August 21, 2022 10:07 PM EDT

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the first episode of season 1 of House of the Dragon

The Iron Throne was a potent symbol in Game of Thrones. But House of the Dragon elevates the seat of swords to an even greater level of prominence. Unlike the sprawling Thrones, which traced the stories of several prominent families in Westeros, House of the Dragon is almost entirely set in King’s Landing. The more focused series sets its eyes on a single clan: The Targaryens.

When the show begins, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) has no obvious successor. His only child is a girl, Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), and his council does not believe that Viserys’ scheming brother Daemon (Matt Smith) is fit to rule. Though Viserys’ wife is carrying a baby boy and potential heir, both baby and mother die in a rather traumatic birth at the end of the first episode.

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Deamon upsets the king by toasting the death of the nephew who would have impeded Daemon’s path to becoming king himself. While rebuking his brother, Viserys cuts his finger on the Iron Throne. It seems like a small moment, but it carries heavy symbolic significance: In the mythology of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin’s book series upon which Game of Thrones was based, the Iron Throne can judge character and reject kings it deems to be unfit.

Here’s what you need to know about the history of the Iron Throne and why Viserys slicing his finger is an important plot point in this series.

How the Iron Throne came to be

Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen and Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen in <i>House of the Dragon</i> (Ollie Upton—HBO)
Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen and Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon
Ollie Upton—HBO

When Aegon Targaryen conquered and united the Seven Kingdoms, he built himself a fearsome throne made of the weapons of his vanquished enemies. The Iron Throne is not a comfortable seat. It’s filled with jagged edges and whoever rests upon it must be careful not to make any sudden motions or else risk injury or even death.

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That’s the point. Aegon believed that a king should “never sit easy.” As Game of Thrones taught us, sitting on the throne is a dangerous proposition.

A brief history of kings cut by the Iron Throne

Helen Sloan—HBO

The people of Westeros believed that when the throne cut a king or queen it was a sign that the seat of power was rejecting the monarch, deeming them unfit to rule.

Targaryen ancestor Maegor the Cruel—a monstrous ruler who killed his own brother Aenys to claim the kingdom—was found bloodied and dead in his throne room, sliced by the sharp edges of Iron Throne. (Or that’s how the legend goes anyway: Some suspect that Maegor was murdered.)

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Daenerys Targaryen’s father Aerys II, known as the Mad King, was cut so many times that he earned another nickname: King Scab. “Yet still the blades tormented him, the ones he could never escape, the blades of the Iron Throne,” writes George R.R. Martin in A Feast of Crows, a book in his Song of Ice and Fire books upon which Game of Thrones was based. “His arms and legs were always covered with scabs and half-healed cuts.”

Crucially, characters in Martin’s stories tend to hurt themselves on the chair in moments of high emotion. Joffrey suffers an injury on the Throne in a moment of fury. “One man calls out defiant, and Joffrey has Ser Ilyn take him away for execution,” writes Martin. “Another man jumps up and calls Joffrey a monster that must be destroyed. Joffrey gets agitated and calls for the man’s death, cutting himself on the Iron Throne in the process.”

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Sitting upon the throne takes a certain calm temperament but it also requires toughness. In the books, Tyrion Lannister worries about Daenerys occupying it before she’s come into her power. “If Daenerys is no more than a sweet young girl,” he says, “the Iron Throne will cut her into sweet young pieces.”

What Viserys’ injury may portend in House of the Dragon

Paddy Considine as King Viserys and Sian Brooke as Queen Aemma in <i>House of the Dragon</i> (Ollie Upton—HBO)
Paddy Considine as King Viserys and Sian Brooke as Queen Aemma in House of the Dragon
Ollie Upton—HBO

In House of the Dragon Viserys cuts his flesh just as he was banishing his brother Daemon from King’s Landing. A despondent Viserys, having just lost both his wife and son, responds to his brother’s goading with emotion rather than rationality and suffers the consequences.

While Viserys isn’t cruel like Maegor or Aerys II or Joffrey, he is indecisive and meek. As his brother Daemon is quick to point out, Viserys might not be suited for the responsibilities of ruling. The Iron Throne seems to agree.

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As various Targaryen’s vie for a spot upon the Iron Throne, watch carefully how the seat responds to its would-be occupants.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com.

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