HBO’s House of the Dragon pilot has opposite problems and challenges from those of the original first episode of Game of Thrones. The upcoming prequel is based on George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood. The Game of Thrones prequel will cover the most tumultuous Civil War in Westeros, taking place hundreds of years before the start of Game of Thrones. Instead of focusing on the Starks, the reign of the Targaryens will be center stage.
After the divisiveness of the Game of Thrones finale, fans will no longer simply flock to any Game of Thrones-related content. House of the Dragon must prove itself to be worth watching immediately. Several other spin-offs were considered, and a pilot set during The Age of Heroes was shot before being scrapped. The decision to move forward with House of the Dragon is a smart one, as dragons themselves are a huge audience draw. The prequel will reportedly include at least 17 dragons, a feature House of the Dragon must take care not to waste.
The Game of Thrones pilot had to introduce an entire world and quickly create enough empathy for its characters that the audience would stick with them throughout the show’s unprecedentedly elevated fantasy storytelling that, up until Game of Thrones’ release, had never succeeded to such a degree on television. By contrast, House of The Dragon’s setting is clear already. Westeros is still Westeros, regardless of where the show lands on the franchise’s overarching timeline. The prequel’s challenge is to establish the stakes early with the dramatic irony of Game of Thrones’ audiences already roughly knowing how everything will turn out. Those familiar with Game of Thrones already know how the titular House will fall, and they know how the wheel breaks. The pilot needs to re-elevate the emotional stakes to make the journey still worthwhile.
Enough information has leaked about the famously terrible unaired pilot of Game of Thrones to establish that the characterizations were the primary reason the episode was scrapped. It was not made clear that Cersei and Jamie were brother and sister, making the shocking ending where Jamie throws Bran out the window confusing rather than gasp-inducing. Additionally, both Dany and Catelyn Stark were recast with Emilia Clarke and Michelle Fairley, respectively, and the women were rewritten to inspire more empathy for them. Particularly, Dany’s rape in the aired pilot was added to clarify her motivations. While detractors of this idea point out that the scene was consensual in the book, the choice certainly creates the kind of immediate compassion that could carry less fantasy-loving members of the audience through her story.
Anyone tuning in to House of the Dragon is prepared for Martin’s style of fantasy. Instead of leaning into its relationship to its predecessor, the prequel needs to stay away from the self-referential tendencies that hurt Game of Thrones season 8 and carve out a new identity for itself. Characters such as Daemon Targaryan (Matt Smith) and King Viserys (Paddy Considine) already feel larger than life due to their historical context within the larger Game of Thrones canon. What the prequel needs to focus on is bringing further depth to its world and making it clear that it has something new and compelling to say about Westeros.