The Wheel That Never Breaks: Patriarchy, Race, and Feminism in ‘House of the Dragon’

Nuha Hassan
12 min readJun 16, 2024

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Paddy Considine as King Viserys I Targaryen and Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

House of the Dragon ushers in a new reign in King’s Landing. Well, to be clear, the prequel series is set 172 years before the events of the original series, Game of Thrones, and it focuses on the power and decline of the House Targaryen and the “Dance of the Dragons,” a devastating war that changed the trajectory of the magnificent house.

Based on George R. R. Martin’s book, Fire & Blood, the prequel series is a much-needed restart from the disastrous and utter disappointment of the Game of Thrones finale. The series reigned for seven seasons, ending with the death of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) by her nephew, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington). Like many fans of the original series, I was an avid watcher, completely obsessed with the characters, the plot twists, the deaths, the prophecies, and the many theories dissected on Twitter after every episode aired.

However, Game of Thrones had a lot of issues regarding its portrayal of women and the explicit rape scenes used as shock value instead of writing compelling and empowering character arcs. The earlier seasons of the series were criticised for the excessive amount of female nudity and depictions of sexual violence against women. As each series progressed, the violence ramped up, and what tarnished the legacy of Game of Thrones was how the series wrote women’s storylines, especially Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) treatment in season five.

Now, I’m not going to talk about the details of that scene in episode six, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” but it was unnecessary and unforgivable. Amid long monologues about family lineage and battle plans, nudity and explicit violence were shown to portray the realities of war; in the case of Sansa’s assault, it was written to show the cruelty of her rapist, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), which was not necessary to prove because show’s fans know him as the bad guy. The world of Game of Thrones is misogynistic and patriarchal; its fantasy and harsh treatment of women are present when the world is at war. But to use the assault as a plot device is problematic because it added nothing to her story.

Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Emily Carey as Alicent Hightower. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

In the prequel series, House of the Dragon, things are different. There are fewer nudity and sex scenes; it focuses on the two Targaryen siblings fighting for a chance to rule the Seven Kingdoms and sit on the coveted, and uncomfortable, Iron Throne. King Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) names his only daughter, Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock, Emma D’Arcy plays the older version), who will ascend the throne upon his death, even though many advised against this because a woman cannot rule Westeros. But after his marriage to Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey, Olivia Cooke plays the older version), she gives birth to his firstborn son, Aegon II Targaryen (Tom Glynn-Carney), some believe he is the rightful heir to sit on the Iron Throne.

What is different about House of the Dragon is that, unlike Game of Thrones, the women are finally portrayed in a positive light — well, not entirely. Even 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, Westeros is still a misogynistic society but this time, the weird incestuous Targaryen family is at the centre of the drama. But the main focus isn’t Aegon and Rhaenyra’s battle for the Iron Throne. If the Game of Thrones was a male-centred show (which it is), House of the Dragon focuses on the women’s struggle for power and influence in a deeply patriarchal society that barres women from positions of power and grooms them at an early age to be pawns in men’s games. The wheel was never broken, and the cycle of unfair treatment of women continues in the prequel series.

Eve Best as Princess Rhaenys Targaryen. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

The pursuit of control over the women in House of the Dragon didn’t start with Rhaenyra. In the first episode, “The Heirs of the Dragon,” King Jaehaerys Targaryen (Michael Carter) is choosing his next heir. It’s between Viserys I and his cousin, a woman named Princess Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best), also known as “The Queen Who Never Was.” Rhaenys knows that she has a much superior claim to the throne because her father was Prince Aemon Targaryen, the thirdborn child of King Jaehaerys. Many considered her to be next in line to the throne but because of her gender, the council chose Viserys as the heir to the Seven Kingdoms.

While Rhaenys wants to forget about it, her husband, Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), reminds her of the throne that should have been rightfully hers. He, too, wanted the power to rule the Seven Kingdoms but because of Rhaenys’ gender, they couldn’t get a seat on the throne. Years of peace and prosperity are ahead until it is time to select the next heir to the throne.

Rhaenyra Targaryen (Alcock) is the only living child of King Viserys. Like Rhaenys, the council of men believe she is unfit to rule. Even years after what happened to Rhaenys, old customs and traditions don’t magically wash away whether or not they have fire-breathing dragons that can destroy the world.

Also, her relationship with her uncle husband, Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), is a far harsher observation of grooming towards the Westerosi women in House of the Dragon. From an early age, Daemon has had his creepy eyes on Rhaenyra. They have a close relationship with each other, where they wander around King’s Landing in a brothel. He sends her gifts and declares his desire to marry Rhaenyra to his brother, Viserys. It’s Daemon who makes the first approach. The earlier episodes are proof of Daemon grooming Rhaenyra, and it is uncomfortable to watch.

LEFT: Milly Alock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Matt Smith as Prince Daemon Targaryen. RIGHT: Emma D’Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

Even when Rhaenyra (D’Arcy) gets older, and eventually marries her uncle, (Look, the Targaryen family is extremely weird. They marry their cousins, uncles and aunts because they believe they have magic dragon blood. So, they marry each other to keep the bloodline pure and speak to dragons.) Daemon doesn’t see her as a person, he sees her as someone he can control. When King Viserys dies and Alicent’s firstborn son, Aegon, usurps the throne, Daemon wants to go to war. But Rhaenyra and Alicent share one common goal: peace in Westeros. Unfortunately, the men desire war and destruction for the ultimate price: the Iron Throne and the power to rule the Seven Kingdoms.

After the death of King Viserys’ first wife, Queen Aemma Arryn (Sian Brooke), Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifan) orchestrates the King’s second marriage to his daughter, Alicent Hightower (Carey). Alicent and Rhaenyra are childhood best friends, but things change when Alicent becomes Queen Consort and gives birth to a firstborn male heir. She is forced to accept her fate, as the young woman groomed to take over as the King’s wife and become a pawn in Ser Otto’s game to gain control of the land and throne.

From the beginning, Ser Otto makes her believe she is the one making decisions for her family. But her life has no value. She has no control. Even in the council, the men obey the words of Ser Otto and not Alicent’s, even though she is the Queen Consort. The reason why Ser Otto pushed for King Viserys to wed Alicent, as the Hand of the King, he could have more influence to change the heir of the Seven Kingdoms.

By having Aegon, his grandson and a Hightower as a King, he could have more power and influence to rule the Seven Kingdoms. He warns her of the hypothetical aftermath of King Viserys death, where she and her children will be executed by Rhaenyra and Daemon, further creating the rivalry between them. Every conflict between the former childhood best friends and their eventual breakup is because of Ser Otto and the other men’s desire to play games, setting the stage for the civil war.

LEFT: Olivia Cooke and Queen Consort Alicent Hightower. RIGHT: Emma D’Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

The feminist perspective of House of the Dragon is an empty statement that echoes the same problems in the original series. If the intention is to show that a woman’s words are essential to the realm, the series has taken a major misstep towards that direction. Since the beginning of the series, it has shown that men constantly underestimate and undermine women because of their gender.

Rhaenyra and Alicent’s contrasting journeys portray the perspectives of their womanhood and autonomy being dictated by men. It’s meant to be an empowering journey but Rhaenys, Alicent and Rhaenyra are powerless regardless of their stand in King’s Landing. Instead of forming a kinship between themselves, they betray each other, show jealousy and are vindicated, letting revenge fuel their desires — allowing them to be pawns, once again, in men’s endless pursuit for power.

While Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon have had many issues with the explicit depictions of women and nudity, there’s another problem that both shows have committed to consistently. In the original series, Black actors were always cast in roles such as servants and slaves; but when the prequel series was announced, the showrunners, Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, were committed to bringing a diverse cast to the front and centre in this dragon-riding series.

Just like the Targaryens from Old Valyria, the members of House Velaryon also believe that they have to keep the bloodline pure. These families are closely related and marry each other to continue the blood lineage of Old Valyria. Unlike the dragon-riding family, the Velaryons are seafaring people who are extremely rich with an extensive knowledge of the seas and battle plans. At the head of the House Velaryon is Lord Corlys Velaryon, also known as The Sea Snake, played by Toussaint, who is a British actor of Barbadian.

Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

The problem isn’t casting Black actors as the Velaryons, but doing it for diversity points. Historically, the majority of the characters in this universe have always had white characters. Race has never been a factor in the show’s context; in fact, it’s not discussed at all. But the original sequel has repeatedly shown graphic images of people of colour being violated, someone who comes to mind is Missandei’s (Nathalie Emmanuel) brutal killing in the final season. Even though House of the Dragon has somewhat — and I’m using that word loosely — toned down the violent scenes, the members of House Velaryon are barely in the show.

Earlier in the essay, I discussed the grooming of Alicent and Rhaenyra, which they were subjected to at an early age. A young Laena Velaryon (Nova Foueillis-Mosé), Lord Corlys and Princess Rhaenys’ only daughter is presented as a worthy candidate to be Visery’s new bride. This is meant to show the nature of royal nobility by continuing to marry their relatives to keep the bloodline pure. But it’s an unsettling scene that proves that the series has always used problematic tropes to further the plot. Even more upsetting about this subplot is that Lord Corlys and Rhaenys are perfectly fine with this match because it means they’ll finally be able to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Compared to Alicent and Rhaenyra’s parallel exploration of womanhood and their shared symbolism of the oppression of women groomed to be pawns in men’s games, the commentary is not extended to Laena’s storyline.

Nanna Blondell as Lady Laena Velaryon. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

In the series, Daemon pursues a teenage Laena (Savannah Steyn) at Rhaenyra and Laenor Velaryon’s (John MacMillan) wedding. Flash forward, Laena is grown up (Nanna Blondell) and she has two kids, Baela (Shani Smethurst, Bethany Antonia plays the older version) and Rhaena Targaryen (Eva Ossei-Gerning, Phoebe Campbelllays the older version). She is expecting another child with Prince Daemon. In the episode, “The Princess and the Queen,” Laena is having trouble delivering their third child. Instead of asking Daemon to choose between his wife and their unborn son, Laena decides to take matters into her own hands. She commands Vhagar to burn her and the dragon immolates her.

What’s disappointing about Laena’s horrific death is that this particular scene doesn’t happen in Fire & Blood. Instead, the show gives her the autonomy to choose her demise, rather than a prolonged childbirth which she succumbs to in the book. But she’s barely in the series. Her character is sidelined, and it’s underdeveloped for viewers to feel something towards her. For Laena’s storyline to end with her brutal and violent death is just another example of how House of the Dragon tosses Black characters aside. It’s simply saying that her death accelerates the “Dance of the Dragon,” ultimately, making her death a plot device.

Another example of the showrunners casting a Black actor as a Velaryon and killing them off is Wil Johnson, who plays Lord Corlys’ younger brother, Ser Vaemond Velaryon. He is the commander of the Velaryon navy. His devotion to his House and preserving the family lineage is important to him.

Wil Johnson as Ser Vaemond Velaryon. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

In “The Lord of the Tides,” Ser Vaemond questions the legitimacy of Rhaenyra’s three children: Jacaerys (Harry Collett), Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) and Joffrey Velaryon (While Rhaenyra was married to Laenor, all of her kids are white. But they resemble Ser Harwin Strong, played by Ryan Corr), who look nothing like the Black Velaryons. Ser Vaemond wants to be named the heir of Driftmark but given Lord Corlys' absence during the war, he has named Luceyrs as the heir. In the throne room, Ser Vaemond accuses Rhaenyra’s children of being bastards. Viserys threatens to remove his tongue, but before anything can happen, Daemon decapitates his head.

By the end of this episode, half of the Black Velaryons are missing or dead. The only Black family, one of the most important families in Westeros is reduced to plot devices. What is the point of casting Black actors in fantasy roles to promote diversity when they barely have a storyline and are murdered in horrific ways? I’m not saying that casting Black actors in fantasy shows is bad. But the Game of Thrones universe has traditionally been known to have white characters. Again, race is not a factor. If the showrunners at House of the Dragon cast Black actors to right the wrong in the original series, I don’t believe this series would have succeeded.

With the upcoming second season of House of the Dragon, who knows how many Black characters will be left in the series? At the end of the first season, the only surviving Black Velaryons are Lord Corlys, Laenor, Daemon’s daughters with Laena, Baela and Rhaena. None of the other Black Velaryons that we saw during Rhaenyra and Laenor’s wedding is seen on screen. They don’t have prominent roles or lines; they are just background characters.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon, Shani Smethurst as Baela Targaryen, Eve Best as Princess Rhaenys Targaryen and Eva Ossei-Gerning as Rhaena Targaryen. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

Womanhood, sexism and violence against women are just misogynistic plot devices that further men’s narratives rather than Alicent and Rhaenyra’s rivalry, which is marketed to the audience. This is the crux of the show. Women are just pawns in men’s games. It’s just a disappointing prequel series that tries too hard to explore the subtleties of womanhood but the feminist narratives turn into a trap.

So, it’s worth noting that there are some aspects of the show that they’ve still kept from the original series. While House of the Dragon explores the themes of gender, power and the complexities of keeping it in the family, there is still no room for Black characters to shine in fantasy series. If fire-breathing dragons and prophecies can be written into the series, why can’t Black characters exist in the story alongside the main characters?

The truth is that fantasy shows like House of the Dragon aren’t interested in diverse stories. Perhaps, traditionally white-centred fantasy worlds should stay the way they are, rather than including diverse characters only to kill them off in brutal manners. The legacy of this show will be its unfair treatment of certain characters, and even if House of the Dragon wants to move away from the predecessor’s unforgivable storylines, unfortunately, the wheels will never be broken.

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Decolonise Palestine

Books about Palestine on Verso Books

Books about Palestine on Haymarket Books

The Free Palestine Library

More reading materials on Palestine

Operation Olive Branch is another useful resource to help families evacuate to Egypt and buy medicine and food by donating directly to their GoFundMe links.

You can also join the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement, a Palestinian-led movement as a form of resistance to Israeli occupation:

Read about Readers for Accountability on their website.

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