‘House of the Dragon’ Showrunner Talks [SPOILER] in the Finale, Changes From George R.R. Martin’s Book, and What to Expect for Season 2

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains a discussion of several major plot developments for the Season 1 finale of HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” currently streaming on HBO Max. 

Ever since Ned Stark lost his head in the ninth ever episode of “Game of Thrones,” audiences have understood that death and tragedy spare no one in George R.R. Martin’s unforgiving fantasy world of Westeros. The season finale of the “Game of Thrones” prequel series, “House of the Dragon,” again proved that to be true.

To wit, in the episode, aptly named “The Black Queen,” after Rhaenys (Eve Best) informs Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) that King Viserys is dead and Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) have usurped her claim and placed Prince Aegon (Tom Gynn-Carney) on the Iron Throne, the shock of the news leads Rhaeynra to miscarry a stillborn baby on her own with no aid. Later, her husband (and uncle) Daemon (Matt Smith) abruptly chokes Rhaenyra when she mentions the Song of Ice and Fire, not realizing Viserys never told Daemon of it. And Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint) finally returns from his long naval battle among the Stepstones to proclaim his house allied with Rhaenyra and the Blacks in her effort to regain the Iron Throne from the Greens.

Most shockingly, Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) taunts his nephew, Lucerys “Luke” Velaryon (Elliot Grihault), while on dragonback amid a raging storm — until Luke’s dragon, Arrax, and Aemond’s much larger dragon, Vhagar, go rogue and begin sniping at each other in defiance of their riders, leading to Vhagar eviscerating Arrax, and young Luke, with one bite. In the following scene — unfolding in single, wordless take — news of her son’s death pushes Rhaenyra away from her measured attempt to wrest back control of Westeros from the Greens, and into all-out war. 

That conflict, known as the Dance of the Dragons, will consume the rest of the series starting with Season 2, which co-creator and executive producer Ryan Condal tells Variety will begin shooting in early 2023. (As for whether Season 2 will also premiere next year, Condal says that’s “to be determined.”) Unlike “Game of Thrones,” Condal — who is now the sole showrunner after Miguel Sapochnik departed the series after Season 1 finished production — has the benefit of knowing precisely how Martin intended this saga to end, as it all comes from Martin’s 2018 book “Fire & Blood.” But also unlike “Game of Thrones,” “Fire & Blood” is written as a history book, drawn from sometimes conflicting accounts by maesters who have, as Condal ruefully notes, “their own agendas.”

That has given Condal and his writing team license at times to veer far afield from how events were recorded, so to speak, in “Fire & Blood,” a conceit Condal uses a few times over in “The Black Queen.” He spoke to Variety from his London home about those changes, how the season finale pays off threads laid down at the very start of the show, what led to Daemon lashing out against Rhaenyra, and whether we should expect to see Cregan Stark and Daeron Targaryen in future seasons. (Also, hardcore fans and TikTokers please note: Condal pronounces those names as “Cray-gan” and “Dare-on.”)

Ollie Upton / HBO

Did you always know that Luke’s death was how you were going to end the season? 

Yes. 

You didn’t explore any other endings?

Maybe, at some point? But no, I looked back at the original bible that I wrote for the series back in May of 2019, and that was in there as the endpoint. It just felt like the one-two punch of Viserys dying, the Greens seizing the throne and telling that story from Alicent’s team’s perspective, Rhaenyra’s team finding out and putting in place the engines of war and then setting the dragons off and having this horrible thing happened over Storm’s End — the story is called the Dance of the Dragons. To kick off the war/end the first act of our story with the first dragons dancing seemed to be the right dramatic place to leave everybody off.

In the book, Aemond means to kill Luke. So how did you decide to shift it to an accident instead?

Historians have told us that Aemond intended to kill Luke, but I don’t think any of them could purport to know what was going on in Aemond’s head the time. And I would also dispute the word “accident” a bit. I mean, Aemond got on his giant dragon and chased his nephew on his much smaller dragon through the clouds screaming and yelling at him, incensing his dragon and starting a fight. He didn’t know how Arrax or Luke were going to respond, and it ended in tragedy. I don’t think that was what Aemond intended when he threw his leg over the saddle, but he did a horrible, dangerous thing. That is the point: This is a war of many cuts that lead to a really, really bloody wound. It adds complexity and nuance to the character that’s potentially interesting. There’s lots of runway to go on with Aemond as a character and the story of the Dance. This is his first act as a dragon rider and a warrior and it’s gone very wrong. Now what happens as a result, and how does he respond? Those are the questions I’m interested in as dramatist.

Along with Alicent’s misunderstanding of Viserys’ deathbed ranting about the Prince Who Was Promised, is that something that we should be expecting through the run of this show: critical events unfolding as much by tragic happenstance as by clear intent?

We’re trying to make this as much like a real history is possible, and history is messy. The pieces for the Dance of the Dragons were put into place a long time ago. Whether or not Viserys has that conversation or doesn’t with Alicent, very likely the next morning they’re still having the same meeting. And I don’t know that Alicent actually has the power at that point to put a stop to them. So it’s more about how Alicent reacts to it. Her counsel, obviously, had this whole plan that they concocted without consulting her you know, to find Aegon and place him on the throne. So does history change if that [conversation] doesn’t happen? Maybe things play out a little differently, I don’t know. 

What we’re fascinated with, on a meta narrative level with this story, is showing how messy and unreliable history is. I mean, this is a book written by one author with an agenda trying to filter through the accounts of three other authors, all with their own agendas. And were expected to take the one true history out of this book? No. The thing that George is laughing at on the side is how anybody can read “Fire & Blood” and think that this is the one true official account of anything. It’s an expression of this story. There are things that happen in it that are very well documented and are real, and there are other things where there are huge gaps and we don’t know quite why this happened or who quite who this character was. Our story is trying to apply the whys, and the nuances to it. So I think there are things that are can be perceived as accidental are not quite as intended in real history, and that will happen in the show. But there’s plenty of instances through Season 1 where that thing happened exactly as was intended, and then you see the results.

Another example of that is in the book, Rhaenyra pushes for war immediately, but she errs on caution on the show. At one point, she even says she doesn’t want to rule over a realm of smoldering ash — was that meant as a nod to Daenerys laying waste to King’s Landing at the end of “Game of Thrones”?

I mean, we’re writers. There’s a meta literary narrative going on at all times. Whether that was intentional or not, you know, take it as as you will. 

But certainly, we want all of our characters to be as nuanced and complex as possible, and while there will be times when people are faced with a situation and come out with a clear decision, this did not feel like the time for it. Rhaenrya is very upset. She’s learned all in the space of a few minutes that her father has died, that her former best friend has betrayed her, and her evil stepbrother has usurped her claim to the throne. It upsets her enough that she has a miscarriage. She’s going through a whole lot in this episode, but I don’t think the Rhaenyra that we’ve seen up to this point would would believably just turn immediately and say, you know, “Launch all the nukes, we’re going to war.”

She’s very angry. She’s not just backing down and saying, “I’m not going to stand up for my claim in any way whatsoever.” But [she is saying,] “I am going to be cautious and practical about the next steps that I take.” You see her weighing her decisions — weighing her responsibility that she took with the Song of Ice and Fire, the thing she promised her father, that she would hold the realm united and at peace as he tried to do. But at the same time, her birthright has been stolen. Those things are diametrically opposed to one another. “How do I serve both? I can’t. It’s paradox. What do I do?” She’s just not going to rush headlong into anything. You’re seeing what Viserys probably saw in her, that she’s capable of nuanced thought and the ability to think through problems. While all the men around the table, including Daemon, just want to immediately jump on dragons and go burn King’s Landing, she’s not quite ready to do that just yet. But it doesn’t mean that you won’t.

Why did you have Daemon choke Rhaenyra?

It’s a moment that I think is surprising and shocking for Daemon as a character, but I also think it’s one of those things that’s been set up over the course of the entire season. Daemon — while an incredibly charismatic and deeply interesting, complex character, I think — he’s also capable of great darkness. It’s simmering just beneath the surface. When he learns in that moment that Viserys never believed in him enough, as his actual heir to the throne, to pass this thing on that he clearly just easily passed on to Rhaenrys, it breaks him. He loved his brother so deeply and trusted him, even through all the problems that they had, and Viserys never shared it with him. He kept [Daemon] in the dark, and it just it breaks Daemon. Instead of reacting with grief or sadness that you see out of him later, he reacts with rage and he takes it out on Rhaenrya.

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Courtesy of HBO

That dragon we see Daemon taming — who is that? 

That is one of the unclaimed dragons that lives in the Dragonmont: Vermithor, the bronze fury. King Jaehaerys’ dragon, the king that we saw in the opening of the first episode, the king that passes on the his succession to Viserys.

The final shot is really stunning. Did you know when you’re writing it that it was going to be one unbroken take?

Yeah, I sort of had that in my head. Credit to Greg Yaitanes, who directed that shot and did so beautifully. I have a bunch of favorite moments in the episode, but that ranks right up there. The very last action line of the script was, “Rhaenrya looks up and war is in her eyes.” That was in the first draft of that script. That was always the plan for ending the season, because after all this internal debate that Rhaenyra goes through over the course of the episode, everything changes the moment that she learns about the treachery at Storm’s End and the death of her son.

How many takes did that did you guys end up doing of that? I mean, Emma D’Arcy has to nail that look!

Emma’s a superhero, I have to say. But we shot that scene for most of the day. It’s a scene that you have to prep and rehearse. We actually only probably shot it a few times, because it took hours to actually set up. There’s a lot of action going on: who lifts the drink, all these little things that seem to be just random happenstance are very perfectly planned. Daemon is reaching Rhaenrya just as the as the framing is coming into place. It’s a complex dance. So we rehearsed it for most of the day. I think we probably did three or four takes of it. And Emma, man, did they nail it. Just incredible.

What story beats did you most mourn having to skip given the accelerated timescape of the season?

There are little moments that would have been great to be able to dramatize, but I feel none of the beats that were left out would change anything dramatically about what you’re seeing happen as a result on screen. There are great moments of Daemon dueling the Sea Lord of Braavos’ son for Laena’s hand and winning her over, and seeing Laena claim Vhagar — wouldn’t that be great? But we were also going to see Aemond claim Vhagar, and it felt like that because of the overall narrative, it was more important to see him do it. There are moments like that: Wouldn’t that be great? Yes, it would. But what does that actually change? Does it change that much in your understanding of the story or where it goes? I think we had to make some some harder decisions. But we worked really long and hard on structuring that first season and I’m really happy with where we landed with it.

Several scenes that were in the marketing ended up getting cut from the show, including what appears to be Alicent and Viserys’ wedding — was that just for time?

There’s all sorts of decisions that go into that stuff. We never shot a wedding for Viserys and Alicent. There was a moment where we see Alicent in her wedding dress, where Rhaenyra was dressing her, as a callback the first episode where Alicent helps Rhaenrya dress for her naming ceremony when she’s named heir to the throne. In the final analysis, as we were building out the whole season arc, we just looked at a bunch of that stuff. We were trying to figure out the most impactful place to leave Alicent and Rhaenrya’s story and it felt like that break that they have in the small council chamber was more powerful than whatever the next beat that you go to.

Did you agree with Miguel Sapochnik’s plan to keep “Driftmark” so dark that most people, even ones with a really good TV, could barely see what was happening, if at all?

The unique challenge of making television post-production is that you’re making it in this highly calibrated facility with millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and high-end professionals. At the end, if you’re making a movie, you turn over those files to movie theaters, where you know that there’s a reasonable sameness in quality in terms of the way the media is going to be exported and the equipment that it’s being seen on. When you’re making television, you’re turning it over to not only tens of millions of different television setups — rooms with curtains and no curtains, lighting and no lighting, speakers and no speakers — but you’re also turning it over to these different distributors who are going to take the file and compress it or not compress, or show it and 1080P or 4K. It’s very hard to account for all those little variables when you’re when you’re making the show. 

What I learned in the making the season is that you do have to take much more into account the fact that we are making the show for people’s television sets versus in a perfectly calibrated movie theater environment. So, you know, look, that was Miguel’s episode, and Miguel and [director of photograhy] Fabian Wagner, they were in charge of posting the episode and color correcting, and they’re geniuses in that way, so they should have. They brought it to a place where they were happy with it and thought it was great and that’s what got released on television.

Where is Alicent’s fourth child Daeron? This is something that a lot of fans have been wondering. Why has no one even mentioned him at this point?

He does exist. No worries, everybody. He’s the youngest son. He’s warded off at Oldtown to Hobert Hightower and soon to Ormond Hightower, who is Hobert’s nephew, who becomes Lord of Oldtown. Honestly, this stuff happened all the time in this world. It’s not our modern day where if you had a 6-year- old, you would FaceTime them every day and see how they’re doing and write letters. He’s there. That’s the fact. When he is relevant to be mentioned — and he will be — he will be mentioned.

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Liam Daniel / HBO

The episode opens on a shot of that fabulous table-map of Westeros, which seems to suggest that we will be expanding the scope of the series beyond King’s Landing for Season 2. Is that your plan?

The show definitely has to expand its scope in the second season. Just as the original “Game of Thrones” grew in scope and expanse as it went, so, too, will ours. We’ve lived a good bit in three different worlds through this show: King’s Landing, Dragonstone and Driftmark. I think those will continue to be the home bases for the show. But a war is coming that requires allegiances from different kingdoms and armies all over the map of Westeros. I don’t think we’re going to get quite as vast as the original “Game of Thrones” did in its final analysis. But there are definitely many more new worlds to come, and new worlds that you haven’t necessarily seen in the original show, either. Rest assured, plenty of scope to come.

Cregan Stark, who gets a shoutout in this episode, plays a pretty big role in the Dance of the Dragons. How close are you to casting him?

Uh, we will cast Cregan Stark at some point, but no comment otherwise.

Should we expect to see him in Season 2?

I don’t know, will we? I can’t answer that.

Finally, when you and I talked about Episode 6, you said that you hadn’t yet had a moment to go to a Mediterranean island and look off into the sunset with pride over how well received Season 1 has been. Now that’s that season is officially over, do you expect that day to come soon? 

Unfortunately, no Mediterranean islands are in my immediate future, at least. The nature of the show means that we’re essentially constantly in production in some way, shape or form. Because of the incredibly demanding production schedule of the show, facets of the show have to overlap with one another, which means that we were writing Season 2 long before they ever announced it, while we were in post in Season 1. So we really have to storm right into the making of Season 2 now in order to keep pace with our our fans’ healthy appetites for material and HBO’s need and desire to release the show in a reasonable timeframe from season to season. 

Look, it’s the best job in the world. And I’m at the helm here, so I’m having a great time. Doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t like to see a Mediterranean island!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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‘House of the Dragon’ Showrunner Talks [SPOILER] in the Finale, Changes From George R.R. Martin’s Book, and What to Expect for Season 2

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