“House of the Dragon,” like “Game of Thrones” before it, explores the violent subjugation of women and the distortion of sexuality in a misogynist, feudal society. Debates around both shows have focused on hoary arguments – about whether depiction is endorsement and whether putting violence on screen is necessary to make a point. But this quibbling misses what makes the shows such interesting companion pieces.
If “Game of Thrones” was about the society-wide impact of cruel social norms, “House of the Dragon” is a more personal, and in some ways more politically complex, study of intimate decision-making.
The people behind the shows don’t quite seem to realize what they have given us. Rather than defending their subject matter and aesthetic choices in a straightforward way, executives have resorted to citing historical precedent as justification. The showrunners didn’t choose violence, this line of argument goes. They didn’t invent such events as the Black Dinner of 1440 or the horrors of premodern obstetrics. History thrust that nastiness upon them.
Rather than making excuses, the team behind “House of the Dragon” should take credit for what they have created. With abortion access up in the air and moral panic sweeping the land, the more tough, provocative depictions of sex, pregnancy and violence we’re asked to confront, the better.
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Take the merciless birth sequence that dominated the show’s first episode. It’s bloody and awful – and a reaffirmation that pregnancy is a gamble of the highest order.
When Westeros’s Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke), the mother in that sequence, declares that for royal women “the childbed is our battlefield,” she doesn’t sound so different from Irin Carmon, who wrote that during pregnancy, “your flesh will be torn asunder, whether what you are carrying feels like an invited guest or an invader. “
Like Atlantic writer Annie Lowrey, Aemma experiences medical agonies. After giving birth, Lowrey was “so itchy that I demanded a surgeon amputate my legs.” Aemma is butchered during a primitive, unanesthetized attempt to deliver her baby via Caesarean section, a procedure authorized by her husband di lei, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine).
Advances in treatment aside, pregnancy remains freighted with risk and uncertainty. And trying to get pregnant is still to long for something that could kill you, deform you or break your heart.
Pregnancy is also personal in a way that defies the cool logic of politics. Pro-choice women might find themselves hesitant to discard frozen embryos. Antiabortion advocates make wrenching choices to terminate pregnancies in circumstances they once kept at intellectual arm’s-length.
And pregnancy isn’t the only subject for which this is true. “House of the Dragon” is best when it delves into the power dynamics of sex and marriage, and the tension between duty and desire, as those forces play out in the lives of two young women.
Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock), the heir to her father’s throne, represents a libertine perspective: She craves both the crown typically reserved for men and the sexual freedom they enjoy. Her best friend of hers, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), is duty personified.
Their friendship founders when Alicent, at the direction of her father, marries the king. The marriage is a shocking realignment of the relationship between the girls. Princess Rhaenyra is confounded by Alicent’s willing participation of her in a system that treats people as mere political instruments, even in their most private lives. And given the dutiful sex Alicent has with the much older and actively decaying Viserys, and the lack of connection she feels with the babies she bears him, viewers will perhaps share Rhaenyra’s opinion di lei.
Alicent, meanwhile, discovers that Rhaenyra has seduced a knight protecting the royal family – one who once swore himself to chastity. Alicent is shocked by Rhaenyra’s sexual recklessness di lei and her willingness di lei to jeopardize her fragile position di lei as heir to the throne. Given what happens next – the knight, in a rage after Rhaenyra marries someone else, lashes out violently – she is correct to be.
Each woman is appalled by the other’s choices. And the show suggests that neither of them is wrong.
“House of the Dragon” argues, in essence, that both prudes and libertines have a point – maybe even the same point. Sex is too high-stakes, physically and emotionally, for anyone to be entirely casual about it.
In fantasy and in the real world, lives are on the line.