From the moment we saw Jamie Lannister boinking his sister and shoving a child to his (supposed) death, the peculiar sense of depravity on display in Game of Thrones hooked us.
That appeal is no less tempting in HBO's new Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon.
There's something delicious in the debauched. The high production values these shows are famous for lend these tales more than a passing semblance of authenticity, especially knowing they take inspiration from history.
While the original show drew on the War of the Roses for plot points, The House of the Dragon pulls from a slightly more obscure period.
But how much is truth and how much is blatant misogyny draped in the mantle of fact made into fiction, and honestly, why does that even matter when… dragons?
Much like Game of Thrones took inspiration from The Wars of the Roses, House of the Dragon also draws on actual historical events. This time, the period of choice is The Anarchy. Three hundred years before Richard, Henry and Margaret popped off, there was a tragedy at sea.
A boat known as the White Ship left Normandy for England, carrying basically every important person of the era. They got wasted on wine and were collectively struck with the brilliant idea to race another ship across the channel. That ship had left hours earlier and didn't know they were racing because, unlike the White Ship, it contained adults who wanted to be home and in bed by nine-thirty at the latest.
The White Ship struck the well-known and notoriously dangerous Quilleboeuf reef, capsized, and sank. Everyone on board died. The lone survivor was a butcher who'd joined the noble party to collect the debts they owed him before they skipped town.
This wreck was a massive loss for England. While the King survived, having traveled on that earlier ship, he lost his only legitimate male heir, William Adelin. William's death caused a major succession crisis. It resulted in a civil war that pitted his daughter, Empress Matilda, against his nephew Stephen of Blois.
The parallels are pretty obvious, I think.
While the impetus for the crisis in House of the Dragon is not a boat crash (sadly, since I think that's honestly the best part), the issue of succession is still the primary catalyst for the action —
Specifically, the succession of a woman.
In 1126, Henry I, King of England, declared his daughter (already an Empress from a previous marriage) his heir. Like Viserys, King Henry forced his court to swear an oath of allegiance to Matilda. Like Rhaenyra, Matilda's rule did not go unopposed.
However, just because a show or novel takes inspiration from the past does not mean that it is historically accurate. And while it seems obvious, it needs to be said:
House of the Dragon is not real.
It is not real history. It does not feature real people. And most importantly, it is not an authentic depiction of life during the 1100s. It's just not.
While many people seem to acknowledge this, for some reason, we're still having to rehash the issue of women and sexual violence as portrayed on the show. Of course, it goes without saying that dragons are acceptable. Still, any suggestion of misogyny is brushed aside with a quick “Well, that's how it was back then.”
Or else, they're dismissed as overreactions because “It's not meant to be historically accurate.”
Here's the problem – the showrunners have stated that they do mean to reflect “that period.” Miguel Sapochnik outright said, “You can't ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time.”
Regarding House of the Dragon, George R.R. Martin remarked, “I don't think Westeros is particularly more anti-woman or misogynistic than real life than what we call history.”
He claims this, despite acknowledging that he likes to turn historical events “up to 11.” So which is it? Is this truly a depiction dedicated to showing what life was like for women during the 12th century? Or is this a fantasy world wherein misogyny is turned up to 11 for the sake of it?
Sapochnik speaks as if what we see on screen is born from some profound debt to history. As if we owe it to the past to bare the harsh truth of it on screen. When speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, he said they approached it “carefully and thoughtfully.” They “did not want to “shy away from it,” as though they've committed to something great and noble.
But that suggestion is ridiculous when you look at even a few of their choices.
First, let's consider the birthing scene from episode two. I'm sure everyone and their mother are aware of the controversy. Queen Aemma is in bed giving birth to Viserys long-looked-for son. But the child is a breech birth, and Aemma's strength is waning.
“We've given her as much milk of the poppy as we can,” says the maester in charge of the heir's delivery.
With no other choice, King Viserys agrees to let the maester cut Aemma open and bring out the child. The midwives hold her down, Viserys calms her fears, and the maester gets to work performing his cruel c-section.
Only none of this makes sense.
First of all, “in that period” (meaning 12th century England), no men were allowed in the birthing rooms. So, sorry, Maester Knifey, you're right out. Male surgeons being present was uncommon right up until the Tudors. Henry VIII, notoriously anxious for a male heir, broke protocol in 1537 by insisting his beloved wife, Jane Seymour, be attended by male doctors instead of only midwives.
Some theorize that her death from “childbed fever” resulted from male doctors who lacked the traditional knowledge of midwives to prevent infection after birth. Whatever the truth, she was not cut open despite a difficult labor and Henry's desperation for a son.
In fact, from its inception in the Roman era until the 16th century, cesarean sections were only performed on dead mothers. There was no choice between mother and child. After all, far better to save a grown woman who can give birth again than an infant with at least fourteen years of growing to do before he can rule. Successful cesareans on women who survived and later birthed more children occurred as early as 1500.
In an interview with Slate, Medievalist Sara McDougall said the suggestion of performing a c-section in the way House of the Dragon depicts “is a gross imposition of a medievalism—the idea that medieval patriarchy must be the same or worse than ours […] Totally, no.”
But historical accuracy aside, the scene doesn't even make sense within the context of the world of Westeros.
The maester says they've given her as much painkiller as possible without harming the baby. Still, since they are about to cut the baby out, it doesn't matter if they give Aemma more.
Historically, even the most painful ancient surgeries were performed on patients sedated with alcohol or other drugs. Opium– the real-world equivalent of Martin's “milk of the poppy” – has been used as a sedative for thousands of years. If Aemma was genuinely going to die, then there was no point in withholding sedation. Never mind the casual cruelty; it's far easier to cut open a still body than one fully aware and writhing around in pain as she was.
But none of this matters because, truthfully, the scene was not operating out of any desire to portray historical truth or even the previously stated facts of its own fantasy world. Instead, the only way to make Aemma's death so horrific was out of a desire on the show's part to do violence to a woman's body.
This kind of hypocrisy of mandate is echoed (though with less physical violence) in the portrayal of Alicent Hightower.
In Martin's book, she is a woman several years older than Rhaenyra – not her contemporary. More significantly, she doesn't marry Viserys until she's eighteen. But the show depicts her as Rhaenyra's friend, presumably roughly the same age.
In addition, the plot point of her attending to the aging king references her service to King Jahaerys in the book. These things combined suggest that Alicent is roughly fifteen years old in the first episodes of House of the Dragon.
The man she seduces and marries, Viserys, is nearing fifty. Though he's in his mid-thirties in the source material, Paddy Considine is forty-nine. Matt Smith, too, is almost ten years older than the character he's portraying.
Now, the fudging of ages isn't unusual in film and television, but I would draw specific attention to the directions of the fudging. Despite the original book depicting more appropriate age gaps, the show goes out of its way to increase the years between couples.
Alicent's story is no longer a woman taking advantage of a situation not of her own making but now deliberately includes a titillating element of child exploitation.
These vast gaps, while not without precedent in medieval times, were also not the norm. And while girls as young as eight or nine (or sometimes younger) were on occasion married off, these weddings were typically symbolic. They were not expected to consummate their marriage until many years later when they came of age.
Boys were also not exempt from this practice, as marriage was primarily a practical union between families.
I'm not saying that child marriage didn't happen or that very young women weren't forced to marry significantly older men. I'm not saying that it isn't something we should condemn now. I'm just saying that this age gap between thirteen-year-old Alicent and fifty-year-old Viserys is highly uncommon.
But it sure makes for some salacious watching, doesn't it?
And this kind of change is not without precedent. Much was made of the scene between Cersei and Jaime in GOT season four. While described as consensual in the books, the TV show's adaptation made Cersei's position less certain. Fans were up in arms, and eventually, the showrunners had to make a statement apologizing for the confusion. They claimed it was bad editing and their own ignorance, which led to it being aired at all.
I mean, it's up to you if you believe that, but the scene left an impression on viewers. And it's another instance of the show going out of its way to spice up an already spicy story. To make an unlikely situation even less likely.
What Does This Say About Us?
Here's the thing – I'm not actually mad about any of this. I understand the appeal of watching something in fiction you would never countenance in real life. What's more, I do not think that fictional preference reflects an earnest desire or belief.
There is no reason to suggest that anyone who enjoys the relationship between Rhaenyra and Daemon is any more twisted than someone who loves Molly Weasley obliterating Bellatrix. We watch murder and violence on screen with a grace toward morality that, for some reason, is now rarely granted to messed-up relationships.
So no. I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with the violence in Game of Thrones. And I don't believe there is anything inherently wrong with depicting a deeply misogynistic culture.
In this case, I take exception to the claim to the truth of its historicity.
Because when it comes down to it, what the creators of House of the Dragon are telling us is that this show is real, that this history is real, and we are the progeny of such times. They tell us that this is how women were treated, and by claiming this, it justifies their treatment of women on screen. It justifies misogyny in real life. It justifies hate and cruelty as something we've carried with us, something given to us by our ancestors at once, both making us complicit and absolving us of any responsibility.
Neither Sapochnik nor Martin runs around telling people that dragons are real. There is no effort to validate the depiction of this fantasy world by linking imaginary creatures to ours. Yet, this does not diminish our enjoyment of the show. So why do they need to justify the depiction of such violent misogyny by implicating us as co-conspirators in it?
That is the aspect I struggle with and resent. That is the aspect I regret most about House of the Dragon. Nothing is gained by perpetuating the idea that this is the life medieval women were condemned to live. Nor is there any good in tying modern audiences to these false, incomplete, exaggerated depictions of the past.
It does not serve the show, and more importantly, it does not help the audience.
In the End
Ultimately, House of the Dragon is and was always going to be a violent show with perverted passions and salacious stories. That is just the genre, style, and world in which George R.R. Martin's tale operates.
And that is fine. It's fun to pretend!
House of the Dragon is not a documentary. It isn't meant to be. It is only inspired by long-ago events, and very loosely at that. So why do the creators cling to misogyny as true when the world is acknowledged to be false?
Why lie about it? Why are they so determined to make us think that this hatred against women is an accurate reflection of our own, except to make us guilty by association? If this is how women were treated in the past, then we can accept and dismiss the way we treat them now. After all, it's always been this way.
But we are not citizens of Westeros. We are not subjects of Viserys. Their violence is not our violence. We are not bound to their traditions or their beliefs.
Just as our fictional preferences do not reflect our true beliefs, neither do these fictitious beliefs reflect our real responsibilities. Misogyny is real and does exist. But the fictionality of Westeros' violence does not absolve us of our real-world responsibility to address it. It also does not reflect the legacy of our ancestors, who have taught us the prejudices we carry.
Go ahead and tell me whatever story you want. Make it as bloody or as obscene as you can.
Just don't tell me that's my story. Just don't tell me that's me. Don't lie.
There is no need to justify what we enjoy in our imaginations. But we shouldn't reframe fantasy to absolve us of our responsibility to reality.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Hannah is a fangirl born of fangirls. As a child, she lived vicariously through her favorite stories, but as an adult, she became an actor so she could live them directly. A graduate of the University of Toronto and Sheridan College, Hannah has a deep love of storytelling and analysis. Having gotten her start in writing as a young book critic, she is excited to be expanding into the world of freelancing and fandom content.