Review: House of the Dragon Episode 1 – The Heirs of the Dragon

House of the Dragon is a 2022 HBO show set in the fictional history of Westeros leading up to the events called The Dance of the Dragons as depicted in background exposition of A Song of Ice and Fire, in various Westeros set short stories an in Fire & Blood. It stars Paddy Constantine as King Viserys I, Emma D’Arcy & Milly Alcock as his eldest daughter Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as dollar store Elric of Melniboné Daemon Targaryen, the king’s younger brother.

This show sets up the principal action of the series by establishing that Viserys I assumed the crown in a bid to avoid a secession crisis. The previous king’s two sons had both predeceased him and his choices were between his eldest grandchild – Princess Rhaenys Targaryen or her younger cousin, Viserys. The king retains stability by choosing the younger man over the older woman.

We then advance forward in time. Viserys I has ruled over a prolonged peace within Westeros. He has a daughter approaching adulthood and his wife is pregnant with a child who, according to the king’s supposedly prophetic dream, will be a male heir. Due to the precedent set by his grandfather his presumed heir is Daemon – his younger brother, a scoundrel and all-around failson who has been tossed into a job as commander of the city guard largely to keep him out from underfoot after he demonstrated no capacity for any other position of authority. As the commander of the guard he operates with extreme and callous brutality – a thirst for violence we see again when he enters a tournament on the day the queen is supposed to give birth.

Although Constantine delivers a good performance as Viserys I the heavy lifting among the actors is being done by Smith who establishes himself as a villain’s villain almost immediately and who definitely seems to understand what’s expected of him in a role that is 50% skulking in shadows being creepy and 50% being a violent brute who happily kills and insults just because he enjoys doing so. Real grade-a villain performance from Smith here and honestly I’m not sure I’ve seen him deliver a better performance. Certainly he was never this good as Dr. Who.

This show is a delight aesthetically as the production team has taken to heart some of the complaints with the original show, making significant changes to both the set design of the Red Keep (particularly the Iron Throne) and Harrenhal which have been revised to be more faithful to their depictions in the books. The CGI of the dragons is passable, more so for not being over-used, and the costuming is excellent. I, for one, am not really bothered by half the cast members wearing white wigs although I know I may be in the minority on this one.

The show establishes early on that queen Aemma is having a hard time with her pregnancy. Rhaenyra dotes over her mother, running late for other obligations as a result, and a lot of the action of the episode is reflected through Rhaenyra’s anxiety about being a woman in a viciously unequal world and balancing her ambitions against the social expectations on a woman of the royal house. Aemma tells Rhaenyra, who wants to be a warrior on the battlefield, that the birthing bed is their battlefield, a metaphor which is reified in a very heavy-handed but still effective piece of montage later as her struggles to give birth run contemporaneously to the tournament devolving into bloodshed.

Aemma has a breach birth and the king’s incompetent doctors propose a c-section despite not being at all good at them. Faced with the choice of the likely death of both wife and heir or the chance of salvaging the heir King Viserys chooses to allow the operation and his wife dies in the process. The child survives the birth but dies later the same day. Daemon celebrates the death of the rival heir with his guards in a brothel but is spied upon doing so and the king is so shocked by his callousness that he banishes Daemon from court and names Rhaenyra his heir, going against prior tradition and establishing the circumstances for the war of secession that his grandfather avoided.

Now, obviously, the death of Aemma has become a key discursive theme following the airing of the episode and two, equally wrong-headed, camps have formed. It seems people either defend the inclusion of this incident as being “historically accurate” or decry it as being a glorification of violence against women. These are both nonsense. Regarding historical accuracy it is necessary to point out that the relationship between the work of George R. R. Martin and history is a bit more complicated than is generally considered. His writing is certainly informed by history but, more than that, it largely explores the process of historicization and its differentiation from myth. Westeros isn’t England. It isn’t Europe. It’s a vast continent marked by long, extreme, seasons. It contains dragons and ice monsters and giant wolves. Its populace are plagued by prophetic dreams which often lead them toward doom. The use, in A Song of Ice and Fire, of historical military conflicts to develop the setting is the insertion of a ready-made historicity rather than to make the work accurate. This allows us to observe how these actions, within an intelligible cycle of dynastic history, interact when they’re confronted with the mythic register of the legend of the final winter in which humanity will be extinguished by supernatural and inhuman foes. The mythic register is actually as carefully created as the historic one with exposition regarding Bran the Builder, Lann the Clever and all the other denizens of the Age of Heroes. This mythic register is, in A Song of Ice and Fire, initially occluded so that the impact of its reinsertion into and disruption of an historic cycle will be felt more forcefully.

Frankly, with the ways in which Martin establishes and then undercuts the historical in Westeros throughout his works, the best thing to say about these stories and their relation to history is that they’re profoundly skeptical of historicization and want to lay bare the way in which history is created after the fact to make sense and give pattern to the chaos of being. With that being said the people who think this show is somehow valorizing or aestheticizing forced childbirth and abuse of women in the name of bearing children need to look again at what is depicted. Viserys I follows the advice of incompetent doctors who tell him his choice is either to lose the queen and the child or to save the child at the expense of the queen.

In light of this terrible choice he decides, if his wife is doomed regardless, he should save the son, secure the secession, and achieve something he cares about. He doesn’t consult his wife in this matter and her death, if maybe inevitable, is likely more terrifying and abrupt than it otherwise might have been.

But it turns out terribly. The king’s decision does not save his heir. The boy dies within less than a day. It breaks his family, forming a dangerous rift between himself and his brother Daemon, and it leads to his epiphany that he should have named his daughter heir all along: a refutation of the very thing that led him to this awful decision. Depiction is not condonement and that’s never been clearer than here. I think, instead, people should be more ready to approach this show on its terms: neither as historical fiction nor a direct commentary on the contemporary politics of the United States but rather as a fantasy that explores the processes of dynastism, social change and historicization more broadly.