon?
Decades go by, and Viserys turns out to be a pretty good king. But when it comes time for him to name an heir, all hell breaks loose. Eventually a civil war breaks out that comes to be known as the Dance of Dragons.
Viserys decides that his daughter from his first marriage, Rhaenyra, should inherit the throne. (A young version of Rhaenyra is played by Milly Alcock in the show, the older version by Emma D’Arcy.) This declaration doesn’t go over well with the aforementioned misogynist lords of Westeros who point to Jaeherys passing over Rhaenys as a precedent for male succession. The state of succession law in Westeros is fuzzy on this point, and the situation becomes contentious. Still, Rhaenyra grows up expecting to inherit the throne.
Meanwhile, Viserys’ brother Daemon (Matt Smith), a great warrior, wants the Iron Throne for himself. He will ally himself with whoever he can for power.
Rhaenys comes to be known as “The Queen Who Never Was” by the time House of the Dragon begins. She may or may not still have a chip on her shoulder about being passed over for the throne—and advice to dole out to another potential female heir.
Rhaeyns marries Lord Corlys Valaryon, who is known as Sea Snake, and left Valyria earlier than the Targaryens. He’s a shipmaster, and can’t ride dragons. He sticks close to the Targaryens since Aegon’s conquest.
The Hightowers are a wealthy house whose seat of power is in Old Town, and at the beginning of the series Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) is the Hand of the King. (This is the same position that Ned Stark had for King Robert Baratheon at the beginning of Game of Thrones).
His daughter Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey and Olivia Cooke, in the two different timelines) becomes Viserys’ second wife. When she bears him children, the line of succession becomes more complicated.
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