When we first saw Milly Alcock in character as Rhaenyra Targaryen, the antiheroine of HBO’s House of the Dragon, it was on the back of a dragon, soaring free over King’s Landing. When we first see Emma D’Arcy in character as Rhaenyra, 10 years after her wedding, it’s on a birthing bed, moaning in pain and caked in sweat. The younger Rhaenyra was a girl, several years from the obligations of adulthood. The older Rhaenyra is a woman, with all the burden and risk that entails.
In its sixth episode, House of the Dragon fast-forwards a decade and swaps out its two leads. Alcock and Emily Carey—as Rhaenyra’s friend turned stepmother, Alicent Hightower—have ceded the floor to D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, who take their characters from precocious children to world-weary adults. The recast is partly practical; House of the Dragon has to cover decades of fictional history to set up a civil war, so actors hired to play teenagers no longer make sense as 30-something parents. But it also allows the show to tighten its focus on the story’s central themes: gender, power, and the gruesome realities of biology as destiny.
House of the Dragon hasn’t been shy about its intent to foreground the feminine ordeal. The very first scene pits the succession claim of Rhaenyra’s father, Viserys, against that of his cousin, Rhaenys. The Great Council elects Viserys, rejecting the idea that women can hold power except as a last resort. (A cruel irony of Rhaenyra’s situation is that the same decision that puts her in line for the throne also sets a precedent against her inheriting the seat.) Later in the same episode, Rhaenyra’s mother, Aemma, dies in childbirth, a grisly scene intercut with a tournament so brutal it makes one bystander sick. Lest we miss the already obvious analogy, Aemma warns Rhaenyra that “the child bed is our battlefield”—where women prove their worth, and can also lose their lives.
Now, adult Rhaenyra is a warrior herself, and a seasoned one at that. The baby she bears in the opening scene is her third, an achievement that ought to secure her legacy under Westeros’s warped value system. Except that she’s 0-for-3 on producing children who actually look like her husband, as her erstwhile ally Alicent is all too quick to point out. She does so after essentially forcing Rhaenyra to traverse an entire castle mere minutes postpartum, a journey that director Miguel Sapochnik renders with all the palpable agony of Jon Snow scaling the Wall. I shudder to think what the Foley artists had to do to mimic the sound of viscera spilling onto the floor, but their hard work pays off.
Game of Thrones, the era-defining hit to which House of the Dragon is both a follow-up and prequel, earned its share of controversy even before its widely criticized conclusion. Much of that controversy centered on its depiction of female suffering, especially in the form of sexual assault. Daenerys Targaryen, Rhaenyra’s distant relative, may come to love her husband, but it’s impossible to call his political marriage to a child true consent. Sansa Stark’s rape by Ramsay Bolton was a series nadir, filmed to focus on the plight of witness Theon Greyjoy instead of the actual victim. Even more pleasant encounters could still feel exploitative: The liberal use of women’s bodies as set dressing practically invented the term “sexposition.”
But Game of Thrones also came with ready-made counterarguments. Author George R.R. Martin wrote a fantasy with the nuance and harshness of real life, a tenet David Benioff and D.B. Weiss stayed true to in their adaptation. That the women of Westeros had to deal with the same misogyny and violence as their real-world counterparts was part of the point, and Game of Thrones’ refusal to look away helped drive it home. Besides, Game of Thrones’ female characters were far from passive objects. Figures like Cersei Lannister and Margaery Tyrell, or relationships like that between Sansa and her sister Arya, were some of the show’s most singular creations. These women may have their traumas, but they weren’t defined by them.
Like most subjective arguments, this one was never resolved over the course of Game of Thrones—and has already spilled over into House of the Dragon. Even before Sunday night’s episode, the show had already caught some flak over its graphic portrayal of a queer character’s fatal beating. Such disputes touch on questions that long predate Game of Thrones: that of depiction versus endorsement, and of highlighting a problem versus reveling in its unsavory effects.
For what it’s worth, House of the Dragon thus far contains far less sexual violence than Game of Thrones. (Even the nudity seems much less pronounced, though this wouldn’t be a Thrones story without several scenes set in a brothel.) Instead, it’s effectively swapped one form of gendered agony for another—and invited the same debates around the purpose and effect of its most extreme misery. Except this time, sexism isn’t just one theme among many: It’s the crux of the entire show.
House of the Dragon pivots our attention from sex to its logical aftermath. Pregnancy and its complications have been top of mind for Americans these past few months, and for every viewer who wants pure escapism, there’s another who craves the catharsis of seeing their anxieties onscreen. It is, appallingly, still novel to see childbearing framed as the physical trial that it is. Even for those with iron stomachs, though, the sheer gore of a medieval C-section may be too much to take. And a mother self-immolating via dragon, as Rhaenyra’s sister-in-law does to cut short a complicated labor, is operatic to the point of excess. Three excruciating births in six episodes are more than enough for fans to get the gist.
The show fares better when exploring the more subtle aspects of womanhood in Westeros, especially with its aged-up cast. To the show’s credit, it avoids equating marginalization with the moral upper hand, a simplistic trap endemic to popular feminism. Just because Rhaenyra lacks one form of power doesn’t mean she can’t feel its corrupting influence in other ways.
When her son asks if he’s a bastard, Rhaenyra tells him he’s a Targaryen, “and that’s what matters.” But as Daenerys helped demonstrate, riding dragons doesn’t make Targaryens infallible. It makes them arrogant—and understandable as Rhaenyra’s actions may be, having three children obviously out of wedlock is nothing if not arrogant. House of the Dragon frequently highlights a heinous double standard: Where men are allowed their youthful indiscretions and extramarital affairs, women face far steeper consequences for potentially disrupting the line of succession. Like Jaime and Cersei Lannister, Rhaenyra feels entitled to pursue her own happiness. That doesn’t mean she can write her own ethical code out of sheer force of will.
Rhaenyra doesn’t stand alone as a case study in flawed femininity. Where Game of Thrones started with the War of the Five Kings, both sides of the upcoming Dance of the Dragons are captained by current or would-be queens: Rhaenyra and Alicent, advocating on behalf of her sons. That conflict is still some ways off, but now that Rhaenyra and Alicent are adults, the tension between them has grown thicker and deeper than that of sniping teens. Cooke plays the older Alicent as fearful and self-righteous, convinced she has to do whatever’s necessary to protect her kids from an immoral adulterer. To watch her and D’Arcy spar over policy in a Small Council meeting is to watch a showdown both more subtle and more vicious than their sons scrapping in the yard. Think Yellowjackets-style emotional warfare, not a show of masculine bravado. The true potential of House of the Dragon’s gender skew may lie in the kinds of fighting we’re able to observe.
House of the Dragon has barely rounded the halfway point of its first season. It’s too early to tell how the show will stack up against Game of Thrones in its portrayal of women’s plight. Is the show a sharpened snapshot of institutional misogyny, or torture porn, or something in between? There are also extratextual factors at play. House of the Dragon credits female directors and writers, but its topline job titles—creator and showrunner—belong entirely to men. This isn’t an indictment in itself; it’s just disappointing, given the subject matter. As a prequel, House of the Dragon has the benefit of hindsight. It can walk the same tightrope and try to strike a better balance.