One of the greatest strengths of Game Of Thrones was its plethora of incredible, three-dimensional women who audiences loved (go Arya! Yes, Brienne Of Tarth!) and loved to loathe (boo, Cersei Lannister!) in equal measure – from brave warriors, to master tacticians, to witty wordsmiths. Now, prequel series House Of The Dragon is putting two complex female characters right at the centre of its story, set at the height of the Targaryen reign of Westeros 200 years before the original series. First up there’s Rhaenyra (played by Milly Alcock as a child and in grown-up form by Emma D’Arcy), King Viserys Targaryen’s only child and controversial heir to the throne. And then there’s Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey as a child, Olivia Cooke as an adult), Rhaenyra’s childhood friend and daughter of the Hand of the King. Putting the pair at the heart of the Targaryen tale was the catalyst for veteran Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik returning to Westeros, this time as an executive producer.
Framing the series around Rhaenyra and Alicent was an idea that came from Alexis Raben – who, as well as being Sapochnik’s wife, is a development executive at his production company. “One day, she said, ‘This would be much more interesting if it was about the two main female characters, rather than the male characters,’” Sapochnik recalls. “‘If you really focused in on the patriarchy’s perception of women, and the fact that they’d rather destroy themselves than see a woman on the throne.’ That wasn’t a perspective I have ever told before. I think it made this show feel more contemporary too.” While the pair begin the show as friends, disruption in the kingdom finds them on opposite ends of an ideological spectrum when it comes to the patriarchal structure they’re trapped in. “We said, ‘What if Alicent is like “Women for Trump,” and Rhaenyra’s like punk rock?’” Anarchy in Westeros? Count us in.
The similarities and differences between Rhaenyra and Alicent, and the friction that causes, was a key factor for Emma D’Arcy taking on the role of the king’s daughter. “They grow up in the same backyard, which happens to be the royal court,” they explain. “But Alicent is better at conforming to the requirements of court manoeuvres, and Rhaenyra is humming with the fire of old Targaryenism. It’s like an ally that lives inside her, and she has to learn when to dampen that fire and when to trust it. She’s surrounded by a trail of ashes.” With so many dragons flying around, expect that trail of ashes to get even bigger.
Read Empire’s full House Of The Dragon feature – speaking to showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, plus stars Paddy Considine, Emma D’Arcy, Olivia Cooke, Matt Smith, and Rhys Ifans, and packed with exclusive images – in the upcoming issue, on sale Thursday 4 August and available to pre-order online here. House Of The Dragon airs on Sky Atlantic / NOW from 22 August.