Do your duty, cause someone has to
House of the Dragon and the sometimes ugly necessity of duty & roles
No well-adjusted grown man wants to marry a 12-year-old girl. I think we can all say this in 2022 with confidence and in perfect harmony, right? Good. We’ve agreed. So, what then are we to make of the fact that in the second episode of House of the Dragon, the new HBO Games of Thrones spinoff, King Targaryen (recently widowed) is wrestling with the prospect of marrying a key ally’s 12-year-old daughter in order to unify their fractious families and project strength to enemies of the throne, and we’re given the distinct impression that Targaryen saying no to this marriage…is probably a mistake?
Every week I watch stuff and look for tidbits of meaning underneath the surface of popular culture, movies, TV shows, and books. In episode two of House of the Dragon, I couldn’t shake the sense that this episode (and the first as well) was all about the sometimes ugly necessity of duty.
Let’s get down to the basics. Game of Thrones, like much of real-world history, is driven by the force of hereditary monarchy…or bloodline succession thrones. Most of us in the modern world look on this system with scorn, I certainly do. But taking it seriously for a moment, once you’re in one of these societies you basically are faced with maintaining it or letting the foundation collapse and allowing civil war, revolution, and strife to take its place. If it fell, maybe something better will come out of the ashes, but there will be ashes (and bones, and skulls, and blood).
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Therefore, we watch charitably a number of TV shows and movies where bloodline succession is a main feature of the times, and arranging for a blood heir with a clear succession claim is of paramount importance. Gaps in succession claims = bloody civil war. Sometimes clear succession claims to do, but less so.
These kinds of stories have a pretty common theme, which is that of duty: A person’s moral or legal responsibilities to those around them. Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen doesn’t want the duties that come with her sex and title in the society in which she was born. Understandable. This is a common theme amongst teenage characters from Holden Caulfield to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Rhaenyra wants to be a fighter and dragon rider, not make babies for the realm. Rhaenyra’s mother told her before dying in childbirth that this was their civilizational duty to birth heirs and it should be done with a stiff upper lip. Her father is clearly soft-hearted and loved his late wife. He wants to marry again along those sentimental lines, or not marry at all.
But he has to. Presented with the hand of Lady Hightower, a more mature young woman who he actually likes, and the young child from the Corlys bloodline, well, he wants what he wants. That thing he wants is genuine connection. He wants love.
Again - the Corlys child is only twelve. Yuck. Targaryen feels this way, the kid feels this way, we feel this way. But it is kind of remarkable that the only person in this scenario who kept their head held high in the process was the young Corlys, who stiffly remarks she wouldn’t bed the king till age 14. Still, ew. But you know, she seems to at least understand the political situation and accept her role in it. That role is to connect great families and thus prevent needless wholesale bloodshed of the innocent. Courage takes many forms, even in unjust systems.
Odds are, civil war is now going to break out within House Targaryen. That’s the whole premise of the show. Perhaps it was unavoidable or perhaps there are things you simply have to do within the system you live within in order to keep things from falling apart.
“Don’t be overheard complaining…Not even to yourself.”
— Emperor Marcus Aurelius, 8.9
The takeaway is this: Do your job. Fulfill your responsibilities. Do your duty and do it with grace. No one wants to hear you complaining about reality. It is what it is. We live in a sort of hyper-progressive cultural moment where the “break the wheel” spirit of Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones very much colors everything consume on TV and talk about.
Be an advocate of change and push for fixes to things that are broken and ugly. But distinguish between that and when other people are counting on you.
We’re looking right now at a very macro, political and societal level duty, that of arranged marriages in the medieval world. But this is a straight line back to your daily life. Wash your dishes. Pay your damn taxes. Starring at your property tax bill won’t make it go away, nor will cursing it. Teach your child and demonstrate decency for them. Forgive your spouse when they make a mistake small or large. You very likely took an actual vow to do this. Get your car’s oil changed and tires aligned regularly Get your dog’s nails trimmed. Your car and dog can’t tend to these things on their own. You have to do it. Even when you’d rather spend the $40 on a new game or a nice dinner.
Do these things and do them with a stiff upper lip. Because there are people counting on you. If not you, then who?
As Lord Corlys says in House of the Dragon, “you can sail through a storm or around it. But you can’t just sit and wait for it to overtake you.”