House of the Dragon premiered on Sunday night, and there was one scene in particular that had many viewers looking on with dread. About midway through the episode, the wife of King Viserys, Queen Aemma Targaryen, goes into labor. It doesn’t go well, and King Viserys is presented with a dilemma when the Maesters tell him that his wife is going to die. However, there is a chance to save the child by performing a medieval C-section. Viserys gives them the go ahead without informing his wife, who is then forcibly cut open in a desperate attempt to save Prince Baelon, who dies hours later.
The brutal nature of the scene aside, the undertones are significant because they highlight an incredibly dark aspect of medieval society. Because of the need for male heirs to inherit lordships, women are sacrificed to extend bloodlines. King Viserys’ decision was made entirely out of the selfish desire to further his dynasty at the expense of his suffering wife. Earlier in the episode, we learn that Aemma had already gone through several rough pregnancies that presumably either ended with stillborn children or miscarriages.
This is a theme that is explored a lot in George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood, the book that House of the Dragon is based off. “In Fire and Blood, there’s a lot of very difficult births,” showrunner Ryan Condal told Vanity Fair. “It was something we wanted to carry over the season. There’s this whole idea in Game of Thrones, or in the Middle Ages, or in historical age like this, that the men marched off to the battlefield and the women’s battlefield happened in the child bed. That was a very dangerous place to be. All of the complications that people go through in modern birth that are now fixed by science and medicine and surgery were not really possible back then. Any slight complication, anything could lead to very tragic consequences for the child and the mother.”
"We wanted to dramatize that. We think you see plenty of violence of all colors in Westeros, but there is a particular violence to childbirth, even childbirth that goes well in the end. We wanted to dramatize that. We also wanted, on a dramatic level, to have Viserys have to make a choice. It was really important to make him an active participant in what happened to Aemma and to Baelon."
George R.R. Martin doesn’t think the birthing scene was “gratuitous”
In Fire and Blood, we are only told that Queen Aemma and Prince Baelon die, we aren’t given the circumstances or details that the show provided. “That scene is… you don’t want to use the word ‘enjoyable’ for a scene like that, but it’s incredibly powerful,” George R.R. Martin chimed in. “It’s visceral and it’ll rip your heart out and throw it on the floor. It has the kind of impact that the Red Wedding had. It’s a beautifully done scene of something horrible.”
Mission accomplished, because this scene had me pacing the room wincing at torment I’d expect from a Saw movie.
Martin also addressed the idea that the scene was “gratuitous,” something he doesn’t agree with. “I want to live the book. I want to be there. I want my emotions engaged,” he said. “Those are the kind of novels I love to read and the kind of things I love to write. That’s what affects you emotionally. I’ve been accused of being a particularly bloody person. Star Wars kills more people than I do.”
"In the first Star Wars movie, here comes the Death Star. They blow up the planet of Alderaan—20 million people are dead. Does it have any impact on you? Do you care that 20 million people are dead? Six movies later, you find out, I guess, that Jimmy Smits was one of them. Then you retroactively go, “Oh, they’ve killed Jimmy Smits!” but you don’t feel anything at the moment. It’s just, “Oh, okay.” It’s a statistic. What would it mean if Viserys was watching the tournament, and a messenger comes running in and says, “Your wife has died”? Is that going to have any effect on you…? I don’t think so."
In part because of guilt over what he did to Aemma, Viserys names his daughter Rhaenyra the heir to the Iron Throne, an unprecedented decision because only male children are traditionally seen as viable candidates to inherit. We will see what the ramifications this move will have on the realm Viserys is struggling to keep stable.