"House of the Dragon" director Geeta Vasant Patel triumphs by fueling dragon fire with feeling

The director breaks down key scenes in Episode 3 and their connection to her acclaimed episode "Lord of the Tides"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 1, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)
Emma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)

When “House of the Dragon” director Geeta Vasant Patel says, “I'm gonna tell you a story,” pay attention, because you're in for a moving saga. Her track record with the series proves it – she steered Season 1's epic “Lord of the Tides,” which still ranks as the series' highest-rated among IMDb users.

That episode set up Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) to install her son Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney) on the throne, which Alicent’s husband King Viserys Targaryen had previously promised to his daughter Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy) and named his heir before the great houses. Viserys is mortally ill, alive but rotting away.

Yet with his strength nearly spent, he agonizingly lumbers down the long walk to the Iron Throne to defend his daughter’s name and all she’s due by her birthright. There’s a backstory behind that moving sequence too, and it informs the pulse of this season's third episode, the second “House of the Dragon” episode Patel directs.

But that’s not the one she wants to tell me in answer to my question of whether she felt a particular pressure in directing that first season episode that announced her as a formidable player in George R.R. Martin’s realm.

Instead, she walked me through everything that led to what would be the biggest shot of her career. Patel has been working in Hollywood since 2001, starting as an assistant writer on feature films like “The Fast and the Furious” and “Blue Crush.” In 2008 she wrote, produced and directed her first documentary, but it wasn’t until 2014 when she and her brother, actor Ravi Patel, made the romantic documentary “Meet the Patels” that she finally landed an agent. By then she was 35.

When she sat down with her representatives, she recalls them being eager to kick her documentary career into the next gear. “And I said, you know, I actually want to work on ‘Game of Thrones.’ Like, that was my goal,” she told me in a recent conversation over Zoom. “And I remember everyone's face was kind of like . . . 'Honey, honey, honey, honey,’ you know what I mean?”

But she didn’t give up. “I pushed and annoyed them to no end, every day since then. And thank God, my agents actually were pushable,” she said.

Then, at long last, she got her shot at the next best thing when she was called in to pitch herself for “House of the Dragon.” During the seven years that transpired between her voicing her dream to her agents and sitting down in front of the drama’s producers, she gathered all the experience she could, logging directing credits for comedy half-hours like “The Mindy Project” and “Fresh Off the Boat” and acclaimed dramas such as “P-Valley,” “The Magicians” and “The Great.”

Nevertheless, she knew heading into that meeting that she was the underdog choice. So she made a reel of her work set to Ramin Djawadi’s music, explained how she worked and assured them she could rise to the occasion. “I told them I could fill every single category you need to fill to be a ‘Game of Thrones’ director and capture the epic quality,” she said. “And I got the job. It was one of the greatest days of my career.”

Then came the kicker: “I found that I was pregnant.”

House of the DragonEmma D'Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen and Bethany Antonia as Baela Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)

Understanding the history of Westeros is one thing. Patel’s seven-year journey requires a look back at “Game of Thrones”' hiring history with female directors. Don’t worry, it’s short: Michelle MacLaren directed two episodes in its third season and a pair in Season 4. Fin.

"This was about the past. It actually wasn't about the present,” Patel says of the third episode's climactic meeting.

Patel recalls thinking that MacLaren didn’t have children, and based on the show’s schedule, her first season episode would head into production shortly after she’d given birth. People tried to talk her out of taking on that responsibility on top of nursing a newborn. She almost did.

“Then my mother, an immigrant woman said, ‘You know what? No. You've been working your whole career for this I came to this country with nothing. I raised kids with nothing. Mom, Dad, and your husband, all of us, we're all coming to London with you. You're going to direct this and you're going to hand me the baby, and we're going to be fine," she said, adding, “And that's what we did.”

So to answer my question, yes, the pressure was incredible, “and it was my own pressure, I'm sure,” she added. “I didn't think I could be sick. I was already the underdog director. I think I was the youngest. I was the least experienced. I mean, I was scared out of my mind.”

But that pressure yielded a gem, and an invitation to helm two more in this second season: the third episode and the finale.

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Where “Lord of the Tides” was primarily filmed in interior sets, Episode 3, "The Burning Mill," tasked Patel with connecting many moving parts, zooming between Dragonstone, King's Landing, Harrenhal and the Riverlands, including the skies above. 

With a war between Rhaenyra’s Blacks and Aegon’s Greens all but an inevitability, Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) musters his men, including Alicent’s brother Ser Gwayne Hightower (Freddie Fox), to take an army North. There, two feuding clans — the Brackens and the Blackwoods – had a bloody skirmish with heavy losses on both sides, ostensibly over a border dispute but also over one family siding with the Greens and the others with the Blacks.

Meanwhile, a petulant Daemon (Matt Smith) flies his dragon Caraxes to Harrenhal to claim it for Rhaenyra, which he does single-handedly since it is unguarded, decaying and cursed. There he has haunting dreams of a younger Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) chastising him for leaving a political mess for her to fix.

House of the DragonOlivia Cooke as Alicent Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)

But the soul of the episode rests with two pairs of sisters. Its climax shows Rhaenyra sneaking into the Great Sept of Baelor to blindside her former friend Alicent at prayer in an effort to persuade the Dowager Queen to steer her sons away from war.

Alicent rejects Rhaenyra before revealing, in her retelling of Viserys’ final moments, that she misunderstood the dying Viserys’ words about the Song of Ice and Fire and the Prince That Was Promised – a traditional secret he passed down to his daughter and intended heir, but not Alicent’s son. But to Alicent, who seems to understand she made a mistake, none of that matters now. She can’t stop what’s in motion and doesn’t want to.

"I don’t think it was a coincidence that I directed Episode 3."

The other rival sisters are Daemon’s children Baela (Bethany Antonia) and Rhaena (Phoebe Campbell). Hard as it is to tell all the various Targaryens and Velaryons apart, this one’s easy: Baela has a dragon, and Rhaena does not. And while Baela is tasked with helping her grandmother Rhaenys (Eve Best) patrol the realm from the sky on her mount Moondancer, Rhaenyra sends Rhaena off to Pentos with her youngest sons, the Blacks’ tiniest dragons and four eggs. And she is not happy with that mission.

Among the many critiques “Game of Thrones” sustained for excluding women directors from its production related to its unnuanced portrayal of gender dynamics. Along with Patel, “House of the Dragon” also works with Clare Kilner, who helmed the second episode “Rhaenyra the Cruel.”

Patel says she directs from a highly emotional place, although gender has nothing to do with that; the director who influences her work the most, she said, is Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient,” “Cold Mountain”). But she’s also informed by the power of feeling. Returning for a moment to Viserys' near-death walk, she told me that scene was shot and reshot many times until she landed on what made it hit us in the gut.

Showing the dying King walking to the throne felt bloodless. But showing him gasping and struggling toward his daughter? “That brought tears to my eyes,” Patel said, “because to me, that was my dad walking to me . . . I needed to make that scene have the emotion that we all could relate to.”

That also ties to the meeting between Alicent and Rhaenyra in Episode 3, charged with animus, longing, and the type of externalized inner conflict born of two ex-best friends missing each other in crucial moments.

“I don’t think it was a coincidence that I directed Episode 3, with the two of them,” Patel said. “When [series co-creator and showrunner Ryan Condal] called me and said, ‘these are the episodes you're doing, he made a point to say, ‘You will be directing the first scene with Rhaenys and Alicent coming together.’ It was a continuation.”  

To bring D’Arcy and Cooke to that stinging, mournful exchange in the Sept, she recalled a personal experience. “I was bullied at 14,” she said. “And somebody said something bad to me the other day, and I was 14 again. It never goes away. And so that's something that we specifically focused on, that feeling."

Later she added, “I hope you felt that when you watched it, that this was about the past. It actually wasn't about the present.”

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Rhaena and Baela’s rivalry is closer to home for her. “I related to Rhaena a lot. Like I've done everything right, and then my brother was making all the money. You know?” she said. “Rhaena, she did everything right, and she didn't get a dragon, whereas Baela, she was a rebel, she didn't follow any rules, and she got the dragon. And that sucks!”

House of the DragonPhoebe Campbell as Rhaena Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)

To get the actors into that mind frame, Patel had them improvise an entire backstory of slights and resentments, which escalated into them yelling at each other. So if Rhaena's scorn and Baela's casual haughtiness jumped off the screen, know that it came from an elaborately imagined place.

All these small moments set up a fourth episode which, as many critics have hinted, showcases the fiery spectacle that "House of the Dragon" viewers have been itching to see. And Patel appreciates that duty. “To be honest, looking at the fact that we are building to what’s next, it's really fun to know that you are that last note before what's going to happen happens.”

Besides, she’s already gotten one of her biggest wishes granted after her success with “Lord of the Tides.”

“When I got ‘Lord of Tides,’ I was like, ‘Aw, I didn't even get a dragon,'" Patel said with a faux pout. "It's funny, I know. But I got a great script . . . And I think my dad saw [Ryan Condal] after that and was like, ‘You better give her a dragon next year.’”

As of now, she has two.

New episodes of "House of the Dragon" premiere at 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO and on Max.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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