Many eons ago, back in the show’s watercooler heyday, I hosted an annual Game of Thrones pub quiz. Every year, the most popular round was the same: Name That Bum. The round involved projecting giant screenshots of isolated arses – Daenerys Targaryen’s pre-bath buttock-flash, Khal Drogo’s ponytail-swishing full moon – on the wall and asking the audience to name the proud owner. Well, it’s fortunate that no one’s asked me to host a House of the Dragon quiz yet, because the round would last approximately 30 seconds and the answer would be Matt Smith.
Of course, we’re only three episodes in to this intriguing but thus-far rather pensive prequel, so anything could still happen and probably will. But by the third episode of Game of Thrones we’d already borne witness to an entire generation of rutting Lannister siblings, the ludicrously shag-happy alfresco wedding of Daenerys and Drogo and an absurd amount of background action at two pillow houses. So far in House of the Dragon, there’s been one decidedly awkward sequence in a house of ill repute, one brief moment of sexposition between Prince Daemon (Smith) and his paramour Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), which seemed to exist solely so rabid Doctor Who fans could live out their dream of seeing the erstwhile Time Lord’s alien bumcheeks, and one pornographic tapestry hanging in the quarters of the irksome Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans).
How long is this state of affairs expected to last? Will King Viserys (Paddy Considine) suddenly shrug off those weighty robes and show off his royal seat? Will newest heart-throb Fabien Frankel, who plays Ser Criston Cole, give viewers a glimpse beneath his white cloak and shiny armour? And does anyone actually want them to? The answers: probably no, probably yes, and well, it’s complicated.
Because let’s face it, times have changed. A decade ago, when Game of Thrones first aired, the world was a more furtive, slightly creepier place. The sight of regular, explicit nudity on screen – especially in a medieval fantasy show – was still a novelty, and for many viewers and critics it made the series feel fresh, audacious, even a bit grown up, unlike those other sword-and-sorcery franchises with their cheery hobbits and easy moral certitude. Chucking in more “challenging” elements like incest, prostitution and forced marriage made the show seem bolder.
But from the start, Game of Thrones was making a rod for its own back. In the very first episode, in a change from George RR Martin’s source novel, Daenerys isn’t just seduced by her new husband, Khal Drogo, she is raped by him – which didn’t stop them forging a close emotional bond over the following episodes. In later series, the trope of using sexual violence as a weapon to shock the audience would be employed mercilessly, from the brutal murder of the sex worker Ros to yet another wedding-night assault committed against one of the series’ few genuinely sympathetic characters, Sansa Stark.
So even if the show’s gleeful penchant for exposed flesh could initially be seen as simple titillation, the increasing ugliness and graphic nature of those scenes soon made that impossible. It didn’t help that the full-frontal nudity tended to be almost exclusively female and often totally gratuitous – did we really need all those scenes of Littlefinger scheming away while naked extras cavorted in the background? By later series, the rise of the #MeToo movement had thrown our discomfort into sharp relief: the show had stopped feeling fearless and started feeling exploitative and crass.
So can House of the Dragon pull it back? Can it make sex a regular part of the show without exploiting its cast and alienating its viewers? They’re definitely going to try: the brothel scene in the first episode proved that the producers feel like gratuitous nudity is as much an integral part of the Game of Thrones experience as daft hair, creative swearing and severed limbs.
But the bigger question is – do viewers want it? Can we wash away the bitter taste left behind by far too many graphic assaults? Could there ever be another Name That Bum round? And perhaps most importantly, will we ever be treated to what would surely be the ultimate Game of Thrones moment – the sight of a Targaryen noble, sword in hand and silver hair streaming proudly, riding their dragon into battle stark naked? That, surely, would be something we could all get behind.