On Sunday night, House of the Dragon depicted one of the more disturbing scenes in Game of Thrones history: a bloody medieval C-section that ended in the mother’s death. This fantasy franchise is known for pushing the limits of what can be shown on television, and it certainly hasn’t shied away from portraying violence on screen in the past. (Remember the Red Wedding, the Mountain crushing Oberyn Martell’s skull, Drogo melting off Viserys’ head, Shireen Baratheon getting burned alive…shall I continue?) But there was something about this birthing scene that was particularly sickening in a way others weren’t.
For context: The scene features Queen Aemma Arryn, pregnant wife of King Viserys Targaryen, in labor to deliver a child her husband is sure will be a son. (With their oldest child being a girl, he’s desperate for a “legitimate” heir and Aemma’s past stillbirths and miscarriages haven’t helped.) When Aemma faces complications during delivery, the maester says he cannot save both her and the child. Although Viserys seems troubled by the decision, he unsurprisingly opts to save the baby over Aemma, unbeknownst to Aemma. What follows is brutal: The queen screams as the nurses hold her down to the bed and the doctor cuts into her womb to remove the fetus manually—of which we get a clear birds-eye view. The camera is unrelenting here, showing the blade run down Aemma’s abdomen as her blood spills onto the bed sheets. There are bloody closeups of hands opening up and reaching into her to extract the baby from her body. (To Viserys’ relief, it is a boy, but the child dies hours later.) It’s a lot. It’s too much.
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So…why is it there? In terms of the plot, Aemma and the heir’s death eventually kick off the Dance of the Dragons civil war within House Targaryen, which this show will cover. As for the scene-setting, it proves a point Aemma told her daughter, Rhaenyra, earlier in the episode: that while men fight wars, childbearing is a woman’s battle. That’s emphasized by a very on-the-nose parallel, with Aemma’s labor sequence intercut with scenes of knights gruesomely brawling at a tournament elsewhere in King’s Landing.
As Vanity Fair points out, Aemma’s death by childbirth in George R. R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, on which House of the Dragon is based, is only two sentences long. Why elaborate it in such gory terms on screen?
The showrunners’ justification is that they wanted to be real about the horrors of childbirth in Middle Ages-equivalent Westeros (a fictional world). “Any slight complication, anything could lead to very tragic consequences for the child and the mother,” co-showrunner Ryan Condal told VF. “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.”
Martin called the scene “incredibly powerful.” He didn’t find it gratuitous but rather necessary to tell a convincing story. “I want to live the book. I want to be there. I want my emotions engaged,” he added.
Sure, I guess? The story takes place in a time when women had little place and power in society. And I’ve already bought in on the franchise—the dragons, the vast kingdoms, the imaginary languages, White Walkers, whatever milk of the poppy is—but is a woman’s torture on the childbed the necessary next step to world-building? Am I not getting the full picture unless I see someone ripped apart during labor? What am I seeing here that I don’t already understand?
To bring things back to present-day, the scene also speaks to the timely topic of abortion and a person’s right to choose. As Jezebel put it, in our post-Roe v. Wade world, Aemma’s labor scene “hit too close to home.” Co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik is aware of this. He told Popsugar that the scene addresses an issue that “hits a real trigger for women, which is this idea of choice and that she doesn’t get to choose. She’s effectively murdered by her husband. And that is a good indication of the state of play in this world that we’re inhabiting.”
Sapochnik also said that the moment was highly debated behind the scenes, and the team knew it would upset viewers. “We did make a point of showing it to as many women as possible and asked the very question, ‘Was this too violent for you?’” he said. “And unanimously, the response was no. Often the response was, ‘No, if anything, it needs to be more.’”
But, why? To prove to the men watching that this is what it’s like for us? Will this change anyone’s minds regarding women’s bodily autonomy, or abortion rights, or the maternal health crisis? And if the scene is supposed to visualize how women are warriors in their own right, did any women watching this feel empowered?
Martin says Aemma’s death is supposed to “rip your heart out and throw it on the floor,” with the same impact as the Red Wedding. Both are gory moments (and contain pregnant women being murdered), but the big difference here is that the Red Wedding killed off characters we had loved for three seasons. In House of the Dragon, a woman is ripped open before our eyes 30 minutes after she is introduced.
If the scene was merely for shock value, or to elicit an emotional response, then that points to a bigger conversation about how much House of the Dragon wants to be like (or maybe even outdo) Game of Thrones. With bloodshed, nudity, oozing wounds, castration, and implied incest, it’s as if the first episode is saying: In case you forgot how hardcore we are, here’s a reminder. With small callouts to Daenerys Targaryen and “A Song of Ice and Fire,” it wants to assure you that you’re in the world of Game of Thrones while also differentiating itself with an ostensibly more feminist storyline.
The prequel series seems like it’s trying to be more self-aware. GoT came under fire for its depictions of rape, nudity, and other forms of sexual and emotional violence against women. As House of the Dragon begins, it’s evident right away that a main focus will be women wronged by and persevering under patriarchy. (It’s not until after Viserys’ wife and newborn are dead, and after his brother disrespects the dead child, that Viserys finally names his daughter Rhaenyra his heir. What he probably should’ve done from the start.)
Sapochnik told the Los Angeles Times that their intention with the birth scene was to be accurate and not to “sensationalize it,” but with such harrowing visuals, they still did create a spectacle. And it’ll stick with viewers for better or worse.
Erica Gonzales is the Senior Culture Editor at ELLE.com, where she oversees coverage on TV, movies, music, books, and more. She was previously an editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com. There is a 75 percent chance she’s listening to Lorde right now.