This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon episode 2.
Near the end of House of the Dragon episode 2, King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) addresses his Small Council on a very important topic: marriage. Everyone knows that the king must marry again. Even though he’s already declared his daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) as his heir, a king needs more progeny to fully secure his reign.
Sure enough, Viserys announces that he will be marrying once more. His choice is Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey), a young woman who is: A. his Hand of the King Otto Hightower’s (Rhys Ifans) daughter, B. his own daughter’s best friend, and C. 15 years old. A grown man choosing to marry a teenager is a big ol’ “yikes” in any context, but in House of the Dragon it’s actually the lesser of two evils. Much of his small council would prefer the king marry his Master of Ships Corlys Velaryon’s (Steve Toussaint) 12-year-old daughter, Laena (Nova Foueillis-Mosé).
House of the Dragon doesn’t shy away from how yucky this all is. In a somewhat uncharacteristic move for a Westerosi noble, Viserys himself seems tortured by the decision, being clearly uncomfortable during his brief courtship with Laena. Viserys’s announcement is accompanied by shock all-around, much of it for the political implications but at least some of it perhaps due to Alicent’s age…at least Rhaenyra certainly feels that way.
Even though House of the Dragon obviously doesn’t endorse the marrying of underage child brides, its depiction onscreen represents new territory for the Game of Thrones universe. While Game of Thrones at least attempted to age some of its young characters up to more relatively palatable ages, House of the Dragon‘s treatment of Laena Velaryon dives right into a grim Medieval reality.
In Martin’s fantasy world, which is inspired by real life history, children have to grow up fast. Young noble boys aspire to be knights as soon as they can grasp a sword and young noble girls are expected to be married off into other houses as soon as possible, strengthening the political bonds of their respective families. But Martin and Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss occasionally attempted to soften the blow of that reality in adapting A Game of Thrones.
Robb Stark went from age 14 in the books to 17 in the show. His siblings all aged up as well with Sansa moving from 11 to 13, Arya from 9 to 11, Bran from 7 to 10, and Rickon from 3 to 6, with the Starks’ half-brother Jon Snow moving from around 14 to 16. Just about every other Thrones character followed suit with even the adult characters largely moving from their 30s to their 40s or 50s and the story’s timeline getting adjusted so that a few more years passed since Robert’s Rebellion.
As Martin first described on his LiveJournal blog in a 2009 post, the changes all started with the casting of the young Daenerys Targaryen (who, at the time, was set to be played by Tamzin Merchant but was later recast as Emilia Clarke). Though the Mad King’s daughter starts out around age 13 in the books, keeping her there was simply untenable as one of her first major character moments is being sold off to the Dothraki as a child bride. Martin explained:
“Dany is a very difficult role. She starts out vulnerable and scared, but blooms on the Dothraki sea, and becomes a powerful leader by book’s end. It’s no secret that HBO’s Dany will start out older than Dany does in the book; that was a change that had to be made, if we wanted to keep the sex scenes, and David and Dan and I were all agreed that the sex scenes were essential.”
Even though Daenerys was aged up in Game of Thrones, she was not aged up all the way to age 18, the modern Western world’s commonly accepted age for adulthood and sexual consent. While Emilia Clarke was in her mid twenties during the filming of said sex scenes, Daenerys remained 16. Additionally, season 3 of Game of Thrones saw a roughly 15-year-old Sansa Stark entered unwillingly into a marriage with Tyrion Lannister, though at least Tyrion acknowledges the union as the farce it is and leaves his “wife” alone.
This means that, for two consecutive series in a row now, the TV adaptations of George R.R. Martin’s Westerosi world have featured weddings or betrothals to underage girls within their first two episodes and beyond, albeit with differing levels of onscreen depiction. Sexually exploiting teenagers is inherent to the history that the Game of Thrones universe is inspired by, but does that make it necessary to illustrate onscreen?
One of the more appealing, yet difficult to contend with, aspects of both Game of Thrones and now House of the Dragon is how seriously they depict their respective stories as alternate histories of a fictional, yet realistic world. House of the Dragon, in particular, concerned with historical fidelity, as the fictional book upon which it is based is written as a historical tome coming from the perspective of modern “maesters” in the Robert Baratheon era.
There is sincere joy to be found in diving into the political and cultural traditions of a new universe and learning all about its history. What sets Game of Thrones apart from similar fantasy epics, however, is how much its fake history resembles our own real (and ugly) one.
Both Martin and House of the Dragon‘s showrunners have received some criticism for taking the “history” of a fundamentally fictional world so seriously. When trying to assure viewers that House of the Dragon wouldn’t feature onscreen violence against women like Game of Thrones often did, co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik told The Hollywood Reporter that the show would still acknowledge the inherent patriarchy of its time.
“If anything, we’re going to shine a light on that aspect,” Sapochnik said. “You can’t ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time. It shouldn’t be downplayed and it shouldn’t be glorified.”
Sapochnik’s inclusion of “in that time” is a curious one because, as many pointed out, Westeros isn’t real. It doesn’t exist in any of our own history books. It’s purely the invention of George R.R. Martin and the set designers at HBO.
Even though House of the Dragon‘s history isn’t real, however, it is clearly closely inspired by real life patriarchal systems that have existed across the Western world for as long as the West has existed. Many aspects of Game of Thrones were partially drawn from real British history like the War of the Roses, while House of the Dragon borrows from “The Anarchy,” an English civil war fought in the mid-12th century.
What all of these real life events have in common is that they took place in deeply flawed societies where daughters in political dynasties were often used to forge marriage pacts and deepen political alliances. And with so much at stake, the age of said daughters very rarely mattered so long as they were capable of bearing children.
It’s a revolting state of affairs and it’s absolutely worth asking the question as to whether Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon needs to depict all of it. Wouldn’t it be just as easy to age every female character up to at least 18 before throwing her into the Medieval marriage grinder? That would eliminate at least one unsavory aspect of House of the Dragon‘s presentation of political marriage alliances. Surely, the point would still get across that this all sucks if Viserys married his 18-year-old daughter’s 18-year-old friend as opposed to their 15-year-old counterparts.
I personally won’t argue with anyone who prefers that be the case. Requiring its audience to tolerate the presence of child brides is undoubtedly a big ask for any TV show, let alone one that many people understandably view as fantasy escapism.
But there’s something to be said for leaning into the awfulness and writing without euphemism. If you’re going to depict something uncomfortable, then just do it. Of course, one still must be as thoughtful as possible when doing so. And that brings us back to the important change in approach between Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon. Even though House of the Dragon neglects to age up its characters as Game of Thrones did, there is already evidence that it’s willing to be more gentle with them for the sake of its audience and just good taste in general.
Though Viserys courting a 12-year-old and marrying a 15-year-old is ugly, taboo, and wrong, all of it so far has only been depicted in words, not actions. Viserys and Laena talk. Then Viserys says he’s going to marry Alicent. As of the end of the second episode, viewers have not yet seen Viserys and Alicent be married. And given that older actresses are on the way to portray both Rhaenyra and Alicent, viewers may not have to see much of their time together as husband and underage wife anyway.
House of the Dragon was certainly bolder in not aging up any of its young characters. It’s also more thoughtful about how it’s approached them thus far. There was little point in Game of Thrones making its child characters older if it was just going to leave them as children and then enact sexual violence upon them anyway as it did with Daenerys and Sansa.
Some may find House of the Dragon’s devotion to a fake patriarchal history unnecessary or disqualifying and that’s fair. But at least it’s trying to learn from its ancestors’ mistakes – much like Viserys’s heirs hopefully will one day as well.
New episodes of House of the Dragon premiere Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max in the U.S. and Sky Atlantic in the U.K.