Television

House of the Dragon Has an Incest Problem

This show is a snooze. Except…

A man and a woman in a crowd.
C’mon, man. HBO

Back when Jaime and Cersei Lannister were horrifying us on a weekly basis, their twincestuous love affair—defined from the start as evil and corrupting (remember “the things I do for love”?)—was a plot engine for Game of Thrones. The ultimate toxic relationship, the affair defined both characters, showing us their isolation from the rest of the world, highlighting Cersei’s narcissism and Jaime’s pathetically misplaced sense of commitment. To the extent they felt the need to justify themselves at all, Jaime and Cersei always pointed back to the Targaryens and their habit of intermarriage between siblings, cousins, uncles, and nieces.

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And now, in House of the Dragon, we’re there. Imagine an entire world full of incestuous couples—people engaged in the ultimate taboo (to viewers, and also to some people in the show’s world), but also in a practice their family endorses as an expression of clan loyalty. That taboo action both stems from and recreates an alternate moral universe, and in theory, that’s quite interesting. But five episodes into the show, we’re not really seeing it. The show is unremarkable in its characters, running a rote playbook of emotional situations—father versus petulant daughter; young wife married to an older king—to move the plot along. That’s why I think House of the Dragon needs more incest. A lot more.

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If House of the Dragon wanted to underplay the incestuous element, as it feels so far like it might, it has set itself up for trouble by casting Matt Smith as half of its own keep-it-in-the-family couple. Game of Thrones has never really been good at generating romantic tension (though Jaime and Cersei had their fans). But because Smith, who plays Prince Daemon, is by far the most compelling actor on the show, his scenes with his niece, Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), have been highly uncomfortable to watch. Readers of romance novels (like myself) may have felt themselves unwillingly and automatically beginning to ship this couple, because these plot grooves are so well-worn in our minds. Here is a willful princess trapped in a dead-end life; here is a dangerous and powerful outsider who knows exactly how bored she is. Here they are meeting in secret, at night. Here they are using a busy dance floor as cover for a whispered conversation. The rest of the room falls away because they have so much chemistry! Oh, dear.

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I don’t think I’ll be spoiling to tell you how the show’s source material, George R.R. Martin’s quasi-history of the Targaryens, Fire & Blood, proceeds from here, because I really doubt House of the Dragon will follow suit. (I’m ready to be wrong!) In the book, Rhaenyra, split from Criston Cole, and married to Laenor Valeryon, takes a new lover, Ser Harwin “Breakbones” Strong. She has three sons, who many in court suspect to be fathered by Strong rather than Laenor, because they’re brown-haired and brown-eyed—not silvery, like “real” Targaryens. When Laenor dies (a murder—many suspect Daemon to be the culprit), and Breakbones follows suit (ditto), Rhaenyra secretly marries Daemon. They have two more sons, who are purple-eyed and silver-haired. This is where things stand when the “Dance of Dragons” (the war of succession between Rhaenyra and Alicent and Alicent’s son, Aegon) begins, with Daemon as Rhaeynra’s general.

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I would like to see this unfold, not just because I’ve been manipulated into cheering on the progress of a romance between an uncle and a niece (for God’s sake, help me), but because it would really help us nail down why the Targaryens were different. So far, House of the Dragon is a nothingburger in part because the Targaryens seem just like any other Westerosi family, except plus dragons. Everyone in Westeros, we know from years of watching and reading this stuff, is proud of their house and unbending when it comes to advancing its interests, sacrificing daughters to bad marriages and sons to war in order to move along in the Game. Neither Thrones nor Dragon has been able to explain to my satisfaction why every Targaryen—and some non-Targaryens—feels so strongly about this particular lineage. (Flash back to how annoying Daenerys used to get when she would go on about it!)

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There may be no there there, because Fire & Blood doesn’t really explain Targaryen supremacy to my satisfaction, either. But their incestuous tradition offers the best possibilities for exploring how such a family’s hubris might play out. In Fire & Blood, there are successful and loving incestuous relationships, but also disasters. Aegon and Helaena, Viserys’ children with Alicent, marry and have an unhappy partnership. They produce twins, each of whom have developmental or physical differences you could attribute to a too-small gene pool—the girl “did not cry, did not smile, did none of the things a babe was meant to do,” and the boy has six fingers on his left hand and six toes on his feet. Rhaenyra’s third child with Daemon is likewise a “monster”—“twisted and malformed, with a hole in her chest where her heart should have been, and a stubby, scaled tail.” Meanwhile, even as the two factions of the family fight over the succession, the church condemns these intermarriages, and parts of the political world surrounding the Targaryens turn against them.

This taboo tradition, of course, is a metaphor: the Targaryens are so high on their own supply, it becomes their doom. Incest! I certainly don’t endorse it, in real life, but a bit more of it on House of the Dragon could really keep me watching.

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