How "House of the Dragon" may defy George R.R. Martin's indictment of violence

In HBO's adaptations, revenge is sweet – even if it leaves a sour taste in the mouths of the books' characters

Published June 21, 2024 12:15PM (EDT)

Ewan Mitchell as Aemond Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)
Ewan Mitchell as Aemond Targaryen in "House of the Dragon" (HBO)

The following contains spoilers for "House of the Dragon" Season 2, Episode 1 "A Son for a Son"

All men must die, so the common Braavosi saying goes, but in "House of the Dragon's" second season premiere, death came not for a man, but for a 4-year-old boy. Jaehaerys Targaryen (Jude Rock) died in his bed, a knife sawing away at his throat, payment for the murder of 14-year-old Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) at the hands of his one-eyed uncle Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) above Shipbreaker Bay — a son for a son.

This manic, catastrophic escalation of violence jerks memories back to "Game of Thrones," the predecessor series that fed on the blood of innocent, beloved characters with a hunger that only grew as the seasons turned. Devotees of "Game of Thrones" kept watching the show, and keep watching "House of the Dragon," even after moments of hope-rending despair like the Red Wedding, a massacre that seemed to indicate above all else that George R.R. Martin's view of human nature was stubbornly, psychotically nihilistic.

And yet, this alleged nihilist once said in a 2013 interview, "The most important thing is that love, compassion and empathy with other human beings is still possible," as if that's what "Game of Thrones" and "House of the Dragon" is known for preaching.

Martin's reputation among the wider public and its disconnect from reality exposes, more than anything, the fault lines between "A Song of Ice and Fire" – a book series that strips away the easy, paradoxical allure of violence – and "Game of Thrones," a show that continued to indulge in it until the final season. According to the showrunners themselves, one of the takeaways from the Red Wedding could be that slaughtering thousands of people under the sacred laws of hospitality is for winners.

"I don't think Tywin is a villain," said executive producer D.B. Weiss, referring to the Lannister patriarch, played by Charles Dance, who orchestrated the massacre.

Weiss' partner, David Benioff, agreed. "He’s ruthless, for sure. But there’s an argument to be made that Westeros needs ruthlessness."

Tywin's brand of ruthlessness is the kind that justifies putting the Riverlands to the torch, using rape as a weapon and smashing the head of a 1-year-old child against a wall. When it's Tywin's turn to die in the books, his bowels loosen, and the smell of his rotting corpse mimics the rotten legacy he leaves in his wake.

Even if Tywin had hoped to use violence to end violence rather than fulfill petty grudges under the guise of realpolitik, he has failed utterly in his mission. Two books after his death, fighting and famine still ravages Westeros, driving the smallfolk to banditry, religious militancy or simple resignation to death, torture and worse.

We need your help to stay independent

The Lannisters, surrounded by vengeful enemies, must also reckon with what they have unleashed. Bands of displaced peasants and ex-soldiers roam the Riverlands, hanging any Frey or Lannister they chance to meet. Doran Martell (Alexander Siddig), brother of the slain Princess Elia, prepares to join forces with an invading Targaryen pretender. And on the snowbound road to Bolton-controlled Winterfell, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) is aided by a force of Northerners and mountain clansmen, whose leader swears that he and his men will "die fighting for Ned's little girl."

Vengeance, an easy but destructive impulse to grasp, falls on the shoulders of the Stark children.

People may have feared Tywin while he lived, but when he is no more, out come the daggers in the dark. Ned Stark (Sean Bean), who sacrificed power for empathy and then honor for love, is also dead. But even as bones and ash, Ned inspires a kind of loyalty that the Tywins of the world can never fathom. In the Riverlands, against all hope, armed men still fly the Tully banner, perhaps remembering the time when Lord Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies), now a prisoner, took them in as the Lannisters burned their way across the Trident.

"Who are these folk?" asked Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), observing the refugees crowded in Riverrun's outer bailey.

“My people,” Edmure answered. “They were afraid.”

The reaction by the Stark and Tully vassals in the show is far more cynical. When Jon Snow (Kit Harington) attempts to rally opposition to Bolton rule, one lord tells him: "I served House Stark once . . . but House Stark is dead." Vengeance, an easy but destructive impulse to grasp, falls on the shoulders of the Stark children, who carry it out with stoic inclemency or cathartic glee. And moments shared by the show, which chooses to lean on vengeance, and the books, which do not, undergo subtle and not-so-subtle changes in meaning.

When Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) buries the blade that her half-brother Jon once gifted her, she begins to cry. "She sees herself as an instrument of revenge in many ways, in this world, and that sword is the way she's going to exact revenge on the people who wronged her family," explained Weiss in a behind-the-episode video. When Arya does eventually reclaim Needle, it's because this teenage girl is amped up to finally begin her killing spree.

This interpretation differs from Martin's description of a young, traumatized girl having to discard the last link she has to her past. "Needle was [her brothers] Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and her father, even [her sister] Sansa," he writes. "Needle was Winterfell's grey walls, and the laughter of its people . . . Needle was Jon Snow's smile. He used to mess my hair and call me 'little sister,' she remembered, and suddenly there were tears in her eyes."

Sansa too dwells on her scattered family. “In Sansa's dreams, her children looked just like the brothers she had lost," Martin writes. "Sometimes there was even a girl who looked like Arya.” The elder Stark sister does not begin her story as someone who is particularly aware of suffering, but when her eyes are open, it is clear that she has inherited her father's empathy, including towards those who have abused her. Far from being a weakness, Sansa's empathy has helped her cling to her humanity (which Arya is in danger of losing), and in the case of Sandor Clegane (aka The Hound played by Rory McCann), earn her a protector from King Joffrey's (Jack Gleeson) cruelty.

When Joffrey orders his Kingsguard to strip Sansa and beat her with their swords, Sandor, Joffrey's loyal hound, tries to intervene on her behalf. Lancel Lannister (in the series, Eugene Simon), on the other hand, justifies the king's command with false accusations and watches the violence take place with "neither pity nor kindness" in his eyes.

As Stannis' army assaults King's Landing late in the second book, a wounded Lancel pleads with Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) to let Joffrey join the battle and inspire the troops. Cersei responds by slamming her palm into his wound, causing the young knight to almost faint, and leaving him and Sansa in a room filled with panicking courtiers.

Sansa doesn't have to help Lancel. Arguably, she shouldn't. But then she kneels beside him, and orders the maesters to dress his wound. "Lancel was one of them, yet somehow she still could not bring herself to wish him dead. I am soft and weak and stupid, just as Joffrey says. I should be killing him, not helping him."

The last time Lancel saw Sansa kneeling, she was naked and bleeding, and he was standing above her. Now, she is kneeling above him, like the praying icon of the gentle Mother that she has so often invoked and from whom soldiers seek comfort and mercy in the shadow of pain and death. Lancel has plenty of time to reflect on the moment as he recovers from his wounds. By the time he can stand again, Lancel is still half-broken in body, but his insecure, powerless arrogance has given way to humility and gentle piety.

As Martin has shown repeatedly, the cost of vengeance is most often paid by the innocent.

"When it seemed that I might die, my father brought the High Septon to pray for me," he later tells Cersei. "He says the Mother spared me . . .” It's very unlike the Sansa (Sophie Turner) of the show, who smiles as she feeds Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) to his own starving hounds. Rather than using the scene to underscore the tragedy of a girl who has become numb to violence, however much of a monster Ramsay was, Benioff and Weiss chose to portray it as an empowering, exciting moment, where a character previously seen as "weak" or "naïve" has grown into the badass woman she should be.

This isn't the justice of Ned Stark, who passes the sentence and swings the sword. This is vengeance, and the futile, corrupting pleasure that comes from it. It's hard to imagine Sansa from the books, who describes Joffrey's death as "too terrible to watch" and thinks of her own brother Robb clawing at his throat while it happens, employing the same torturous methods of her abusers or finding it empowering in any form.

However Ramsay fares in the books, it could be said that he of all characters deserves a bloody death. But as Martin has shown repeatedly, the cost of vengeance is most often paid by the innocent, and deadly to the humanity of its perpetrators, however legitimate their grievances. How "House of the Dragon" chooses to handle the fallout over young Jaehaerys Targaryen's murder, the murder of others yet to be named or the inevitable violence against smallfolk that marches alongside armies and fire-breathing dragons at war, may be the ultimate test of whether it will repeat the worst mistakes of "Game of Thrones" or come onto its own.

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

MORE FROM Nicholas Liu

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Game Of Thrones George Rr Martin Hbo House Of The Dragon Revenge Tv