It's a clear, cool day in mid-August which means it's not unfolding anywhere near the blast furnace of Long Island. Instead, this particular day is happening north of Pittsburgh where thousands of people have gathered to live out their (to be blunt) fantasies.
This is the annual gathering of the Society for Creative Anachronism, which describes itself as "an inclusive community pursuing research and re-creation of pre-seventeenth century skills, arts, combat and culture."
By "pursuing," that means elaborate cosplay involving Anything Medieval — notably set-piece battles staged by thousands of attendees from around the world dressed in chain mail.
These are hardcore fantasists who know their fantasy, and one is Coram native Gil Rappold, one of Long Island's best-known fantasy experts who runs a Selden gaming store called Brothers Grimm.
While taking a break in between jousts and longbow contests, he is asked about the other most important fantasy event of the entire year: "House of the Dragon," the extravagant, dragon-filled prequel to "Game of Thrones," arriving Aug. 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
One can almost discern a yawn on the other end of the phone.
"'House of the Dragon?' How do I put this?" he says, pausing to seek an assessment that is diplomatic before deciding otherwise: "The ending of 'Game of Thrones' was so bad that I don't know if I ever want to put myself through that again. I've talked to a number of people who are very hesitant of 'House of the Dragon' because they don't want to invest the time to just have another horrendous ending."
That "horrendous" ending — "GOT" wrapped eight seasons on May 19, 2019 — was indeed divisive. As a baleful reminder, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) stabbed his aunt/lover — AKA the Mad Queen of the seven Kingdoms — Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) while both were in a fevered embrace.
Cue to a few million Bronx cheers.
One of those bitterly disappointed was Fabrice Gaillard of Centereach, who describes the "final season as a culmination of the biggest series since 'The Sopranos,' but instead we get all those errors?" Gaillard cites "the Starbucks cup in episode two" and the absence of lighting in another episode. (That infamous cup was inadvertently placed on the table in one scene, then made it on air.)
"And the finale? Not even gonna go there."
As a result, Gaillard — who is a bartender at Old Fields in Port Jefferson when he's not otherwise consuming a vast amount of fantasy fiction — says "I'm not keen" on 'House of the Dragon.' I've gotta wait and see."
Newsday reached out to a handful of Long Island-based fans recently and the divisions run deep.
"It took me time to come to terms with the finale because there were so many expectations that I had and it took a completely different turn," says Mel Normoyle, an office manager in Holtsville who lives in Holbrook.
"But it was more of a surprise than a letdown, and I wouldn't say it ruined the entire show for me. Would I change the last season? Sure, but I really love this franchise as a whole, and I can't let one or maybe a couple unpleasant episodes ruin the entire series. That's the direction I'm trying to take with 'House of the Dragon.'"
She sees "'House of Dragons' as an attempt at redemption. Not that it's meant ''make up for the entire season' of 'Game' but it will bring back what people loved about the story in the first place — the intrigues, the battles, the infighting and everyone's favorites — the dragons."
Divisions and disappointments aside, "House of the Dragon" arrives with a singular advantage: That singular series called "Game of Thrones."
When "GoT" launched on April 17, 2011, viewers were effectively taken by surprise because they'd never seen anything on TV quite like this — a hugely ambitious series of theatrical scope, based on the complex characters and intricate stories from a beloved franchise, George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire."
Fans of the book series were on board instantly, while those new to the world of Martin arrived next. Subcultures were built up around both of these too. The book fans closely tracked (and quibbled with) how the book was translated to the screen. The rest of the viewers — the vast bulk of them, really — didn't really seem to have cared less. They came for the spectacle (those dragons and White Walkers), and characters (Jon Snow — alive or dead?) and violence ("The Red Wedding") .
"GoT" was soon a thing — a very big thing, while late in its run, arguably the biggest thing in pop culture.
"House of the Dragon," by contrast, arrives without that element of surprise. It's a known quantity that will take place in a particularly well-known universe — that one of "Ice and Fire." Even the dragons — there will be 17 named ones in this 10-part series — will be a familiar element.
"I'm just looking for spectacle and decent political drama," says superfan Alex Hecatomb of Selden (Hecatomb — his stage name, by the way — is lead singer in a Long Island-based death metal band, Reign of Fear.)
"I know it will look great and the special effects will be outstanding. That's always going to be a draw because if it wasn't Hollywood would have stopped doing movies with special effects a long time ago."
Like "GoT," this series is also based on a book — Martin's "Fire & Blood" — which some fans have read, and others, like Hecatomb, have purposely avoided. "I have kept myself blind to everything about 'House of the Dragon,'" he says, "because I've learned it's much more difficult to enjoy things when you have expectations that go with them."
Bonofacio Diaz, formerly of Levittown (he recently moved to North Carolina), says has avoided both book and trailers for the same reason ("I want to be fully immersed"). Like others, Diaz has some lingering disappointment with "GoT" but "that wasn't going to ruin the entire series for me."
This current split among fans "is similar to Marvel fandom. When a movie comes out, 50% say 'I love it' and the other 50% are, 'that was so cringy. That's not how the comics work.'"
Meanwhile, back at the Society for Creative Anachronism event north of Pittsburgh, Rappold and a group of fellow fantasists are about to return to the field of action for some more re-enactment of the so-called Pennsic Wars, the SCA's annual staged medieval "war" between the (so-called) Kingdom of the East and the Middle Kingdom.
He's about to elaborate further on his concerns about "House of the Dragon," then decides to survey his friends instead.
"Hey guys," he says, holding up his cellphone. "Quick question for you? Anyone excited about 'House of the Dragon?'"
He brings the phone back to his ear. "I got a 'no,' and my wife says she's not gonna pay another 50 bucks [a year] to HBO for that. I got someone over here saying they're 'curious,' and another saying 'I might pirate it,' and another one saying he might pirate it too."
And these people, Rappold concludes ominously, are "the core viewing demographic" for the single most important TV series of 2022.
SEVEN BURNING QUESTIONS
Arriving Aug. 21 on HBO, the most ambitious prequel in TV history has a few people reasonably wondering, what is all the fuss about anyway? Yes, "House of the Dragon" will have dragons — 17, to be exact — and a cast of thousands. There will be huge battles on land, at sea and in the air. Great armies will clash by day and by night. There will be fire and there will be blood.
What else to expect?
What is the series about exactly?
This 10-parter will tell the whole story of the Dance of the Dragons — well-known to fans of "GoT" and George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" — which is shorthand for the especially violent war of succession between factions of House Targaryen. Events unfold about 300 years before those of "Game of Thrones."
What caused this "war of succession" — or civil war?
King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine), the fifth king of the Seven Kingdoms, is a popular and benevolent ruler — highly unusual for House Targaryen, which has had a succession of especially brutal leaders, like Maegor the Cruel. When he fails to sire a son, he declares that first-born daughter, and ruling princess of Dragonstone, Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D'Arcy) — also, incidentally, a highly skilled dragon-rider — will become queen regnant upon his death.
His younger brother, Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) is passed over (at least for the moment). But Viserys' succession plan hits a snag: His new wife, Lady Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), has bore him a son, and eventually she'll want him to assume the Iron Thone. When Viserys does die (unclear whether that will happen the first season), she conveniently neglects to tell Princess Rhaenyra. She gets her forces in order. When Rhaenyra and Daemon find out about the trickery, they do the same. One faction would be called "The Blacks" and the other "The Greens." The Dance of the Dragons is about to begin…
One little problem: Visesrys has remarried, and his wife Lady Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) has borne him children, and she wants one of them to assume the Iron Throne. When Viserys does die, she conveniently neglects to tell Princess Rhaenyra while she gets her forces in order. When Rhaenyra and Daemon find out, they do the same. One faction would be called "The Blacks" and the other "The Greens." The Dance of the Dragons is about to begin.
What's this all based upon?
Back when "GoT" was a raging success, and Martin was still struggling to complete the final two volumes of "Ice and Fire," he turned his attention elsewhere — to a book that would come to be known as "Fire & Blood." Rather than a conventional novel, Martin decided upon a history of the House Targaryen, famed for its dragons and its willingness to use them in combat. Like most Martin books, "Fire & Blood'' is big, but the actual story of "House of the Dragon" doesn't pick up until its midpoint with these words: "The Dance of the Dragons is the flower name bestowed upon the savage internecine struggle for the Iron Throne of Westeros, fought between two rival branches of House Targaryen during the years 129 to 131 AC. To characterize this period as a 'dance' strikes us as grotesquely inappropriate … the Dying of the Dragons would be altogether more fitting …"
Oh dear, what happens to the poor dragons?
As "GoT" fans will recall, dragons appear to have been extinct — "appeared" because in time, three would be hatched. But the Targaryens had between them nearly 20 — most of which would perish during the civil war.
It all sounds awfully violent. Is it?
"Fire & Blood'' is awfully (awfully) violent, and "House of the Dragon" is expected to be as well. Martin — a co-producer on the series along with showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik — almost seemed to luxuriate in the brutality on page after page. But the bloodletting had a larger point — notable about the savagery of wars between brothers (and sisters). Moreover, "Fire & Blood'' took place in the distant past in the history of Westeros, when extreme violence was normalized, if not fetishized.
"House of the Dragon" will have 17 dragons. How will anyone ever begin to tell them apart?
As Martin and others have explained, each will have unique (and memorable) names — as they do in the book — and also different colors. In interviews, Martin has said each will have his or her own personality. As such, he has promised, each will be instantly recognizable.
What does Martin have to say about his newest mega-event-series?
During an extensive interview on the "Ice and Fire" fan podcast, "Game of Owns," this past July, he described "House of the Dragon'' as a "dark story and the characters are complex — driven by ambitions and power and revenge — for slights that were done to them — and by lust. Those are the kind of characters I like to write about — their good side and their bad side. We don't have Orcs [the White Walkers of 'GoT' fulfilled that particular role] but we don't have any glowing heroic characters either.
"If it does well, you'll see more seasons and more successor series [and there are a number of other 'GOT' spinoffs now in development]. If it flops, then who the hell knows. After the life I've had, I don't take anything for granted. So I've crossed my fingers and hope fans will continue to enjoy it." — VERNE GAY