What ‘House of the Dragon’ needs to do to capture the magic of ‘Game of Thrones’

Nobody expected two novice TV writers to take the world by a storm of swords in 2011 when a little upstart TV series on a premium network slowly transformed into a worldwide cultural phenomenon. The pilot episode of “Game of Thrones” received a measly 2.22 million viewers. By season eight, as the series was wrapping up, 23 million Americans were tuning in to see Daenerys’ final climactic battle with Queen Cersei. 

While showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff will unfortunately not be returning for the “Game of Thrones” prequel series, “House of the Dragon” will premiere sometime in 2022. The series is set 300 years before the events of Robert’s Rebellion, during the reign of House Targaryen. The plot will revolve around Westeros’ new monarch Viserys Targaryen who has just been named to succeed the old king, chosen by the lords of Westeros at the Great Council of Harrenhal.

If “House of the Dragon” is to be as successful as its predecessor, it has to stick to the five things that made “Game of Thrones” better than all other fantasy-genre television: appealing to non-fantasy fans, minimizing the fantasy elements, focusing on character development, minimizing the action and creating laws and limitations to the magic which prevent the dreaded deus ex machina. 

  1. “House of the Dragon” has to appeal to non-fantasy viewers. “Game of Thrones” was a worldwide cultural phenomenon because it broke genre barriers and brought in fans who would otherwise never watch a fantasy TV series. 
  2. This seems strange to propose, but what made “Game of Thrones” a successful fantasy series is that it minimized the fantasy elements in an effort to gather a wider mass appeal. “Game of Thrones” works with or without its fantasy elements. It’s the Wars of the Roses with dragons, zombies and wizards. But throughout the series, those fantastical elements remain additive and never become the central focal point of the show.  At the end of the day, you could take away the faceless men, the three-eyed raven and the red priestess, and you would still have a show about a medieval kingdom at war with itself. 
  3. Most characters in most fantasy shows are empty vessels, moved forward only by plot. They are characters who really don’t have personalities, are really interchangeable and often get confused for one another. Most fantasy TV series don’t delve deep into the emotional and psychological. “Game of Thrones” is more than mere action. In fact, the action sequences are few and far between. Most of the show is just characters in a room talking politics, power or military strategy. Whereas most fantasy shows rely more on the action, adventure and fantastical scenery to keep you visually engaged some of the time, “Game of Thrones” keeps you intellectually engaged the entire time. It leaves the bulk of its action sequences to a single episode per season, in one big battle that culminates in the second-to-last episode every season.
  4. It would actually be a shame if “House of the Dragon,” with a bigger budget and an even wider audience, became another action-adventure fantasy series driven solely by its battles, zombies and dragons while throwing away all those pesky little talkie talk scenes that just get in the way of all the bloody fun. Swordplay and climatic battles in fantasy often fall short when they forget to make us care about the people fighting. We, as audience members, have to be emotionally attached to the soldiers, officers and kings on the battlefield. Otherwise, it’s just blood and guts. “Game of Thrones” doesn’t just make you gasp when a character dies, it makes you cry. 
  5. The secret to “Game of Thrones” excellent worldbuilding skills is not just about how many made-up religions, cuisines, architectural designs, card games, ethnicities and clothing it innovated. The worldbuilding in “Game of Thrones” was excellent because it had laws and limitations. Casual viewers tend to stay away from fantasy because random magic powers that were never previously established always save the hero at the end of the day. For example, the new “Star Wars” trilogy and the prequel trilogy introduced new powers to the Jedi that left fans feeling both confused and angry. The rules of a magical universe need to be set up early and quickly so that the world itself has stakes in it. Characters cannot develop the power to fly at the 11th hour. Where is the danger, and where is the drama? Who is going to bite their nails and worry for these fictional witches and knights if we, as audience members, know that they will always pull something out of their potion bag to save the day?     

“House of the Dragon” will succeed if it can continue to reach casual fans and remember the traits that made “Game of Thrones” unique for its genre. That worldbuilding is not about building worlds that have never been seen before. Drama is not about how many sword battles you can stick into one episode. Fantasy isn’t interesting unless it has consequences, laws and limitations. Magic that always comes to your rescue isn’t magic at all; it is a lazy plot device for lazy screenwriters. Character is at the heart of every story, and you will never get anybody to care about any battle, war or one-on-one fight if we don’t care about the people doing the fighting. 

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