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House of the Dragon’s moral lesson of the week: Sex is always political

The HBO show finally addresses its sticky sexual subtext.

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Milly Alcock and Matt Smith as Rhaenyra and Daemon Targaryen in House of the Dragon.
Ollie Upton/HBO
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

House of the Dragon’s fourth episode dives headlong into the quagmire of sexual politics that thus far have haunted the series but remained largely offscreen and subtextual. “King of the Narrow Sea” yanks Rhaenyra out into the gritty city, and yanks all of us into a confrontation with age and consent issues, power dynamics, and, of course, incest.

In short, a whole lot of sex gets had, but it’s difficult to call much of it fully consensual. If the show thus far has been Succession with dragons, we might say this episode was a touch Euphoria and a touch, er, Game of Thrones.

Note: This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon, “King of the Narrow Sea.”

“King of the Narrow Sea” serves up little plot, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of what happens onscreen. The episode title references the moniker given to Daemon (Matt Smith) following his successful close of the battle for the Stepstones. Restored to the king’s court with honors for his efforts, he wastes no time resuming his oddball courtship of his niece. Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) has just returned from a woefully unsuccessful “tour” arranged by her father in which she listens to and rejects an increasingly absurd roster of attempts by the lords of the realm to vie for her hand in marriage. We see two suitors at either extreme end of this scale, one a drunken, rambling septuagenarian and the other a nervous young boy delivering his rehearsed proposal in a voice barely past puberty.

Disgusted, she returns home to King’s Landing, where soon Daemon lures her out of the castle like two children playing hooky. But of course they aren’t two children, and for all Rhaenyra delights in dressing as a boy and stealing from street vendors, this is no Aladdin-esque palace escape. Daemon has several purposes in introducing her to the dusty peasants of King’s Landing.

One purpose involves acquainting her with the citizenry and their true feelings about her potential reign as queen, which come via a coarse play. That age-old keeper of wisdom, the panto, makes it clear the rabble view Rhaenyra as a “feeble” would-be ruler compared to her strong, manly younger brother, even though Aegon is barely out of his crib. Rhaenyra, just as she has done from the start, dismisses their opinions, but Daemon has another lesson to teach her about the way the world works.

This time, he takes her to a brothel. There, he reveals to her scads of writhing permutations of lovers; this, he explains, is where people come to “take what they want.” Taken at face value, he wants to reassure her that she can fulfill her obligation to marry but still sleep with whoever she wants — but we know better than that by now, don’t we? They make out for the first time, with Daemon pushing her against a wall and partially stripping her. Things proceed until Daemon, apparently having a momentary spasm of conscience about wanting to have sex with a) a teenager b) his underage niece c) who he’s been grooming since childhood and d) shamelessly using as a power grab, stops himself and, with an enigmatic smile, vanishes to get completely wasted.

On the surface, this scene looks like a sort of sexual freedom; in the annals of storytelling, a teen’s first trip to a brothel, often involving their first encounter with an experienced older partner, typically gets framed as a magical coming-of-age moment. Here it’s intense but hardly revelatory: The scene’s direction is claustrophobic, nearly too dark to see at some points, filmed against a backdrop of primal drums and crazed strings. And crucially, it’s juxtaposed against a grotesque counterpart sex scene in which King Viserys (Paddy Considine) shows us what marital rape looks like, as his wife Alicent (Emily Carey) lies passively beneath him, trying to disassociate from the experience.

It might seem as though these two scenes are meant to present contrasting ideas of pleasure, placing Rhaenyra’s newfound sexual awakening alongside Alicent’s coerced marriage to a man thrice her age, to whom she feels no sexual attraction and with whom sex is a dreaded forced act.

But this framework also drives home that neither of these encounters are truly consensual — and that’s the running theme of this episode. From the opening moments, where our poor shrimp of a lad has to ask Rhaenyra for her hand despite being far too young for marriage and having never laid eyes on her before, we see sex as a game of politics over desire. Even when Daemon is presenting sex to Rhaenyra as an act of pleasure, he’s doing it for political reasons. She’s far too young to fully understand how Daemon has manipulated her emotionally, to grasp that he’s spent years grooming her as a pawn for exactly this purpose.

Both Alicent and Rhaenyra have been manipulated by the men around them their entire lives; Alicent understands her own situation all too well, but so far has had no opportunity to resist or act outside of her predetermined role as queen. The king, when he’s not using her for sex and childbearing, openly undermines Alicent — a casual slight that becomes much greater when you’re essentially a sexual prisoner who has to behave as though you aren’t. Neither situation allows for real consent, and while Alicent’s miserable marital rape is much clearer, Daemon’s near-seduction of Rhaenyra is equally about power and control.

Horny and frustrated, Rhaenyra returns to the castle and immediately seduces Ser Criston Cole, her personal guard and the guy she’s been crushing on since episode one. Ser Criston (Fabien Frankel) clearly sees her as the annoying brat he has to babysit, and he’s at first extremely reluctant to take what she’s offering. First, he asks her to stop, but Rhaenyra, never one for stopping, presses him a bit more. After a long moment of hesitation, Criston gives in and kisses her, but there’s a lot going on in that pregnant pause signaling to us that this, too, is sexual coercion, not real seduction.

Rhaenyra, self-interested above all else, has a difficult time seeing outside of herself to recognize the way other people are compromised by the political and sexual games they have to play. She certainly doesn’t see her own attempt to seduce Criston as a blatant abuse of power, nor does his reluctance register with her or give her pause. The subsequent sex scene, while emphasizing her pleasure, reinforces the sense that Criston is operating automatically rather than enthusiastically. The next day, he shows up eager to resume his role as her servant, pretending the night before never happened and instantly dashing any fleeting romantic fantasies she may have had.

Meanwhile, Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), who knows a thing or two about sexual coercion, reveals that she’s turned spymaster, trading secrets to the highest bidder. The former sex worker, now Daemon’s on-again, off-again lover, has gained the nickname of “the White Worm” because of her tendency to dress in white and burrow her way into possession of secrets. She knows all of Daemon’s, and now that includes one of Rhaenyra’s. When Daemon refers to her as “an uncommon whore,” she laughs it off, perhaps because she’s already sold him out to the King’s Hand, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans). Otto gets the news and pauses to (one imagines) breathe in the heady cologne of gossip and victory before going straight to the king.

The king, however, isn’t having it; for once, Viserys puts Otto in his place with a rather satisfying, “Are you so sick with ambition?” as he chides him for his blatant opportunism and for spying on the princess. The revelation that Viserys isn’t as easily manipulated as he’s appeared to be loses its heft, however, given that in this case, Otto is telling the truth: The princess has been dallying with her uncle and has risked tarnishing her reputation. The subsequent fallout sees Daemon asking Viserys to let him graciously salvage Rhaenyra’s good name through marriage — a power play that Viserys rejects completely, banishing Daemon and ending his short-lived good favor at court.

While he’s confronting Daemon, Alicent confronts Rhaenyra, who tells her (somewhat) truthfully that nothing happened with Daemon while omitting that everything happened with Ser Criston. (It’s really difficult to read Alicent’s anger and hurt in this scene as anything but wounded jealousy, though ostensibly Alicent’s motive is pure concern for Rhaenyra’s reputation; Rhaenicent shippers, you may be onto something.) They both later repeat this lie to Viserys, though Viserys is as fed up with Rhaenyra as he is with Daemon and Otto. When she snarks that he’s using her as a prize to assuage his political headaches, he snaps, “You are my political headache!”

Viserys orders her to marry Laenor Velaryon, who we learned last episode is both an ideal political match, as the son of the Sea Snake Corlys, and a really hot dragon-rider. This conversation takes place in Viserys’s mancave, his private sanctum where he houses his giant model of Old Valyria. This chamber, wall to wall, sports giant bizarre tapestries of garish orgies in a confluence of sex and power; when Rhaenyra protests that if she were a man her sexual exploits would have been seen as a value-add, it’s hard not to think of her growing up surrounded by images of Targaryen conquests as explicitly sexual as well as martial. Indeed, the show suddenly presenting us with the need to protect Rhaenyra’s womanly virtue feels almost out of place in a society so sexually brazen as that of King’s Landing; but if it feels jarring and superimposed to us, it must feel even more ham-fisted as a point of contention to Rhaenyra herself.

Still, her 18 hours or so of sexual freedom have hammered the point home: Sex is transactional, above all else. So for the first time, she does what everyone else has been doing: She uses herself as leverage. She agrees to marry Laenor if Viserys fires Otto Hightower. The king, close to doing that on his own, accepts and removes an astonished Otto from his position as Hand, which gives me an excuse to praise Rhys Ifans once more for so vividly conveying Otto’s constant internal calculations, always passive, silent, and conducted entirely in microexpressions. (In this house, we love a good microexpression.) Viserys, discussing his late father’s death with Otto in this scene, opens up the door for the possibility that Otto may have killed Viserys’s dad, Baelon, in order to replace him as the King’s Hand and remove him as contender for the throne. But while that’s entirely plausible politically, it would be a true game of 5D chess, and a shocker given that Baelon officially died of appendicitis.

Still, it’s hardly beyond the long strategy Otto is playing, and now that both he and Daemon are removed from power, with Corlys Velaryon waiting in the wings, the game for Rhaenyra is afoot. Whether she realizes it or not, she’ll soon have an even bigger target on her back as heir — and the offense she’s just learned to play, using sex as a pathway to real power, is about to get much more serious.

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