“House of the Dragon”, as “game of thronesbefore him explores the violent subjugation of women and the distortion of sexuality in a misogynistic and feudal society. Debates around the two shows focused on antiquated arguments – to know if representation is an endorsement and if putting violence on the screen is necessary to make a point. But this quibbling misses what makes the shows so interesting.
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’ve given us. Rather than defending their subject and their aesthetic choices in a direct way, the leaders resorted to historical precedents as justification. The showrunners have not Choose violence, this line of argument goes. They did not invent events such as the black dinner of 1440 or the horrors of premodern obstetrics. History has imposed this wickedness on them.
Rather than making excuses, the team behind “House of the Dragon” should take credit for what they created. With access to abortion in the air and moral panic sweeping the country, the more harsh and provocative portrayals of sex, pregnancy and violence we are asked to confront, the better.
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Take the ruthless birth sequence which dominated the first episode of the series. It’s bloody and awful – and a reaffirmation that pregnancy is a top-notch gamble.
When Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke) of Westeros, the mother of this sequence, declares that for royal women “the crib is our battleground”, she doesn’t seem so different from Irin Carmon, who wrote this during pregnancy, “your flesh will be torn whether what you wear looks like an invited guest or an invader”.
Like the Atlantic writer Annie Lowrey, Aemma experiences medical suffering. After to give birth, Lowrey was “so itchy that I had a surgeon amputate my legs.” Aemma is slaughtered in a primitive, unanesthetized attempt to deliver her baby by caesarean section, a procedure authorized by her husband, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine).
Aside from therapeutic advances, pregnancy remains full of risks and uncertainties. And trying to get pregnant is still wanting too much for something that could kill you, deform you, or break your heart.
Pregnancy is also personal in a way that defies the cold logic of politics. Pro-choice women might be hesitant to discard frozen embryos. Abortion advocates are making harrowing choices to end pregnancies in circumstances they once kept at an intellectual distance.
And pregnancy is not 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 these 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 outlook: she longs for both the crown usually reserved for men and the sexual freedom they enjoy. Her best friend, Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), is duty personified.
Their friendship falls apart when Alicent, under the guidance of her father, marries the king. The wedding is a shocking realignment of the relationship between the girls. Princess Rhaenyra is baffled by Alicent’s willful participation in a system that treats people as mere political instruments, even in their most private lives. And given the devoted sex Alicent has with the much older and decaying Viserys, and the lack of connection she feels with the babies she carries, viewers may agree with Rhaenyra.
Alicent, meanwhile, discovers that Rhaenyra has seduced a knight protecting the royal family – one who once swore chastity to himself. Alicent is shocked by Rhaenyra’s sexual recklessness and willingness to jeopardize her fragile position as heir to the throne. Considering what happens next – the knight, angry after Rhaenyra marries someone else, violently lashes out – she’s right.
Each woman is appalled by the other’s choices. And the show suggests that none of them are wrong.
“House of the Dragon” argues, in essence, that prudes and libertines have a point – maybe even the same point. Sex is too big an issue, physically and emotionally, for anyone to be totally flippant about.
In fantasy and in the real world, lives are at stake.