In the latest installment of HBO’s House of the Dragon, Lord Otto Hightower confronts the king with a bit of discomforting news. Princess Rhaenyra and Prince Daemon were spotted in the bowels of a pleasure den, engaging in some unbecoming behavior – coupling, to be exact. What his report doesn’t mention, however, is that the pleasure den is no source of pleasure at all. It’s a dismal tomb of anonymous, naked bodies, where Daemon, struck by a recurring bout of erectile dysfunction, abruptly abandons his niece.
Alicent Hightower, meanwhile, shows us what it means to “serve the realm”, as a late Aemma Targaryen would say: It’s a duty that entails staring listlessly at the ceiling, waiting for one’s elderly husband to climax. Here in the most sexually charged episode of HOTD to date, sex among the Westerosi elite is a remarkably depressing affair, where even Rhaenyra’s seduction of a reluctant Ser Criston Cole is terribly unsexy. She lures him into her room with a protracted game of keepaway the helmet, the courtship of paramours with absolutely zero chemistry.
Is it wrong to watch HOTD and long for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones? Its reputation may be staked in scenes of excessive sexual violence, but GOT still afforded its characters moments of tenderness and pleasure. The lifelessness of HOTD’s sexual exploits reflects the mood of the prequel as a whole. So far it’s surprisingly dour, hewing toward period drama of repressed nobility. Despite its leaning heavily on the world-building of its predecessor, and having all the best resources – the close involvement of George RR Martin; the direction of 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 dull?
Can we talk about something other than the throne?
For all its gratuitous nudity, dragons and surprise beheadings, the real X factor for Game of Thrones was the dialogue. Conversations had a way of humanizing characters while dispensing necessary world-building details; they told each other stories that expressed their flaws and virtues, while providing the audience reasons to care if they live or die. Take episode four, season one, when a trembling Samwell Tarly meets Jon Snow at Castle Black. Naturally, they talk about girls. Jon tells Sam that he’s still a virgin because he fears fathering 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 believe these people care for each other. You want their friendship to succeed.
Four episodes into House of the Dragon, we’ve sped through nearly as many years, one war, and two Alicent Hightower pregnancies – yet we’ve just started to scratch the surface of our protagonists. Here, laughter is exceedingly rare, and everyone in the realm seems to be of a singular mind. All the highborn talk about is the throne, succession and threats to succession. This makes for extremely dry parties (Would it have killed any of the noblewomen in the hunting tent to crack a joke?) and even drier onscreen chemistry. From Ser Criston’s debut in episode one to his coupling in episode four, he and Rhaenyra have a total of one and half conversations, counting the one cut short by the boar. We learn a bit about his lineage, but does he have a personality? We may never find out.
Lord Corlys, we hardly know thee
HOTD zips through the plot with lightning speed, with little variation in terms of mood or scenery. Imagine the many colorful landscapes, personalities and clever punchlines of Game of Thrones, then compress that into a uniform shade of gray. The efficient storytelling is a feature of the source material, George RR Martin’s Fire & Blood. Written through the eyes of an archmaester at the Citadel, it offers an account of the Targaryen dynasty 300 years after the fact. Consequently, our characters tend to feel like distant historical figures. “The Sea Snake is an over-proud man,” according to the grand maester, but surely there’s more to him, right? Does he have any vices? And who wears the pants in his marriage to Princess Rhaenys?
As in the book, the show’s dialogue serves a perfunctory role, guiding the conflict to swift resolution with the cadence of a conveyor belt. Years-long estrangements are quickly repaired – “I’ve missed you,” Rhaenyra tells Alicent – and offscreen developments are succinctly accounted for. We may not have seen Lord Corlys in a while, but we’re told that he’s marrying his daughter to the Sealord of Braavos. This is a show built around absence – not only of Lord Corlys, but of laughter, texture or depth.
Princess is not a personality
Dutiful Alicent is understandably livid about Rhaenyra’s transgressions; the teen queen completely surrendered her sexual agency at the age of 15. She’s been working overtime these days, caring both for her small children and ailing husband while seeking out a decent lord for her friend to marry – and this is the thanks she gets? If Rhaenyra were to be “sullied” in the eyes of these lords, she cries, “that would ruin everything!”
The show goes to great lengths to frame itself as a struggle of womanhood against the patriarchy, dialing back the overt sexual violence and full-frontal nudity of Game of Thrones, only to replace it with non-consensual C-sections, unsolicited abortion and constant discussion of birthing heirs. At the end of the day this is still a show about two teenage girls defined by the “burden of my inheritance”, as Rhaenyra puts it, and little additional substance. She might also be the actual worst – a petulant brat who lies, volleys insults at the elderly, and gets Otto Hightower thrown off the small council. But when you play the game of thrones, this kind of ruthlessness is a virtue. As a wise queen once said, either you win, or you die.
It’s unclear whether Daemon wants Rhaenyra, or simply wants to destroy her marriage prospects, but it doesn’t matter either way. Viserys tends to lift Daemon’s exiles at every time jump, so it’ll feel like he never left.
Where is Princess Rhaenys, sole adult woman with a speaking role? Eve Best’s talents are wasted the longer she remains offscreen.
Lannister ancestors Jason, he of little game, and Tyland, runt of the small council, are shockingly uncool. Tyrion, Tywin and Cersei would mop the floor with these clowns.
Hailing from a distant, colonized land, Mysaria’s accent is … an interesting choice.