House of the Dragon: Laenor Just Beat George R.R. Martin’s Most Problematic Trope

House of the Dragon took a sharp turn this week with the character of Laenor, surprising even readers of George R.R. Martin’s books.

John Macmillan as Laenor in House of the Dragon episode 7
Photo: HBO

This article contains House of the Dragon episode 7 spoilers.

Laenor Velaryon is alive. This revelation sent shockwaves through the House of the Dragon viewing community, astonishing book readers and the unsullied alike. Before the moment where a newly shorn Laenor (played briefly but poignantly by John Macmillan)  removed his hood, viewers were led to believe they were witnessing the darkest moment of cruel betrayals: Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy), Princess of Dragonstone and wife of Laenor, appeared to conspire in the murder of her husband. And, indeed, someone was definitely lying dead in a fire, adorned in Laenor’s clothes.

Yet the son of Driftmark lives still, even if in doing so he has now abandoned his titles and ancestral home in favor of a life at sea and presumably in Essos—a land where a man’s gold is more valuable than his name.

It’s a shocking twist, not least of all for fans of George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, in which Laenor’s murder at the hands of his lover, Ser Qarl Correy (Arty Froushan), is a matter of historical record. The only question left ambiguous on the page is who was Qarl’s benefactor, convincing the young noble that it’d be better to slay the future queen consort and attempt to live the life of a wealthy fugitive.

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House of the Dragon seemed to provide a definitive answer (Prince Daemon and Rhaenyra planned it together!) before pivoting to an altogether different revelation: But their plan was to fake Laenor’s death so that he and Qarl could live free!

It’s a change from Martin’s text, and a welcome one, because for the first time in completed lore from the world of Westeros, a queer character has not been consigned to the most common and repetitive of tropes: an early, tragic death after a lifetime of misery.

While we’re quick to note that Martin did not invent or contribute in a substantial way to the “Bury Your Gays” trope, nearly every gay or queer-coded character in his larger lore, be it in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” that story’s subsequent Game of Thrones adaptation, or Fire & Blood (on which House of the Dragon is based), has nonetheless embraced the “gay characters must die” convention with little attempt at self-awareness or subversion. And considering how much Martin loves to subvert tropes, this is incredibly odd.

While the term “bury your gays” is relatively recent, the trope has existed since at least the late 19th century. It was in this period when gay, closeted writers used the emerging storytelling device as a way to write about the agony of a hidden life, such as the fate of both Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In that text, Hallward is a deeply moral Victorian artist and admirer of Gray, painting the titular portrait that takes on a supernatural power. When Hallward discovers the deviousness of his muse, however, he cannot live with the guilt and is murdered by Dorian, who in turn eventually kills himself by stabbing the picture at the end of the novella.

The gay subtext of The Picture of Dorian Gray existed beneath the surface of the book’s other miscellaneous wickedness, but it wasn’t particularly obscure, even by Victorian standards. Four years after its publication in 1891, Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency” with men and served several years in prison that broke him.

While the trope was invented as a way for gay or queer writers to discuss their personal experiences in a fictional context, it soon became a crutch and increasingly lazy storytelling device that persists to this day, with most gay characters condemned to live forlorn lives of suffering before bitter ends.

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Lillian Hellman made her Broadway debut by writing The Children’s Hour in 1934, a play in which two young teachers’ lives are ruined when a student accuses them of having a lesbian relationship. William Wyler adapted the play to screen twice in 1934 and 1961, and it wasn’t until the latter film that any version of this story actually allowed one of the characters to be a closeted lesbian—it was the one who hanged herself onscreen because Audrey Hepburn didn’t love her back.

You can carry the trope on down through Oscar winning performances like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and Heath Ledger as a doomed, closeted cowboy in Brokeback Mountain. You can also see it in genre fare as wide-ranging as all the gay characters in V for Vendetta… and most of those in Game of Thrones.

To be fair, very few characters achieve happy endings in Martin’s world, which in itself is a fantastical version of medieval England. In other words, this is not a great era to be alive for people attracted to other members of the same sex. However, the medieval patriarchy’s cruelty to women has also long fascinated Martin and he’s spent much of his text in “A Song of Ice and Fire” challenging it with central point-of-view characters like Brienne of Tarth, Arya Stark, or the more traditionally feminine Daenerys Targaryen. The latter of whom defies medieval gender roles by taking what is hers with fire and blood. Dany is a conqueror like Aegon before her, or William of 1066 fame for that matter.

Granted, we know the (probable) end of Dany’s story thanks to the final season of Game of Thrones. It’s as bitter as the ashes falling on her throne. However, hers is not the only story in Game of Thrones, and whereas Dany falls to her own ambitions and paranoias, Sansa Stark rises and becomes the unexpected queen who did what her brothers could not: earn the North its independence.

There is no such subversion or reconsideration of the gay or queer experience in Martin’s world. Generally, any character coded as such meets a grim fate: Renly Baratheon is murdered by his brother’s supernatural shadow in the books and on the show; his lover Loras is accused of treason and of lying incestuously with his sister (at least in the book). We don’t yet know Loras’ fate in the books, but it was quite explosive on Game of Thrones; and the bisexual Prince Oberyn Martell became everyone’s favorite new character in A Storm of Swords and Game of Thrones Season 4, only to have his head smashed in like a melon.

There are some minor exceptions, at least on Game of Thrones where the Yara (Gemma Whelan) character is revealed to also favor women and lives to the end, but even that is an underdeveloped invention of the show (the sexuality of her literary counterpart, Asha, remains ambiguous). Meanwhile her only named lover in the series, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), dies badly.

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Fire & Blood doesn’t differ much from this despite covering nearly 150 years of history. House of the Dragon viewers have not met the compelling characters of Elissa Farman and Rhaena Targaryen, the latter of whom would be the great-aunt to Viserys I (Paddy Considine) on the show, but they had a thinly veiled romance in the book. It ended poorly for the pair with Elissa stealing dragon eggs and attempting to be the first to sail across the Sunset Sea to a fate unknown. Still, that lack of resolution is better than Rhaena’s end; her other lovers are brutally murdered by her husband who is jealous he’s never been allowed to father children by Rhaena, and Rhaena in turn becomes a recluse who spends the rest of her days living alone in Harrenhaal, presumed to be a witch.

And then there’s what happened to Joffrey Lonmouth, who had his face smashed in by Ser Criston Cole on both page and screen, and now Laenor.

As with all the other gay characters in Martin’s world, Laenor should endure a familiar fate, one of personal tragedy and heartbreak, as glimpsed in Sunday night’s episode as he weeped into the waves that had swallowed his sister’s remains, seemingly wishing he was down there with her. In the book, he soon has his wish when Qarl buries another gay for a fistful of gold.

Yet that is not what happened. House of the Dragon could’ve given Laenor his literary demise, or (in the ill-advised choice to go too far afield from Martin’s intricate plotting), let Laenor live the life he imagined to be headed toward with Rhaenyra in the episode: “Ser Qarl will return soon to the fighting in the Stepstones as I recommit myself to you.” A life of deception and resignation.

These are the most likely outcomes for a queer character in Westeros, but the most likely outcome for Sansa was to be the unhappy wife and glorified breeder for a monstrous husband; and for Dany to be little more than Kahl Drogo’s plaything. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is also about defying the conventions of a brutally cruel medieval world made by men.

Laenor Velaryon did just that by getting on a boat to chart his own course.

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