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How ‘House of the Dragon’ Season 2 plans to build on casting success of prior season

As the second season of “House of the Dragon” nears, Northeastern media and communications experts say that most of the hubbub over casting controversies is now firmly in the past.

A screen capture of a scene in House of the Dragon.
The second season of “House of the Dragon,” the prequel series to the hugely popular HBO epic “Game of Thrones,” debuts June 16. Photograph by Ollie Upton/HBO

The second season of “House of the Dragon,” the prequel series to the hugely popular HBO epic “Game of Thrones,” debuts June 16. When the series premiered in 2022, much had been written about the show’s diverse cast, particularly after a vocal minority of readers loyal to the book found themselves at odds with some of the casting decisions — objections that veered into racist territory.  

Others noted that the showrunners and producers fumbled the opportunity to foreground, among other things, more “Afrocentric features” (one of the main characters, Corlys Velaryon, is played by Black actor Steve Toussaint), suggesting that the focus on Black casting, in the end, amounted to mere “checkmark” diversity

Now that the second season is nearing, have the show’s experiments in diverse casting — however imperfect — contributed to its success? 

Northeastern media and communications experts say that most of the hubbub over the show’s casting decisions is firmly in the past, but that a lot of it read as a misapprehension of the forces at play in book-to-screen adaptations.

“The show was a bona fide hit,” Steve Granelli, associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, says. “And the success of the show drowned out any of those concerns about casting, which have proven short-sighted.”

Granelli continues: “Now we’re two years later, and I think the takeaway is that the creator or auteur’s vision wins out when it comes to fans feeling like they have ownership over a text.” 

The decision to cast Toussaint was hailed as “revolutionary” by some. More recently, the actor spoke of the glowing reception that he’s received since the initial backlash in 2022.

Laurel Ahnert, an assistant teaching professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern, says that the question of who gets to be represented on TV is especially important today as the industry strives to make shows and movies that depict society in all its diversity. That work, Ahnert says, usually takes place “behind the camera,” through the hiring of more diverse writers, showrunners and others involved in the production process. 

In front of the camera — and on screen — she says that casting quarrels among fans and critics often ignore some of the economic realities of TV production.     

“The reason why we’re seeing more and more diverse casting isn’t because executive producers are suddenly really invested in multiculturalism,” she says. “It’s because they have their eye on the audiences they want to target, and unfortunately it’s not just these exclusive, die-hard fans with these strong opinions — it’s a broader, global audience.”

Ahnert says that while diversity concerns amount to a shared responsibility within the industry, economic incentives often drive casting decisions. “Usually the way that it’s framed is this issue of representation, and the ethical and political decision-making that goes into casting,” she says.

“Certainly the casting directors, showrunners and producers have political and ethical values that shape those decisions, but they’re also people in a business,” Ahnert continues. “A lot of those decisions are predicated on who is going to be signing the checkbook at the end of the day, and those people doing the signing are only going to fork over money if they feel that the actors being cast are bankable, or that these decisions are going to pay off.”

Granelli and Ahnert spoke about how the chatter surrounding cast selection in “House of the Dragon” recalls the controversy that followed the production of the “Lord of the Rings” prequel “The Rings of Power.” Critics of the decision to cast Black and brown actors in the prequel series isn’t about racism, but rather about remaining loyal to J. R.R. Tolkien’s vision.

The pair say that fans of the franchise — by narrowing the scope of “authentic” interpretation to a particular reading — are effectively engaging in a problematic form of gatekeeping, one with racist implications.

“People read texts and feel some ownership over it because reading a book is an intimate experience,” Ahnert says. “It’s your own imagination; whatever you picture in your mind feels to you like the most authentic reading of the text.”

But with so few examples of non-white actors being cast in non-white roles, correcting for “historically problematic” casting choices is to be expected. Further, Ahnert argues, it’s a shared responsibility within the industry.

“Historically, we have so many examples of white actors performing in yellow- and blackface,” Ahnert says. 

Granelli notes that on-screen fantasy as a genre relies on a number of storytelling devices — everything from the use of language and social norms, to the presence (or absence) of technology — that borrow from reality, ultimately in service of a purely imagined world of universe. 

“If you’re going to be transitioning a work from text into a visual medium, there are going to be some changes that have to be made,” he says.