House Of The Dragon Won't Depict Sexual Violence, Only 'One Instance Off-Screen'

The somewhat tarnished legacy of "Game of Thrones" is often credited to the show's controversial ending. In the years since the HBO hit aired its 2019 finale, there's been no shortage of outrage and criticism to prove just how much opinions of the long-time cultural phenomenon have soured. But while there's no denying the way that the ending hangs over the series, I'd point to another culprit that plagued the show through its entire eight-season run: the over-reliance on sexual violence and the casual degradation of women.

In the rough and tumble world of Westeros, everything is on the table. Beheadings, hangings, the occasional skull cracking — but nothing was used to illustrate the world's brutality quite like sexual violence. For the most part, this amounted to reminding us just how bleak the world of Thrones could get or showcasing the vile nature of the show's male villains. During a season 4 visit to Craster's Keep, abused women are used as set dressing — a sharp reminder that yes, the man drinking out of a skull is very, very bad. Another season 4 scene veered way off-course from the book's depiction of an encounter between Cersei and Jaime. The resulting scene clearly read as sexual assault, but the episode's director argued otherwise.

For many, the rape of Sansa Stark was a breaking point and the backlash got so loud that Thrones actually seemed to cool it on the sexual assault. But as we prepare to make a return to the wily world of Westeros, fans are getting the queasy feeling that HBO will retread this controversial ground. Should we just expect more of the same form "House of the Dragon"? Thankfully, it looks like the answer is no. The creatives behind the prequel have a new approach to addressing sexual violence.

'We do not depict sexual violence in the show.'

Nearly two weeks ago, "House of the Dragon" co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik reignited the long-held Thrones outrage when he told The Hollywood Reporter that, in comparison to "Game of Thrones," the prequel series "pulls back" on depictions of sexual violence but "violence against women is still very much part of the world." His words were vague enough that fans suspected the prequel would still spotlight rape in a similarly sickening way. It certainly didn't help that Sapochnik added:

"[We] don't shy away from it. If anything, we're going to shine a light on that aspect. You can't ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time. It shouldn't be downplayed and it shouldn't be glorified."

That bit about refusing to ignore or "downplay" the violence sounds an awful lot like the way the "Game of Thrones" showrunners would defend the show's gratuitous depictions of rape: 'it's all about showing the realistic experience of women.' (Medieval realism was very important to the ice zombie/dragon show, of course.) Needless to say, this explanation wasn't particularly well received. "House of the Dragon" writer and executive producer Sarah Hess has since stepped forward to clarify. During a chat with Vanity Fair, Hess went into detail on the prequel's approach:

"I'd like to clarify that we do not depict sexual violence in the show. We handle one instance off-screen, and instead show the aftermath and impact on the victim and the mother of the perpetrator."

Violence and the women of Westeros

"House of the Dragon" centers on the Targaryen rule of Westeros, as King Viserys I prepares to name an heir to the Iron Throne. The ensuing civil war involves a conflict between his daughter and wife, among other powerful lords hoping to control the realm. Once again, Westeros will be shown in all its glory and brutality — now with more dragons than ever! With all that fire and blood, violence is inevitable. And with plenty of women front and center, they won't be exempt from the damage. But as Hess explains, when they refer to the show featuring "violence against women," it isn't necessarily sexual or even physical, for that matter. 

"I think what our show does, and what I'm proud of, is that we choose to focus on the violence against women that is inherent in a patriarchal system," Hess said.

Hess explained that the series will unravel the complex relationships between the young female leads and the adult men in their lives:

"There are many 'historical' or history-based shows that romanticize powerful men in sexual/marriage relationships with women who were actually not of an age to consent, even if they were 'willing.' We put that onscreen, and we don't shy away from the fact that our female leads in the first half of the show are coerced and manipulated into doing the will of adult men. This is done not necessarily by those we would define as rapists or abusers, but often by generally well-meaning men who are unable to see that what they are doing is traumatic and oppressive, because the system that they all live in normalizes it. It's less obvious than rape but just as insidious, though in a different way."

"House of the Dragon" debuts on August 21, 2022 on HBO.