IIn the latest episode of HBO’s House of the Dragon, Lord Otto Hightower confronts the king with some uncomfortable news. Princess Rhaenyra and Prince Daemon have been spotted in the bowels of a den of pleasure, engaging in unseemly behavior – coupling, to be exact. What his report fails to mention, however, is that the pleasure den is not a source of pleasure at all. It is a dismal tomb of nameless, naked bodies, where Daemon, stricken by a recurring bout of erectile dysfunction, abruptly abandons his niece.
Alicent Hightower, meanwhile, shows us what it means to “serve the kingdom,” as the late Aemma Targaryen would say: It’s a duty to stare at the ceiling, waiting for her aged husband to reach his peak. Here, in HOTD’s most sexually charged episode to date, sex among the Westerosi elite is a remarkably depressing affair, where even Rhaenyra’s seduction of a reluctant Ser Criston Cole is woefully unsexy. She lures him into her bedroom with a long game of helmet distancing, the courtship of lovers with absolutely zero chemistry.
Is it wrong to watch HOTD and wait for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones? Its reputation may be littered with scenes of excessive sexual violence, but GOT still gave its characters moments of tenderness and pleasure. The lifelessness of HOTD’s sexual exploits mirrors the mood of the prequel as a whole. So far, it’s surprisingly austere, drawing inspiration from period drama of suppressed nobility. Although it relies heavily on its predecessor’s world-building and has all the best resources – the close involvement of George RR Martin; the staging by Miguel Sapochnik, who brought us the very excellent Battle of the Bastards; and an unprecedented budget – I have to wonder, how can a show about dragons and incest still be so boring?
Can we talk about anything other than the throne?
For all its gratuitous nudity, dragons, and surprise beheadings, the real X-factor for Game of Thrones was the dialogue. The conversations had a way of humanizing the characters while dispensing with the detail necessary for world-building; they told each other stories that expressed their flaws and virtues, while giving the audience reason to care whether they lived or died. Take episode four, season one, when a trembling Samwell Tarly meets Jon Snow in Castle Black. Naturally, they are talking about the girls. Jon tells Sam that he’s still a virgin because he’s afraid to father a child out of wedlock, simultaneously unpacking the baggage of being a bastard and explaining the meaning of Snow. “So you didn’t know where to put it?” Sam says. They laugh and you think these people care about each other. You want their friendship to succeed.
Four episodes into House of the Dragon, we’ve been through nearly as many years, a war, and two Alicen Hightower pregnancies – yet we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of our protagonists. Laughter is extremely rare here, and everyone in the kingdom seems to be of a singular mind. All we talk about is the throne, the succession and the threats to the succession. It makes for extremely dry parties (did he kill one of the noble women in the hunting tent for a joke?) and even drier on-screen chemistry. From Ser Criston’s debut in episode one to his mating in episode four, he and Rhaenyra have a total of one and a half conversations, counting the one interrupted by the boar. We learn a little about his lineage, but does he have a personality? We may never know.
Lord Corlys, we barely know you
HOTD skims through the plot at lightning speed, with little variation in mood or setting. Imagine the many colorful landscapes, personalities, and clever punchlines of Game of Thrones, then compress them into a uniform shade of gray. Effective storytelling is a hallmark of the source material, Fire & Blood by George RR Martin. Written through the eyes of an archmaester of the Citadel, it offers an account of the Targaryen dynasty 300 years after the fact. Therefore, our characters tend to feel like distant historical figures. “The Sea Serpent is too proud a man,” according to the Grand Maester, but surely there’s more to him, isn’t there? Are there any flaws? And who wears the pants in his wedding to Princess Rhaenys?
As in the book, the show’s dialogue plays a superficial role, guiding the conflict to a quick resolution with the cadence of a treadmill. Years-long separations are quickly mended — “I missed you,” Rhaenyra tells Alicent — and off-screen developments are succinctly explained. We may not have seen Lord Corlys in a while, but we are told he is marrying his daughter to the Sealord of Braavos. It’s a show built around absence – not just of Lord Corlys, but also of laughter, texture or depth.
The princess is not a personality
Duty Alicent is understandably livid about Rhaenyra’s transgressions; the teenage queen gave up on her sex agency entirely when she was 15. She’s working overtime these days, caring for both her young children and her sick husband while looking for a decent lord for her friend to marry – and this is the thank you she gets? If Rhaenyra were to be”defiledin the eyes of these lords, she exclaimed, “that would ruin everything!”
The show goes to great lengths to present itself as a struggle of femininity against patriarchy, reminiscent of the overt sexual violence and frontal nudity of Game of Thrones, only to replace it with non-consensual C-sections, unsolicited abortion and discussion. constant on the birth of heirs. Ultimately, this is still a show about two teenage girls defined by the “burden of my heritage,” as Rhaenyra puts it, and little extra substance. She might also be the worst – a petulant brat who lies, insults the elderly, and gets Otto Hightower kicked out of the small council. But when you’re playing Game of Thrones, that kind of cruelty is a virtue. As a wise queen once said, either you win or you die.
It’s unclear if Daemon wants Rhaenyra or just wants to destroy her marriage prospects, but it doesn’t matter either way. Viserys tends to lift Daemon Exiles with every jump, so it will look like he never left.
Where is Princess Rhaenys, the only adult female with a speaking role? Eve Best’s talents go to waste the longer she stays off-screen.
Lannister’s ancestors, Jason, the small game, and Tyland, runt of the small council, are surprisingly uncool. Tyrion, Tywin and Cersei would be mopping the floor with these clowns.
Hailing from a remote, colonized land, Mysaria’s accent is… an interesting choice.