Halfway through the episode, Queen Aemma (Sian Brooke) goes into labor, a cautiously optimistic moment for the kingdom as husband King Viserys (Paddy Considine) prays for a long-awaited son. When the baby breaches, a maester tells Viserys that they can save either mother or child, the latter by cutting into Aemma’s belly. He hedges his bets on that coveted baby boy, leading to a harrowing scene of Aemma shrieking while multiple nurses hold her down and the maester cuts her open. Brooke bares (and bears) it all in her first and only episode of the show, leaving no doubt as to the excruciating nature of Aemma’s last moments.
This reporter first watched the “House of the Dragon” screener the day before the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v Wade, before states across the U.S. were tasked with legalizing or banning abortion. Aemma’s fate — to bear children no matter the physical consequences, even death — hits differently in a world supposedly far removed from “Thrones”-level barbarity. A man in power is ultimately responsible for Aemma’s death because he placed a higher value on her unborn child — whom he and the rest also could not save.
“It does bring to light both the lack of medicine that they had at the time and the lack of pain control that they offered women,” Dr. Xiang, a Boston-based obstetrician, told IndieWire. (They requested we only use their last name.) “It puts into frame that it’s either the woman or the baby, so which one would you want?”
“People just aren’t aware of how dangerous childbirth can be and what risk the mom is at, even now,” Xiang said. “It’s still life-threatening and you’re still at a high risk of maternal death, and women are forced to go through this.”
Intercut wit Aemma’s labor is a knights’ tourney for a damningly deliberate juxtaposition. While the men don armor and weapons and lunge at each other to draw blood, Aemma suffers in her own bed, surrounded by people who can barely ease her circumstances and bearing through physical pain these knights could never imagine. As Season 2 of “Fleabag” once spelled out, “Women are born with pain built in… [Men] have to seek it out.”
It’s worth noting that Aemma’s is not the only childbirth scene in “House of the Dragon” Season 1. Over the next few weeks, audiences will witness the writers’ and producers’ perplexing fascination with the pain of childbirth before today’s medical advances — something that most of us with a uterus care may not care to explore or spend extra time imagining. While executive producer Sara Hess clarified that the show will not depict sexual violence, recent comments by showrunner Miguel Sapochnik very much apply to the show’s graphic depictions of childbirth.
“[We] don’t shy away from it. If anything, we’re going to shine a light on that aspect,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in July. “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.”
But shining a light isn’t the brave act that everyone behind “House of the Dragon” seems to think it is. As IndieWire’s Ben Travers noted in his review, the show is more interested in rendering violence and misogyny than actually interrogating these “outdated” societal pillars. The second birthing scene includes graphic squelching and a cisgender male character asking if it hurt, followed by saying, “I am glad I’m not a woman.” A third scene again highlights the incompetence of men present. All three scenes boil deeply compelling characters down to their ability to reproduce, as does the society in their so-called fantasy show.
If the show covers all of the multigenerational Dance of Dragons in George R.R. Martin’s “Fire & Blood,” there could be even more scenes like this in store. HBO and the “House of the Dragon” team may not have intended such drastic resonance, but such sequences will inevitably land differently in the current political climate.
“It’s basically the same thing happening now,” Xiang said. “A lot of women don’t have a choice anymore, and are going to have to go through that. We’re not going to have to hold them down, but there are other risks to childbirth that still exist and do put the mom’s life at risk.”
“House of the Dragon” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.