House of the Dragon season two episode one: Was it not nasty and brutal enough?

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
House of the Dragon streams in Australia on Binge.
House of the Dragon streams in Australia on Binge. Credit: Warner Bros Discovery

SPOILER WARNING FOR SEASON TWO PREMIERE ‘SON FOR A SON’

The episode title gave it away. The season two premiere of House of the Dragon was ominously called Son for a Son, and if you remember what happened at the end of the first season, one son had already been killed. Now, another was doomed.

In a season opener relatively light on action, House of the Dragon saved the most dramatic moment for the end, the famous “Blood and Cheese” scene from George R.R. Martin’s book. For those in the know, the story beat was notorious for its brutality. And that’s in a narrative universe famed for its willingness to inflict violence and cruelty on everyone — no one is spared.

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But did the Game of Thrones TV spin-off actually spare the audience? Did it pull its punches?

House of the Dragon streams in Australia on Binge.
The assassins, Blood and Cheese. Credit: Warner Bros Discovery

FINAL SPOILER WARNING

The series is based on Martin’s prequel book detailing the vicious civil war between different branches of the dragon-riding Targaryen family (ancestors to Game of Thrones’ Daenerys), which fractured after the death of King Viserys.

One faction was led by Rhaenyra, Visery’s first-born child, a daughter, who he had anointed as his successor.

In the novel and the show, Rhaenyra and her supporters are Team Black. The other group, Team Green, is lead by Aegon, Visery’s second-born, and a son, who claimed the crown on his father’s death — primogeniture and all that.

At the end of the first season, Aegon’s younger brother, Aemond accidentally killed Rhaenyra’s son, Lucerys.

The death of a child is not uncommon in the world of Westeros, but when it’s a prince in the middle of a battle for the throne, it will be avenged.

Which leads us to that scene at the end of the season two opener. Two assassins, nicknamed Blood and Cheese, creep their way to the Red Keep where Aegon’s children, twins Jaehaerys and Jaehaera, are sleeping in separate cribs. Their mother Helaena, Aegon’s sister-wife (oh, yes, the Targaryens are very into their incest), is in the room.

House of the Dragon streams in Australia on Binge.
House of the Dragon is centred on the civil war between Targaryens. Credit: Warner Bros Discovery

With a knife to her throat, she is forced to identify which of the twins is the boy. The camera shifts away from the children and we hear — but do not see — an assassin murdering Jaehaerys. The sound design is bone-chilling as you hear Jaehaerys’ head is sawed off.

Obviously, no one wants to see a toddler killed on screen, and the sound of the violent act is visceral enough for it to be stomach- churning.

House of the Dragon and Game of Thrones have long-earned reputations merciless portrayal of violence. The argument was that it needed to really hammer home how horrific it was in the dark ages. Martin’s world wholly captured Thomas Hobbes’ contention that life was “nasty, brutish and short”.

The two series have created an expectation among the fandom that the violence would be dialled up to 130 per cent and any bloodlust they have would be satiated. No act was too much to depict. Bran Stark was blithely pushed out of a tower window. Sansa was viciously raped by Ramsay.

Sansa Stark played by Sophie Turner. Picture: HBO
Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark was raped and tortured in Game of Thrones. HBO Credit: Supplied

The season one premiere episode featured a scene in which Rhaenyra’s mother, Aemma, would have her unborn child cut out of her in a forced caesarean. The close-up of Aemma’s face, screaming in agony, was left to linger. Reprieve was delayed.

So perhaps it’s not surprising given the backlash towards the show’s brazenness in its approach to on-screen violence, the Jaehaerys murder scene had been relatively tame. But that doesn’t mean everyone is onboard. Some viewers of the premiere episode were decidedly underwhelmed by the screen version of what in the book had been compared to Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding.

House of the Dragon streams in Australia on Binge.
House of the Dragon previously portrayed the agonising experience of dying in childbirth. Credit: Warner Bros Discovery

Most of the gripes suggest dissatisfaction with the show’s choice to change what Helaena had to go through. In the book, there are three children — the twins and a younger son, Maelor — and Helaena is forced to choose which son to spare. She chooses Jaehaerys to live but the assassins sadistically do the opposite, killing Jaehaerys and sparing Maelor. She cries in agony.

The series does not put the decision on her, which robs the scene of a deeper level of emotional violence. It wasn’t, some have argued, nasty enough.

Violence in all forms, physical and emotional, has become part and parcel of the Game of Thrones-House of the Dragon universe, setting up fans to expect the worst.

When they’re denied, they’re unhappy. When the promise is fulfilled, everyone else is unhappy. Nobody wins.

House of the Dragon is streaming on Binge, with new episodes available weekly

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