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House of the Dragon — 7 things you need to know before you watch

Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra, Paddy Considine as Viserys in House of the Dragon
(Image credit: HBO Max)

House of the Dragon is about to take flight. The Game of Thrones prequel series premieres this weekend to high anticipation. While the end of GoT disappointed pretty much everyone, HBO is betting that some fire and blood will scorch those bad memories into ashes.

In fact, the House of the Dragon reviews are in and it has a good 85% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Winter already came and went on Game of Thrones, which concluded its eight-season run in May 2019. HBO wanted to follow up on the most popular show in its history, so the network began developing a handful of potential spinoffs. They moved forward with one: House of the Dragon. 

The idea was pitched by author George R.R. Martin himself, who also recommended Ryan Condal serve as head writer and showrunner. Game of Thrones veteran director Miguel Sapochnik also came on board as co-showrunner. Martin's blessing and participation should come as a relief to fans, as he wasn't much involved in the latter seasons of GOT. 

As the first follow-up to one of the biggest television sensations in recent years (and perhaps the last piece of true monoculture), House of the Dragon has big boots to fill. While many elements from the original show carry over, significant changes have been made to set the prequel apart. 

Here are the seven most important things to know before watching House of the Dragon. And be sure to check out our guide on how to watch House of the Dragon (opens in new tab) so you can see all the action. 

What is House of the Dragon about?

House of the Dragon is based on several of Martin's works, primarily the history tome Fire and Blood. It chronicled the Targaryen family's exploits over centuries, beginning with the Doom of Valyria and Aegon I Targaryen's conquest of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The show's plot also draws from the novellas The Princess and the Queen and The Rogue Prince. 

The first season focuses on the events leading up to a particular segment of Targaryen history: the Dance of Dragons. The bloody and brutal civil war pits various Targaryen family members and their companion dragons against each other. 

When does House of Dragon take place?

House of the Dragon takes place around 129 AC (after Aegon's conquest) and nearly two centuries before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen and other events in Game of Thrones.

The show also features flashbacks to the childhoods of key figures, as younger actors portray Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower. Additionally, the trailer indicates at least one scene set at the Great Council of Harrenhal in 101 AC. The gathering of Westeros lords decided who would succeed Jaehaerys I as king among his four surviving grandchildren (Rhaenys, Viserys, Daemon and Aemma). They selected Viserys, much to the fury of Rhaenys. More on that below.

Who are the main characters?

Like Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon features a sprawling ensemble. We'll keep this character rundown to the 10 most important roles. 

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King Viserys I (Paddy Considine)
Chosen at the Great Council of Harrenhal to be crowned king, Viserys is known as a warm, kind and decent man. He has a daughter, Rhaenyra, by his deceased first wife Aemma Arryn and a son, Aegon, by his second wife Alicent Hightower. 

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Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy as adult; Milly Alcock as teen)
The princess is King Viserys I's first-born child and has grown up expecting to be the first queen regnant. She rides the dragon Syrax. 

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Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith)
The younger brother of Viserys is a legendary warrior and dragonrider of Caraxes. He is said to possess the true blood of the dragon. He has a close bond with Rhaenyra. 

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Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke)
As the daughter of the Hand of the King Otto Hightower, she was raised in the Red Keep and considered the "most comely woman in the Seven Kingdoms." She also has a keen political mind. After marrying Viserys, she is now the queen.

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Rhaenys Velaryon (Eve Best)
As the eldest grandchild of Jaehaerys I, Rhaenys expected to be crowned after his death. When the council chose her cousin instead, she became known as "The Queen Who Never Was." She is married to Lord Corlys Velaryon. 

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Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint)
The head of House Velaryon is also known as the Sea Snake for his nautical prowess. Utilizing a powerful fleet of ships, he has built a massive fortune. He is utterly loyal to his wife, Princess Rhaenys. 

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Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans)
The Hand of the King is a faithful servant whose top priorities are protecting the king and cementing the place of his daughter, Queen Alicent, and grandson Aegon. 

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Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel)
A member of the Kingsguard, Ser Criston is a commoner who rose thanks to his swordsmanship skills. He is also a notorious ladies' man who befriended Rhaenyra in her youth.

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Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno)
The former prostitute is the lover and confidante of Prince Daemon. She has an affinity for gathering and parlaying secrets. 

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Ser Harold Westerling (Graham McTavish)
The Lord Commander of the King’s Guard embodies honor and valor. He is a faithful protector of Princess Rhaenyra.

Do I need to have seen Game of Thrones? 

Watching Game of Thrones is not mandatory for understanding and enjoying House of the Dragon. As a prequel set hundreds of years before GOT, it shares no common characters. 

Fans of the original series will get some references and their significance more easily, such as the Iron Throne, the Citadel and various noble houses like the Lannisters and Baratheons. 

If you've seen all of Game of Thrones and want to rewatch some episodes before House of the Dragon, here are five that we recommend. 

"Winter Is Coming" (season 1, episode 1): A table-setting pilot that introduces Daenerys Targaryen and how her existence threatens King Robert Baratheon's rule. It also features the politicking, ambition-seeking, alliance-making and backstabbing that will also mark House of the Dragon.

"Fire and Blood" (season 1, episode 10): The birth of Daenerys Targaryen's dragons.

"The Dance of Dragons" (season 5, episode 9): Daenerys rides Drogon for the first time and Princess Shireen Baratheon recounts the story of the Dance of the Dragons civil war to her father, Stannis.

"The Spoilers of War" (season 7, episode 4): The "loot train robbery" is the site of a fearsome and deadly dragon attack. Lots of fire, lots of blood.

"Beyond the Wall" (season 7, episode 6): Not only is there quite a bit of dragonriding, but there's also a dragon death, which should happen multiple times during the civil war.

While the series finale, "The Iron Throne," is a portrait of the toxicity that seems to run in Targaryen veins, as Daenerys goes power mad, we can't truly recommend rewatching it. It'll just reopen old wounds.

How long will the series run?

Game of Thrones ran for eight seasons, roughly meant to correspond with Martin's (unfinished) books. House of the Dragon has no similar parallel. 

The Dance of the Dragons civil war lasted about two years and it's possible the show will take its time covering that. It could break each year out into its own season, or split them in half and tell its story over four seasons. When that story wraps up, though, House of the Dragon could become an anthology of other Targaryen tales. 

As Sapochnik told Entertainment Weekly (opens in new tab), "We've chosen a story that's almost like Star Wars: Episode IV. It's the New Hope. We can go backwards, we can go forwards. There's a lot of opportunities there. I hope we've been given the opportunity to set up something." 

What has changed from the books?

Steve Toussaint as Corlys Velaryon in House of the Dragon

(Image credit: HBO)

One of the biggest differences between House of the Dragon and Martin's writing is that Corlys Velaryon is Black. 

In the books, mentions of the Velaryons indicate they have pale skin, silver hair, and purple eyes. The showrunners wanted a more diverse, inclusive cast, and with Martin's blessing, altered the family's race.

"The world is very different now than it was 10 years ago when [Game of Thrones] all started. It's different than 20 years ago when Peter Jackson made The Lord of the Rings. These types of stories need to be more inclusive than they traditionally have been," Condal told EW (opens in new tab). "It was very important for Miguel and I to create a show that was not another bunch of white people on the screen, just to put it very bluntly."

In fact, Condal said that Martin almost wrote the Velaryons as a Black noble house.

"Long, long ago when he was conceiving of this world, [Martin] himself had considered the idea of making Velaryons a race of Black people with silver hair that essentially came from the other side of the ocean and conquered Westeros," Condal noted. "That's a fascinating idea and that always really stuck with me because it's such a stark image. I just thought, 'Well, why couldn't we do a version of that now?"

Why is the Iron Throne different?

Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra, Paddy Considine as Viserys in House of the Dragon

(Image credit: HBO)

One of the first things GOT fans will notice as a difference from the original show is the size of the Iron Throne. The one on House of the Dragon is much bigger and more fearsome, aligning better with how it was described in Martin's books. 

The author previously said, "I state repeatedly in the book that the Iron Throne is huge… huge. It towers over the room like a great beast, and it’s ugly, it’s asymmetric. It was put together by blacksmiths, not craftsmen and experts in furniture manufacture."

The Game of Thrones version was scaled down due to budget and practical concerns. But House of the Dragon had no such barriers.

"I've got to say, it's one of the most satisfying processes because there was no limit placed on how we did it," Sapochnik explained (opens in new tab). "Rather, we designed it and then kind of worked backward."

As for how and why it changed by the time Game of Thrones takes place, well, as the showrunners note, a lot of things can happen in 200 years.

Next: Also, these 7 must-watch HBO Max movies are 95% or higher on Rotten Tomatoes.

Kelly Woo
Senior Writer

Kelly is a senior writer covering streaming media for Tom’s Guide, so basically, she watches TV for a living. Previously, she was a freelance entertainment writer for Yahoo, Vulture, TV Guide and other outlets. When she’s not watching TV and movies for work, she’s watching them for fun, seeing live music, writing songs, knitting and gardening.