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?

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 Melnibon√© 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.