Image: HBO Max screengrab
When I think about Game of Thrones House of the Dragon, I hear a loud fart and see a severed penis covered in blood. There’s a moment 20 minutes into the first episode when Prince Daemon Targaryen goes on a rampage in the city of King’s Landing. Acting as a police force, Daemon dolls out extrajudicial justice on the streets. He and his cronies find an accused rapist and pull down his pants. The camera lingers on the accused rapist's ass while we hear a wet fart which sounds like it was picked from a bargain bin fart sound effect library. Then one of Daemon’s men cuts something out from between the man’s legs. He tosses the bit of meat on a barrel. It’s in frame and in focus, but in the darkness Game of Thrones is famous for it’s hard to tell if its balls, a penis, or some other bit of flesh.
Game of Thrones was a show famous for its nudity and gore and this anonymous dick is not the first HBO’s fantasy world has sundered. But it is the most inconsequential. A lot has been written about the sexual violence and gore in the original series and though Game of Thrones often used sex and blood to shock the audience, it also positioned pivotal character moments around these themes. It didn’t always stick the landing (Sansa’s rape is the go-to example) but the sensationalist use of sex and violence in Game of Thrones wasn’t always pure spectacle.House of the Dragon has the impossible task of being the sequel-prequel to a beloved TV show that ended badly. It needs to up the ante and show that it will go just as hard as its progenitor. So, in a moment of violence disconnected from the larger plot we see antagonist Daemon—played by Doctor Who alum Matt Smith—cut off a dick. We don’t know the name of the man who lost his cock. He’s incidental. What matters is that House of the Dragon was willing to “go there.”
Viewed this way, the disconcerting fart noise on the close up shot of the ass feels like an embarrassed apology. He is, presumably, farting out of fear. But it’s so jarring, a comedic beat buried in the middle of a disgusting and brutal act. It's a silly punctuation mark on a moment that exists only to let the audience know how bad a guy Daemon is (He cuts off dicks just like Ramsay Bolton, remember him?) and to reaffirm that you are, indeed, watching a Game of Thrones show.
The fart is, for me, the defining moment in a series premiere that does a poor job arguing its existence. Game of Thrones was such a massive blockbuster that a sequel series was a foregone conclusion. HBO is working on several spinoffs, including the continuing adventures of fan favorite Jon Snow. I doubt very much that House of the Dragon is a follow up that will catch on in the public consciousness, let alone with Thrones die-hards.I am one of those die-hards. I was a book fan before the show who reveled in watching friends and family react to shocking moments like Eddard Stark’s death and the Red Wedding. Like so many others, I was dismayed as the show ran out of book and morphed from the carefully acted and directed character piece to a showcase for set-piece battles and horrid wigs.By the end of the Game of Thrones pilot I was invested in both the world’s deeper mysteries and the characters who inhabited that world. It jumped right into the action with a mysterious white walker attack, introduced the Stark children with the birth of dire wolves, and ended in a shocking moment of brutality that cemented the Lannisters as villains. It was a fantastic pilot.There’s a moment late in the first episode of House of the Dragon where Viserys warns his daughter of the stakes. There’s a prophecy, he explained, that says a horrifying winter is coming to destroy the kingdoms of man. It’s the duty of the Targaryens to prepare for it. This being a prequel, we know how that will play out. There’s no tension to the prophecy because we know it won’t be fulfilled for almost 200 years. And we know how disappointingly it came to fruition.House of the Dragon opens with voice over narration over a scene from the past then fades to a bit of text floating on the screen. “It is now the ninth year of King Viserys I Targaryen’s Reign,” the text said. “172 years before the death of the Mad King, Aerys, and the birth of his daughter, Princess Daennerys Targaryen.”Some of the text fades away until we’re left with “172 years before Daenerys Targaryen.” During the show's outro, an ersatz version of the Game of Thrones theme swells over the credits. It’s different with just a hint of what’s original, a score that sounds enough like what you love that you find yourself remembering how good the original series was.This is House of the Dragon’s problem in a nutshell. It’s close enough to the original that you find yourself wanting to go back. At first it seems like a fine, but boring follow-up until the wet fart sound lands in the middle of a castration and you realize what kind of show HBO is making.