Revisiting the House of the Dragon

At the start of the season I reviewed the first episode of House of the Dragon. At the time I anticipated a story that explored dynasticism, social change and the process of historicization.

This proved to be mostly accurate. Certainly the ten-episode season fixated on the question of dynasty and on what constituted a family. Lord Corlys’ insistence that history books remember names rather than blood opened a fascinating dialectic regarding the nature of bastardry. While Rhaenyra’s two eldest sons certainly didn’t look like their father – a gay man who the show informs us tried and failed to sire legitimate children for his wife – the acceptance of their grandfather prioritizes historical record as being the principal significance of the dynasty. It won’t matter, after all this is over, what his heirs looked like, only that they carried his name and that they did these deeds.

Ultimately Corlys ends up being the carrier of the principal discourse concerning the nature of dynastism and how an orientation toward dynastic goals might impact one’s political decisions. His willingness to bite back slights to blood – such as Daemon’s beautifully gory decapitation of his brother for treason – in order to preserve the historical position of his house ends up saying far more about what a dynasty is about, as a political unit, than Viserys’ constant ruminations on prophetic dreams and the significance of heirs. But there was another key theme regarding power that was established in the first episode of this series and that I entirely missed: the question of what power does to the body.

Of course we can see this most obviously in two key examples: the physical decomposition of Viserys throughout the season and the multitudinous deaths that occur as a result of pregnancy.

Let’s start with Viserys as his example is perhaps the least-subtle. Our good-man king is uneasy on the iron throne. The barbs and blades of it cut him and these cuts become infected. As the show progresses and the child-characters of Rhaenyra and Alicent age into their adult performances Daemon, Corlys and most of the initially adult cast remain basically the same. But not so for Viserys as Paddy Constantine becomes increasingly smothered in makeup and special effects depicting the steady disintegration of a man. We can only see this as being quite explicitly the physical toll of power. It is the throne that does this to him and yet he sits upon it. By the time Viserys spends the last of his life desperately attempting to persuade Rhaenyra and Alicent to bury the hatchet despite the worm-tongued whispering of Otto Hightower and the impulsive violence of his brother and son-in-law Daemon he’s already half a corpse, barely able to walk, missing digits, missing an eye.

The loss of an eye is something of an obsession of this text. Not only does Viserys display the terminal signs of decay via a skull-like orbital cavity but also the eye is the price Aemond pays for power. He loses his own eye immediately after he claims Vhagar: the largest of the dragons. In the finale, Aemond’s desire to make Lucerys pay for this with an eye of his own precipitates the manslaughter of Rhaenyra’s son and becomes the first blow in the war which will occupy the future seasons of this show. Lucerys demurs to lose an eye and is barred from power.

It would be easy to treat this as an Odinic metaphor – Viserys loses an eye to sip from Mimr’s well – but this doesn’t fit comfortably as Aemond has no particular wisdom. Rather, Aemond represents nearly the opposite: vast power with all the restraint one would expect of a violently disfigured adolescent. Instead it is an indicator of the toll power takes upon the body.

This idea of power as something physical that eats up its carriers is bound together with the dynastic discourse via the wages of birthing heirs. Of course the death of Aemma was a principal focus of my review of the first episode. But this is echoed across the season. First we see it through the death-in-childbirth of Laena Velaryon. Laena finds herself in the same position as Aemma however, unlike Aemma, Laena takes agency over the matter of her death. Aware that Daemon will be faced with the same decision as his brother – to kill the wife to possibly save the child or to watch both die – she chooses to die, commanding Vhagar (who was her dragon at that time) to immolate her. In this case two sources of power: the power to bring about life and the power to destroy it both take a toll on her body and leave her nothing but ash. Finally, in the last episode of the season we have a third horrific childbirth as Rhaenyra’s discovery of her father’s death and Alicent’s treason seems to precipitate a miscarriage of her fifth child. She survives and, in a truly horrific scene, pulls the still-born baby from her own womb with her own hands, refusing to let the doctors or maids assist her. All the time she is undergoing labour she commands her sons to prevent anyone making decisions in her absence. The childbirth scene then becomes a reflection of Rhaenyra’s willingness to accept the physical toll of power. In this case those powers of life and death at play in the death of Laena are inverted – still-birth and an ascension into a position of command.

But of course all this inter-tangling of childbirth into a discourse around legitimacy (as Otto is quick to point out legitimacy is largely a symbolic affair), dynastism and the position of blood cannot help but touch on the elephant in the room – the incestuous relationship between Daemon and Rhaenyra. Certainly there is plenty to chew on here about blood and its relationship to power in how Daemon slowly seduces Rhaenyra over the years, eventually plotting with her and her husband to fake the latter’s death in order to clear the path for him to wed his niece after the death of Laena. On the topic of incest Freud quotes Frazer, saying, “the law only forbids men to do what their instincts incline them to do; . . . Instead of assuming, therefore, from the legal prohibition of incest that there is a natural aversion to incest, we ought rather to assume that there is a natural instinct in favor of it.” Thus a straight Freudian reading might argue that the incestuous marriage is another method of showing power: Daemon and Rhaenyra can choose to overcome law with their power and thus achieve something desired.

But Deleuze and Guattari are skeptical of this Freudian reading of incest, saying, “By placing the distorting mirror of incest before desire (that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?), desire is shamed, stupefied, it is placed in a situation without exit, it is easily persuaded to deny “itself” in the name of the more important interests of civilization (what if everyone did the same, what if everyone married his mother or kept his sister for himself? there would no longer be any differentiation, any exchanges possible).” This sarcastic response to the Freudian read of incest and the right of kings leads them to say, “Although we can see social production’s interest in such an operation, it is less clear what makes this operation possible from the point of view of desiring-production itself.” In other words: what does it matter to the formation of the self whether a desired object is a mother, a sister, a niece, an uncle?

They relate the incest prohibition (via the work of Clastres) to prohibitions among the Guanyaki people against a hunter eating his own kill. This circulation of spouses then becomes a pro-social act that helps to distribute power and keep its twin, desire, flowing. In this case the issue with incest that leads to its inscription as a taboo becomes not one of power over law but rather of selfishness over pro-sociality and as one online commenter pointed out House of the Dragon is a show about incredibly selfish people – “as if each of the Kardashians had a nuclear-capable F-22.” So perhaps we can treat Daemon and Rhaenyra’s romance as being an indicator of the same sort of selfishness that might lead a person to drive a continent into a war that Rhaenyra says would create a kingdom of fire and ash over the grief of two dead children.

But even this doesn’t quite cut to the heart of it. Turning again to Deleuze and Guattari, later discussing the work of Claude Levi-Strauss they say, talking specifically of the distinction between mother-son incest on one hand and uncle-niece incest on the other, “the mixing of the generations in the son-mother case has the same effect as their correspondence in the case of the uncle-sister, that is, it testifies to one and the same intensive germinal filiation that must be repressed in both cases. In short, a somatic system in extension can constitute itself only insofar as the filiations become extended, correlatively to lateral alliances that become established.”

This then situates the incest prohibition again in the position of power. Why is incest prohibited? Because it closes the door to political marriage. And boy howdy but there’s a lot of political marriage in this story. Both of Daemon’s first two marriages and Rhaenyra’s first marriage are purely political. The same can be said of Alicent’s marriage to Viserys and of every other marriage barring that of Rhaenyra to Daemon. In all these cases marriage exists to spread the net of power, to secure advantage, to maneuver through the process of alliance. These children become markers of alliances as clear as the green and black clothes of the two factions. What this says, then, of Daemon and Rhaenyra is that their political marriages have accomplished the extent of what they believe they can do. Principally this has been to entangle the Velaryon into the Blacks. We have seen, from Corlys already, that for many of the characters in this show names mean far more than blood and they have tied the name of Velaryon ever tighter via their inter-marriage. This then situates the Hightowers as having played a different game, insinuating Alicent into a marriage to achieve power but then spreading the children and grandchildren that arose from this family among many families in order to achieve more power, more influence.

Otto Hightower believes that power is a matter of symbols and trappings – a crown, a sword, the cheers of the masses, and of marriages. But Rhaenyra and Daeamon know that power is something else: the ability to give and take life. The birthing bed and the fire of the dragon. Having secured all of that power they thought they needed why not let their taboo desires flow?

The Polymorphous Perversity of Hellraiser (2022)

One of the chief thematic touchpoints of the fifth Scream film, released this year under the title Scream, is the concept of the requel.

This is a format of horror cinema that exists between the reboot and the sequel. According to the film-buff victims and killers of Scream this generally involves a handoff between legacy characters and a new generation, an exploration of the life-long impact of traumatic events on the protagonists and, in general, a contention with the consequences of horrific circumstances.

Key examples of the requel that have arisen recently include the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Halloween / Kills / Ends trilogy. However there is an element of the requel that Scream somewhat elided and, in exploring how Hellraiser fits into its respective series, it’s an important one: the requel often is an admission of the diminishing quality of sequels. I mean I think nobody needs persuasion that Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers wasn’t a good movie and while I have a personal fondness for the camp of Jason X it is also not exactly a piece of cinema that operates at the same level as the original two Friday the 13th movies. The requel format usually resolves this problem by ignoring that the middle movies exist. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a direct sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The films between 1986 and 2017 just aren’t relevant. Likewise the recent Halloween trilogy picks up from Halloween in much the same way that the previous requel attempt (H20 & Resurrection) did from Halloween 2.

I think it’s important to look at this element because while Hellraiser could easily be viewed as a straightforward reboot I think it makes nearly as much sense to consider it in light of the requel. I say this not so much because of any connections of plot or lore but rather because of the way this film, sometimes deftly and sometimes less so, is in dialogue with Hellbound: Hellraiser 2. We cannot possibly call this a reboot of Hellraiser 2. That film was far too tied, at the plot and character level, to the original Hellraiser. But we also cannot deny both that nothing within this film would preclude the events of Hellraiser 2 from happening – the recasting and redesign of the Hell’s Priest and the creation of a host of entirely new Cenobites to accompany her more than accommodate the deaths of the Doug Bradly iteration of the character and his associated compatriots (RIP Butterball you were too beautiful for this earth) – and this movie is exploring many of the same questions as Hellraiser 2: where do Cenobites come from? How do they come and for whom?

In order to explore this theme we’re introduced to Riley, a struggling multi-addict who is attempting recovery, played with exceptional depth and sensitivity by Odessa A’zion. Riley is having a rough go of it. She’s been clean for a while but she’s had trouble finding a job. She lives with her brother, his boyfriend and their roommate and none of them quite approve of her current boyfriend, Trevor, who she met in her 12 step program. These misgivings prove founded as Trevor seduces Riley into both aiding him in a crime (stealing the unknown contents of a safe that appears to be abandoned) and into sliding off the wagon. The contents of the safe: the Lament Configuration.

There is a change to the puzzle box in this outing and this change represents one of the largest structural weaknesses of the film. In this version solving the box will expose a hidden blade. The Cenobites will take whoever is cut by this blade, not necessarily whoever solves the box. This creates a tension from the statement in Hellraiser 2 that, “It is not hands that call us. It is desire.” At its silliest this leads to a scene late in the film in which a Cenobite is cut by the box and is ripped apart by its fellows but it also leads to several of Riley’s room mates being taken, or threatened, by the Cenobites despite not having expressed any desires that might have called the Cenobites to begin with.

A lot of this is a script problem. There is a ghost of a solution to this issue within the film through the depiction of Riley’s conflicting desire. There’s a scene when she’s been kicked out of her brother’s apartment. Preparing to drive into the night she packs all her things into a car and she discovers some pills. She opens the bottle, almost eats them then throws them on the ground. After a beat she then crouches down, picks the pills back up from between the cobblestones and eats them all. What does Riley want here? She wants to be rid of her addiction. She wants to throw away her pills. She also wants very much to take them. Riley isn’t a unified arrow of desire; her libidinal investments shoot off in all directions and at all times. If people are packets of conflicting desire then sure anyone might desire to call the Cenobites.

But the other characters are insufficiently fleshed out to carry this message home. Riley’s brother Matt has a hint of this same conflicted desire – he kicks his fuck-up sister out of his home and then almost immediately goes running into the night looking for her on the premonition she’s come to harm – but he dies far too quickly (off-screen) for us to ever really know him well enough to understand the conflicts within his heart the way the story would require. If we’d seen some contact between Matt and the Hell’s Priest (played with wonderful aplomb by the exceptional Jamie Clayton in one of the most inspired recasting choices I’ve ever seen) we might have been able to buy that Matt’s desires called the Cenobites to him. Instead he’s just the poor sucker who got poked by the wrong knife.

Eventually it transpires that Riley, Matt, Trevor and all the rest are dancing on the strings of the demented occultist Roland Voight – a disappointing downgrade from Phillip Channard or, especially, Frank Cotton. Voight previously solved the final configuration of the puzzlebox and was rewarded a wish by the Cenobites. For baffling and poorly explained reasons he chose “sensation” (who would ask Cenobites for that gift if others were available) and the Cenobites responded by creating an instrument that winds his nerve fibers around cranks at random intervals, allowing him to persist in everlasting torment. Voight has some buyer’s remorse.

Honestly Voight represents the other manifestation of the weakness in the script of this film. His plot makes little sense and only works, at all, because of the direct intercession of the Hell’s Priest and / or the accidental miss of a knife to Riley’s hand. Furthermore, his Cenobite-trap home makes for a beautiful baroque set but also leads to some of the silliest slasher antics of a movie that is desperately trying not to be just another slasher. Finally Goran Višnjić simply doesn’t deliver a performance that is even in the same genre as those of A’Zion and Clayton. They’re going for subtlety and depth; he’s chewing the sets. A protagonist as good as Riley deserved a better villain than Voight. But at least this film understands what all Hellraiser movies barring the first two failed to: the Cenobites aren’t the villains of the piece. As a result the Cenobites are a delight. Their motivations may be muddied with the business with the knife in the box but what we get as a result is a host of terrible angels: truly inscrutable cosmic horrors who can do anything, appear anywhere, shape reality to their whims and are entirely inhuman. The creature design in this film is top-notch. I’ve mentioned that Jamie Clayton is excellent in her performance as the Hell’s Priest but she also looks absolutely stunning. A perfect reimagining of the iconic monster. The new Cenobtes are equally delightful to behold.

That being said it does seem strange the extent to which this film shies away from gore considering its subject matter. Scenes of explicit gore are used sparingly and this combined with the slow-burn pacing, the dramatic characterization of the protagonist and the angelic design of the Cenobites leaves this film feeling almost staid. For better and worse this is not Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth. What we end up with is an imbalanced movie. It is far better than the vast majority of Hellraiser movies. I’d even hazard to call it the third-best in the franchise. But with two of the best performances in the franchise and the beautiful reimagining of the Cenobites it shows potential to have been so much better than third-best.

Unfortunately David Goyer was twenty years past the point in his career where he might have been up to the task of writing the script this film needed and the film was marred by an underwhelming villain. However this lopsided story of the tangled contradiction of desire remains a better movie than Hellraisers 3 through 10 and clearly demonstrates how jettisoning the chaff of poor quality sequels can still breathe new life into tired franchises. And, honestly, the only one of these franchise requels to have served better as a stand-alone film was Scream 2022. So perhaps we should be a little satisfied with an okay film featuring two excellent performances when it could have been so much worse.

On Authority and the Author

I think Engels is sometimes unfairly maligned. There was long a tendency, and it has not ever fully ended, to treat Engels as if he were the author of every failure and error in Marxism. And perhaps the work most responsible for cementing his position as the sin eater of Marxism is On Authority.

This text is, on the surface an aggressive repudiation of an Anarchist tendency to want to obliterate hierarchy, level all power differentials, and leave everybody equal. This sort of flat equality had never been the objective of Marxism and Engels is critical of it as lacking an understanding of the depth of power. “Everywhere combined action, the complication of processes dependent upon each other, displaces independent action by individuals. But whoever mentions combined action speaks of organization; now, is it possible to have organization without authority?” He asks.

And yet I think the greatest problem with On Authority is the number of readers of Engels who stop there and who never develop the necessary introspection to turn a later statement at themselves or the heads of state they admire, “These gentlemen think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves.” And yet, for many readers of Engels the decision is to do just that!

It’s the people’s jail; completely different from a regular prison. And the prison is important here because I think a more productive read of On Authority would be to see it as an anticipation of Discipline and Punish. Engels quite rightly points out how the technologies that existed in the late 19th century helped form an authoritarian subjectivity. He demonstrates that a factory worker or a steam ship operator must, by necessity, create a form of authority in order to accomplish their tasks.

This, in a way, echoes Foucault’s suggestion that the epistemological shift that created the conditions for the prison was far vaster than a mere building of stone and steel. Engels diagnoses the problem of authority in much the same way Foucault diagnoses the problem of discipline. The principal difference is that Engels, in the 1870s says, we cannot abandon this yet, while Foucault, a century later, says, we should have abandoned this long ago.

Engels is arguing that the power relationship of authority, the idea that one person could subordinate the will of the other to achieve a collective aim, is necessary for conducting the violence of the revolution. ” Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?” And he’s not entirely wrong. He almost comes to a profound understanding: the problem of authority is not that it exists but rather that it persists. Tari comes to this realization when he points to the example of Subcomandante Marcos who dissolved back into the anonymity of the people after his role as a spokesperson for the Zapatistas was no longer needed. “Authority and autonomy are relative things whose spheres vary with the various phases of the development of society.” Engels says and this suggests an understanding that authority is, and must be, contingent.

The problem that arises is that this authority congeals into an institution and this, like the prison and the disciplinary society it is a part of, continues long after the moment it should have been struck down.

And so, you can see, we can construct an Engels who speaks against Lenin, Stalin and all the authoritarian Marxists who follow in their wake from the very essay from which they build their case for the people’s jail.

But this raises the question of whether this is an authentic Engels. Certainly I’m reading into the text things that simply could not be there. Engels assumes inevitability and yet I demand he sees contingency. I divide him against himself.

There are certain people who might shrug at this and suggest that whether Engels saw authority as an inevitable product of a productive society or as a contingent phenomenon tied to a vast network of other contingencies is irrelevant to how an audience receives a text. And in doing so they take my divided Engels and split him fully: we have the Engels of the inevitable and we have the Engels of the contingent. This situates the discursive power of the text fully in its interpretation. A message is only as strong as the receipt of it.

But, of course, there is another possibility ignored by this very dialectically divided Engels. And that is that both of these divided figures occupy the same space. We can start by stepping back and asking whether I divided Engels in the interpretation or if these contradictions were there in the text, equally present but irreconcilable. It is a misunderstanding of contingency to suggest it is flat. In a fully contingent universe even contingency is contingent and we must expect to see the accretion of consistency.

From within a domain of consistency that consistency likely seems inevitable. It occludes the contingency on the horizon. But this is only ever metastable. After all: the consistency is contingent. Transformation may occur at any moment. When they have changed the names of things they may not have changed the things themselves but a transformation of a thing will also require a transformation of its name. And yet none of this is erased. No matter how much I unfold destitution out of On Authority the inevitable Engels of Stalin remains too.

This is the nature of authorship. We cannot erase intent; it will always be there in the text. However we cannot assume intent is singular. Intent changes; intent becomes other to itself. Even the dead Engels can change his mind when contradictory thoughts exist on the page. This is not to say that there is a unity between my destituent Engels and the Engels of the inevitable. Such an encounter is, to paraphrase Deleuze, as absurd as an authentic encounter between a sadist and a masochist. And so we cannot simply re-unify Engels into one who contains both. He is already fragments. As are we all. But these fragments can coalesce too; new consistencies can be achieved that are wholly alien to the ones before. These remain metastable and contingent, of course, and this is why the work of liberation will never be done. Even if we perfected society we could not assume it would stay perfect. But it’s precious to remember, in the aftermath of a disaster especially, that destitution and constitution are dynamic processes that never reach unity but also can never achieve totality. The marks of the past will always be upon us. But we don’t live there. And over the horizon is something different.