House of the Dragon

The Game of Thrones spinoff series House of the Dragon becomes a hit, reaching 29 million viewers per episode.


Lucy Wang

Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Prince Daemon embrace.

Luca D'Agruma and Lucy Wang

The Game of Thrones ending is possibly the worst ending of a TV show that ever existed,” wrote one fan on social media, “I am so angry right now.” In 2019, one of the most popular television series in history ended, leaving HBO without a flagship offering as fans were left reeling in disappointment. 

Now, three years later, fans have been asked whether to rejoin the Thrones universe with HBO’s new show House of the Dragon. The story is a prequel reaching back two hundred years to tell the story of the Targaryen civil war long before the dynasty lost the throne. Dragon is based on George R.R. Martin’s original fantasy novel, Fire and Blood, which was written in the form of a history book detailing the several hundred-year reigns of the Targaryens, and events were told through unreliable narrators from a biased point of view. Replicating the successes of the original series, Fire and Blood used ambiguity in the novel to explore the dynasty, building complex and interesting characters that exist in various shades of morality. 

At Dragon’s crux is the aptly named Game of Thrones: the struggle within a family over the crown’s succession. The show’s first episode opens with foreshadowing detailing the strife: nobles across the seven kingdoms choose the male Viserys (Paddy Considine) over his older female cousin, Rhaenys (Eve Best), as heir to the throne. This decision sets the tone for the rest of the show; as Rhaenys puts it: “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.”  

In addition to the fire-breathing dragons, atrocious death at the royal weddings, and sprinkles of incest, there are many other iconic themes in Thrones that returned in House of the Dragon.  “My favorite part of Game of Thrones is when they put characters in crazy scenarios where it’s so hard to know what the right thing to do is,” said philosophy instructor James Savage, “it’s so interesting to see what decisions the characters make.” Dragon centers around the relationship between Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy, who is the first non-binary person to play a main role in the Thrones universe) and Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), as they are forced to make delicate choices that balance family, power, and survival. 

Childhood best friends, the two women are driven apart by the power struggle over who will inherit the throne from King Viserys. Rhaenyra is named heir to the throne by Viserys, while Alicent and Viserys’ eldest son, Aegon, also had a claim to succession. Since childhood, Rhaenyra was always bold and rebellious, unfettered by the rules and tradition as she pursues the throne, while Alicent is indoctrinated by her own father, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the idea of duty, family legacy, and women’s place in this patriarchal society. Alicent slowly learns how to play the game of thrones as a woman, meaning sacrificing her own happiness in order to dedicate her life to giving birth to a son who will be the heir to the throne.  

“I liked Alicent Hightower’s whole plotline and the ideas it explored,” said junior Elyse Weaver, “such as how the patriarchy turns women against each other.” Alicent has always been taught to be obedience; she envies Ryaenyra for how much freedom she has because Alicent’s whole world is centered around marriage and her children, while Rhaenyra is as unruly as before and living her life freely; Rhaenyra seems to get away from the obligation of marriage for a while, and Alicent felt a sense of unfairness. Alicent is also influenced and manipulated by her father, Otto, to hate Rhaenyra for how “irresponsible and incompetent” she is as a princess and leader. The two best friends was eventually turned against each other by the patriarchy. 

Dragon intentionally explores the themes of sex and violence; the overarching theme of royal succession is illustrated with three agonizing birth scenes filled with shocking gore. Women’s role in this fantasy world is limited by marriage and raising children; Rhaenyra, who is initially opposed to the idea of marriage and does not want to be bounded by her duties, ended up going thorough multiple difficult childbirths. The predecessor show, Thrones, received considerable criticism for the show’s depiction of sexual violence, often used in ways viewers found unnecessary and tangential to the plot.  

People use women’s abuse for entertainment or shock value,” said Elyse. Luckily, it appears Dragon is charting a different path, once where though the showrunners don’t shy away from violence and trauma, they are always there to serve a point. In contrast to Thrones, the scenes of birth showcase the different struggles women in Martin’s universe face. The new angle seems to have found an audience. “Those are the scenes that are the most haunting. As haunting as it is, I am glad it was in there,” said James. 

Driven by the characters with hopes and flaws and elevated by the actor’s captivating performances, many fans look forward to season two with excitement. Overall, House of the Dragon has exceeded its expectations, beating back the haters who said they would never forgive HBO for the Thrones ending. 

HBO invested nearly $20 million (U.S.) in each of the show’s 10 episodes, making the series the most expensive on the platform’s lineup since Thrones. The money seems to have paid off–the premier notched nearly 10 million viewers, and HBO reported that each episode hit an average of 29 million viewers. The sudden success indicates continued investment into the series and the Thrones extended universe. HBO is currently working on a show about the iconic Thrones character Jon Snow and at least one animated show focusing on the Yi Ti dynasty of Essos. 

The windfall made a case for renewing self-evident in a network looking to cut costs after acquisition. Long known for big-budget TV, HBO was recently purchased from the debt-riddled AT&T by Discovery, a cable company known for reality TV that is looking to build a streaming service. Immediately after purchasing HBO and its larger streaming service, HBO Max, Discovery executives angered Hollywood by cutting productions in development and canceling the release of movies and shows that had already been made, including an upcoming “Batgirl” film, taking them as a tax write-off. Luckily for fans, the financial success of Dragon has ensured the show a place on the screen for season 2 and beyond.