"House of the Dragon" and the question of queens

The "Game of Thrones" prequel has a chance to show us noble, ambitious women who aren't schemers or power mad

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 28, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Milly Alcock in "House of the Dragon"  (Ollie Upton / HBO)
Milly Alcock in "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton / HBO)

"House of the Dragon" aspires to treat its women better than the creators of "Game of Thrones." That shouldn't be that tough in some respects, considering the goodwill its producers earned by assuring us that it wouldn't present rape as an entertainment device.

Others will take a bit more effort to overcome, like the original's tendency to present women in power as dangerous and lacking the temperament to lead, the exception being Sansa Stark. Before she could be named Queen in the North, the writers decided she had to be manipulated and brutalized. Ultimately she got the job because no male Stark was around to run the place.

The Starks are barely mentioned in the Targaryen-focused prequel, but the specter of e-e-evil Daenerys looms large in viewers' minds, especially over Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (currently played by Milly Alcock), heir to the Iron Throne . . . for now.

By naming his daughter as his heir instead of passing rulership to his brother Daemon (Matt Smith), King Viserys I (Paddy Considine) avoids placing rulership of the Seven Kingdoms into the hands of someone with little regard for human life. But Rhaenyra was not his first choice either. Had the boy Viserys' wife had been carrying lived, the title would have passed to him.

But the king's choice is also risky, as several of his lords have counseled him. Her gender alone, they claim, is enough for the throne's enemies to perceive weakness. In contrast, all her stillborn little brother would have had to do was keep breathing after he'd been ripped out of his mother's body, and Viserys' legacy would be secure.

George R.R. Martin writes his female characters with complexity in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series and "Fire & Blood" – the Targaryen history upon which "House of the Dragon" is based – although he certainly doesn't resist sexualizing them either. (That said, "Game of Thrones" executive producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were far worse when it came to objectifying its actors.)

But several details in "Fire & Blood" don't make it into the narration that opens the prequel, voiced by the adult version of Rhaenyra (Emma D'Arcy). In that setup, Rhaenyra tells the story of her father having been chosen to succeed The Old King Jaehaerys the Conciliator, despite his elder cousin Rhaenys (Eve Best) having a better claim. What she doesn't explain is that its strength isn't due to Rhaenys' age, but her father Aemon's. He was the older of Jaehaerys sons and set to inherit the throne.

House of the DragonPaddy Considine in "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton / HBO)

Viserys is an even-keeled ruler but even the nobles somewhat insensitively acknowledge that Rhaenys would have served the realm equally as well by dubbing her the Queen Who Never Was. Jaehaerys' queen and partner in rulership, Alysanne, was so angered by the decision that she left him for a time:

"A ruler needs a good head and a true heart," she famously told the king. "A cock is not essential. If Your Grace truly believes that women lack the wit to rule, plainly you have no further need of me."

Best carries the sting of that insult in her character's stony expression, along with much more that the show has yet to reveal, and might choose to change.

Here's what the book tells us: After Aemon died, Jaehaerys awarded Rhaenys' son's birthright, Dragonstone, to his second-born, Baelon. And when Baelon died, instead of risking revolt, he let the country's lords play the collective ax man and dash his granddaughter's hope of succession.

"Rhaenys, a woman, would not inherit the Iron Throne," Rhaenyra said, before imparting the truth behind the pageant. "Jaehaerys called the Great Council to prevent a war being fought over his succession. For he knew the cold truth: the only thing that could tear down the House of the Dragon was itself."

"House of the Dragon" has an opportunity to question why the idea persists that women are unsuited to hold the highest seat of political power.

Martin's stories are inspired by true events from the feudal era of European history, which explains why the succession rules in Westeros follow the British interpretation of primogeniture, in which first-born sons inherit the wealth and titles of kings and nobles. (Parliamentary representatives, in collaboration with Queen Elizabeth II, passed the Succession to the Crown Act in 2013, changing the existing law to an absolute primogeniture system, which means the throne can now pass to the first-born heir, regardless of gender.)

From a writer's point of view, this creates fertile possibilities to explore the motivations of second sons; Martin named an army of mercenaries after that concept.

But it also creates a fascinating opportunity for "House of the Dragon" to question why the idea persists, at least in American culture, that women are unsuited to hold the highest seat of political power.

House of the DragonPaddy Considine, Eve Best and Steve Toussaint in "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton / HBO)

The Iron Throne is fictional; and for the time being our nation is still a democracy. The rules of Westeros are based on past customs, for most of us at least, that view a woman's power as a contractual tool to merge dynasties.

It's also true that our media influences the way we think about longstanding assumptions and traditions. Rhaenyra's political ambition, and her wisdom, are familiar to us, even admirable. She is insistent on proving her power as a leader, negotiator, and ambassador on top of being the named successor because she has to show all of Westeros that she's capable, not just the men advising her father.

As the named heir, she also enjoys a status Rhaenys was never afforded. Assuming that the multiple dragons on this show are an armory's worth of Chekhov's guns, these women are not destined to help each other. Even in a world without dragons – our world – they have no reason to do so.

But through them, "House of the Dragon" has a worthy opportunity to show us the ways we miss out when patriarchal governing systems push down or hold back capable women who aren't psychologically compromised or sociopaths, and who dare to go after power and leadership roles they deserve.

The women who are taken most seriously in "Game of Thrones" survived brutal men, or in the cases of Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, and Yara Greyjoy, trained to be the physical equals of men, or better, on the battlefield. Neither Arya nor Brienne harbors any desire to rule, and in the books, Yara (who's originally named Asha) is laughed out of Iron Islands' Kingsmoot, the council gathered to select a new ruler.

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As for the ones who do: Cersei deceives her way to the throne, eventually sacrificing her own children, along with half of King's Landing, to take it for herself.  Daenerys goes mad with it. Sansa gets to be Queen because there is no other option; also, she proves she's invested in keeping her people alive, which is more than the North can say about the previous Lord of Winterfell.

Martin has long insisted Westeros isn't any more misogynistic than Western history and the modern world have proven to be, and certainly the men we've seen in that hard seat weren't heroes. Indeed, Viserys is the first actual good guy we've seen sit on those blades.

If "House of the Dragon" really does want to give its women a fairer shake, though, let's hope that intention extends to the way it paints its princesses and queens, both the ones that never were or may never be. Ultimately, they may not win; Rhaenyra's ominous introduction hints the tale may lurch that way. But maybe this time their defeat won't be attributed to their unsuitability to rule. 

New episodes of "House of the Dragon" air Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and stream on HBO Max.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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