Film and TV

Opinion: House of the Dragon and the Violence of Peace

Viserys Targaryen, first of his name, breaker of malarkey.
Viserys Targaryen, first of his name, breaker of malarkey. Screenshot from House of the Dragon
Spoiler alert for the first two episodes.

Republicans who claim that liberal Hollywood never criticizes Democrats should definitely watch House of the Dragon because I’m pretty sure King Viserys (Paddy Considine) is supposed to be President Joe Biden. Or, if not Biden, a generic neoliberal leader in the same vein as most Democratic presidents in the last 30 years.

In case you need a refresher, House of the Dragon is a Game of Thrones prequel on HBO taking place about 170 years before the events of the original show. Viserys has come to the throne after a major dispute about succession, and he is desperate to continue the peaceful reign of his predecessors. It’s going poorly.

Both of the first episodes of the show contain incredible but pointed violence. In the first, the king’s brother Daemon (Matt Smith) has built a brutal police state that stages a mass mutilation and murder spree without trial in the capital. Later, he attempts to usurp his niece’s position as heir to the throne by stealing a dragon egg and taunting a delegation with his own dragon. In the second episode, a pirate king is shown feeding the people of Westeros alive to crabs while the king promises to combat the threat with diplomacy.

Throughout the show so far, Visery has been portrayed as a man trying to do the moral thing at every junction. He doesn’t want to marry his 12-year-old cousin despite the political wisdom of it because, and he is very clear about this, she is a child and it’s icky. He doesn’t want to start a civil war with his brother because they both essentially have nuclear weapons to use against the other, even if Visery has more. He doesn’t want to kill his wife with a medieval c-section, but the only other choice is that she and the baby die as opposed to maybe just her. He especially doesn’t want to start a naval war with the Free Cities of Esteros, something he is rightfully certain will result in years of bloodshed.

He is so desperate to preserve status quo, that he continuously fails to see what all heads of state eventually must: peace can be violence, too. It’s a problem that has plagued Democratic presidents for years.

In the 1990s, America was experiencing a rare moment of not being at war. During the Clinton Administration, the Rwandan genocide started. Clinton, as desperate to remain a peacetime president as Viserys is to be a peacetime king, delayed American military action in the region. As a result, some 300,000 lives are estimated to have been lost.

Fast forward to the Obama Administration. The country was weary of the wars started by his predecessor, wars we now knew were based on falsehoods. Nevertheless, Bashar al-Assad began an ethnic purging in Syria that looked alarmingly like a second Holocaust. Obama wanted to intervene, but a Republican controlled congress refused him the authorization. Faced with defying them or limiting action, he chose the latter. At least 500,000 have died since, and the resulting refugee crisis was instrumental in the rise of fascism in Europe and America. There is a direct line from people fleeing Assad to white majority countries to Q-Anon.

Then came Biden and the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Despite the fact that Americans have called for the end of military involvement in the region for decades, few were prepared for the violence that accompanied that exit. While there are certainly criticisms of the manner of the withdrawal, it was always going to be a bloody disaster.

That’s because, again, peace is not the opposite of violence. Peace only works if both sides have it as their goal. Ukraine wants to be left alone, and Russia wants to own Ukraine. The two are not trying and failing to understand each other. They exist in diametrically opposed paradigms that have no next move except war.

What we’re seeing on House of the Dragon is a failure to recognize similar situations. Viserys can be 100 percent right about the cost of war with the pirates or his brother, but neither solution is non-violent. The people being eaten alive by crabs or abused by the city watch are suffering horribly. Viserys’ peaceful ship of state floats on their blood.

Which course is better? There’s no telling until the other side is reached. However, Viserys is a potent political lesson. Good people rarely make good kings or presidents because goodness is a luxury of those who don’t control nations. On a grand scale, it is only a question of which violence is the better option.

House of the Dragon airs Sundays at 8 p.m. CST on HBO and HBO Max.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner