In HBO’s new hit show “House of the Dragon,” the dragons are bigger, scalier and fire-breathier than they ever were in the network’s culture-changing fantasy epic “Game of Thrones.” The casual misogyny and disturbing racial tropes of the first series have, however, been turned down a notch.
That’s in response to widespread criticism of how “Thrones” normalized sexual violence and valorized whiteness, the creators of “House of the Dragon,” Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, have said. The episodes of “House” that have aired so far have focused on the plucky, queer-coded queen in waiting Rhaenyra Targaryen, played by Milly Alcock as an adolescent (and after an upcoming time-skip by the nonbinary performer Emma D’Arcy), and her rebellion against patriarchy. Another major character, Lord Corlys Velaryon, is played by the British actor of Barbadian descent Steve Toussaint (a casting choice that has caused some racist backlash). The Japanese-born British actor Sonoya Mizuno has a prominent role. Even crowd scenes and secondary characters display more diversity than the Westeros of “Thrones” did.
And while “House” still features plenty of barbarity toward women — a grotesque obstetric scene in Episode 1 offered a vivid illustration of how little women’s lives are valued in Westeros — the style has been markedly less voyeuristic than the approach that prompted Indiewire’s Libby Hill to call “Game of Thrones” “eight seasons of gratuitous torture porn.” In “House,” scenes of noble girls — including a prepubescent child in one case — offering themselves up as potential royal wives are framed to be unsettling, not seductive. There’s still plenty of sex, violence and gore (and if the show follows the source material, yes, incest is coming), but the lingering camera angles and lascivious framing that were hallmarks of “Thrones” seem to be absent.
Some critics have suggested that the new series is a little dull — “saddled with respectability” and “timid in a weird way.” Others have gone so far as to call it “feminist grooming” and an example of Hollywood’s panic about sensitivity (although miraculously, no one has yet hit upon the phrase “woking the dragon”).
So it’s worth asking: Has toning down some of the more salacious aspects drained the series of its excitement? These were, after all, as much the subject of the Monday-after debates about “Game of Thrones” around the digital water coolers of social media as the show’s intricate plot: Which female characters had been subjected to sexualized humiliation, exploited through casual nudity or simply offed as part of the show’s bloody tapestry of violence against women? Did anyone with a shade of skin darker than bisque show up onscreen, and if so, what manner of brutish savage, manipulative foreigner or exotic courtesan were they?
Will a slightly more sensitive Westeros give us enough to talk about? It’s hard to tell so far. The new series certainly didn’t open with anything quite as gasp-inducing as a pair of twins having sex in a tower, then throwing a child out of a window, as “Thrones” did. And there’s some validity to complaints about how much time “House” spends on “tense bickering at a big table.” But to suggest that a less raunchy Westeros is necessarily less compelling does a disservice to the original series by assuming that sexual brutalization and normative whiteness were its core appeal.
It’s also a rather patronizing assessment of the show’s fans, many of whom weren’t there for the full-frontal nudity and titillation. I’d argue that the success of “Thrones” had more to do with the complex dynamics of its political and family intrigue, its top-tier acting and its immensely detailed world-building — all of which “House” has already offered in abundance.
George R.R. Martin, the author of the source books, who was involved in creating both HBO series, has defended the treatment of race and gender in “Thrones” as grounded in historical reality. He told Entertainment Weekly in 2015: “The books reflect a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages were not a time of sexual egalitarianism.” To a fan wondering why there seemed to be no Asians in the series at all, he responded on his personal blog in 2014: “There weren’t a lot of Asians in Yorkish England either.”
Of course, there weren’t ice zombies, giants or, ahem, dragons in Yorkish England either. Given that the land of Westeros is a wholly imagined fantasy, it could’ve been anything its creators imagined it to be — and in “Game of Thrones,” a white male author and white male showrunners imagined it as a place where people of color are mostly servile, silent or absent.
But as Mr. Sapochnik and Mr. Condal note, “House of the Dragon” arrives in a very different era. Mr. Condal put it bluntly in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: “It was very important for Miguel and I to create a show that was not another bunch of white people on the screen.” Mr. Sapochnik cited the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements in an interview with Jeremy Egner of The Times: “It’s a radically different world from what it was 10 years ago,” he said. “We have to reflect the changes in the world before us — not because somebody told us to, but because we actually feel like there’s a point.”
The conventions of casting have also seen a shake-up in the last decade. Since “Thrones,” high-profile period dramas such as “Bridgerton” and “The Great”have cast nonwhite actors as European royals and aristocrats — and become hugely popular. The same can be said of several exciting new shows in the fantasy genre. “Wheel of Time,”Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Robert Jordan’s best-selling novels,cast many of its main characters with Black, Asian, indigenous and Latin actors, and is now rolling toward its third season. The streamer’s even bigger bet, “The Rings of Power,” a billion-dollar prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” has cast Black actors as hobbits and dwarves and Puerto Rican performers as elves, consciously defying the convention of depicting these nonhuman beings as white. And “The Sandman” — which reimagines white characters as Black and male characters as female, and cast a nonbinary actor whose gender identity is intrinsically necessary for their role in the plot —may well be the most watched streaming show on the planet right now.
All of these are evidence that embracing a full spectrum of talent options rather than rigidly adhering to historical inspiration doesn’t detract from storytelling or audience interest. Indeed, it’s very likely that more diverse casts have drawn new audiences to these fantasy tent poles, making them more relevant and accessible to viewers who have rarely seen themselves at the center of stories of such epic scale and grandeur.
That makes business sense: The consulting giant McKinsey and Company estimates that a more inclusive Hollywood could generate an additional $10 billion in annual revenues. A 2020 report commissioned by the top talent broker Creative Artists Agency showed that shows that premiered with at least a 40 percent nonwhite actors among their series regulars were significantly more in demand than those with less diverse casts.
And as for “House of the Dragon,” after setting an HBO audience record for a series premiere with 10 million live viewers and then topping that number with its second episode, it has been renewed for a second season. If its story continues to evolve in this direction, a fantasy many of us have had could come true: that female and nonwhite fans can delight in soaring dragons and palace intrigue without feeling burned in the process.
Jeff Yang (@originalspin) edited the Asian American superhero anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered” and is a co-author of “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America From the ’90s to Now.”
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