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House of the Dragon's Sex Scenes Are Unsexy by Design

In Season 2, no one looks at their lover with desire because they're more focused on regaining control.
  • Fabien Frankel and Olivia Cooke in House of the Dragon (Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO)
    Fabien Frankel and Olivia Cooke in House of the Dragon (Photo: Ollie Upton/HBO)

    In 2011, HBO’s Game of Thrones debuted with dragons, a stellar ensemble cast, and an air of unexpectedness that made it clear no character was safe. But it eventually became known as much for its excessive amount of sex scenes as its gratuitous violence. The series frequently featured characters having sex on screen, and even when they weren’t, women were often seen naked or scantily clothed in the background purely for titillation purposes — a schtick that quickly became old.

    Thankfully, the creative team behind House of the Dragon — led by Ryan Condal and, in Season 1, Thrones alum Miguel Sapochnik — seems to have realized this, and featured a limited amount of intimate scenes in the first season of the spin-off series. Season 2 of HOTD marks another departure for the franchise — the sex scenes are more plentiful while also being much more purposeful.

    In the Season 2 premiere, Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) and Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) returned to our screens in a way that shocked viewers. Though they have been working together since Rhaenyra (then played by Milly Alcock) rejected Criston in the middle of Season 1,  a more intimate relationship between the two was only speculated upon by a subsection of fans. “A Son for a Son” re-introduces the scheming pair with a close-up of Alicent’s ecstatic face, before the camera quickly pans out to show Criston kneeling beneath her dress. 

    It’s a shocking moment at first glance, as it feels like there was no setup for it, but once you consider the psyches of both of these characters, it makes an incredible amount of sense. Season 2 picks up 10 days after the Season 1 finale, meaning that Alicent’s husband Viserys I Targaryen (Paddy Considine) has been dead for a little over a week. She was pushed into marrying the king as a teenager, and this sex scene with Criston is the first example of Alicent experiencing not only sexual autonomy, but agency. 

    As Alicent begins to lose control over the life she once knew, as well as the power she has over her sons Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Aemond (Ewan Mitchell), she tries to regain it through her relationship with Criston. Though she tells him that they cannot do “this again,” the two are seen having sex yet again in the episode's final moments. Each time the war between the Greens and the Blacks slips through Alicent’s fingers, she engages in sex with Criston nearly moments after, proving that in House of the Dragon, sex and power go hand in hand. 

    Both Alicent and Criston believe they have no one else who understands them — and that the other is the only person they can control. Criston’s previous romance with Rhaenyra was forbidden, but it also led him to break his knightly vows and sully the rank of the Kingsguard (though, for now, his shame remains private). Now, as the war intensifies, and Criston becomes a worse version of himself, he abandons his previous caution to seek control in a place where he feels nearly powerless. Shame and guilt is what brought them together, and it's not surprising that their shame-filled bond would turn into some sick idea of romance. 

    Alicent’s son Aemond (Ewan Mitchell) is also using sex as a means of seeking control. In Episode 2, “Rhaenyra the Cruel,” he is with brothel madam Sylvi (Michelle Bonnard), who was revealed to have taken his virginity when he was still a child after being paid by his brother Aegon. While we don’t see them having sex, we see the immediate aftermath: Aemond lays in her lap, naked and strangely exposed as she comforts him. It’s here that he admits he does indeed feel guilt over killing his nephew Lucerys (Elliot Grihault), but it's only after sex that he is vulnerable enough to utter this. 

    Aemond is one of the show's biggest mysteries, but here we finally get a look into who he is outside of being his family’s protector. He clearly thinks he cannot show this side of himself to his family, so he seeks out someone with no connection to the Targaryens or Hightowers, and seemingly very little influence. His reaction to Sylvi’s presence in Season 1 is that of a scared boy: He looks down at the ground when she remarks “See how you’ve grown,” as if he’s afraid of her. 

    That interaction is completely different than the ones they have in Season 2, and it's clear that the guilt of Luke’s death has caused Aemond to seek out Sylvi — just like his mother sought out Criston. By sleeping with his first sexual partner again, Aemond is also reclaiming a sense of control that was initially taken away from him. His first encounter with Sylvie was nonconsensual (certainly by today’s standards), but by going back to her on his own terms, he ensures that neither Aegon nor Sylvie wields any power over him. Aemond drives the transformation of their relationship, which gives him space to be more than just someone's protector. 

    The way sex is portrayed in House of the Dragon is startlingly different from how it was showcased in the series’s predecessor, and it’s a welcomed change. In all of these cases, it’s clear that no one’s heart is truly in it. None of these characters stare hungrily at the people they’re having sex with. Instead, they look at their lovers with a sense of despair, as if the act and who they’re doing it with brings them pain. Yet when they’re over, Alicent, Criston, and Aemond leave these encounters with their backs held a bit straighter, as if, in these hidden encounters, they have regained a sense of control in their lives that continue to unravel under the weight of a war.

    New episodes of House of the Dragon drop Sundays at 9:00 P.M. ET on HBO and Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Kaiya Shunyata is a freelance TV critic and pop culture writer from Canada.

    TOPICS: House of the Dragon, HBO, Game of Thrones, Ewan Mitchell, Fabien Frankel, Olivia Cooke, Ryan Condal