“George R. R. Martin doesn’t care about the little people” would be funny to say, but categorically untrue based on how sharp a focus Game of Thrones had on contrasting the powerful and the meek—something its spinoff, House of the Dragon, is less concerned with. Game of Thrones’ themes included defining “just rule” and the pursuit of just rulers, which focused on how a ruling class’s selfishness spells disaster for the ruled-over. Despite an eventual decline in the HBO series, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss mostly got that theme right in Season 8. The flawed final act emphasized that war is a pointless hell when the new queen is the same as the old king.
In House of the Dragon, audiences are again being treated to a fight to decide who controls the vast resources of Westeros, with a dragon-riding queen seeking to claim her delayed throne. Yet far more so than last time, the camera’s eye is turned away from the regular royal subjects that will bear the brunt of those decisions. House of the Dragon is even more insulated from the common people than its predecessor was, but the second episode is already hinting at the way they’ll be dragged into this fight.
The closest we’ve seen to commoners in House of the Dragon so far are Daemon Targaryen’s brutalist police force and his mistress, who are just pawns on his chess table. There is an implicit contrast between the upraised Gold Cloaks of the City Watch and the handsome common-born Kingsguarsdman Criston Cole as they raise swords against each other on a bridge at Dragonstone. They represent divergent paths of loyalty to entrenched power; but perhaps the difference in ambition and means are superficial when you fight for the same family and likely have the same eventual end.
Whether they were pressed into service or volunteered, the Gold Cloaks took to the job of straightening out the city with gory aplomb. We don’t know yet how King’s Landing fairs without their presence, but they remain loyal to their commander, Daemon Targaryen. Conscripted or enlisted, their role has changed from violence for the sake of enforcing the laws of King’s Landing (rewarded by trips to bars and brothels on the royal family’s dime), to standing in wait at Dragonstone, swords ready for the same Prince.
Across from them stands Ser Criston Cole, common-born but knighted for valor in combat. Pressed into service like any commoner called by his lord, his luck and skill in open battle—plus besting Daemon at a tourney in the honor of the King’s late baby boy—equals employment in the most prestigious position a knight could take. After fighting the Prince in the tourney and dueling with verbal barbs, it seems increasingly likely they will meet on the battlefield.
It remains to be seen if we’ll meet any other common soldiers, or even get to know these former commoners any better, because the show’s eye is elsewhere. Sonoya Mizuno’s Mysaria spells it all out in her longest scene: she didn’t join Daemon because she sought riches, but because she sought security, “liberation from fear,” a chance to not be beholden to the violent whims of other men and other people in power.
The implications of that tenuous power tied to martial duty for an elevated swordsmen are called out when Daemon claims not to remember Cole’s first name. The fragile place of women in the violent patriarchal structure of Westeros is made explicit for Mysaria as an armed retinue and a dragon show up at her front door after an insult by Daemon to his brother and king. It draws the vaguest parallel to Rhaenyra’s slippery grasp on power where, just six months after she is named heir, her father is positioned to marry her best friend to continue the royal line.
House of the Dragon has the potential to be a more straightforward show, as it’s wrapped up in the machinations of royalty without looking too hard at the smallfolk. That’s not a critique of the story’s morality or quality or what the world needs now from art, but an observation in scope. Unlike Game of Thrones, it isn’t immediately casting its protagonists into unfamiliar territory to learn what life is like for other people; the Starks and Lannisters learned in their stories how tenuous life was for those born outside the halls of power, and how easily they could be thrown into like circumstances while Targaryens are bickering at the table.
So far, it remains a series about power and violence, fire and blood, but currently isn’t concerned with those that will be crushed under a wheel that no one claims, as Daenerys did, to want to break. Having jumped six months between the first two episodes, House of the Dragon has established a quick pace in order to move characters into necessary political positions to begin the war between branches of the Targaryen family tree. Battle is coming soon as eyes shift to the brigand called the Crabfeeder King raiding the Stepstones archipelago. This ignoble foreigner threatens the wealth of the richest non-dynastic family and the territorial integrity of the empire. Smallfolk suffer in his raids and will suffer in the retributory war. But they will only ever be bit players, ancillary to the crucial conflict.
Hopefully, if HBO gets all nine desired spinoff series out before society collapses, they don’t have the problem of staying encircled around a handful of established characters, families, and institutions. There could be something novel in the slums of King’s Landing besides King Robert’s abandoned children. There might be more to the mercenary companies or theater troupes. After all, ruling over land is ruling over people. Perhaps it would be less epic to zoom-in on the life of a baker or a thief living in the shadows of the castles of Westeros, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story there. Farmers and fishers and artisans and artists were emotional cannon fodder in Game of Thrones, there to remind us that the battles waged among the mighty meant pain for the poor, and seldom did their lives get any better from the throne changing hands. The trouble with a prequel is that we know, in broad strokes, where it leads. We’ve got no indication that the height of the Targaryen dynasty in Westeros was any better for the commoners, but then again, we’ve had little indication of their lives at all.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.
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