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?

Nostalgia and the metastasis of regret in Masters of the Universe: Revelation

Masters of the Universe: Revelation Debuts Killer New Poster
(Ok you had to know there was a non-zero chance I’d do this.)

Here be spoilers if you care about that sort of thing.

I was honestly and pleasantly surprised by Masters of the Universe: Revelation. I didn’t have high expectations for a He-Man cartoon run by Kevin Smith. In general I’m not a huge fan of Smith. I quite liked Dogma but haven’t had anything positive to say about his work in the 22 years (oh god it’s been 22 years since Dogma) since. I suppose his autobiographical stand-up routine was alright.

And the truth is that this cartoon series contains some of the hallmarks of Smith’s worse tendencies. The script is prurient. It assaults viewers with atrocious accumulations of arbitrary alliteration. What isn’t composed in this strangely (and unpleasantly) poetic recall of 1980s cartoon writing is either straight up call-backs to the cartoon (protective bubble) or just clangs.

The voice actors do their best. Mark Hamill is, as always, an absolute delight and casting him as Skeletor was the right call. Sarah Michelle Gellar also accomplishes the astounding feat of elevating Teela above the clunky script and injecting actual pathos into her portrayal. Her pairing with Leena Headley as the principals in the show was another strong choice, as Headley has been on a roll of moving from strength to strength for years, and Evil-Lyn conjures so many of the morally dubious schemers that have become her bread and butter. However good voice acting alone is not enough to elevate a script as truly and fundamentally atrocious as those in the five episodes Netflix released. But, despite the acutely painful dialog and over-abundant call-backs to a 40 year-old toy commerial, Smith’s Masters of the Universe series actually accomplishes quite a lot, and manages to utilize its own weaknesses to create something actually worth watching.

Now I should note that I am not talking exclusively about the way this series sidelines He-Man in favour of concentrating on Teela and Evil-Lyn. Of course this, alone, is what has led to the coordinated campaign of typical online CHUDS to review-bomb the show. As fun as it is to point and laugh at people like Jeremy Hambly exclaiming that the show is, “a WORSE betrayal than The Last Jedi,” the attempt by the show to admit that Teela was poorly treated as a character in the original cartoon wouldn’t, in and of itself, be particularly remarkable. After all, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power already dug into what would happen if one were to invert many of the gendered assumptions of these stories. It would hardly be new ground. But instead, remarkably by keeping the story within the continuity (such as it is) of the original Masters of the Universe cartoon, Smith has managed to dig into a heartfelt and remarkable dissection of nostalgia and how it connects to regret.

Magic and childhood

The first episode of Masters of the Universe: Revelation opens the series as Skeletor takes advantage of a court ceremony to commemorate Teela’s promotion to the to the position of Man-at-Arms to raid Castle Grayskull. Using disguise and decoy he is able to slip through the outer defenses and then uses superior numbers to overwhelm the sorceress and achieve access to a hidden inner sanctum.

However an alarm is raised and the forces of the Eternian monarchy rally to the castle. Once inside things proceed largely like a particularly well-animated episode of the older show right until the moment that, during the fight with Skeletor in the inner sanctum, Sleketor brutally murders He-Man’s ally Moss Man. This understandably upsets He-Man, who until then seems to live in the sort of magical child’s world where the people always jump off the floating tank before it explodes and nobody ever dies.

So he runs Skeletor through with his sword, pinning him to the obelisk in the center of the sanctum. Skeletor’s last words are to congratulate him on finally using his sword as it was intended – as a key to said obelisk – and it opens revealing an orb containing all the magic in the universe. However the orb explodes and the only thing that prevents the immediate destruction of the universe is He-Man channeling the power through his sword. This act splits the sword into two constituent blades and kills He-Man. The swords vanish, returning to Subternia and Preternia – which the show reveals are afterlives analogous to heaven and hell, and are the wellsprings of magic.

Randor is so distraught over the death of his son that he banishes Man-At-Arms from court and orders him executed if he ever does man-at-arms type things again. This show is generally not kind to monarchy, which is refreshing in a fantasy landscape that so often wants to treat royals as somehow redeemable. Teela, grieving the death of her friend and ally and suddenly discovering that said friend deceived her for their whole lives together, resigns from the Eternian court and takes up work as a mercenary.

There is a time-jump and after that we discover that magic is dying in Eternia. Without the orb and the sword all the magic is returning to its sources in the afterlives. And this is killing Eternia. What’s more, should Eternia die, it will herald the extinction of every world in the universe. Eternia, the oldest planet, is critical to universal wellbeing and Eternia cannot survive without magic.

Now it’s important to note how magic is mapped onto childhood by the series. The sorceress ages dramatically when the magic fades and aside from her the most magical creatures, notably Orko, Cringer / Battle Cat and Adam / He-Man are all the most childish (or at least child-like) characters in the show. When Adam is encountered in Preternia he remains in his “young prince” form – something which is quite textually a choice he made and one that amuses the small cadre of heroes who also occupy this Elysium. And the Smith rendering of Adam vs He-Man makes Adam look all the more like a child with the over-sized stature that He-Man has even compared to the other hulks in this muscle-bound show. Orko and Cringer are the most unchanged characters in this new version. And, while we see little of the cat, it becomes readily clear that the loss of magic from the world is killing Orko far quicker than anyone else. He cannot live without magic. The moment that magic is banished from the world is also one that is inaugurated by the introduction of death with the killing of Moss Man, of Skeletor and the heroic sacrifice of He-Man. This awareness of mortality entering into Eternia, the effective end of eternity, also indicates a crossing of a threshold from childhood into maturity. This show is not the first one to forge these bonds between death, magic and the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Famously Hogfather by Terry Pratchett was built entirely on the premise of a child-place being one where death could not go, and of the belief of children being a particularly potent magic.

Perhaps this is where the sense of betrayal from childish Jeremys arises more than even their unexamined misogyny. Smith’s He-Man understands that you have to grow up. Staying a child forever is stunting. We see this in a coarse fashion through Orko’s arc in which he comes to terms with his sense that he’s failed to fulfil the expectations his parents put on him. We see it with more nuance in Teela’s arc, in which she discovers that living in the shadow of He-Man has limited her from achieving all that she otherwise could. Teela starts the show being given the mantle of adulthood but she never really assumes it. A monarch asks her to, as her first act, remove her own father. (How very Oedipal.) And she refuses this call and instead goes galavanting off to make her own way in the world. But this isn’t maturity; rather maturity arises when she’s forced to confront that people who she loved dearly and who loved her hid parts of themselves from her. It comes from her recognition of her own capacity for growth and her ability to forge an identity not built around following in her father’s footsteps or running after He-Man but rather of doing her own things in her own way.

Modernity and techno-cults

One of the odder insertions into this show is Triklops and his technocult. In Skeletor’s absence Triclops has taken control of Snake Mountain and staffed it with only the most cybernetic members of the former cadre (such as Lockjaw). He’s established a cult devoted to the Motherboard and is feeding dronification potions to apparently willing supplicants who are thus transformed into technological monstrosities. Triklops is trying to destroy any remnants of magic that remain. He hates magic because he believes Skeletor’s reliance on magic is the reason for their repeated failures in the past. This is largely to serve as a foil to Teela who also detests magic at this point in the story for what it did to her and the people she cares about. So we get this sense that if magic is tied to childhood then technology, cold and practical but unable to nourish, is bonded to adulthood and the putting away of childish things.

Of course this loss of magic is also killing the world. And so we see this delicate balance that Smith attempts to pull off between knowing the magical world of kings and heroes is a childish fantasy to grow beyond but also recognizing that the alienated modern sense of adulthood is sterile and ultimately deadening. Triklops can’t be allowed to win because his focus on technology is literally toxic; he is hastening the end of the world with his acts. And this is before the show gets all cosmological.

Subternia and Preternia

The afterlife depicted in this show is wild. This is, in part, because of how sparsely populated it is. Subternia is really just where Scare Glow hangs out alone despite characters repeatedly calling it “hell” and while Preternia gets called “heaven” on multiple occasions it is, as I alluded above, far much more akin to Elysium: a reward where select heroes, blessed with immortality, engage in athletic feats that would have been remarkably legible to Pindar. Rather than punishment and reward, Subternia and Preternia represent fear and happiness respectively. The grinning and contesting heroes of Preternia want for nothing while Scare Glow feeds on the fear of the unlucky who stumble into his chthonic domain.

But there’s a third emotion that lurks in both of these afterlives and it’s the thing that ultimately binds all this strangeness together: regret.

Regret is, in fact, the thread that ties everyone together in this show. Teela regrets so much. She regrets the secrets kept from her and she regrets the fight she had with her father. She regrets ever getting mixed up with He-Man in the first place and she regrets that he’s gone. Man-At-Arms is regretful too, regretting his failure to protect Adam and his banishment. Orko regrets failing his parents. Evil-Lyn regrets living in Skeletor’s shadow and Triklops regrets this too, though his regret manifests differently. After Adam is encountered in Preternia he regrets his enjoyment of his elysian reward and chooses to follow Teela back to Eternia even with the repeated warning that he will not be granted entry to the garden a second time. And this is where we finally find the meat of the theme here: Smith takes all the trappings of nostalgia – a deliberately anachronistic script, a childish view of life and death, and a yearning for an inaccessible past – and he demonstrates how it is all rooted in regret.

Nostalgia as a Haunting

Regret is one of the most hauntological emotions. It conjures a state of searching for an absent agent in that you are looking back at the choices you made and considering what you might have done differently. Of course the past is inaccessible to us. There is no returning to childhood. We can allow the strata of our childhood development to rupture to the surface but this is no more the childhood we had than Mount Everest is the floor of the ocean.

Nostalgia is what happens when we allow regret to boil over into a sickness. The nostalgic is like Orko wasting away in his bed for lack of magic to sustain him. This nostalgia drives Triklops to his world-destroying actions. After all, “A Nihilist is the man who says of the world as it is, that it ought not to exist, and of the world as it ought to be, that it does not exist.”1 Triklops’s technocultic nihilism is thus rendered intelligible by the desire to reconcile the world as it is with the world he believes ought to be. And bringing about this world fundamentally requires the destruction of the world that is. These characters regret that they made this choice or that in the past. They regret that they served Skeletor or that they allowed Adam to deceive them. They yearn to return to the simple world of magic but they know they can’t. A nostalgic cannot possibly recover what is lost. There are only two courses out of the sickness of nostalgia: to lean into their nihilism and obliterate themselves or their world or to let go of their regret and move forward into the future.

Honestly it should come as no surprise that the most nostalgic of fans felt betrayed in a fundamental way by Smith’s interpretation of this material. They were promised a return to childhood and the fulfillment of their nostalgic urge. But as nostalgia is rooted in regret for the irretrievable this would never be possible. As much as the toxic fans of the world would like to return to a kind of palingenetic childhood they never will. Even if their childhood passions rupture forth into the present in their spasmodic reactions to a cartoon, they are still unable to retrieve their childhood. This is why they so often believe that reimaginings of childhood media are destroying their childhood – these reiterations put the fan into direct contact with the irretrievable nature of his own past. He reaches for his childhood but it slips through his fingers like the Power Sword falling from Adam’s grasp in the fifth episode.

Smith leaves off the five-episode run with a warning. The Eternal Return lurks over the proceedings and raises the risk that, even in attempts to move to the future, we might find ourselves falling into atavistic patterns. Evil-Lyn serves an excellent foil for Teela in this. Teela still hasn’t fully moved into her future at the end of episode five. The sorceress has already told her that she is the one who has to wield the Power Sword but instead she gives it back to Adam. And by opening the door to the return of old patterns, Skeletor is able to re-emerge too, and drag Evil-Lyn away from her own confrontation with the limiting impact of her nostalgic affect. The victory of nostalgia is the victory of Skeletor. He can only be vanquished by moving forward into an uncertain future. We are, of course, not at the end of the first season. We have seen only the first act of this story. However in establishing both that these characters all feel nostalgia and that nostalgia is harmful to their development and growth, Smith has established a clear and explicit thematic message that belies the childishness of the premise. In 2019, Smith said, “Used to be happy, now I’m vegan.” But, of course, he is also still alive and able to grow because of his lifestyle changes – changes necessitated by a heart attack that could have killed him.

It seems as if this brush with death has provided Smith with the impetus not just to change his diet but to re-examine his life-long connection to childhood media. It’s not enough to be Silent Bob larping Batman in a mall anymore. The past may come around again in some form or another but when it does, it is something that must be resisted. Preternia is an empty heaven. Growth occurs in Subternia, where we confront fear and the specter of death. Death always lurks in the future but clinging to the past just draws it closer via sickness. We must imagine a Prince Adam who must not be He-Man any longer. We must imagine a Teela who has grown beyond the soft sisterly figure of the 80s cartoon or the sassy girlfriend of the 2002 revival, a Teela who has a life and regrets of her own but the will to rise above those regrets. We have to consider the idea that the past is gone and we must grow and change into the future.


1: Nietzsche, The Will to Power, 585