Welcome back to Westeros! It’s been approximately 10 billion years since our last visit (really three, but it feels like an eon) and the place is both different and the same.
For one, House of the Dragon is set nearly two centuries before Game of Thrones, when Targaryens ruled and their mighty dragons streaked through the sky. But the story has all the scheming political intrigue, brutal violence, titillating sex scenes and power-hungry conflicts that turned Game of Thrones into a cultural sensation.
House of the Dragon’s series premiere was heavily anticipated by fans, by entertainment pundits, by HBO and its parent company Warner Brothers Discovery and by me, the writer of this House of the Dragon recap.
So, let’s dig into how this series takes flight in episode 1, “The Heirs of the Dragon.”
Editor’s note: Extensive spoilers for House of the Dragon episode 1: The Heirs of the Dragon follow (as you’d expect, given that this is a recap)
So many Targaryens, only one Iron Throne
“The Heirs of the Dragon” begins with some exposition. About a century after Aegon’s conquest of Westeros, the Targaryens are at the height of their power. Yet, trouble looms as the old king Jaeherys nears death. His two sons are dead, leaving a bunch of potential heirs to the Iron Throne.
He calls a council of lords to decide, and their top two choices are grandchildren Rhaenys and Viserys. She has the stronger claim, but he’s … well, he’s a man. They end up voting for Viserys, while Rhaenys becomes known as “the queen that never was.” The nobility’s distaste for women in power is clearly going to be a major thread in this series, just as it was in Game of Thrones.
Nine years later, Viserys has one teen daughter, Rhaenyra, but is convinced his pregnant wife, Queen Aemma, will birth a son. He’s even holding the Heir’s Tournament, with lords and knights traveling from all corners of the realm to participate.
Rhaenyra is full of spunk and verve. She loves riding her dragon, Syrax, and wishes she could be a warrior heading into the battle. But Aemma reminds her that their role is to continue the Targaryen line. “The childbed is our battlefield,” the queen notes.
She has a close relationship to her father’s current heir-apparent, her uncle Prince Daemon. He’s been named commander of the City Watch and returns to King’s Landing with a present for her — a Valyrian steel necklace. The moment Daemon clasps it around her neck thrums with some real incestuous energy. Targaryens gonna Targaryen, right?
Rhaenyra is also close with Alicent, the daughter of the Hand of the King. Otto Hightower is extremely loyal to Viserys and loathes Daemon. He’s outraged when Daemon leads his gold cloaks on a violent, bloody raid in the criminal districts of King’s Landing. The night ends with several dozen severed heads, hands, arms, legs and other body parts piled into a wagon.
Daemon argues that he’s merely enforcing the laws, but Otto and several other council lords find the spectacle distasteful.
Let the game (of thrones) begin
The tournament kicks off with a giddy Viserys announcing the queen’s labor has started.
After gossiping about various nobles with Alicent, Rhaenyra’s eye is caught by a handsome knight by the name of Ser Criston Cole. Apparently, he’s a commoner (gasp!) and is of Dornish descent (interesting).
Ser Criston and Daemon meet each other in a joust, with Criston shocking the prince by unhorsing him. Daemon grabs a sword, intending to continue in hand-to-hand combat. Despite Daemon’s prowess and renown as a fighter, Criston defeats him. He asks Rhaenyra for her favor. Hmmm, will the princess fall for a commoner? Who’s not a Targaryen? Now that would be a shocking turn of events.
Meanwhile, Viserys is called from the tournament to Aemma’s birth chamber. The baby is breech and the maesters give him a choice: They could possibly save the child if they cut it out of her, but Aemma would die.
Viserys is torn but ends up giving them the go-ahead for the surgery. This scene is not for the faint of heart (or weak of stomach). She screams and screams some more, as the blood gushes out of her.
Finally, the baby emerges and cries. It’s a boy.
Fire and blood
The queen’s funeral takes place on a cliff near King’s Landing. The pyre containing Aemma’s wrapped corpse has another smaller figure on it — baby Baelon did not survive.
Viserys looks like a ghost. It’s up to Rhaenyra to give the order to light the pyre. “Dracarys,” she tells Syrax. The flames consume poor Aemma and Baelon.
Back in the council chamber, Otto brings up the issue of succession. My dude, give the grieving widower a little time? Corlys Velaryon initially states Daemon is the heir, but Otto points out how violent and impulsive the prince is and what a terrible ruler he’d be (all while the man in question eavesdrops from behind a screen).
The Hand mentions Rhaenyra, but other lords protest that she’s a mere girl. That leads Corlys to bring up his wife, Rhaenys, the queen who never was. Their bickering gets to Viserys, who storms out.
Otto makes a wily move to ensure Daemon never becomes the heir: He sends his lovely daughter, Alicent, to comfort the king.
After overhearing the council meeting, Daemon spends a boozy night at the brothel with his City Watch pals and his prostitute paramour, Mysaria. He makes a speech that toasts Baelon as “the heir for a day.”
These words get back to Viserys, courtesy of Otto, of course. The king is enraged that his brother was basically celebrating the destruction of his family. Viserys effectively banishes Daemon by ordering him to return to his wife at Runestone. He has decided to name Rhaenyra his heir.
Before she is installed as the heir, Viserys tells her a secret that has been passed down from king to heir in the Targaryen line. Aegon had a vision that a terrible winter is coming, one that could bring about the end of men. A Targaryen must sit on the Iron Throne to unite the realm against this threat. Aegon called his foretelling “a song of ice and fire.”
As the lords of Westeros, including Rickon Stark of Winterfell, pledge fealty to Rhaenyra, Daemon and Mysaria take flight on Caraxes.
Only time will tell how long this state of affairs continues. Or if you want to be spoiled, you can read George R.R. Martin’s history tome Fire and Blood, a chronicle of House Targaryen. But, as we know from Game of Thrones, the Targaryens don’t stay in power. Right now, they are Rome before the fall. And with dragons involved, the fall is going to be even more epic.