After a final season that crept to its conclusion with its tail between its legs, HBO’s "Game of Thrones" expanded universe roars back with "House of the Dragon." The prequel series, which takes place roughly 175 years before the events of its predecessor, is a mostly faithful adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s 2018 book "Fire & Blood," beginning about halfway through its sweeping narrative. That volume is intended to be the first half of Martin’s complete history of the Targaryens. "Fire & Blood" is written in the style of nonfiction informed by two very different witnesses to the Targaryen dynasty. Because of its dispassionate, fast-moving, and not-too-descriptive third person voice and its focus on one family, the text translates well to the small screen.
As such, the series is chock full of meaningful moments, word-for-word lines of dialogue, and dramatic details that will delight book readers. But fans of "Game of Thrones" who haven’t ventured into Martin’s supplemental material will still pick up on plenty of connections to the world of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow. And it’s propulsive and straightforward enough to be accessible even to those viewers who might be tuning in to watch a Westeros-set show for the first time. "House of the Dragon" can certainly be enjoyed for its plush design, palace intrigue, and promise of big-budget dragon battles, but Martin’s lore is so dense and rich, some extra context makes following the series a more satisfying experience.
Spoilers ahead for every available episode of HBO’s "House of the Dragon."
The Queen Who Never Was almost was
"House of the Dragon" begins with a crucial scene in which an ailing King Jaehaerys convenes a Great Council to determine who should inherit the Iron Throne. His own heir and a spare died during his reign and he hopes diplomacy will prevent civil war. Princess Rhaenyra, as narrator, explains the king summoned 1000 lords to Harrenhal to deliberate the claims of 14 would-be successors, only two of whom were ever seriously considered. They were Rhaenys, only child of the King’s oldest son, Aemon; and Viserys, oldest son of his second-born, Baelon, who survived Aemon but not his father. Though primogeniture favored Rhaenys, the Council chose Viserys. Rhaenyra implies misogyny was to blame.
Later, Rhaenys is championed as the "Queen Who Never Was." In Martin’s writing, this was her nickname, and there was a Great Council of 101, but Rhaenys never got so close to wearing the crown. In the book, it was her father’s death in 92 and not Baelon’s in 101 that almost saw her ascension. Aemon was Prince of Dragonstone (a title reserved for the heir). When he died in battle, the family — who’d taken to calling her "our Queen to be" — assumed Jaehaerys would appoint her Princess of Dragonstone and prepare her to rule, but Jaehaerys passed her over for his second son. Baelon’s death necessitated the Council. In the source material, the lords decide between Rhaenys and Corlys Velaryon’s son, Laenor, and Viserys. Viserys is favored in part because he’s 24 years old, while Laenor is only seven. The series likely made the change to simplify the storyline and highlight the difficulty with which women rose to power.
The Dragonpit is intact
Part of the appeal of "House of the Dragon" is the chance to see King’s Landing at a time of relative peace and prosperity. The Red Keep is brand new and the Dragonpit is in its heyday, with ten adult specimens kept within its cavernous walls. This is the same Dragonpit we see during "Game of Thrones" in utter ruin as Daenerys, Jon, and Tyrion reveal their captive wight in an attempt to convince Cersei to join their fight against the White Walkers. The Dragonpit ruins are also, symbolically, where the series finale takes place, during which a newly-formed council nominates their next ruler, putting the final nail in the coffin of the dragonriding family‘s domination.
That they’re ruins in "Game of Thrones," however, means the Dragonpit fell into disrepair while the Targaryens still occupied the throne. Depending on how closely "House of the Dragon" hews to the books (and how many seasons it runs), we may eventually get to see its demise play out in live-action. But its existence was controversial, even at the peak of Targaryen power. Its prime hilltop location was once occupied by the Sept of Remembrance. When a religious order rose up against the crown, King Maegor I used the fire of his dragon Balerion to burn the Sept to the ground. He began construction of the Dragonpit in its place, a project that took two kings’ reigns, ten years, and vast fortunes to complete. Additionally, some hypothesized that this great stable for the royal family’s dragons actually stunted their growth and led to their near extinction.
A war is teased through trade route politics
Before all the gory jousting and even gorier child birthing, "House of the Dragon" gives viewers the lay of the political landscape with what seems like a tedious small council meeting … the type that could’ve been an email if the series took place in the modern day real world. The King’s hand, Otto Hightower, badmouths Prince Daemon for spending too much on his Gold Cloaks and failing to show up to work. Viserys just wants to party plan his upcoming tournament, during which he hopes to announce the birth of a son. And Corlys Velaryon talks trade routes, which causes everyone else to practically roll their eyes in boredom. Viewers may have caught a whiff of the "Star Wars" prequels’ Trade Federation plotline.
Though it seems like a throwaway line in Episode 1, Corlys’ concern will turn into a bloody affair in which power is grabbed and allegiances are formed. It so happens that Corlys is the richest man in Westeros — even wealthier than the Lannisters at the time — and the master seafarer got that way by adventuring in his ships and returning with valuable goods. He has a vested interest in those waterways and mentions the "Triarchy" at council, which refers to an alliance between the free cities of Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh. Corlys complains that their admiral, Craghas Drahar, is ridding the Stepstone islands and Narrow Sea of its bothersome pirate problem. That sounds like a good thing, but the Triarchy’s oppressive tolls and even more oppressive treatment of women will pose a bigger problem than pirates … one the show will soon address.
The Iron Throne gets a makeover
Out of all the iconography that came out of "Game of Thrones" — each house’s sigil, the Hand of the King’s pin, the White Walkers’ swirling symbol — none was as iconic as the coveted Iron Throne itself. While most kings’ and queens’ seats in history and fantasy literature are grand and luxurious, the seat of power in the Seven Kingdoms was threatening-looking, and occupying it was an act of bravery in both the figurative and literal sense. That was by design. The throne wasn’t meant to be a place of comfort befitting a royal; it was a reminder to all in the realm that the Targaryens ruled absolutely. They’d conquered Westeros once. If anyone challenged their supremacy, they could do it again, thanks to their belief in their own exceptionalism and their dragons. But as cold, hard, and pointy as the Iron Throne was in "Game of Thrones," it wasn’t depicted as George R. R. Martin imagined.
Martin described the throne as "ugly," "asymmetric," and "huge." In his lore, it was made of the swords of 1000 enemies vanquished by Aegon I and melted by his dragon, Balerion. As impressive and intimidating as the one in "Game of Thrones" was, it wasn’t a "monstrosity" that sprawled all over the throne room the way it does in "House of the Dragon." There’s another detail later in the episode that speaks to Martin’s world-building as well. King Viserys has a gangrenous wound on his back that he attributes to the Throne, and when we see him actually sitting in it, he cuts his hand on the armrest. There’s a superstition in-world that any ruler who sheds blood on the Iron Throne is cursed.
Daemon gives Rhaenyra an expensive present
Audiences may have noticed that when Princess Rhaenyra sneaks off to meet her uncle, Prince Daemon, she asks if her father knew he was back at court. She also seems unperturbed by the sight of him on the Iron Throne (Ser Harrold Westerling is aghast!), though she goes on to tease him about his presumed place as heir. Circumstances seem to have made rivals of Rhaenyra and Daemon, but viewers may have sensed an easiness and fondness between them. That mutual affection is made more obvious by Daemon’s gift to Rhaenyra: a necklace made of Valyrian steel.
The necklace is significant for two reasons. In "Fire & Blood," Daemon and Rhaenyra do have a close relationship, made so because he often brings her trinkets from his escapades. When he asks if she knows what it is, she correctly guesses that it’s Valyrian steel, "like Dark Sister." When puts the chain around her neck, he tells her that now they both possess a piece of their ancestry. Later, his mistress Mysaria tries to bolster his confidence by reminding him that he wields Dark Sister and cannot be replaced. These two remarks are subtle, but viewers probably surmised that Dark Sister is his sword. What some might not know is that only two such swords remain in the Targaryen family: Dark Sister and Blackfyre. Daemon holds the former while his kingly brother holds the latter. Valyrian steel is strong, light, and stays razor-sharp (and, along with dragonglass, it’s the only thing that can kill a White Walker). It’s also exceedingly rare, which means this piece of jewelry is both a generous and symbolically loaded gift.
Like Arya, Rhaenyra knows her history
Rhaenyra clearly wants to lead, but she seems more interested in making her own history on the back of her dragon than she is in studying the history of those who came before her. Her companion, Alicent Hightower, implores her to recite back the story of Princess Nymeria to please the septa. At first, Rhaenyra bluffs her way through it, but when pressed, she effortlessly rattles off the bullet points. Nymeria, she says, fled her Valyrian pursuers with 10,000 ships across the Narrow Sea, arrived in Dorne, and destroyed her own fleet to "show her people they were finished running." She married Lord Mors Martell to unite Dorne under one flag for the first time.
Nymeria, and perhaps her legend, may sound familiar to fans of "Game of Thrones." Arya Stark named her direwolf Nymeria after the Warrior Queen. While few women inherited thrones on the mainland, Nymeria saw to it that lines of succession were gender-blind. After her death, her daughter ruled. That "House of the Dragon" chose to highlight the tale of Nymeria is no accident. Her strength and ambition not only mirror Rhaenyra’s, her husband also mirrors one of Rhaenyra’s will-be suitors. During the name day tournament, the Princess asks Ser Harrold about Ser Criston Cole, who only knows he’s low-born but handy with a morning star. When Ser Criston wins and asks for the Princess’ favor, he reveals himself to be Dornish, which is surprising enough to elicit a reaction from the young women.
The Gold Cloaks’ brutality comes straight from the books
From the Red Wedding to the Battle of the Bastards and beyond, "Game of Thrones" was notorious for its unflinching depiction of violence. "House of the Dragon" follows suit with two brutal scenes that happen practically back to back. Before the tournament devolves into ankle axing and face smashing, Prince Daemon’s Gold Cloaks try to rid King’s Landing of its criminal element by using extrajudicial torture and death as a deterrent. Daemon was given the post of Commander of the City Watch upon Otto Hightower’s urging as a way to keep him from meddling in more pressing royal business. Though he’d floundered in his previous roles as Master of Coin and Master of Laws, he’s unexpectedly effective in his new job. Daemon professionalizes the City Watch, dubs them the Gold Cloaks, and now commands his own loyal army of 2,000 men, much to Otto’s chagrin.
Daemon, who is "House of the Dragon’s" charismatic anti-hero, doesn’t exactly follow due process in "enforcing the crown’s laws." His men are seen cutting off hands and worse. These "public spectacles of wanton brutality" weren’t just dreamt up by show creators in an attempt to up the TV-MA watercooler factor, though: They’re the precise punishments doled out by Daemon and his Gold Cloaks in "Fire & Blood." In the book and, it seems, the series, Daemon’s brand of justice makes him popular in the way a demagogue might accumulate followers thanks to his claims that he’s making the city safer.
Otto Hightower compares Daemon to Maegor
Speaking of demagogues, when Otto Hightower brings up the issue of succession at the small council following the tragic deaths of the king’s wife and day-old son, he warns that the presumptive but not uncontested heir, Prince Daemon, should never sit the Iron Throne. He fears he could be "a second Maegor … or worse." Only one episode in, it’s painfully clear that the Hand of the King and the Prince are bitter rivals, so his input should be taken with a grain of salt. But to truly understand Otto’s comparison, we must delve into one of the darker chapters of Targaryen family history.
Maegor I (or Maegor the Cruel) is the second son of King Aegon I (or Aegon the Conqueror) and the third Targaryen King of Westeros. He instilled fear even in his youth due to his massive size and unforgiving nature. It’s believed he slew animals and even other children as a boy. In his adulthood, like Henry VIII, he went against the church and took six wives, though he didn’t dissolve one marriage before taking on another. He came to power after the death of his weaker older brother, who’d tried to co-rule alongside him. He murdered his own nephew to prevent his claim to the throne. After the Red Keep was finished, Maegor had all the workers killed to preserve the secrets of its blueprints. By the end of his six tyrannical years in power, he’d managed to unite almost the entire realm against him. Daemon is an opportunistic and violent womanizer, but it remains to be seen if he can live up to Maegor’s deranged awfulness.
The Heir for a Day was named after his grandfather
A major plot point in the premiere episode of "House of the Dragon" is the nightmarish birth and near-immediate death of the would-be Prince. Queen Aemma tells her daughter Rhaenyra (who has other ambitions) that the birthing bed is the woman’s battlefield. She should know: She’s been pregnant five times in ten years and has only managed to give birth to one daughter and a stillborn son. The battlefield analogy turns out to be more true than either of them realized. After a difficult nine months (Aemma says she’s so miserable, she expects to birth an actual dragon), her baby is stuck in the breach position, and a traumatized Viserys is forced to make an impossible decision. He consents to take the child directly from his wife’s uterus, knowing she will die from the blood loss. The Maester informs him the infant is a boy and asks if he and the Queen had chosen a name. Through tears of disbelief, he whispers "Baelon."
The series doesn’t mention Aemon and Baelon by name (at least not in context), but Baelon the Brave, former Prince of Dragonstone and Hand of the King, was Viserys and Daemon’s father. His death from appendicitis is what spawned the Great Council of 101. The baby was named after his well-liked grandfather, which makes Daemon’s crude behavior even more reprehensible. The Prince threw a party at a brothel to celebrate what he perceived as the retention of his place in the succession and mocked not only his deceased nephew, but his late father.
Rhaenyra’s post as cupbearer foreshadows her rise
Princess Rhaenyra is frustrated by her father’s obsession with producing a male successor, and she seems ambivalent at best about her future as a wife and mother. She laments that no matter what she does, she’ll never be a son, and when a son is imminent, Alicent asks her if she’s worried about her position. She says no, but it’s obvious the real answer is yes. So when Viserys summons her to tell her he’s decided to name her his heir, she’s genuinely taken aback. The King even apologizes to her for wasting many years wanting for a son when she was already worthy of the crown. Viserys warns her that the Iron Throne is the most dangerous seat in the Seven Kingdoms before he holds a ceremony to officially deem her Princess of Dragonstone, during which the lords bend the knee.
In both "Fire & Blood" and "House of the Dragon," Rhaenyra serves as cupbearer for the King’s small council. This position might seem like a task that would be given to an intern, but it’s actually a place of honor and a show of trust that’s bestowed upon noble boys and girls. It’s more explicit in the book, but by keeping Rhaenyra around him as he conducts his business, Viserys is exposing her to what’s essentially classified information as well as to the daily goings-on of a monarch. A disguised Arya Stark (in another parallel to Rhaenyra) served as Tywin Lannister’s cupbearer (on the show, not in the novels) because he recognized that she was high-born and he enjoyed her wit.
Balerion’s skull is on display
The gigantic skull of Balerion is no small detail, but its significance and previous appearances may have been lost on some audiences. The dragon that belonged to Aegon the Conqueror, Maegor the Cruel, and finally Viserys himself, Balerion the Black Dread was the largest dragon in the post-conquest era and, as Viserys explains, the last living thing to flee Valyria before the Doom. The King asks his daughter what she sees when she looks upon his remains. Rhaenyra answers that she sees them, the Targaryens. She grasps that their family has exercised influence over the Kingdoms because they can control the fearsome beasts, but their fortunes rise and fall with the creatures to whom they’ve tethered their destiny. Viserys sees that they’re as wonderful as they are terrible, and doubts that his people should’ve ever tried to tame them.
Book readers and "Game of Thrones" viewers may recognize this imposing skull, which would put any natural history museum display to shame. Among other instances, Arya happens upon it as she’s wandering the cellars of the Red Keep and Cersei and Qyborn plot their attack on Daenerys’ dragons from Balerion’s crypt. In other words, for all the destruction that’s befallen King’s Landing and the Seven Kingdoms at large over the past two centuries, the remains of the Black Dread still rest in peace.
Viserys has that Valyrian steel dagger on his belt
In the final moments of the "House of the Dragon" premiere, King Viserys makes sure that his daughter, Princess Rhaenyra, understands just how precarious and loaded with responsibility her role as Queen will be. He describes Aegon the Conqueror’s vision, in which a coming cataclysm will begin with a long, harsh winter and bring with it a threat from the North like the world has never seen. He tells her that for the Seven Kingdoms to survive, a Targaryen must remain on the Throne, presumably to fight the dark force with their dragons. At this point, he reveals the Valyrian steel blade at his hip.
While all Valryian steel can kill White Walkers (the threat to which King Viserys was referring), this isn’t just any Valyrian steel dagger. It’s the Valyrian steel dagger. A would-be catspaw assassin uses it to try to murder Bran Stark in "Game of Thrones." When he just barely fails, the weapon ends up in the Starks’ possession and it follows them throughout the show. Catelyn takes it to King’s Landing to try and solve the plot against her family. Its ownership, however, remains a mystery. It could’ve been Littlefinger’s or Tyrion’s; the former says he lost it to the latter in a bet. Bran eventually gives it to Arya, who famously wields it in the Battle for Winterfell to finish off the Night King, about whom Aegon’s dream warned him. It’s she who holds it still, as far as we know. But nearly two centuries earlier, it was the property of King Viserys I.
The crabs are feeding
Episode 2 begins with some gnarly images of sea life cleaning the flesh off the bodies of sailors who appear to washed ashore. Seconds later, a furious Corlys Velaryon bursts into a small council meeting and says something must be done about the Stepstones, the Free Cities, and the Crabfeeder. The Crown has lost four ships; one was flying his flag. Otto Hightower’s solution is pay off the families of the victims and refund Corlys for his losses, but the Sea Snake doesn’t think this course of action goes far enough.
In the premiere, Corlys speaks of the Triarchy and someone named Craghas Drahar. Later, when Corlys asks Daemon if he’s heard about the "trouble in the Stepstones" in an attempt to recruit him into the war he wants, Daemon replies that he has heard something about some Myrish prince. Craghas, the Crabfeeder, and this prince are one and the same, as are the Triarchy and the Free Cities of Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh. Corlys pitches them as a threat to the Crown’s sovereignty, but more specifically, they’re a threat to his trading empire. The Crabfeeder came by his nickname honestly. Feeding sailors to the crabs might seem like a metaphor for sea warfare, but Craghas literally feeds his victims to his namesakes by fixing their bodies to stakes at low tide and letting the crabs do their thing. "Fire & Blood" leaves more to the imagination and simply explains that the name was related to the inventive punishments he inflicted upon his enemies.
The king’s model room is a warning
History buff King Viserys is building (or at least commissioning) an elaborate model of Valyria, the home of the Targaryens and the other now-extinct dragonriding families. During one of their visits, he mansplains his project to the young lady who’s obviously been sent to seduce him. Viserys waxes poetic about how Valyria was built into a volcano, like Dragonstone, so its people could be close to the source of their magic and power. He tells of blood mages and a civilization that was 1,000 dragons strong. Alicent asks Viserys if he thinks Westeros could be another Valryia. He answers that that depends on whether she means Valyria at its peak or at its fall.
Viserys is referring to the Doom of Valyria. Though Martin has not yet written a definitive account of exactly what happened, Valyria suffered some apocalyptic event about a dozen years after the Targaryens fled, thanks to the prophetic vision of Daenys Targaryen. Some characters speak of the Doom as if it was an unavoidable natural disaster, but the strong implication is that the Valyrians brought collapse upon themselves with their lust for said magic and power. Viserys considers his own kingdom with 10 dragons, already falling into disrepair after 100 years, and says "The glory of Old Valyria will never be seen again." Maybe not the glory, but perhaps the hubris and ruin. Viserys thinks ruling over peace means throwing feasts and tourneys, not making difficult but necessary decisions. Meanwhile, the seven hells are about to break loose. It’s incredibly symbolic when he drops and breaks a dragon figurine and mistakes Alicent’s ambition for kindness when she has it fixed.
Alicent takes Rhaenyra to church
Episode 2 makes it clear that Alicent Hightower is a willing participant and not just a pawn in the schemes that revolve around her (though the finger picking suggests she has mixed feelings). The main plotline revolves around Alicent and Otto’s efforts to convince Rhaenyra that the king should remarry and to make sure he chooses the still-teenage Alicent over the 12-year-old Laena Velaryon, who’s the better candidate on paper. To soften up her bestie, Alicent has to mediate the reconciliation between Rhaenyra and her father, who’ve barely spoken since her mother and brother’s traumatic deaths. Step one: Alicent takes her to the Sept to pray to the Seven in an attempt to get some closure about it.
This scene is much more loaded with subtext and foreshadowing than it might seem upon first watch. The Hightowers are the lords of Oldtown, where they were once the richest and most powerful family in Westeros. They’ve since been supplanted by the Targaryens and Velaryons. The Faith of the Seven — the predominant religion in Westeros — also calls Oldtown home, and the two entities are closely aligned. The Hightowers support the Faith and vice versa, which increases both the noble family and the new religion’s political influence. In contrast, the Targaryens have a tenuous relationship with the Seven. Publicly, they’ve converted, but really, they keep their ancient customs and they do their best to limit the Seven’s role in Westerosi culture. By getting Rhaenyra to bend the knee in prayer, Alicent is flexing her own strength and using the religion to which she’s theoretically much more devoted than Rhaenyra for cynical purposes.
Showrunners have promised that we’ll see at least 17 dragons throughout the run of the "Game of Thrones" prequel, including at least nine in the first season. So far, we’ve gotten glimpses of Rhaenyra’s elegant mount, Syrax, and Daemon’s fierce red steed, Caraxes, also known as the Blood Wyrm. We’ve also heard about Balerion, the Black Dread, whose skull now rests in the cellars of the Red Keep, and Dreamfyre, whose egg was chosen for her brother, then stolen by Daemon.
On his walk with Laena Velaryon, the tween Princess asks the King what it was like to ride Balerion. Some backstory: Viserys was the last of the Targaryen kings to ride the Black Dread, and he never bonded with or rode another dragon afterwards. That means it’s been quite some time since the King was on dragonback, which is itself a symbol of his supposed weakness. Then, Laena inquires about Vhagar who she says was too big for the dragonpit. Viserys retorts that she was perhaps too big for this world.
Vhagar was a female dragon, almost as large as Balerion, who was ridden by one of King Aegon’s sister-wives, Visenya. Long story short, Vhagar — the biggest dragon in the world — is still out there, and no one knows for sure where she’s nesting. This conversation isn’t just scene filler. Vhagar is basically Chekhov’s dragon, certain to show up at some critical moment in the future.
Wounds that will never heal
After King Viserys slices his finger on the Iron Throne in Episode 1, we see in Episode 2 that what started out as a small cut has rotted into a serious health situation. Though it occurs at a different point in the narrative, in "Fire & Blood," Viserys cuts his digit so badly that the bone is visible. He catches fever and almost dies before Rhaenyra’s Maester intervenes and amputates. The incident scars him, physically and mentally, so much so that, in the book, King Viserys never sits on the Iron Throne again. In "House of the Dragon," the Maesters recommend maggots to eat away at the gangrene. Both versions come to the same metaphorical conclusion: the wound will not heal.
Viserys himself utters this exact phrase in another context, later in the episode. He says to Rhaenyra that her mother’s "absence is a wound that will never heal," and that "without her warmth, the Red Keep will never recover." He’s right. Had she lived, Viserys would’ve remained married to her and probably wouldn’t have produced another heir. Rhaenyra’s claim would be absolute, save for Daemon’s insolence at being passed over. With Aemma out of the picture, King Viserys has to choose between two factions: one led by the Hightowers and one led by the Velaryons. Since neither side will ever accept the promotion of the other over their own interests, civil war is inevitable.
The rumors about Lady Johanna Swann
As Daemon, Corlys, and their forces are dealing with the Crabfeeder militarily, the landed gentry of King’s Landing discuss the matter, first over a pre-journey pig roast at the castle, then in the Kingswood before the hunt as camp is assembling. The ladies of some of the Seven Kingdoms’ great houses are gathered in the main tent, and when Rhaenyra joins them mid-conversation, they’re gossiping about someone named Lady Johanna Swann. The women say she was abducted from one of the ships sailing through the Stepstones. When Queen Alicent wonders what will become of Lady Johanna, they say that if rumors are to be believed, she’ll be sold to one of the pillow houses in the Free Cities.
To those unfamiliar with the book, this might seem like filler dialogue. However, Lady Johanna Swann is very specifically mentioned in "Fire & Blood." Hers is a story that could be spun into its own series, though Martin himself hasn’t yet explored it to the extent it deserves. In the text, the people of the Seven Kingdoms become increasingly perturbed by the Triarchy’s occupation of the Stepstones because the Crabfeeder isn’t just stealing their goods and coin — he’s human trafficking their women and children into the pleasure houses. In Lady Johanna’s case, her cheap uncle the Lord of Stonehelm refused to pay their tolls, so they took his niece instead. Martin writes that, "she rose to become the celebrated courtesan known as the Black Swan, and ruler of Lys in all but name." "Fire & Blood" doesn’t elaborate on that rise, as it doesn’t tie back into the central Targaryen-heavy narrative.
Meet the new Master of Whisperers
Besides the Targaryens, Velaryons, and Hightowers, palace intrigue in "House of the Dragon" involves some other high-ranking families with which "Game of Thrones" fans will already be familiar — the Lannisters and the Strongs. Ser Tyland Lannister is serving as master of ships in Corlys’ absence, while his twin Ser Jason Lannister occupies Casterly Rock and wants Rhaenyra’s hand in marriage. Lord Lyonel Strong is currently the ruler of Harrenhal as well as the king’s master of laws. His two sons, Harwin and Larys, make brief appearances in Episode 3. Larys is the young man who joins the ladies after he self-deprecatingly quips that the gods have not made him for hunting. The camera focuses on the odd boot he wears around his malformed foot.
In "Fire & Blood," Larys is sometimes referred to as Clubfoot. He walks with a limp and is regarded as a quiet man whose intentions are difficult to decipher. Larys doesn’t sit with the ladies only to excuse himself from strenuous activity; he’s a Varys-like character with a knack for disappearing into the background and picking up on valuable information. In the book "Game of Thrones," when Tyrion makes a saddle for a paralyzed Bran, Martin has dwarf say to the boy, "I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things." Clearly Martin does, too, as he tends to give these marginalized characters power at pivotal moments. Larys Strong plays just such a role in "House of the Dragon."
Rhaenyra has more suitors than you think
Episode 3 asks a pair of deeply related questions — will King Viserys decide to name Aegon II his heir instead of Rhaenyra, and who will the princess marry? Based on his comments to his daughter in the carriage and on the glance he exchanges with Ser Jason Lannister, Viserys seems to have made an informal agreement prior to the hunt. But, besides the fact that Jason is doing a terrible job wooing the princess and schmoozing the king, he’s got competition. Viserys complains that he’s drowning in marriage offers; thus far, the show has given Rhaenyra six possible suitors.
Besides Jason, who blows his chances with his treasonous assumptions, Otto Hightower suggests 2-year-old Aegon II, which even the king thinks is gross. Meanwhile, Lyonel Strong argues that Laenor Velaryon is the wisest choice. It’s obvious that Rhaenyra prefers the company of Ser Criston Cole. She’s creating opportunities to be alone with him, and the princess and her sworn protector openly flirt with each other. Criston even asks Rhaenyra if she wants him to kill Ser Jason. Audiences may have also picked up on some romantic tension between Rhaenyra and her uncle Daemon, and the ladies at court are aware of their mutual affection, too.
But there’s one more player in the game for Rhaenyra’s heart. When Lyonel Strong asks if the king wishes to hear his opinion, Viserys guesses he’s about to propose his elder son, Harwin, the strongest knight in the Seven Kingdoms. Harwin is the man who caught the brown stag and the man with whom Rhaenyra exchanges her own glance as he processes its meat, and she parades bloody through the encampment.
A regal portent
Ser Otto Hightower succeeds in elevating his daughter to the position of queen, but now he’s determined to elevate his grandson to the Iron Throne. Though he’s close enough to Viserys to know the king hasn’t altered the succession, the Hand is working every angle to get what he wants. He’s scheming with the lords of powerful houses. He’s pressing Queen Alicent to, in his words, lead her husband to reason. He tries to make a match between Rhaenyra and Aegon II as a failsafe. And with his counsel, he attempts to influence Viserys without overstepping boundaries.
When a white stag is spotted in the Kingswood, Otto sets the men after it and tells Viserys that the sighting is "a regal portent." Throughout the episode, he and those loyal to him and Queen Alicent push the idea that should they catch and kill the King of the Forest, it’s surely a sign that the gods favor Aegon II. Tellingly, the shrewd Otto Hightower never explicitly claims that the stag’s appearance means the gods want little Aegon to rule instead of Rhaenyra. He only implies as much through flattery and superstition, both of which are vulnerabilities of the king. But the animal they are tracking turns out to be a brown stag, which Viserys struggles to put out of its misery, so Otto’s plan backfires. Meanwhile, Rhaenyra and Criston happen upon the white stag, whom she chooses to let live without hesitation.
Dragonriders and dreamers
Near the end of Episode 3, King Viserys promises Rhaenyra he won’t supplant her and says he’s only wavered once in his decision to name her heir. We get to see that crisis of conscience play out as he wonders aloud to his wife whether he made the right decision. A drunk and tired Viserys tells Alicent that there have been many dragonriding Targaryens but few dreamers among them. Viserys wasn’t much of a dragonrider, but he desperately wants to be a dreamer. The king needs his vision of a son inheriting the Iron Throne to come true, not because he cares that much about a boy ruling the Kingdoms instead of a girl, but because he wants to be special like Aegon the Conqueror. He wants his dreams to mean something.
The dichotomy between dragonriders and dreamers that Viserys sets up will become thematically important as the series continues. Viserys finds comfort in the power of dreams because they represent a kind of predestination. That makes sense, as the king is indecisive to the point of cowardice during Aemma’s labor and in dealing with the Stepstones. He makes a hasty and arguably poor decision in marrying Alicent. But the characters who surround him are all either actual dragonriders who happily take matters into their own hands like Rhaenyra and Daemon, or people who don’t wait for signs and seize control of their own destinies like Corlys, Otto, and Alicent. Corlys advises Viserys that sailors can go around storms or through them, but they should never wait for storms to come. In a voiceover in a trailer, Daemon insists that, "Dreams didn’t make us kings; dragons did." Viserys would do well to listening to these warnings.
The show’s War for the Stepstones charts its own course
The War for the Stepstones takes place over a few pages in "Fire & Blood," and it’s begun and resolved in one episode of "House of the Dragon." But, like the book, its effects are sure to ripple throughout the rest of the story, though precisely how might be a significant departure. In print, King Viserys approves of Daemon’s private war because it’s keeping him busy and away from the real business of governing at King’s Landing. According to Martin, Daemon and Corlys had "little difficulty assembling an army," and "won many victories during the first two years" of the conflict with Daemon’s dragon and Corlys’ vast fleet of ships. Daemon easily dispatches the Crabfeeder when they meet by decapitating him with Dark Sister.
In the show, Daemon and Corlys have their backs against the wall. The rogue prince is angry when a messenger arrives with news that the king is sending backup. Though they need the help, he doesn’t want it, as this was supposed to be his show of strength to contrast his reputation with that of his weak brother. In another change from the book, Laenor is also present, as is his dragon Seasmoke. But one of the most noticeable differences is the appearance of the Crabfeeder, who isn’t described outside of his penchant for sex slavery and crustacean-induced torture. "House of the Dragon" has given him a severe case of greyscale, which he hides, poorly, behind a broken mask of the Sons of the Harpy, a group that opposed Daenerys’ rule in "Game of Thrones." Not only has Daemon been bailed out, but he’s been exposed to this disfiguring and often fatal illness.