The most shocking thing about the most graphic birth scene on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel series, “House of the Dragon,” is that it wasn’t shocking at all.
Showrunners have spent the entire first season of the drama vilifying motherhood and making childbirth a bloody, torturous affair that frequently ended in death. It’s not that these assertions about birth before modern medicine are incorrect – it’s just notable that series creators did little to balance out that narrative with scenes of women delivering their children without a heaping side of trauma.
Rhaenyra Delivers Her Stillborn Child
The “HOTD” series finale features the Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) being thrust into preterm labor moments after hearing that her ailing father, King Viserys (Paddy Considine), recently died. Rhaenyra’s stepmother and former friend Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) then had her son crowned king despite the fact that Viserys had named Rhaenyra his heir years before.
Rhaenyra labored alone while her terrified handmaidens stood nearby, begging to help her. She paced the room while screaming for her husband Daemon (Matt Smith) to come help her. But he’s too busy preparing to go to war with the traitors who stole the Iron Throne.
Eventually, Rhaenyra gave birth to a deceased newborn on the floor and the showrunners make no effort to cut away from the horrifying moment. Viewers clearly saw the newborn’s tiny, bloodied feet and her head hitting the hard floor as Rhaenyra pushed out her silent child. It’s a graphic scene that could have easily been a lot more subtle and still gotten the point across.
But again, this is par for the course for “House of the Dragon.”
The Show’s First Birth Was A ‘Bloodbath’
In the very first episode, fans were disturbed to witness Rhaenyra’s mother Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke), die during childbirth after her husband Viserys allowed an emergency c-section that he knew would kill his wife but could potentially save his unborn son.
This so-called “forced birth” scene was considered by many to be a statement against pro-life laws that limit women’s access to abortion.
“Yes it’s accurate in terms of historical context, but it’s still horrifying to see, & doesn’t take away the point that she still should have had a choice about her own body,” one Twitter user shared of Aemma’s death during childbirth. “Very timely given Roe vs Wade & how despite modern medicine, we’re still told what to do with our bodies.”
Brooke discussed filming the scene during an interview with Variety. “It was a bloodbath,” the actress recalled. “Behind that belly was a whole bag full of blood and fluid. When the incision was made, they would have to time it with pumping this blood out of the belly.”
She said the fake blood was “cold and wet, seeping all over” and that the set “looked like a horror movie” after filming concluded.
The actress also addressed the connection between the c-section and abortion. “When we filmed it, it obviously didn’t cross my mind because it hadn’t happened,” Brooke said of Roe v. Wade being overturned in June.
“Now, you realize how shocking that is, that comparisons can be made between present day, and a woman’s body and the right to choose what happens to her body, and thousands of years ago,” Brooke continued. “I just think the fact that we’re even talking about it, is evident in itself. It’s very poignant what can happen within a year, and how far we can step back.”
Birth Is A Battlefield
During an interview with Insider, “House of the Dragon” showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal discussed the controversial birth scene, saying they wanted to portray birth as a “battlefield.”
Sapochnik said they ran the scene by “as many women as possible,” who all agreed it wasn’t “too violent.” He also declared that they “shouldn’t be shying away” from Aemma dying so brutally.
“As we stated earlier in the episode, the birthing bed is almost a battlefield,” the showrunner said. “You have 50 percent chance of survival. And so it seemed like this was an appropriate time to draw that parallel visually between the male and the female struggle. One’s fighting on the battlefield, the other’s fighting for survival — sometimes from the person closest to her.”
Laena Chooses To Be Burned Alive
Those two deadly births weren’t the only ones on the series. In episode 6 “The Princess and the Queen,” Daemon’s then-wife Laena went into labor but it quickly became clear the baby wouldn’t come out. Daemon was presented with an impossible choice just like his older brother Viserys – he’s told he can try to save the baby by permitting a c-section for Laena, or lose them both from failed labor. But he doesn’t have to make the choice after all.
Before Daemon can answer, Laena got up and walked outside to her dragon Vhagar. The desperate mother stood in front of the dragon and gave the command, “Dracarys!” Vhagar obeyed by breathing fire that burned both Laena and her unborn child alive.
Motherhood Is Shown As Joyless
It’s not just childbirth that’s portrayed as a death sentence, or worse, on the “Game of Thrones” spinoff prequel. Motherhood overall is shown as a heavy, joyless burden throughout the series.
For example, there’s the comparison of two chosen paths during episode 4, “King of the Narrow Sea.” In it, young Princess Rhaenyra shrugged off a bevy of potential suitors, then sneaked out into the town after dark for a night out with her mischievous uncle Daemon, who she’ll eventually wed. The two visited a sex club and exchanged an awkward moment where they almost gave in to their desire for each other.
Icky as they may be, these scenes are shown as exhilarating coming-of-age moments for teenage Rhaenyra. Snippets of the princess sneaking out for a good time are juxtaposed with images of her childhood friend Alicent, who chose the path of duty and became queen by marrying Rhaenyra’s father Viserys. While Rhaenyra has fun, Alicent joylessly holds a screaming baby and looks all the part of an exhausted mother.
The implication of these scenes is clear: getting married and having babies is dull, while exploring sex clubs with your creepy uncle is thrilling. Never mind the fact that as queen, Alicent had all the nannies she could want at her beck and call. Showrunners were clearly trying to show who chose the better path.
There’s no denying that childbirth was more dangerous before the advent of modern medicine and life-saving options including medicated c-sections. But for a popular series to portray childbirth as a likely death sentence feels intentional during the current culture war, which seeks to turn mothers against their own flesh and blood.