Yeah, dragons are cool, but . . . have you ever 'shipped the sexual chemistry between an uncle and his niece?
Reader, these are not words we ever wanted to type regardless of the flippant tone behind them. But it was only a matter of time before "House of the Dragon" ushered the silver-maned mammoth in the room, the Targaryen tradition of incestuous marriage and romances, to center stage.
The "Game of Thrones" prequel has hinted at the special relationship between Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and her uncle Daemon (Matt Smith), brother to King Viserys (Paddy Considine) since the first episode when Daemon struts up to his niece and presents her with a necklace made of Valyrian steel. Like Dark Sister, she said, referring to Daemon's famous sword. He places it around her neck, saying, "Now you and I both own a small piece of our ancestry. Beautiful."
In another show, this could have been played off as generosity from, say, a cool uncle. Those exist! But not in George R.R. Martin's universe, where nobody is kind to anyone else without there being an angle.
Rhaenyra loves her father the way a daughter should, but as a teenager harboring a rebellious streak of her own, Daemon's fire fascinates her. From their first one-on-one conversations, it's clear they have a special bond. "King of the Narrow Sea" leaves no question as to the nature of that relationship, which is to say that they certainly love one another, only in a way that the average person in modern society should rightly view, to put it in scientific terms, as super gross.
Leaping ahead by four years since the last time Rhaenyra and Daemon have seen each other, we see a very bored princess faking her way through another lineup of suitors for her hand, each less attractive than the next. After she abandons them to return to Kings Landing by ship, her vessel is intentionally buzzed by Daemon on the back of his dragon Caraxes, flying in unannounced to visit his brother, dedicate his war victory to the Targaryen king, and theatrically bend the knee.
Rhaenyra moons over Daemon as if he were Harry Styles. And the reunion banquet that follows, Daemon and Rhaenyra speak privately where she compliments what appears to be his newfound maturity. To that, he replies with this show's equivalent of a skeevy adult complimenting a young girl by telling her she's "filled out": "You've matured yourself these last four years, princess. You'll get used to the attention."
Matt Smith and Milly Alcock in "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton / HBO)
He's not referring to her behavior. In case that's not clear, he leaves a rough sack in her bed chamber filled with a boy's clothing, including a cap that covers her hair, and a note directing her to a secret passage. She dresses in those rags and follows the pathway underneath the castle to find Daemon wearing a cloak that covers his face.
Westeros' history mimics events in our real-world history, and what Daemon refers to as "the tradition of our house" is no different.
Taking his hand, they head out to the Street of Silk, the red light district of King's Landing, where he gives her sips from a wine sack and takes her to a pleasure den for her first up-close experience with sexuality. She's turned on by the X-rated view.
Daemon explains that this is where people come "to take what they want." Then he and Rhaenyra begin kissing. He opens her shirt, takes down her trousers, and . . . pulls away from her, before stalking off. And she, unwise to the ways of being in public as a royal, runs after him with her long silver hair hanging out for all to see, announcing to the world that yes, that was Kings Landing's biggest celebrity, the heir to the Iron Throne, making out in a whorehouse with her uncle.
This being a "Game of Thrones" prequel it's understood within the story's world that this behavior, while skin-crawling, is not unusual among the Targaryens. When word gets back to Viserys he's less upset about the incest than the potential stain on his daughter's reputation presented by the suggestion that she's no longer a virgin. She isn't, having drafted Ser Criston Cole, played by Fabien Frankel, to quench the fire in her loins. But she also lies about it, throwing Hand of the King Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) under the litter.
Milly Alcock and Fabien Frankel in "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton / HBO)
Daemon, for his part, is unrepentant. "Better her first experience be with me than some whore," he says, before suggesting that Viserys marry Rhaenyra to him. This only makes the king more furious since that confirms his suspicions that his brother's affectionate displays to his daughter were not born out of true love but a lust to ascend to the throne by any means necessary.
Westeros' history mimics significant events in our real-world history, and what Daemon refers to as "the tradition of our house" is no different. Incestuous marriages were common among the pharaohs' royal lines as well as among the ruling classes of ancient Ireland and other cultures. This is not to say it's a noble thing to do . . . ugh. On the contrary, take a peek at the Habsburg family lineage which between the early 1500s and the 1700s, nearly straightened their tree into a maypole.
It is estimated that around 80% of the marriages taking place during that era were between close family relatives. If you're wondering how that affected that genetic pool, Google the term "Habsburg jaw" or marvel at a few official portraits; if you're wondering why they did it, check out the "House of the Dragon" episode where Otto Hightower suggests that Viserys betroth Rhaenyra to her half-brother – who, at this point, is a toddler.
Viserys is shocked by the absurdity of that suggestion, but Otto points out that marrying the half-siblings would put an end to the succession conundrum and keep the throne in the family. This is another version of what Daemon points out to Rhaenyra before their raunchy field trip: "Marriage is only a political arrangement. Once you are wed, you can do as you like."
But let's put aside the politics of all that to return to the "ewwww" of it all, or what should be a repulsion to this turn of events, and remark upon a segment of the audience's reaction to the episode's events.
There's the "girl boss" angle: "rhaenyra gotta be one of the best female characters ive seen in a fantasy show in a hot minute," tweeted @caitvi4ever. "she's kind but knows when to be mean, sticks up for herself, gets dick when necessary, reads people like a book and knows just when to pounce on them. shes so real."
There's the straight-up swooning for the character dynamics or the heat Smith and Alcock emanate whenever they share a scene which, in the minds of some, negates the verboten implications: "people ship rhaenyra and daemon because they're interesting characters with a good dynamic where you can't pinpoint exactly what are their motivations to be with each other so any interpretation of their relationship is equally captivating," posits @libraIogy.
And there's the inevitable comparison between Rhaenyra and Daemon – who, again, are uncle and niece – and Jaime and Cersei, who were not only getting it on as siblings but are twins to boot: "We all were judging the Lannisters for 8 seasons but now rooting for Rhaenyra and Daemon within 4 episodes," points out Twitter user @starboisurg29.
It behooves one to point out that what's happening between Rhaenyra and Daemon in "King of the Narrow Sea" is precisely the type of power dynamic exploitation experts are talking about when they call incest sexual abuse. Daemon is an older family member who holds more authority and weight within the immediate family than Rhaenyra does.
This is an example of what actual grooming looks like.
(That's demonstrated by Viserys' immediate reaction, which is to order his daughter to marry Laenor Velaryon – her second cousin which, as Pennsylvania's Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz points out, is totally fine! After all, Viserys first wife, Lady Aemma, was his cousin.)
Also, in a time where homophobic members of the far-right have taken to tossing around the term grooming to broadly besmirch segments of upstanding citizens who just want to live their lives, this is an example of what actual grooming looks like. From the moment Daemon purrs "turn around" to collar her with that jewelry, where this duo is heading became transparent.
Matt Smith in "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton / HBO)
But if people are cheering on the "forbidden love" between Rhaenyra and Daemon, some of that could be due to the more commonplace presentation of incest as a spicy twist on TV. It emerged as a twist in "The Sinner," as is a recurring theme in V.C. Andrews' oeuvre, the TV adaptations of which have been a hit for Lifetime.
"Game of Thrones" viewers not only became accustomed to watching two actors playing Jaime and Cersei Lannister simulate getting down with each other but also came to wrap their heads around the fact that Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen were nephew and aunt, officially established at the precise moment that they started tearing each other's clothes off.
Remember, though, that the implication of Targaryen incest reaches back to the first episode of "Game of Thrones." The brat who was named after this Viserys, Daenerys' brother, strips off his sister's clothing before ogling and fondling her like a piece of meat, a moment that remains as skin-crawling now as it was then.
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We were never meant to like Dany's brother, and that's the main distinction between that scene and what comes to pass between Rhaenyra and Daemon in the bowels of that pleasure den. The look on Daenerys' face is one of silent horror and disgust at Viserys' transgression, making the abuse clear. It's nothing akin to the lust between the uncle and niece whose DNA is part of Dany and her brother and likely contributed to the madness that overtook their father.
The Targaryen story is a tragedy, albeit a glamorous one borne by legendary winged wonders, extraordinary characters, and a link to a mystical land that fell into legend. "Game of Thrones" spent the better part of a decade softening the ground for audiences to embrace it, even the incest – or, if not that, allowing those who don't see the romance in it to shrug it off.
It is a fantasy, after all, established by a bestselling book that lays out what's in store in terms of the action to come. The scripts won't necessarily adhere to every one of the novel's twists, ensuring some events will remain as tough to predict as the audience's tolerance for romanticizing a taboo. If and when people root for Rhaenyra and Daemon to get together, however, that's less concerning in terms of the show than what that says about how its treatment, and others, have impacted the flexibility with which we excuse that which should be inexcusable.
New episodes of "House of the Dragon" air Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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