War is coming. Two rival houses – HBO and Amazon – draw swords this summer to fight for dominance in the realm of mega-budget fantasy TV. The Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon (HBO/Sky) will meet The Lord of the Rings spin-off The Rings of Power (Prime Video) in an epic battle for eyeballs.
The former, though, has the jump on the forces of Middle Earth with a release date almost two weeks earlier, on Monday 22 August in NZ (The Rings of Power is released on Friday, September 2), yet House of the Dragon's joint showrunner Miguel Sapochnik is playing down talk of the shows being in conflict. "No, we're not at war with the Lord of the Rings. We have dragons but if you look at the original [Game of Thrones], it had white walkers and giants and direwolves and the Three-Eyed Raven… In a way, we're making an even more grounded version of a fantasy show. And the dragons are treated, at least to start with, as very, very, very large horses."
The director, who previously shot some of Game of Thrones's most admired episodes , contrasts this with The Rings of Power, a newly created work set within Tolkien's original mythology, with hobbits, elves, dwarves and orcs living alongside man. "I think there's room enough for both of these shows," he says. This echoes creator George RR Martin , who nevertheless admitted in May: "I hope both shows succeed. I'm competitive enough. I hope we succeed more."
Both carry hopes that are matched by enormously expensive productions: House of the Dragon reportedly cost upwards of NZ$307m, while The Rings of Power is said to have come in at more than half a billion dollars (NZ$782m), although this price tag includes the costly partial rights granted by the Tolkien estate. Sapochnik is certainly right that the first episode of the former, which he directed, does have a raw back to basics feel – if basics can be said to include orgies, graphic violence, turn-your-head-away moments, and extensive manoeuvring for power. In this, it is undeniably "Thronesian".
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Set 170 years before the events of Game of Thrones , the show is focused on a civil war that erupts within the ruling Targaryen dynasty, which enjoys absolute power thanks to its cohort of trained dragons. Peopled, as was its predecessor, with the best of British acting talent, it stars Paddy Considine as King Viserys Targaryen ; Doctor Who alumnus Matt Smith as his scheming, unruly brother Daemon; Olivier Award-winning Eve Best as Rhaenys Velaryon, the "Queen who never was" – passed over for Viserys, despite a superior claim to the Iron Throne; and Steve Toussaint as her husband, the imposing Corlys Velaryon, the greatest seafarer of his generation (Toussaint admits to suffering from seasickness).
All have been through the series' demanding production schedule. "Nothing prepares you for the shooting," says Considine. "I walked in with my shoulders back and head high. And a year later, I crawled out on my belly."
Filming was complicated by the pandemic. Best faced the challenged of being unable to fly to her home in Italy for the duration of the shoot because of Covid restrictions, while Considine, who told me back in March that he had based his performance as Viserys on his own mother, had to deal with the virus's knock-on effects. "I suffered every time somebody got Covid," he says, describing how days off that he saw as an opportunity to prepare would suddenly vanish with a 10pm phone call telling him to be ready to film the next day, because someone had caught the virus.
"They never revealed who'd gone down. There was big secrecy for reasons I still don't know today. That was the toughest thing. I could never relax. And I always seemed to be the guy that was being called in all the time, and that kind of got on my nerves a bit because there were some big scenes, and I like to be ready for them."
According to House of the Dragon writer and executive producer Sara Hess, the show will not depict sexual violence – the most controversial aspect of Game of Thrones – despite Sapochnik’s earlier claim that “You can't ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time. It shouldn't be downplayed and it shouldn't be glorified.” There’s certainly plenty of men-on-men violence in episode one – one unnamed character even has his penis sliced off.
Yet Smith has already said that he thinks there’s too much sex in House of the Dragon ("You do find yourself asking, 'Do we need another sex scene?'”) and when I suggest to him that one scene involving Daemon seems to take its inspiration from modern online porn rather than medieval times, he responds frankly. "To be honest with you, I didn't love that scene," Smith says. "I didn't love the shape of it. I didn't love the way they were having sex… that was the way they wanted it to be set up. And that was the way I think he wanted to direct it. And that's not a slight on Migs or anything, but I still don't love it… I felt there was a sort of slightly deeper, more interesting way of telling that physical story. But it wasn't to be."
It is not, however, the scene that is likely to be most talked about in the series' opener. One in particular seems destined to join the ranks of infamous Game of Thrones' moments, such as the "Red Wedding" and the rape of Sophie Turner's Sansa Stark . This one involves Considine's Viserys and his wife Aemma. I ask the actor – himself the director of a film, Tyrannosaurus, considered to be among the most disturbing ever made – if he thinks it's good for people to be shocked sometimes, and whether the scene will be too much for some viewers to take? "You mean the birth scene? Yeah, of course, they'll find it too much to take… Terrible things happen – whether you want to look at them is up to you. And you don't have to watch my film, you don't have to watch this… But it's important to show the graphic nature of these things in the right context, sometimes."
He makes the point that shocking moments are often employed by mainstream films in a gratuitous way – is this scene gratuitous? "I think it's tragic, it's heartbreaking. But we're telling a drama here, and it's the catalyst for what happens next. And it's a massive turning point in the life of Viserys Targaryen, something that he never recovers from… So it's important. It's… [he points to another shocking moment in House of the Dragon]… you know, someone gets their dick chopped off – choose which one's more important to the narrative."
Gender seems set to be the most charged theme of the series. As Best notes, "My character says… 'Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend the Iron Throne.' It was "a big hook" for her. "The arc of the show is a crumbling of this ancient patriarchal regime. And that for me was super interesting. Obviously, it's not an unfamiliar story for us all right now and it feels like it's something relevant and important to explore."
It's a theme already playing out in the opener, which features the younger selves of Viserys's daughter Rhaenyra (played by Australian actress Milly Alcock, so brilliant as a runaway teen in Tim Minchin's comedy drama Upright) and her companion Alicent Hightower (superbly played by 19-year-old Brit Emily Carey, who sounds not dissimilar to tennis star Emma Radacanu in real life). "They're at an interesting age where, as women, unfortunately, we're forced to compete – and I still catch myself being competitive with women," says Alcock, "these women go through quite a massive life change that happens within the story, and their relationship is ultimately broken down because a man has made a choice."
Like Daenerys in Game of Thrones, Rhaenyra rides a dragon, and is soon bumping up hard against the expectations of her sex in Westeros, the fictional kingdom for which Martin took inspiration from medieval England. "The childbed is our battlefield," Rhaenyra's mother Aemma tells her.
Carey and Alcock will be succeeded in their roles later in the series by Brits Olivia Cooke and Emma D'Arcy. I ask D'Arcy, who uses the pronouns they/them, whether Rhaenyra is the medieval equivalent of a non-binary person? "I wouldn't actually… what I would say about Rhaenyra is that she is someone who feels at odds with her gender. And that's partly because the power that is bestowed on her works in opposition to the space afforded her by her gender. And as a result, I think she's a person who has a hyper awareness of the space afforded to men.
"She has this desire for masculinity," D'Arcy notes, not least because of the similarities between herself and Daemon, her uncle. "They have this sort of genetic recognition that they share, and they see each other deeply and yet the rules apply to him in a way that is completely different to the way that the rules apply to her. So I think she has a hyper awareness from a really young age of how gender dynamics operate."
Toussaint, meanwhile, suffered racial abuse online after the makers elected to make Corlys a black character with silver hair. "It was very important for Miguel and I to create a show that was not another bunch of white people on the screen," co-showrunner Ryan Condal told EW magazine, explaining that Martin himself had originally toyed with the idea of depicting the Velaryons as black conquerors who came to Westeros from the west.
I wonder if Toussaint thinks this is a more successful approach to diversity than so-called "colourblind" casting. He doesn't have a problem with that kind of casting, he says, and points out "when we go back into history, it is not that unusual in the West to see black faces". "Ultimately," he says, "representation is what matters. I think it's important that whatever group you're from, if you see yourself represented on the screen, it means that you're included."
That the show will continue to generate talking points and controversy seems inevitable. Yet its first task is to win back viewers who felt short-changed by the finale of Game of Thrones , which went from the biggest TV show in the world to a topic of division, and for some, derision, overnight after its final episode in 2019. Once the show overran its original source material – George RR Martin's fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire remains unfinished – the show began to accelerate through events too quickly for some fans.
With a number of different options to follow up the epic eight-season drama being considered, HBO elected to put its faith in the one Martin was most interested in. And they seem to be taking no chances of deviating too far from his vision. Co-showrunner Ryan Condel admits: "George hired me. So, I came to this as a fan." The two worked through the conceptual phase together, he says, "building out the plan for the pilot, and the vision for the show, and what time period it was going to cover and what events it was going to focus on." House of the Dragon is drawn from a period described in Martin's Fire & Blood – a history of House Targaryen, which was published in 2018.
Bringing Sapochnik, whom Martin trusted, on board, gave a sense of continuity, and Martin it seems, is still quite heavily involved. "He certainly read scripts and outlines and has seen cuts and [been] informed. He just likes to know what's going on and likes to know that things are on the right track," Condal says.
Some have expressed concerns that without Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister, and characters such as Jerome Flynn's Bronn, the new show may lack Game of Thrones's most underrated quality, its humour. Employing Notting Hill's Rhys Ifans as the Hand of the King – Viserys's main advisor – might suggest otherwise, but there's little suggestion in episode one that he will be providing the laughs. Cooke, though is very funny in real life and certainly can be on screen, while another actor does have a track record of that kind of thing.
"I wish Daemon was as witty as Doctor Who," says Smith, "I've tried to push it that way." His character, he adds, "is an agent of chaos, locked in his own dark world". It's a world very much of George RR Martin's making.
House of the Dragon launches in NZ on August 22.
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