Why *that* House of the Dragon scene was vital
The Game of Thrones prequel series has already sparked heated debate
Hello! It’s us! It’s me! IT’S WHITE NOISE. Firstly, apologies for the interruption in transmission while we moved house and tried to get internet in the countryside. What an adventure. But we’re back, back, back baby.
And where else would we start but with the most anticipated TV event of the year: back to Westeros for episode one, season one of HOUSE OF THE DRAGON!
First off: what an episode. And I’m not the only one who thought so. The opener on HBO pulled in 9.99 million viewers: more than twice the number for 2011’s Game of Thrones premiere. It was also a record-setter for Sky here in the UK, with 1.39 million viewers.
But, in true Game of Thrones style, it has already been hit with controversy. This time (and I hope this is obvious, but also allow me to say MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead and also FRANK TALK of birth ahead) it’s due to a graphic childbirth scene.
Here’s the context: King Viserys (Paddy Considine), is longing for an heir. At present he has a daughter Rhaenyra (a dynamite Milly Alcock. Seriously, what a talent), and five babies in the ground. He knows that without an heir, the House of Targaryen will be in succession hot water. But thankfully Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke) is heavily pregnant and all - especially the King - are convinced she’s carrying a boy.
The Queen’s labour begins as the Tourney kicks off and, as the armoured men on horseback joust seven bells out of each other, it takes a turn for the bloody. Viserys is given a choice: let the labour progress or allow the doctors to perform a procedure (essentially a medieval cesarean) that would save the baby, but probably not his wife.
He quickly chooses his unborn child and a screaming Queen Aemma, realising what is happening, begs for her life while being cut open. She absolutely doesn’t want to lay down her life in those moments (and how radical to see a mother who isn’t instantly desperate to offer herself up). But her consent isn’t necessary and, as the soil from the horses’s now-still hooves settle, Aemma dies. Then a few hours later, so does her son.
This was as disturbing and brutal to watch as it sounds. And it was reported that some viewers were shocked and upset, calling it ‘traumatising’ and graphic. There were even warnings to women not to watch it. Traumatic birth as a plot device is gratuitous, it was argued. It was too disturbing to see the decision made for her. Of course, it was, but does that mean it shouldn’t have been shown? Not all graphic scenes are innately wrong or unnecessary. Though yes, it’s fair to say, some are: Game of Thrones loved a gratuitous sex scene, one involving rape even more. Could I do without another lightly-titillating depiction of sexual assault? Abso-fucking-lutely.
And of course, forced delivery is a form of violence against women. It’s another way we’re brutalized. But cutting away from it doesn’t erase it. It simply means that we don’t want to see it. We have seen a smiling woman go into labour (usually by a perfect breaking of water onto the floor) on screen a hundred times. We cut away and come back to find that now lightly-perspiring woman cradling a baby. Or the opposite: a woman completely still, the life ripped out of her, often covered by a sheet (because again, we’d rather not see it). The events between those moments stitched into secrecy and silence.
As showunner Miguel Saopchnik told the Hollywood Reporter, “In medieval times, giving birth was violence. 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.”
There was something vital being said here, in these moments given life on screen. About the ownership of women (right down to their wombs.) About the consequences for women of living within a patriarchal culture. Of their worth and value and autonomy. The violence they endured and endure still.
For maternal consent and the violence of forced birth have surely never been more relevant than in a post-Roe world. Where it is now entirely possible to enact that House of the Dragon scene beat for beat: a woman (or girl) sacrificed to save her unborn child, that decision made by men - her will erased along with her life.
And even aside from the dystopian nightmare presented by state-controlled pregnancies and births, the reality is that pregnancy and childbirth can be a hugely dangerous time for women. Even during a ‘good’ or ‘normal’ birth we more often than not tear and split open while bringing our child into the world. We scream and bleed and feel pain that we still don’t have language for. Our bodies are taken to the very brink of what they can bear. There are often interventions, sometimes to save the child and sometimes to save both of you. It is bloody and it is brutal and it happens every single day. And it happens to women.
Much of the brilliance of this scene is the juxtaposition between the violence being enacted by man against man and that being endured by women: as they joust, it’s clear that for men, violence is sport. They go to battle covered in steel plates, holding weapons. Women are sent in to childbirth (“our battlefield” says the Queen) stripped bare, without a stitch of protection. It’s life and death for us, but our fates aren’t in our hands.
As the first episode closes, it’s clear that that scene - the decisions taken within it, and the consequences of them - will drive the show we’re about to see. It’s vital we understand this violent act. Understand the reality for women, however unpalatable.
And maybe this is what makes us uncomfortable: that for some women, this is the reality still. That’s surely something we should see?
New episodes of House of the Dragon will air on Sky Atlantic Mondays at 2am and 9pm and stream on NOW
Agree? Disagree? Think I’m a killjoy feminist? Tell me in the comments!
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Brilliantly written as always. Enjoyed the episode in some ways mainly because I had read not great previews for it. Re the violence it is deplorable but I find it difficult in general to have a opinion because as a bloke how could I comment on it if I have no experience of it? That’s me off my soapbox any way! 😀 More often than not your pieces do make me think about things which I hadn’t done before and that is absolute kudos to you 👏
You're so right about how child-birth is often shown. How many of us mothers would have survived it without modern medicine (plus the glory of gas and air)?