This post discusses plot details from the season finale of “House of the Dragon.”
After putting our small children to bed Sunday night, my husband and I made an ill-fated decision to watch the season finale of HBO’s “House of the Dragon.” After tuning in for the last nine weeks and being a bit annoyed here and there with the show’s clear striving for “shock value,” I finally reached my limit this week.
The final episode of this season begins with Rhaenyra finding out about her father’s death and her brother’s subsequent ascension to the throne. The problem? She is her father’s named heir. The news sends her into premature labor — she has pains, is heavily bleeding, and her water breaks. What follows is perhaps the most offensive scene of birth trauma and death in the show.
It’s one thing to watch, as we did in the first episode, a forced C-section (which was admittedly difficult, as someone who has had an emergency C-section). It’s another to watch a mother be burned alive during childbirth, as we did in Episode 6. It’s entirely something else to watch, in graphic detail, a dead baby flop on the floor, their mother desperately grasping, clinging and hoping that breath will fill his or her lungs.
When this experience has been your reality, watching it unfold on television without any sort of trigger warning is excruciating.
My baby girl, my third child, was born last November after I had a nine-week hospital stay that culminated in premature labor and an emergency C-section. I don’t remember the moment she was born. I didn’t hear her first cries. The epidural wasn’t working fast enough, and because she was breech and I was six centimeters dilated already, I was hastily placed under general anesthesia.
“Are you sure you did it right?!” I heard the residents arguing with each other. One of them grabbed my arm, and everything went black.
I didn’t know then that I would never get to hear her cry. She was immediately whisked away to the NICU — while I was still unconscious — and placed on a ventilator. She died the next day. I’ll never see her walk. I’ll never see her graduate kindergarten, get married or have children of her own. I never even got to see the color of her eyes.
After my first child was born, I remember telling my pregnant friends that the greatest feeling in the world is having your newborn placed on your chest. But there are no words to describe this same scenario when you know the only reason the medical team is even letting you touch your baby is that there is nothing left to do to save her.
The machines aren’t working anymore. She is slipping away. She will not come home with you. I am only thankful that my husband and I were there when it happened so we could hold her, tell her how much we loved her and say goodbye.
The opening scene of the finale with Rhaenyra’s baby must be shocking even to viewers who haven’t been in that position. But if the unimaginable has happened to you, watching a tasteless portrayal of it in a show that’s centered around dragons — yes, dragons — is a total gut punch. It takes your breath away. It takes you right back to the day your child died.
This is why a trigger warning would have been helpful. If a trigger warning can apply to suicide, sexual assault and eating disorders, why can’t it apply to birth trauma and the death of an infant? A trigger warning gives the viewer a heads-up, so to speak, and the choice of whether to watch or not.
Since that scene came out of nowhere, with no trigger warning, and with no real value to the plot, viewers like me were taken by surprise. (Thankfully, I watched the season premiere a day late, so I already knew about the forced C-section before watching that episode. I left the room for part of it).
In a society that is so uncomfortable with grief in general, and even more so when that grief comes from losing a child, the callous way this show has handled infant and maternal death is appalling.
“This show has simply replaced gratuitous sexual violence with gratuitous birth trauma, exchanging one type of horror some women experience for another.”
Not only did the graphic details feel egregious and sensational, but the portrayal felt unrealistic. For instance, Rhaenyra seems barely scathed after her child’s death because she knows she must do her duty and consider battle and her claim to the throne. She’s even crowned during her child’s funeral. Yeah, right. I don’t care what your sense of duty is — if your baby has just died, you’re not immediately plotting your next move toward the throne. Or toward anything, for that matter.
You’re holding them for as long as you can — it’s the only time you’ll ever have on this earth. And for me, weeks later, getting out of bed in the morning was still a small feat. Eleven months out, I still have days when getting out of bed seems like too much to ask.
“House of the Dragon” showrunners claimed in August that their new show would portray less sexual violence than its predecessor, “Game of Thrones.”
Ryan Condal said, “The particular way that we’ve approached it in this time is making sure that whenever you’re going to have any kind of ... sex or violence on screen, that there’s a compelling story reason for it, and that it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s not being done gratuitously or to titillate or anything like that.”
This statement now seems laughable. Did that scene really propel the show’s narrative in a meaningful way? This show has simply replaced gratuitous sexual violence with gratuitous birth trauma, exchanging one type of horror some women experience for another.
Some might argue that at the end of the day, this is a fantasy show, and it doesn’t really matter how these issues are portrayed. I would say that it absolutely does. The media we consume shapes our attitudes. It also reflects our values. So, what does it say about us when we venerate TV shows that fetishize women’s birth trauma and suffering? Especially given our current political climate, this type of content is irresponsible.
So I’ll say this: Shame on you, HBO. Shame on you for not including an easy and obvious trigger warning. Shame on you for your false pretenses that this show would be less gratuitous in depicting violence inflicted on women. Shame on you for the way you portray women’s lives and our complex emotions and experiences.
To quote that other dragon show of yours: Shame, shame, shame.