House of the Dragon

by Toby Woollaston

A Timeout (special issue) essay

A little over a decade ago I was broadsided by a new series. It was a mythology of biblical proportions accessibly presented as popcorn tv with a blend of high-fantasy, gritty realism, and deeply dramatic cinematography. It was bloody, brutal, and the onslaught was undeniably thrilling. Yes, Game of Thrones was born and it operated as the small-screen diatribe of our time.

Early in the series, you were told, quite unequivocally, not to warm to your favourite character. Stupidly, I snuggled into Ned Starc (played by Sean Bean). He was compassionate and quietly assured—an easy character to side with. But his fatherly morals and warm authority were cruelly ripped from me. I should’ve known better—Sean Bean rarely plays characters who live. But Ned Starc’s death felt worse than most. In “that scene” where the boy-king Joffrey gleefully danced around Ned with giddy delight, ordering his beheading, I sat watching in disbelief. It was my Lady Di moment—a “where were you when Ned lost his Head” event.

And so with every new character that I invested myself in—and their subsequent death—it felt like the warm veneer of fantasy was crumbling away and exposing the cruel reality of the world around me. How could I feel this way? These were fictional characters. The water-cooler talk soon revealed that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way and it became apparent that despite its fantasy setting Game of Thrones was holding a mirror to society. Sure, there were other shows that made their viewership question the world they live in, some more insightful even, but none of them had this much universal clout. Game of Thrones was a cultural phenomenon—an immensely popular show screaming to its audience that the world you live in is not all peachy. It told us that people are flawed, often given to cruelty, power-hungry and with little moral compass.

Such was the modus operandi of Game of Thrones. It was merciless yet honest, and I along with my water-cooler buddies were dragged through the muck and diseased-ridden scapes populated by notorious leaders and duplicitous people. Media commentator Matt Zoller Seitz once described Game of Thrones as the last water-cooler TV show. It was the last bastion of appointed television. He was right. We aren’t discussing other television at the same depth anymore, because we are all on a different page watching different shows within our fractured mediascape. Instead of Ned’s beheading, the Red Wedding, or the Battle of the Bastards we are now discussing something more complex and in some cases worse—the real world.

The correlation is clear to see. Where Game of Thrones gave us political back-stabbing, violence to women, and disease, the real world gave us Trump, racism, the #metoo movement, and covid. It’s a confusing time to be alive and there are plenty of labyrinthine issues to navigate.

It’s been over a decade since Game of Thrones’s initial release and a lot of cultural sewerage has flowed since. Now, as I write this from inside the burned-out carcass of our post-Trump, post-Charlottesville, post-Weinstein and post(ish)-covid world, we are left with the desolate scorched reality of what to do with ourselves. How do we, as a society, pick ourselves up? What direction do we go? Will we bury our heads in our current “binge and purge” media consumption culture or will we find solace next to the water-cooler again?

House of the Dragon suggests we head back in time to find answers. Perhaps from there we can garner an understanding of how it all went so wrong—Examine the story that formed the Iron Throne, like an Old Testament reading of the Ten Commandments. House of the Dragon, a more parred down story than its predecessor, might indeed give us a series to rally around, bring us back to the church of the water-cooler to discuss, rather than binge and purge in our siloed pods.

Stylistically, the Thrones DNA is still there with many key players from the original series still behind the camera. And certainly, if the first episode is any indication, the signature violence and bare-asses haven’t been scrubbed away either. But it’s what you do with your ass that counts and there are a few indicators that suggest House of the Dragon will be a significant production of our time. From its inclusive casting of non-white and non-binary actors to the recurring thematic struggle against misogyny, the important question is if these are box-ticking exercises by the producers, or as I would like to believe, simply a reflection of the time we live in.

Indeed, the relevance of House of the Dragon in today’s society is wholly apparent and may very well return us to Shakespearean-styled appointment tv where a grandiose subject is made fit for a common schlub like me. I really hope so, because it seems to have plenty of things to say about our world. Like a prophet of doom, House of the Dragon may hold a mirror to our face once more, but once bitten twice shy, I certainly will be wary of investing myself too much into any one character for fear of another beheading. Maybe I’ll just side with one of the dragons instead.