I almost didn’t watch House of the Dragon.
When I finally did, I nearly gave up in the first episode. It was the very brutal and visceral childbirth scene that almost ejected me, wherein Queen Aemma Arryn, the first wife of King Viserys, dies in long, drawn-out anguish, along with the much-awaited male heir who survives her by only a few moments. The scene brought back bitter memories of hospital visits, blood-stained sickbeds ,and the terrifying helplessness of doing everything in your power but still being unable to save someone you love—experiences to which, I suspect, most people who have lost a family member or a close friend over the pandemic can relate. Moreover, here in India, where female infanticide remains an under-reported crime even in the present day, the obsession of Viserys and his realm with the male child feels all too painfully familiar. From whispered anecdotes passed down by my grandmother and mother about all the small ways in which a woman’s will is constantly curtailed by patriarchal forces to the numerous scars and scabs of domestic violence and other tragedies that are rarely acknowledged—or are glossed over in regular conversation as though they are simply an imperceptible detail—my first awareness of identifying as a “girl” or a “woman” wasn’t so much a matter of gender as it was the realization that I was a liability to my parents—and to myself.
The women characters on this new HBO series—the spin-off, of course, from Game of Thrones (2011-2019)—are similarly well aware of their disadvantages and the precarious political position they inhabit in society. They negotiate with their sense of helplessness in different ways—sometimes by outright rebellion but more so by compromising, by giving in to societal demands and traditional expectations, concealing their weaknesses and putting on a façade of nonchalance, conspiring to make life worse for their enemies or oppressing those with fewer privileges than them. Of course, this is exactly how hierarchal systems of power continue to perpetuate themselves in a world whose crumbling foundations are built on injustice and a constant competition for resources. Although House of the Dragon is structured as a tragedy, I couldn’t help but wonder that perhaps the real tragedy of the show was that it was so fucking relatable.
So I stuck with the show, yet still warily. The narrative structures of popular media often subscribe to some form of the just-world fallacy (and perhaps, such feel-good coping mechanisms are required to distract oneself from the horrors of capitalism). At the very least, an average show’s main characters (or at least its heroes) ultimately get rewarded for their virtues while the villains are punished for their evil actions. To an extent, such fairytale endings satisfy viewers with emotional closure—a sort of cathartic joy that validates their belief that the world is a fundamentally good place, or that there is some divine providence to ensure that people get what they deserve (even if, and especially when, the same rarely happens in real life). Game of Thrones famously upended all that by beheading Ned Stark in the penultimate episode of season one. Subsequent seasons continued the trend, prompting people on the internet to speculate which of their favorite characters would make it out alive by the end of it. But this grimdark world was also notorious for its unfettered misogyny. The female characters in the series (among others, of course) were routinely and brutally raped, tortured, and murdered—although the books arguably contain much greater levels of violence than what was depicted on-screen.
George R. R. Martin defended the portrayal of sexual violence in his Song of Ice and Fire novels in an interview with The New York Times, saying:
An artist has an obligation to tell the truth. My novels are epic fantasy, but they are inspired by and grounded in history. Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day. To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest, and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves. We are the monsters. (And the heroes too). Each of us has within himself the capacity for great good, and great evil.
Thus, “historical” accuracy was not the only defense for Martin’s choice of depicting graphic violence. It was also a key element in the storyteller’s philosophy about how the world functioned, within which greater emphasis is placed upon individual choice. Acts of monstrosity are not the work of monsters, but of people—and Martin’s books faithfully reflect the depravity of human nature. Nevertheless, the popular critique (rightfully) leveled against the novels’ TV adaptation was that it constantly exploited sexual violence against women for its “shock value”—titillating audiences with added perversions and horrors. This, in turn, normalized gratuitous violence as the default mode in telling stories about women in general, and epic fantasy narratives in particular.
It might have been reasonable to expect the show’s prequel series to do the same. But House of the Dragon (set in the same fictional continent of Westeros but some two hundred years before the events of Game of Thrones) takes on a more nuanced approach to adapting the source material, even as it eschews any notion of poetic justice in much the way of its more lascivious predecessor. Decadent, meditative, and richly relevant for our times, the show is suffused with a looming sense of gloom and misfortune throughout. The ten episodes spin an effusive generational saga, chronicling, through multiple exchanges and conflicts of power, the travails and tragedies of three noblewomen: Rhaenyra, the daughter of King Viserys and heir to the Iron Throne; Alicent, her childhood best friend who later marries Viserys and becomes the Queen; and Rhaenys, the elder cousin to Viserys, known informally as the “Queen Who Never Was.” Through this trio, the show explores how female agency is circumscribed by and contingent upon the limited ways in which one is able to negotiate with patriarchal power structures.
From the toils of childbirth to the failures of organized structures to protect survivors of sexual assault, to critiquing the institution of marriage itself and tracing the blood-splattered lineage of intergenerational trauma, House of the Dragon deeply and unabashedly delves into the struggles of women, and finds neither hope nor redemption. It is evident that none of its morally grey characters will get a happy ending or justice—because patriarchal power has not willed it so. Instead, these women discover that, more often than not, it might be more prudent to compromise with patriarchy as opposed to attempting to dismantle it entirely.
Quite early on, Aemma, the queen consort who will shortly die in childbirth, tells her young daughter, Rhaenyra, that “the childbed is our battlefield.” Soon after, she goes into labor. When King Viserys opts to save the child’s life even if it kills the mother—a decision that ultimately results in the deaths of his wife and his potential heir to the Iron Throne—he is led, stricken by remorse and fearful of his brother Daemon’s rising influence, to name his only daughter as heir, and stands by his decision until his last breath. But neither his advisors nor the general populace are ready to be ruled by a woman. Rhaenyra’s childhood companion, Alicent Hightower, marries Viserys and births two sons (who later emerge as contenders for the Iron Throne) and a daughter (who—of course!—does not); meanwhile, Rhaenyra and her children are sidelined, culminating in a (possibly multi-season) vicious and devastating civil war involving dragons. We know from the books that this conflict triggers the fall of the Targaryen dynasty.
The battleground of childbirth, then, foregrounds and forecloses the narrative of House of the Dragon. Despite all his protestations of love, Viserys ultimately treats his wives as mere reproductive vessels whose sole duty to the kingdom is to produce heirs, no matter the cost. His brother Daemon appears to be slightly better—in that he, at least, doesn’t, when she experiences complications with her pregnancy, voluntarily order the slaughter of his second wife and Rhaenys’s daughter, Laena Velaryon, to save their child (although, to be fair, he does murder his first wife and chokes his third during a disagreement, rebalancing the scales of villainy). Rather than dying in childbirth, Laena dies on her own terms by immolating herself in dragon flame—the closest thing she can get to a dragon-rider’s death.
Likewise, when we encounter the much older Rhaenyra for the first time, she is wincing in pain as she walks up the palace steps, carrying her own newborn to present to Queen Alicent—she has just given birth, yet isn’t allowed the luxury of rest. By the time we reach the finale, fate has plunged Rhaenyra into two simultaneous battles. Under the threat of an impending war of succession, she delivers a stillbirth and, midway through that harrowing process, she calls out to her young sons, Jacaerys and Lucerys, naming them as heirs. In the face of disaster and agony, Rhaenyra somehow manages to show remarkable restraint, and it is precisely for this quality (so often construed as a “virtue” in women) that the older Rhaenys sides with her in the battle for the Iron Throne.
Thus, every birthing scene on the show is traumatic, reflecting back the historically documented horrors of childbirth, and how the entire ordeal, with its horrific pain and potential life-threatening dangers, is merely seen as a natural biological phenomenon that befalls any pregnant person who carries a baby to term. Although we no longer live in medieval conditions and healthcare standards have enormously improved, even now, thousands and thousands of women die from childbirth complications each year, while research into women’s reproductive healthcare remains severely underfunded and underdeveloped. Moreover, the fixation with a male heir is eerily relevant in the light of contemporary discussions about women’s reproductive rights—in which anti-abortionists campaign for the rights of an unborn baby, colluding with state legislation to infringe upon women’s bodily autonomy and disempowering and dehumanizing them further.
For its part, and presumably taking the criticism against Game of Thrones to heart, House of the Dragon thankfully hasn’t had a graphic rape scene in any of its episodes so far. Nevertheless, Alicent’s hypocritical reaction to the rape of the servant girl Dyana by Aegon II, the Queen’s eldest son, is an eerie reminder of how those in power continue to protect and enable sex offenders. It takes a lot of courage for a survivor to accuse the perpetrator of sexual assault, but society is rarely on their side. The #MeToo movement highlighted the failures of the judicial system to protect the rights of sexual assault survivors, leaving them to put their faith on the whimsical powers of social media to publicize their trauma in the hope of getting justice and generating solidarity and awareness. Yet, even though it inspired a furore of discussion, changes in workplace policies and the occasional “cancellation” or suspension of influential men from their jobs, the social justice movement also sadly revealed that, at times, even the most glaring evidence is not enough to convict a person if they have enough financial power and social capital to get away with it (unless of course, the mountain of evidence is overwhelmingly huge, as in the case of Harvey Weinstein).
Moreover, women of color—who are more likely to suffer violence than white women—frequently do not have the tools or the community support to seek justice. They are even more likely to be silenced for simply attempting to do so, in the same way that Queen Alicent shuts up the maid Dyana. Alicent certainly believes Dyana’s narrative and appears to sympathize with her, only to offer the maid a sack of coins and a potion to (presumably) prevent pregnancy. In fact, it is not even clear if the potion is a primitive equivalent of a Plan B pill or a poison—and thus, Dyana pays the steep cost of opening up about trauma with an unending silence.
In contrast, the long-ish love-making scene between Rhaenyra and her bodyguard, Ser Criston Cole, in the fourth episode is framed with romantic gracefulness. Nevertheless, it problematizes contemporary notions of “consent” by raising questions about the standards of accountability and behavior in today’s dating and hook-up culture, particularly when the sex occurs not within a relationship or marriage (where there are perhaps clearer expectations of both parties, regardless of whether or not they can live up to them). Rhaenyra and Cole find themselves in an undefined “situationship,” in which there exists an imbalance between the emotional energies invested in the pairing by the people involved—even if there is verbal and enthusiastic consent during sex.
In other words, despite the mutual consent, their sexual act meant different things to the two participants. In House of the Dragon, for Rhaenyra the tryst with Cole is her first chance to explore her erotic desires (albeit spurred by Daemon, who had earlier taken her to a brothel and left her behind after a passionate embrace); but for Cole, it is an opportunity that solidifies his entitlement to Rhaenyra’s body. The scene further complicates the notion of consent when there are clear social and professional hierarchies at play. While Rhaenyra’s value on the marriage market rests upon her virginity, Cole too (as a member of the Kingsguard), has taken a vow of chastity and could face execution if found out. Unlike Jaime Lannister in the parent series, Cole has much more to lose, and is seduced by Rhaenyra (who, by virtue of her royal lineage, holds more power over him). He is also more emotionally invested, as he has been in love with the princess for years and years; yet for Rhaenyra, he simply serves as a replacement for Daemon. Perhaps both could have avoided the messy complications and hurting each other’s feelings if they had held an open conversation about their needs and desires. This, though, would require them to be not just different people, but to live in a different society.
In an article published in The Washington Post, Christine Emba argues for the need to move beyond consent and develop a new sexual ethic, driven by mutual empathy and concern. She argues:
This is the problem with consent: It leaves so much out. Nonconsensual sex is always wrong, full stop. But that doesn’t mean consensual sex is always right. Even sex that is agreed to can be harmful to an individual, their partner or to society at large.
Indeed, a subsequent scene—in which Cole attempts suicide, but is dissuaded at the last moment by Alicent—portrays his predicament in a somewhat sympathetic light … that is, until his masculinist anxieties and the desire for revenge takes over. As a result, the memory of the enjoyable night of sex they shared is forever tainted by his conduct afterward. While regretting a sexual encounter that was predicated upon enthusiastic consent is valid, Cole does not focus on personal healing at all. Instead, he goes out of his way to make life difficult for Rhaenyra and her family, in partnership with his new sponsor, Alicent, who is similarly frustrated by the trajectory of her life and is envious of Rhaenyra’s (seeming) sexual freedom. Both Cole and Rhaenyra are victims of a system in which having sex can potentially ruin their reputations and endanger their lives, but it is his internalized misogyny that ultimately jeopardizes them both.
Of course, Cole’s incel-ish behaviour stems from his acute sense of entitlement and his inability to take no for an answer. He interprets consent during sex as an open invitation to pursue the princess romantically, and is upset when Rhaenyra has no interest in marrying or running away with him. Bitter about the rejection, he gets into a fight and publicly kills Joffrey, the lover of Leanor (Rhaenyra’s fiancé-of-convenience, and also Rhaenys’s son). Later on, in a conversation with Alicent, he calls Rhaenyra a “spoiled cunt” and brutally bullies her children on the fencing training field. Not only does he refuse to accept that consent is ongoing and reversible—that it can be withdrawn by either party at any instant—he is also unable to get over the rejection and sadistically punishes Rhaenyra’s sons—all for not honouring an arrangement he had not stated earlier, and therefore, to which she never consented.
Amia Srinivasan’s Right to Sex (Bloomsbury, 2021)—a collection of feminist essays—also broaches similar issues. Ultimately, while Western dating and hook-up culture appears to challenge traditional patriarchy by granting sexual liberation for women, it does precious little to safeguard women from being preyed upon—while men are generally disclaimed of accountability (emotional or otherwise) if their actions cannot be criminalized. Thus, the romantic scenes in the fourth episode, although set in a nominally “older” era in which traditional patriarchy and segregated gender roles reigned supreme, are peculiarly appropriate for our own time, in which patriarchy has evolved to comingle with, respond to, and even appropriate feminist activism for its own ends while still shaming women (and those of other genders) and policing their bodies.
Thus, Rhaenyra’s sojourn in the town brothels while disguised as a boy with Daemon, as well as enticing Cole to have sex with her that very night, leads to a string of unintended consequences that question her reputation, ruin her friendship with Alicent, and quicken her marital destiny. Even though Daemon appears to “teach” Rhaenyra that marriage need not be a cage—and that women can have sex for pleasure (discreetly) if they so wish—he fails to acknowledge something vital: that in a society in which chastity, reputation, and social value are so insidiously linked, for women (primarily) the price of having sex for pleasure can be very, very high.
Of course, arranged marriages rarely have provisions for pleasurable sex for either party and wives usually get the shorter end of the stick. Rhaenyra’s romantic scenes are crosscut by shots of Alicent’s vapid face as she performs her “duty” for the crown. Like most feudal monarchies, the Targaryen tapestry is threaded with incest and arranged marriages to bolster political alliances. After her single night with Daemon and Cole results in incriminating gossip flooding the court and beyond, Rhaenyra realizes she cannot put off marriage any longer, and nor can she select her choice of husband from a parade of suitors. Even though she is aware that marriage is an inherently oppressive institution that preserves channels of power and generational wealth, she nevertheless tries to retain her agency by coming to a mutual arrangement with her pre-appointed gay fiancé, Laenor Velaryon: they will put up a front of domestic bliss while sleeping with separate partners. Perhaps, in the rarest of cases, arranged marriages can occasionally be liberating (or at least convenient) for women if built on a foundation of friendship and mutual regard for the other’s needs; but even so, it is Velaryon who lives a comparatively carefree life, while Rhaenyra is constantly accused of birthing bastards.
Thus, it is no surprise that, when the actor playing a younger Rhaenyra (a vivacious Milly Alcock) is replaced by an older one (a mellowed Emma D’Arcy) to signal a ten-year time jump, viewers notice that the princess has lost her youthful vitality, naivete, and recklessness. The person who once flew on dragon-back to challenge Daemon and retrieve a dragon egg, completely unfazed, has now succumbed to what the patriarchal society always wanted of her—performing matrimonial duties, raising several kids, taking care of a household—and appears to be calmer and more measured in her outlook. She is ready to compromise for the sake of peace rather than instigate further conflict.
But she still hasn’t completely given up. Later on, Rhaenyra tries to fortify her power by playing the game—she asks for Daemon’s hand in marriage and together they orchestrate Laenor’s fake death (thereby freeing him from the responsibilities of royalty and traditional masculinity). Rhaenyra realizes that she needs male allies to fight daily microaggressions. To an extent, her negotiation with patriarchal power works, as Daemon protects her and provides support—such as when he conveniently beheads Laenor’s uncle, Vaemond, after he seeks revenge on his nephew’s presumed killer by questioning her virtue before the court. But Daemon’s masculinity and war-hungry personality has its own problems: when Rhaenyra wishes to avoid bloodshed in contesting the claim to the throne of Alicent’s son, Aegon II, Daemon would prefer to seize the seat of power by unleashing their dragons right away. When they disagree, he chokes her as if to remind her who is more powerful—a common pitfall when working with male allies whose egos need constant validation and reassurance.
In House of the Dragon, however, marriage doesn’t just propagate the male line, or provide a sort of protection for otherwise vulnerable women. It also perpetuates intergenerational trauma and internalized misogyny. From a young age, Alicent is groomed by her father, Otto Hightower (the King’s Hand, his chief minister); she is ordered to seduce Viserys after the death of the king’s first wife. As the Dowager Queen, she forces her disinterested eldest son to take the throne even though he is clearly unfit for the role. In a brilliant flash of hypocrisy, she even tries to get Rhaenys (who despite being the eldest child did not inherit the Iron Throne, which went to the far less suitable Viserys instead) to join her side in the coming civil war. When the Queen Who Never Was refuses, Alicent tries to prevent her from leaving court. Rhaenys even tells her in the same episode:
A true queen counts the cost to her people. And yet you toil still in service to men. Your father, your husband, your son. You desire not to be free, but to make a window in the wall of your prison. Have you never imagined yourself on the Iron Throne?
Alicent’s power is, of course, limited by her father and advisors, who—unbeknownst to her—were already planning to put Aegon II on the throne long before she misinterprets Viserys’s final words about a prophecy which places special responsibility upon the scions of the Targaryen dynasty (words which were in fact intended for Rhaenyra, and as an endorsement of her branch of the family). Yet, she uses her influence to make life difficult for Rhaenyra, shuts down victims of sexual assault, and protects her own children from the consequences of their own crimes, all while deluding herself into believing that she has done the right thing. She is so convinced that Rhaenyra is the biggest threat to her life and the lives of those she loves that she never questions her male authority figures (Otto, Viserys, and even her chief advisor Larys Strong—who feeds her nuggets of information in exchange for Alicent indulging his foot fetish), each of whom structures her decisions to his own ends. She cannot imagine a better life for herself but merely survives by creating a life that seems better than that of her enemies. This is another reflection of how patriarchy often pits women against each other, making female solidarity extremely difficult to build and sustain.
The generational nature of the show, which spans the lifetimes of the key characters, redoubles the show’s emphasis that fighting for empowerment and searching for a modicum of peace and contentment can often end up being mutually exclusive goals, compelling a person to compromise for the sake of one’s sanity and self-preservation. This is certainly glimpsed in the contrast between the younger, rebellious Rhaenyra and her older “peacemaker” self, but more acutely in the story arc of Rhaenys—who, over the years, makes peace with her predicament as the looked-over heir to a throne now occupied by a less well qualified man. She does not hold a grudge against Viserys, nor does she try to sabotage Rhaenyra’s precarious position in court even after losing both her children in circumstances which both involve Rhaenys’s second husband, Daemon. Instead, she calls out her husband, Corlys Velaryon, for his greed and ambition—which he disguises under a pretext of fighting for her—and displays a sense of sisterhood when she puts aside personal differences to back Rhaenyra as the royal families begin to pick sides.
For a lot of women, survival thus becomes more important than empowerment, and is an act of resilience in itself. The masculinist project of history chronicles the exchanges of power while neglecting the stories of women and the other marginalized folks who chose to relinquish it, or rebel and compromise in smaller ways and to varying degrees of success. Their roles in inspiring the next generation of activists are often thus unacknowledged or taken for granted. In that light, even though Rhaenys never quite challenges the status quo (except for a formidable display of power near the end in which she rides the dragon Meleys into King’s Landing and disrupts Aegon II’s coronation), her continued existence is itself an act of subversion.
Furthermore, in depicting the various struggles of the characters, House of the Dragon also offers a critique of monarchy and feudalism without any sentimental or sympathetic trappings for royalty. In nearly each episode, we watch Viserys lose his fingers one by one, and grow weaker and more diseased—a fitting metaphor for how the Targaryen dynasty is being slowly poisoned by its own incestuous roots and patriarchal values. Like other power structures, patriarchy thrives on exclusion, and Rhaenyra’s position is continuously contested because she is the anomaly in a long tradition of male successors.
Although throughout his life Viserys backs Rhaenyra, he does so only out of love for his daughter. At no point does he attempt to rewrite the laws of succession that would make it easier for women (including his daughter) to come into power, because it would entail him giving up on his own masculine prerogative. Rhaenyra too has to constantly assert her right to rule because her father specifically named her as his heir—but not because she necessarily considers that women, too, have an equal right to the throne. Rather than destabilize such a custom further, she is quick to name her sons as heirs and propose a marriage to Alicent’s daughter to continue the inheritance of power down the male line. Thus, like Alicent, Rhaenyra too is essentially fighting to uphold the patriarchal system (though it is already crumbling from within), without any investment in the actual welfare of women—a standard strategy that is similarly employed by white feminists to protect their own interests while preserving the patriarchal norms that constrain them as well (but less so than others).
This, of course, contests the category of “women” itself. While patriarchy oppresses all women, womanhood itself isn’t a homogenous identity. Situational agency reveals how the extent of oppression can always be negotiated with, depending on one’s privileges and circumstances. Upper-class women in particular often claim victimhood while being complicit in upholding male authority and throwing marginalized folks of all genders under the bus. In fact, very often, the critique of patriarchal violence erases other forms of violence, and the struggles faced by the minor characters—such as the maid Dyana or the prostitute Mysaria—hint at how their lived realities are so radically different from those of the Targaryen women with whom the show is primarily concerned. Mysaria, in particular, is an interesting character who parts ways with royalty when Daemon fails to keep her safe, and yet wields power over them through her network of spies.
The Targaryen dragons, on the other hand, are imbued with more personality than we have previously seen on Game of Thrones, easily functioning as metaphors for nuclear weapons. Although the nobility cannot fully control the dragons, they can certainly control access to the creatures. Thus, after Laena’s death and when Alicent’s second son, Aemond, wins the ferocious Vhagar to his side at the cost of his eye to Rhaneyra’s confused son Lucerys, it is seen as a victory. It is also Aemond who unwittingly sets off the war when Vhagar (egged on by his rider’s thirst for revenge) attacks and kills both Lucerys and his dragon, Arrax. In the first episode itself—well before the birth of either boy—Viserys acknowledges that dragons are “a power man should never have trifled with”; yet by the time we reach the season’s finale, the creatures are no longer the stuff of idle political threats but active weapons to be deployed in a war that will result in the deaths of thousands of innocent people and further fracture an already unstable realm.
The series concludes on this cliff-hanger—at the moment when the civil war between the Targaryen family members (what in the books is known as the “Dance of the Dragons”) is about to erupt. While the events of Fire and Blood (2018) are chronicled in a dry historian’s tone, the showrunners chose critical moments from the text for dramatization. Backed by a supremely talented ensemble cast (Paddy Considine’s stellar portrayal of King Viserys compensates for all the ways in which the character fails his family and subjects), majestic cinematography (HBO doesn’t dither on expenses), and a contemplative background score (that reaches its zenith in the penultimate episode as the disguised nobles search the squalid streets of King’s Landing for the missing Aegon II), House of the Dragon unfolds a compelling, slow-burn tale of court intrigue in the manner of a pensive period drama and is a welcome break from its brisk-paced predecessor. Instead of being peppered with twists at every turn, the characters carefully consider their actions even when they are unable to prevent some of the far-reaching consequences, and as those who have already read the book will know, this slow pacing is deliberate and makes for excellent foreshadowing. Much of the first season is exposition, with the various plot nuggets allowed to leisurely marinate until the very end—so as to be suddenly and thoroughly cooked over dragon-flame in the upcoming seasons.
Thus, the few weaknesses of the show are mostly technical. The ten-year time jump, although necessary, takes a while to adjust to. The character of Lord Larys Strong (a compelling Matthew Needham) who is simultaneously disabled (he walks with a limp), villainous (he arranges for the slaughter of his own family), and sexually deviant (a fact not mentioned in the books) plays into negative and harmful stereotypes about the disabled community, especially since he is the only disabled person on the show. While Matt Smith plays Daemon with riveting charisma, his role in the story changes with every episode—he starts off as a thorn in his brother’s side and an unhinged murderer, becomes something close to war hero, and then evolves into Rhaenyra’s paramour and partner-in-crime even as his violent instincts threaten to burst forth from under the surface—all of which is very interesting in and of itself, but feels a little out of place in the grandiose narrative. The other characters on the show at times resemble key players from Game of Thrones (similarities can be drawn between Alicent and Cersei, or Larys and Qyburn), but young Aegon II appears to be unabashedly modelled on Joffrey Baratheon, right down to his sadistic urges, which feels a tad unimaginative though by no means a deal-breaker.
Finally, there appears to be a gendered element to the presentation of ageing in the show. Both Rhaenyra and Alicent are portrayed by older actors (Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, both delivering strong performances) from episode six onwards while the ageing of the primary male characters, Viserys and Otto, is achieved through make-up alone. Daemon, too—who has quickly become the Internet Boyfriend du jour—appears to be relatively ageless, and, despite Smith’s performance issues at the beginning of the season, in fact turns more virile as the years go by. Of course, the older Rhaenys (a very graceful Eve Best) isn’t recast while the royal children are, but the very visible ageing-up of Rhaenyra and Alicent seems to reflect a patriarchal tendency to fixate upon women’s appearances—cataloguing their wrinkles and “diminishing” beauty more acutely than their male counterparts. There is an indulgence here in the patriarchal norms the show at its best seeks to unpick.
At its heart, House of the Dragon is a tragedy set in a historical past that appears not too different from the present in which women are faced with the eternal dilemma: outright rebellion against the norms will almost certainly get us killed, but playing the game and following its rules risks further interpellation of patriarchal ideology. To echo Rhaenys, this merely amounts to making a window in the wall of one’s prison. In this grimdark world, there are no clear paths to victory; nevertheless, such stories suggest that if a path is to be made, it can only be wrought with conscious awareness. Unlike optimistic narratives that often feel forcibly hopeful, and therefore disingenuous, grimdark stories do not simply award happy endings or just deserts to the characters because of their moral worth. Rather, such tales posit that happily-ever-afters are possible only if the people (particularly those in power) are willing to change. In this regard, these narratives bestow greater responsibility on their characters, much more than escapist television (that offers hope and comfort to the viewer), giving them a chance to shape their futures. The result might be cynical and bleak, but it certainly makes for authentic storytelling.
In this regard, House of the Dragon mirrors the lived experiences of women who often find their selfhood and agency constrained by forces beyond their control. Of course, it must be acknowledged that the tragic mode isn’t and shouldn’t be the only way to tell meaningful stories about women and/or marginalized groups, especially since the misogyny in mainstream epic fantasy is still a problem. Although the prequel to Game of Thrones takes a more nuanced approach than its parent, it is firmly entrenched in the same tradition. Its explicit depictions of violence, particularly the horrors of Caesarean births performed without anaesthesia, can be particularly triggering to some viewers and, if the series plans on staying faithful to the books (lest HBO repeats the same mistakes it made in the latter half of Game of Thrones that ultimately ruined the show), the carnage will only get bloodier. So, it isn’t surprising that some audiences are already shying away from the show for fair reasons, while others (including this reviewer, who remember almost noped out straight away) have ultimately appreciated it because they found it so intensely relatable.
The show made me cry on more than one occasion, brought back bittersweet memories, and forced me to interrogate the ever-widening gap between my feminist ideals and the dystopian reality I inhabit (which as an upper-caste/class woman, is still more privileged than many others). Martin’s books (and their adaptations) are, of course, works of fiction, drawing upon historical events such as The Wars of the Roses and the Crusades, among others, for inspiration and suffused with medieval signifiers. Yet, raised as a girl in a middle-class Indian household in the twenty-first century (and for whom empowerment is very different from the goals of Western white feminism), I’m perhaps far removed from the story’s historical and cultural context. Nevertheless, I’ve grown up watching a range of dysfunctional arranged marriages up close, in a society where the caste system (alongside other hierarchies) is still brutally prevalent, where religious violence and other atrocities are rife, and I’m trying to build a career and navigating questions about the future and identity even as the threat of marriage and other patriarchal expectations loom like a heavy shadow that more often than not feels inescapable. Thus, the toxic family dynamics and nefarious power politics among the Targaryens resonated strongly with my personal experiences. While this grimdark fantasy series did not reassure me in the slightest, it reminded me that each day brings its own set of trials that must be negotiated with. Given how female agency is so circumstantial and contextual, perhaps the best that we can sometimes hope for is to find the strength within ourselves to meet the challenges.