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“House of the Dragon” is now well established as a record-breaking HBO success, but there was a time when that was not a given. Back in 2015, when “Game of Thrones” was still going strong, HBO knew it needed to prepare a follow-up to the franchise. Here’s how Ryan Condal went from the creator of a failed Pedro Pascal pilot to becoming the “House of the Dragon” showrunner and crafting a series packed with bloody action spectacle, sexy royal intrigue, and a new suite of engaging characters.
Back in 2013, when “Game of Thrones” was two seasons in, Ryan Condal had nothing to do with it. He was on location in Santa Fe with Pascal on would-be NBC pilot “The Sixth Gun,” based on his own comic book. (It wound up being a TV movie instead.) Condal asked his WME agents to see if local writer George R.R. Martin would meet him for dinner. He was an unabashed Martin fan.
“It was very early,” said Condal on a Zoom from his home of three years in London, where production on “House of the Dragon” Season 2 was about to begin. “He was certainly a known quantity at that point in the science fiction and fantasy book community, but not the icon that he is today.”
A friendship began and the writers stayed in touch. As “Game of Thrones” became a ratings juggernaut, Condal shepherded his USA sci-fi series”Colony” (USA) through three seasons. In 2016, it was Martin who asked Condal to pitch a “Game of Thrones” spin-off to HBO.
Condal’s first instinct was to adapt Martin’s “Dunk and Egg” — the colloquial term for three “A Song of Ice and Fire” prequel novellas that are also known as “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” They offer an offbeat, lighter view of the “Game of Thrones” world, but at the time it did not ignite interest.
“I thought it would fly because it was a great counterpoint to ‘Game of Thrones,'” said Condal. “It was just like ‘The Mandalorian’ to the big ‘Star Wars’ saga films. This was a completely different flavor. HBO wanted something big and muscular in the fight for the throne. They wanted something more like ‘House of the Dragon.'”
In 2018, when “Colony” was coming to an end, Martin called again. “He was unhappy with how development was going,” said Condal. “They were trying to figure it all out. But there was one thing in particular that George really wanted to do, which was tell the story of ‘The Dance of the Dragons,’ the great Targaryen Civil War, the most bloody civil war ever fought, as Targaryen family is fighting family for the war for the throne. It’s where the dragons fight and kill each other. And they end up dying off as a result afterwards. It’s all horrible.”
That’s when Martin told Condal that he had written a “Fire and Blood” history about the first half of the 300-year Targaryen dynasty. “That was the spinoff that was the most important to him and he had been unhappy with how development had gone on it,” said Condal. “HBO was going to shelve it and he didn’t want them to do that. He wanted me to take another shot at it.”
Condal’s take on “Fire and Blood” was a violent royal succession saga; that, HBO could get behind. A week later, he was hired to write the pilot.
The question was where to start. After much debate, they decided to begin with younger actors as teenage best friends Alicent (Emily Carey) and Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock). In Episode 6, age them up 10 years. Condal and HBO bet that the audience would go along with them and after almost a year of writing, HBO “got very into it,” Condal said. By the time production began, HBO had ordered a full season.
Condal pulled no punches in Episode 1, introducing King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine) who is bereft when his beloved wife Emma dies during a horrifying, blood-streaming C-section that also costs the life of their child. Grieving Viserys must choose an heir, or his brother Daemon (Matt Smith), an unpopular, volatile, and ruthless warrior, will take the throne. Viserys names his only surviving child, teenage daughter Rhaenyra, as his successor.
“It definitely felt like that was the right place to begin the series and then take our time over 10 episodes and set up all of these characters as the chess pieces on the board,” Condal said. “The expectation going into the show is that it is going to deliver big escapist fantasy. George’s books take you along in this engrossing romantic tale, but it turns all of the Arthurian or ‘Lord of the Rings’ tropes on their head. The general rule is if we’re going to throw these people into the war and start killing them, we better care about them before.”
Thus the plot machinations unfold, within the signature pitiless “Game of Thrones” universe, from the two rival Queens (Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy) to the estranged brothers, Viserys and Daemon, who “breaks Viserys’ heart, ” said Condal. “It’s a tragic romance between two people who really love each other and then cannot help but hurt each other. Daemon is heroic at moments. He is the basest of villains and he loves his family. He also tries to destroy them at times. He’s a devoted husband, except when he’s not.”
Because Martin’s views the history he created as a nonfiction narrative, “he does not have access to the private pillow talk in the kings and queens’ apartments where a lot of these plots are hatched,” said Condal. “We had to invent a lot of that stuff. The tricky balance in crafting the adaptation is satisfying George and satisfying the text of ‘Fire and Blood.’ And that’s hopefully satisfying the fans, but also delivering something that is going to work for this massive worldwide audience that’s probably not going to read, as George calls it, ‘a fake history book.’ It’s this constant tightrope walk.”
An advantage of a Medieval saga is how mythic and violent it can be. “George based this period heavily on The Anarchy, which was a very, very bloody period in English Medieval history. At some point I picked up a great book about the period called ‘The White Ship,’ about this shipwreck that happens off the coast of England and kills the heir to the throne and also hundreds of others, this terrible, awful event that upsets the entire order of things. The horrific nature of the violence perpetuated on this extended family by one another, at some points you gasp, you cannot believe that these things actually happened and the cruelty involved.
“As brutal as ‘Game of Thrones’ often is, it is definitely told and written through a more modern emotional lens, in terms of the way parents look at their children and other people’s children,” Condal said. “But with period pieces, you get to play with these bigger elemental themes.”
The challenge was taking the audience along on a dense and complicated journey without leaving them behind. “It’s definitely walking a line,” said Condal. “If it’s layered and deep and complex, people will draw things out of it. The approach we’ve always taken with this show is to provide as much as possible without getting lost in its explication and exposition.”
Condal said he wasn’t worried about how the series would be received even as its premiere date loomed. “I knew the actors were fantastic,” said Condal. “I knew the drama was working. And it looked gorgeous. It felt to me that it was what the audience was expecting and hoping for: a high-quality, complex, well-acted successor to ‘Game of Thrones.’ I wasn’t buying an island in French Polynesia, but I was confident that we had something pretty good.”
An HBO screening for critics and tastemakers showed “that there was buzz building,” Condal said. “But we also didn’t know. It was three years past the end of the original series. You’re following the Beatles. It’s a brand-new cast. It’s not this thing about good versus evil and the coming of the long winter, and White Walkers and shapeshifters and direwolves. We had the dragons.”
But when HBO told him the pilot broke first-day records, he had no idea what it meant. “HBO phoned up and said 10 million people watched live last night, which sounded like a big number to me. I knew the audience from the final season of ‘Game of Thrones’ was like 40 million people, but that was the total audience that accumulated over time. They’re like, ‘No, this is very good, our biggest premiere ever.”
He had done his job, along with co-showrunner, “Game of Thrones” director Miguel Sapochnik who led the hiring of department heads and cast and defined the show’s look, feel, and tone. Said Condal, “Those partnerships when they work are great because it’s two people with a similar goal, which is making a great television show, but coming at it from different ends, the writer and then the visual artist.”
But by the time the show aired, Sapochnik was ready to move on. “It was something that was on his mind through the whole production,” said Condal. “He had done ‘Game of Thrones’ before and felt like this was his chance to do something in the pilot seat, as co-showrunner. I knew it was something that he struggled with or debated the entire time. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when he decided to step aside.”
Next up: For Season 2’s eight episodes, solo showrunner Condal is collaborating with “Game of Thrones” veteran Alan Taylor and other directors. “This second season is about the kids that we only saw for a couple of episodes at the end of the series that are now grown up to be young adults who have dragons, who are of riding and fighting age, who have opinions of their own and a desire to get out there and defend the family claim,” Condal said.
How many more seasons? “It’s more than two,”Condal said. “That’s part of the discussion that we’re having. Where do you appropriately end the series in a way that doesn’t doesn’t feel clipped, but also doesn’t feel dragged out?”
And now he’ll help HBO develop another Martin spinoff, “Dunk and Egg,” as its executive producer — the one he wanted to write in the first place.