By David T. Valentin
Yesterday, video essayist Jessie Earl, posted a twitter thread in where they critiqued the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon and the ways in which it stands to uphold oppressive patriarchal systems and asks viewers to empathize with those same abusers.
They began the thread saying:
I think I finally understand why House of the Dragon disappoints me. It’s a show supposedly about the horrors of the patriarchy. Because it’s a prequel, we KNOW the story has to end tragically for the women and gay folks in the tale. But that’s an opportunity to show us...
the story from their perspective, tell have us empathize with the pain they have to endure. But time and time again the show instead asks us to empathize with the men perpetrating the violence (such as Visery’s horror at his wife’s C-section or Cole at murdering a gay man)
Instead of showcasing to us a new perspective on Westeros to show why it’s bad and let us empathize with that, it ultimately just upholds the same heteronormative cis male gaze that stands to benefit from these systems anyways and say, yeah it’s bad, but it’s kinda cool too.
It ultimately tells the audience that yeah women and gay people have it bad, but still views us as objects in others stories and thus tells the assumed male gaze audience not to make things better, but just makes them feel ok that they aren’t this bad.
But I have to disagree on a few of their points.
In this week’s episode of House of the Dragon, episode five, the plot revolves around Rhaenerya’s arranged marriage proposal to her cousin Laenor. As Rhaeneyra is a free spirit who wishes not to be held down by the expectations of men and the hypocrisy simply because she is a woman, and Laenor who is known as almost exclusively gay, the two characters seem to have what appears to be a Song of Fire and Ice fairytale ending; Through an agreement between the two to have an open marriage, Rhaeneyra may pursue the life she wishes to choose with whom she choose to sleep with, and Laenor may pursue his desires and continue his relationship with his paramour Joffrey. So long as they duty their duty to their father’s and their houses to produce an heir, Rhaeneyra truly believes the nobles and smallfolk of Westeros will turn their cheeks to choices they may deem as “deviant” and/or “socially unacceptable.”
While we know that Laenor’s secret love affair with Joffrey ends up horribly and that Rhaenyra does choose to have the life she wishes but not without trouble, to first time viewers of the show and those who are not familiar with the source material of the novel Fire and Blood, it seems perfectly fitting to deem their relationship as bending the rules of their world—using their Queer relationship, if you will, to revel in their failure to define success on their own terms. While it may not seem empowering to others, within the context of the world of Fire and Ice, I’d say it’s quite empowering and a change of pace to see. Especially considering that Rhaenerya and Laenor’s agreement come out of a respect for one another.
Of course, in typical Game of Thrones style, the wedding ends horribly with the recently rejected Criston Cole beating Laenor’s paramour to death because Cole simply cannot envision a world where he might put his ego and his titles side to pursue a less conventional, but happier life. There is, however, a power dynamic between Rhaeneyra and Criston Cole which I will explore a little mentioning later on.
Jessie Earl argues the show asks us to empathize with privileged men such as: Criston Cole who clearly plays the nice guy gone bad because he was rejected by the princess; or Viserys who is left grief stricken after he decides to complete a C-section on his wife, Aemma, in the hopes that his male heir will survive—which, spoiler alert, he doesn’t; or perhaps Otto Hightower who wishes to make things right by naming prince Aegon II heir over Rhaeneyra because he knows that if Rhaeneyra remains heir and succeeds Viserys upon his death, there will be war because the “realm will simply not accept a woman on the iron throne.”
The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. While within the context of the world of Ice and Fire we know all these men will find sympathy within those around them, the viewers themselves know their actions are wrong.
While we see King Viserys grief-stricken over the death of his wife and the decision he had to make within the context of the show and in the moment, viewers are led to believe that one or the other could have been saved, but not both. King Viserys in the end chose his heir over his wife all while never confronting and ignoring her on what she wants in that moment, knowing very well from a previous conversation that she does not want to go through the pains of childbirth after this child and knowing very well he could choose one or the other. In the context of the fantasy world we are viewing, yes, perhaps it is the right choice but the viewers themselves know it’s not. That, and the scene was so horrifically portrayed that, I think, it is hard to argue the scene was meant to be somewhat of a moment of triumph for King Viserys. The tension of the scene leads us to believe that, no matter the outcome of who survives, King Viserys’ decision and the complete disregard for his wife’s life so that she may, hopefully, produce a surviving heir is not right.
Of course, there are those that argue because of the behind-the-scenes of the writers stating that neither could have been saved that Viserys’ actions were justified within the context of the world of Ice and Fire, but that’s just as useless as J.K. Rowling mentioning, years after the publication of the last Harry Potter book, that Dumbledore was gay. If the writers did not make that information clear to the viewers within the actual episodes, then it does not matter what the writer’s intents were. But I digress.
Otto Hightower is another example of the follies of Viserys’ decision. Otto Hightower at every turn pushes his grandson, Prince Aegon II, to be named heir for the good of the realm. And although within the context of the world it makes sense, we as viewers also know that Otto is not being entirely genuine and because of that information we know what he is doing is wrong, no matter what he says. In the aftermath of Queen Aemma’s death, Otto pushes his 14-year-old daughter to comfort the king, clearly knowing very well that the king needs to eventually remarry.
Ser Criston Cole, while charming and capturing the hearts of the viewers, senselessly beats Laenor’s paramour, Joffrey, because Criston cannot process that he was rejected by Rhaeneyra and that he could make soiling his position as Kingsguard and his family name by asking Rhaeneyra to marry him.
There is, however, a power dynamic between the two. I do not think Criston enjoyed his night with Rhaeneyra as much as it seemed, and I do think it was coercion on Rhaeneyra’s side. That being said, returning to Earl’s critique of the show, the show makes it very clear within the buildup of tension and Rhaeneyra and Laenor’s reaction, that Ser Criston Cole’s actions not to be as justified or proportional to his feelings, only more nuanced.
Perhaps it is either my memory forgetting, or perhaps a need to rewatch Game of Thrones, but from what I remember the violence in Game of Thrones, I would argue, was used more as shock value and entertainment than House of the Dragon. I say this because, to me, the tone of House of the Dragon, aside from the first half of the first episode, seems darker, more tense and more claustrophobic. Perhaps that is because those familiar with Fire and Blood and viewers of Game of Thrones know what’s to come to House Targaryen. Or perhaps that it is a smaller cast of people that the world of Ice and Fire feels smaller than it did during Game of Thrones. Even so, the form serves as a function to show the social and political suffocation of the privileged in Westeros and how little freedom they do have, whether that was the writers’ intentions or not. And while we are rooting for Rhaeneyra because she is the center to the viewers’ point of view and the same goes for those we may view as “heroes” within the context of her story, even her actions are not entirely portrayed as being justified or good. These are terrible, terrible people and their politics cost them so.
House of the Dragon may portray these horrors as bad within both the context of the world in which these characters exist and the lens of the viewer, but does it provide the right commentary to provide an alternative to truly be delivered in a coherent and understandable message to viewers?
Later, on the same day, Jessie Earl tweeted:
I’m tired of media like HOTD that shows horrific stuff & says “isn’t that bad” without providing alternative commentary. That breeds doomerism. It’s why I like The Boys, which, yes, shows horrors, but does provide counterpoints/commentary or Star Trek, which focuses on hope.
This isn’t saying HOTD isn’t “good” but I find its perspective redundant to game of Thrones and in many ways, ultimately limited and to a degree, very dated in what it could say with the story it’s telling.
Earl’s words do bring up a valid criticism of both House of the Dragon and Game of Thrones in that at the end of the day and despite both series’ criticism of the horrors it represents, it is still used by the writers as entertainment to the viewers—an inherent piece of the conflict that makes both shows so appealing that many Game of Thrones fans note: that anyone and anyone can have horrible things happen to them and that no one is safe.
And that brings Earl’s last point into relevance—that much of what does make the show so appealing is outdated and unnecessary to create conflict within the fantasy genre. It is just simply not what people want to see, especially in their fiction where that might be the only safe space for marginalized people. That’s not to say that the depiction of violence against women, Queer people and nonwhite people should not ever be written about again, but only that it be written with nuance and an alternative and/or commentary with care and understanding that violence against specific groups of people without said nuance has an affect and said groups in the real world.