If there was one thing you could always count on Game of Thrones for, it was graphic, horrific violence. (And sex.) There were dog maulings and skull squishes, giant zombies and unwilling testicle removal. Things got wild on that show, and sometimes, it felt like it came out of nowhere.
That’s certainly what happens in the premiere episode of House of the Dragon, HBO’s new Thrones prequel. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.] After King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) convenes a kingdom-wide jousting tournament to celebrate the impending birth of the child he knows will be a son, we see his brother Daemon (Matt Smith) go head-to-head—or hand-to-hand, as it were—with the mysterious and handsome Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel).
Around the same time, Viserys is summoned to his queen’s chamber, where he finds out that the baby is breech, making delivery an impossibility. He’s given a choice: Either the doctor can cut the baby out of his beloved wife—without anesthesia or her consent! Whee!—or they can roll the dice and risk the deaths of both his wife and the baby. Viserys takes the former, and the resulting scene is brutal and grotesque, exemplifying the cruelty of the Thrones world, where sometimes, it’s really all just about preserving the line no matter what. The baby is born, at the expense of the all-too-short life of Aemma Targaryen (Sian Brooks), and, unfortunately, dies shortly thereafter.
WIRED talked to the cast of House of the Dragon about the episode’s brutal first bang—and what it means for their characters’ futures in King’s Landing.
The premiere’s big joust scene required not only a quintain area, but also massive stands and a platform on which members of the king’s court could watch. Twenty or so core players were on that dais and at least 100 extras were on the set at any given time. “It was our first group scene,” says Emily Carey, who plays young Alicent Hightower. It was just shooting on the studio backlot, but Carey says doing that scene was the first moment where she was really reminded that, “Hey, this is Game of Thrones. People are going at each other with lances.”
Carey says that while the action in the scene could get intense, the actual shooting was light-hearted, if only because Considine and Rhys Ifans, who plays Otto Hightower, were like “uncles at a wedding, where one of them cracks a joke and then the other has to make a funnier joke, and then they keep one-upping themselves.”
While Matt Smith says he was on set for much of the jousting shoot, he wasn’t actually taking his own falls. Instead, it was his stunt double, Eduardo Gago Muñoz. “It’s not my natural habitat to be on a horse,” Smith says, adding that he and Frankel would pop into the scenes after the doubles took their falls.
That doesn’t mean the duo didn’t learn to ride, though: Frankel says the Dragon gang took lessons at The Devil’s Horsemen, “a really old British institution that’s been teaching actors to ride for years.” Since Frankel had never ridden before, he started slow, on a very basic horse, and worked his way up the proverbial ranks. By the end, he says, “you’re hopefully able to canter and hold some kind of sword in your hand.”
While most of the joust competitors have fairly basic or traditional armor, Daemon enters the competition wearing a helmet covered with ornate designs and protruding dragon wings. Smith says the piece of costuming was “quite heavy,” weighing an estimated 5 kilograms (about 11 pounds). “All of the armor is quite heavy,” he says, “but it looks fabulous.” He credits HOTD costume designer Jany Temime with making the helmet “feel sort of dragon-like, but also elegant and stylish at the same time.”
In the beginning of the premiere, we see the king’s eldest grandchild, Rhaenys Targaryen, being passed over in favor of her younger male cousin, Viserys. It’s a wound that festers even now, with members of the kingdom still believing she would have been a better ruler. That’s clear when one of the knights asks for her favor at the joust, calling her “the Queen Who Never Was.” Eve Best, who plays Rhaenys, says that move was “super dangerous in all aspects,” suggesting that her character would rather not remind the world of her claim to the throne.
“I don’t want him to mention it at all, and not only because I don't want it to be constantly thrown in my face,” she says. “It was the biggest source of shame in Rhaenys’ life, and the fact that it’s constantly being referred to is really, really annoying.”
What Rhaenys and husband Lord Corlys Valaryon (Steve Toussaint) do have is special insight into the workings at court and the history of the kingdom. When Rhaenys remarks at the tournament that all the fighters have, as Best puts it, “their hands full of steel and none of them have ever known real war,” it’s a reminder that King’s Landing has been under Targaryen rule for centuries, leaving the empire rather lax and soft.
“They’re complacent,” Best explains. “They’ve sort of eaten themselves up, and it’s a toxic, narcissistic environment of complacent, entitled aristocrats.” Rhaenys and Corlys are both outsiders and insiders in the world—she as someone who was passed over and him as a self-made man—so they can offer special perspective as to what’s to come.
Queen Aemma’s pregnancy isn’t her first. She had Rhaenyra, but she also had several others that ended either in miscarriage or stillbirth. Still, Viserys is so confident this time around that in an act of hubris, he invites literally the entire aristocracy to court in celebration of the birth of what he believes to be a son.
Considine says the move was based on a dream Viserys had in which he saw himself producing a male heir. “He feels so strongly in that dream that he’s almost like a clairvoyant,” Considine says. “He has this great gift that Targaryens had before him, and not only does he lose his son, but he also loses his wife.”
Considine says Viserys’ dream is a bit of naive optimism, but it’s also exemplary of the very male world within that kingdom. Still, the loss of his wife leaves him devastated. “It’s a massive turning point for his adversaries, and it’s something that he never ever gets over,” Considine explains. “That’s with him for the rest of his life, and it kind of destroys him from that moment on.”
Much of what audiences saw in the House of the Dragon premiere—from the ceremony where Viserys was chosen as king to the presentation of Ser Criston Cole—is table-setting for what’s to come. If you’ve read George R.R. Martin’s books, you know what that is, but for the uninformed, Milly Alcock, who plays young Rhaenyra, assures that, “Every scene is in there to further evoke the story.” Carey agrees: “There’s no filler whatsoever.”