I watched House of the Dragon, but could just as easily have not watched it. While HBO’s big-budget prequel to Game of Thrones has proven to be a huge hit, successfully recapturing many of the original series’s fans, I was not terribly motivated to make my return. When Game of Thrones was airing, I’d have Sunday watch parties, and I’d write recaps for this site nearly every week, but this time around, I didn’t feel the urgency to cover it weekly, and if I threw a watch party, I’m not sure who would have showed up. None of my friends are watching.
But I did watch it, all of it, including the whiny party scene, the other whiny party scene, multiple whiny kid scenes, the leprosy sex scene, the weird bullshitty birth scenes, and the couple of really good scenes, one of which may or may not have been when a princess’s postpartum breasts started leaking milk in the middle of a small council meeting. I watched because I spent eight years being compelled and disappointed, writing thousands of words about everything I found compelling and disappointing about it, and I was curious: this new show, had it figured out what went wrong? Could House of the Dragon be not only a good heir to Game of Thrones — recognizing and fixing its mistakes, moving us forward — but also a good heir to the Game of Thrones viewing experience I so missed?
In this way, watchers of House of the Dragon are experiencing something parallel to what the characters within House of the Dragon are experiencing: a succession crisis.
Within House of the Dragon, the succession crisis has a pretty simple cause. There’s basic greed, too, but it is misogyny that is the most overt problem. The king has named a woman, his daughter Rhaenyra, heir to the throne. A lot of asshole characters with names you don’t need to care about (Otto Hightower, Tyland Lannister, see I told you) claim that “the people” won’t follow a woman, and the show seems to agree with them. If many people in Westeros are ideologically opposed to Rhaenyra’s succession because of sexism, I guess I — out here in watcher land — am ideologically in favor of it, because of feminism. But what “feminism” is it that the show offers, exactly? What can the show’s in-world treatment of women teach us about why we want to watch it, or don’t?
Okay, first let’s back up for those who have been occupying their Sunday nights with something other than Westerosi politics.
Here’s a simple way to describe House of the Dragon’s story: Westeros’s king, Viserys the Peaceful of House Targaryen, is dying extremely slowly of some deeply nasty wasting disease. Imagine if Ramsey Bolton had gone after Theon with a virus and some leeches instead of a knife, and you’ll have some idea. As Viserys disturbingly, and quite literally, disintegrates over the course of 15 years, two very different women position themselves to take command of his inheritance. On the one hand, we have Viserys’s daughter and heir, Rhaenyra, who likes dragons, hunting, and having sex with the wrong people. Against Rhaenyra stands Viserys’s much younger second wife, Allicent, whose agency and appetites are so thwarted by grief and her father that her main activity in the first episodes is gnawing on her own fingernails. Rhaenyra, a Targaryen, has the family’s signature platinum braids, whereas Allicent has gorgeous brown curls and a twisted sense of responsibility, which is the kind of thing that makes you very excited if you (me) have ever read a 19th-century novel. As the season continues and both women have a bunch of children, political tensions build. Finally, at Viserys’s death, Allicent — warped appetite thoroughly reworked by religious conviction and long-suffering years of caretaking into a kind of steely strength — really commits to usurping Rhaenyra’s power once and for all, in order to put her own (blond but lame) son on the throne. She succeeds, but barely, because her son is an idiot and Rhaenyra has more dragons (and implicitly better sex). The season ends as this show’s true battle for the throne begins.
The account I’ve just given you isn’t wrong, but it is also a bad description. It’s a bad description because it makes House of the Dragon sound good, which House of the Dragon is not. When you put it this way, it sounds like a show that combines the thrilling audacity of Game of Thrones with a keen awareness of the weird and witchy shapes that women’s passions take under patriarchy. Through this lens, the strange decision to make one season cover such an incredibly long timescape — requiring most of the characters to be played by multiple actors — makes a huge amount of sense, because you need that long in order to really address what multiple childbirths do to a person’s character. I mean, brilliant! Just look at these ladies! I want to watch the show I have described all day long.
But what House of the Dragon gives us is not that. Instead, it offers a lot of people complaining and a lot of plotlines completely failing to develop. For instance: a terrifying “bad guy” appears in the first episode, the “Crabfeeder,” who is super masked and nasty and great and gross, and yet this delicious creepo gets sliced in half, offstage, in episode three before we even get his backstory. A whole bunch of hot awesome characters emerge from House Velaryon — like the house leader who is nicknamed the Sea Snake, how cool is that — but most of the family is summarily killed, and the Sea Snake himself, Corlys, gets sick at an unexplained battle and disappears for two key episodes. In general, House of the Dragon gives the men of House Velaryon about as much airtime as it does the slow uncomfortable leeching (as in: with leeches) of Viserys’s back lesions. Watching the show systematically dismantle House Velaryon is narratively lame and also somewhat eyebrow-raising, since doing so means killing off the show’s only powerful Black family. Finally, in not just one, and not just two, but actually three episodes of the first season, a grown and badass woman is introduced only to die a bloody death by the episode’s end so that the show can explain something about someone else’s character. This fucking sucks.
But worse than all of this — maybe not ethically but aesthetically — is the fact that the two main women, Rhaenyra and Allicent, are just not fun to watch. Occasionally they are. There is a great Rhaenyra postpartum placenta scene, and also a really good (IMO) moment when Allicent strategically indulges this one weird dude’s foot fetish. But these moments of intensity are few and far between. The pleasure and plot of House of the Dragon depends on the passions of these two women. But somehow, the show cannot get those passions consistently onto our screens. What’s going wrong here? Is it the acting? The writing? The source text? The bad green screens?
Within House of the Dragon, there’s a clear legitimacy problem that everyone can point to: the heir’s hair. Rhaenyra’s sons were not fathered by her husband, which everyone can see because they do not have the platinum blond hair of old Valyria (also because of their skin color, but within the show, the hair is the real signifier of the “bloodline,” and if you would like my five million words about how this hair-skin-blood-race nexus interacts with the last 200 years of American cultural production, please text me). Anyway: the boys are brunettes, they have these really thick brown mops of hair, and it doesn’t take an advanced degree in #hairstudies for you or me or anyone in Westeros to realize that a brunette Targaryen is a problem for the legitimacy of Targaryen succession. Everyone keeps pointing at the kids, being like: Look at them! We can see the legitimacy problem, right there!
For those of us watching House of the Dragon at home, the problem of the show’s legitimacy, I think, is more amorphous: What’s the equivalent of the hair? Can we diagnose so clearly how the show fails to live up to what it sort of promises and certainly promotes, a feminist succession plot fantasy? It’s true that, as a manifestation of feminist failure, you could easily point to the birth trauma scene of the first episode and call it quits on this show right there: I would support you. But I’m mostly interested in a broader and more diffuse insult the show delivers to its viewers. The real problem for me is how, despite being a show about women’s desires for power, the two main characters so rarely have anything to say about power, why they want it, or what they would do with it, or even why they are scared or worried about it. They have no schemes or agendas. There are no “I’m going to break the wheel!” speeches here, nor is there any “I choose violence,” nor is there anything like Sansa striding elegantly around Winterfell worrying about where to get and store the wheat.
Rhaenyra tells us at some point that she is “fire” but we hardly ever see it. What is she doing all the rest of the time, the many years of this show? One answer could be that she is busy getting pregnant and having babies and dealing with the aftermath of her babies, and I do genuinely applaud the show for the moments (such as the breast milk one I mentioned) when the realities of parturition get airtime. But if that’s what the show is banking on, it needs to be more convincing about those realities, rather than just making a historically or physiologically inaccurate spectacle of childbirth’s many dangers. Here I am biting back my own long rant about the first episode: I am not a medical expert, but I did have a vaginal breech birth, and let me tell you how biologically wrong that episode seemed to get that experience. The birth itself is a problem, but the bigger issue is how the show both engages women’s medical health and doesn’t: as a reality, it seems to go in and out of focus.
And, maybe worse, women’s emotional realities do too. Sometimes this show seems able to capture what ideological pressure does to its characters, particularly women. There are instances when we see women, Allicent as well as her daughter, wrestling with what Virginia Woolf, my favorite Westeros critic, called the “strained and morbid imagination” that emerges when sexist ideologies like chastity get wrapped around the “nerves and instincts.” But if the show wants to really explore the psychological effects of sexism, it needs to believe in them: they need to apply consistent pressure. Instead, they seem to slip on and off. Rhaenyra spends the first half of the season engaged in foot-stompy rants about how “it’s not fair!” that she can’t do just what she wants, all the time; she spends the second half of the season being deeply shocked, shocked! that people in her deeply patriarchal world care about her children’s legitimacy. And #bless her, she’s right that sexism isn’t fair and that bloodlines shouldn’t matter so much. But the show’s way of staging her character makes the problem seem like a matter of wounded entitlement rather than a psychological response to systemic, deeply felt misogyny.
I think the problem is that the show uses my feminism to try to make me root for Rhaenyra’s succession, instead of taking my feminism seriously enough to really write a show about why feminism matters. Misogyny drives the plot. But the show can’t really decide how much misogyny matters to being a person in this world.
I give the House of the Dragon writers’ room some credit for trying. I get that it’s hard to actually understand what misogyny does to the world; it’s hard for me too. But it’s not that hard to do better than this.
There’s a TikTok video currently dominating the internets in which the actors who play Rhaenyra and Allicent discuss their preferred cocktails for 20 seconds of intensely fantastic interplay. Do they want each other? Want to be each other? They stare and redirect, imagine delicious things in their mouths, add details that make things dirtier and more effervescent (with prosecco!) too. The fact that, in the video, Allicent’s dress (the actor’s name is Olivia Cooke) seems marginally too small only makes it fit more effectively. Rhaenyra’s blond hair (it’s Emma D’Arcy) spikes short from their head. If you had shown me that video and read me my own plot description, I would have been sure that House of the Dragon was the show of my dreams. I would have expected it to capture how the tightness and violence of patriarchy can stifle queer and feminine energy without extinguishing it, how voluptuous passions can find so many gorgeous ways, maybe not out, but at least through.
That video is everything that House of the Dragon is not. You can look, and you can see the difference, just as easily as characters in Westeros can see the difference between platinum hair and brown. If HBO expects us to miss what is in front of our eyes, perhaps its own vision is as clouded by rot, by its misguided belief in its own authority, as the disease-ridden king Viserys.
Holding out hopes for Baela,
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles.