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House of the Dragon revives Game of Thrones’ magic for Targaryen history

George R.R. Martin’s drier prequel stories get a boost on HBO

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King Viserys talking sternly to his daughter Rhaenyra in a hunting tent, with court members on the periphery of the shot Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO
Zosha Millman (she/her) manages TV coverage at Polygon as TV editor, but will happily write about movies, too. She’s been working as a journalist for more than 10 years.

There isn’t a lot of agreement over who should be the next ruler of Westeros in episode 3 of House of the Dragon. At a hunting party thrown in honor of Prince Aegon’s second birthday, many push for Aegon to be next in line (him being the firstborn son of King Viserys), while others insist the throne is still Rhaenyra’s (being the actual firstborn and named heir). It’s enough to drive poor Viserys, dad and king, a little crazy. He wants a clear sign of the right path, and gets the promise of one with the mention of a white stag running around the Kingswood.

But when Viserys (Paddy Considine) is called to a stag, it’s not what he imagined. It is, as one of the helpers holding it in place so the king may kill it notes, still a “big lad,” but the animal is not white. This moment — staged, underwhelming, and missing the clear symbolism he so clearly seeks — provides no clarity about who the gods wish to show their favor to.

Elsewhere they do. Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) is the one who spots the enormous white stag at a cliff in the morning. She stares it down, prevents Ser Criston (Fabien Frankel) from killing it, and lets it gallop away. How to read the moment (or even how she reads the moment) is opaque, by design. But the whole scene feels a bit mystical, tapping into the type of magic Game of Thrones used to employ to keep its high fantasy characters guessing about the future.

Magic in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is unpredictable and haphazardly spread through the world. No religion had a monopoly on magic, but none of them had a clear grasp on it either. There were changing faces, reanimation, and ghost demon babies, and all existed with the same predictability as lightning, or a vision from looking into a fire.

But magic is also not something found in Fire & Blood, the book House of the Dragon is based on. The book itself is a fairly dry recounting of the events as told by three people who witnessed (or “witnessed”) them. While George R.R. Martin brought whole characters back to life in the A Song of Ice and Fire books that the show left dead, Fire & Blood reads more like a textbook, and thus skips the more otherworldly elements of Martin’s world.

The stag hunt of episode 3, just like Aegon the Conqueror’s dream from episode 1, is a step back toward the more supernatural world of Thrones. This time the story may be one we know the end of, but the signs along the way are more ambiguously otherworldly. The Iron Throne seems to reject certain occupants, and the white stag appears to those who might be worthy. But is any of that the best metric for being a good ruler? Only the gods (and book readers) may know.

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