‘House of the Dragon’ 101: What’s up with Targaryen incest?

Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO

Welp, it turns out that what happens on the Street of Silk doesn’t stay on the Street of Silk. 

This week’s "House of the Dragon," "King of the Narrow Sea," delivered the best episode of the series yet, as big political battles gave way to backroom dealings of a very different sort. Depending on how you feel about the episode’s boundary-pushing subject matter, it was either the sexiest or the most uncomfortable hour of the series so far — as young Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock) attempted a thwarted sexual encounter with her (married) uncle Prince Daemon (Matt Smith) only to give her "maidenhood" to her guard Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) instead. You know, the guy who’s taken an oath of chastity.

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So, yes, it was a lot. And while incest is nothing new for the "Game of Thrones" world (the premiere of the original series ended with Bran spotting twin siblings Jaime and Cersei Lannister having sex in a tower), "House of the Dragon" makes a point of noting that the Targaryens have their own "queer customs" when it comes to the topic. So what exactly does that mean? Let’s just say that when it comes to the Targs, an uncle and niece hooking up is barely worth batting an eyelash over. 

Westeros vs. the real world

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Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO

In fact, it’s Targaryen custom to wed brothers and sisters together in order to keep their bloodline "pure" and ensure the family doesn’t lose their special dragon-riding abilities. As Daemon mentions, his great-great grandfather Aegon the Conqueror — the famed warrior who first united Westeros into one big kingdom — was actually married to both of his sisters, the fearsome Visenya and the gentle Rhaenys. 

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Of course, as any Habsburg scholar knows, there’s plenty of real-life historical precedent for royal families keeping things, well, in the family when it comes to politically advantageous marriages. The late Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip were distant cousins. (Funnily enough, Matt Smith played Philip in the first two seasons of "The Crown." Meanwhile, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were just straight-up first cousins — a fact that hasn’t stopped an endless parade of gauzy romantic dramas about their love story. That’s a little more equivalent to what happens at the end of this episode, when Rhaenyra winds up betrothed to her second cousin Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nate) for political reasons. 

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But the Targaryens take things one step further with their sibling marriages, and the practice isn’t without its controversy in Westeros. In fact, in George R.R. Martin’s "Fire & Blood" — the Targaryen historical tome on which "House of the Dragon" is based — sibling marriages cause a whole lot of drama in the early days of Targaryen rule. 

A Doctrine of Exceptionalism

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Photograph by Ollie Upton

As we’ve written about before, the Targaryens hail from the now destroyed kingdom of Old Valyria, where sibling marriages (and the occasional plural marriage) were common. But when they established themselves as the rulers of Westeros, the locals weren’t so thrilled with a practice they viewed as deeply sinful. Aegon’s son Aenys was essentially rejected by the kingdom for wedding his two oldest children together. And the next monarch, King Jaehaerys (the "old king" we briefly saw in the "House of the Dragon" premiere) faced major pushback from his advisors when he secretly married his younger sister Alysanne.

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That’s when the Targaryens came up with a get-out-of-jail-free card they call the "Doctrine of Exceptionalism." Essentially, Jaehaerys got the Septons of Westeros to declare that while incest is a sin for regular people, the Targaryens have special Valyrian blood that makes them exempt from such concerns. 

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Photograph by Ollie Upton / HBO

From there the practice just kept going. Jaehaerys and Alysanne’s kids Baelon and Alyssa married each other, which is the happy home that produced Daemon and his older brother Viserys (Paddy Considine). Oh and Viserys’ poor doomed wife Aemma (Sian Brooke), who brutally died in childbirth in the series premiere, was his first cousin. Is that more or less weird than his second marriage to his teenage daughter’s best friend? These are the kinds of questions that only a "Game of Thrones" series can raise!

But, yes, the scandal in "King of the Narrow Sea" is more about Rhaenyra’s chastity and the fact that Daemon is already married, rather than their familial relationship — or their age gap, which clearly isn’t something the kingdom has a problem with either. By this point in Westeros history, the Targaryen Doctrine of Exceptionalism is well established. And as readers of "Fire & Blood" know, you can expect more of those exceptions to come. 

"House of the Dragon" airs Sundays on HBO and HBO Max through Oct. 23. Featuring: Milly Alcock, Paddy Considine, Emma D'Arcy, Matt Smith, Emily Carey, Olivia Cooke, Steve Toussaint, Eve Best, Fabien Frankel, Sonoya Mizuno, Rhys Ifans.

For more drama: "Bad Influence," streaming free on Tubi

Bad Influence (2022): Single mom Joan (Jennie Garth, "Beverly Hills, 90210") is overjoyed when her daughter finally makes friends at her new high school. Soon, however, it becomes clear that this group of students follow their own moral code that’s strange, self-centered and possibly dangerous. "Bad Influence" is a Tubi Original. Rated TV-14. 89 minutes. Dir: William Corcoran. Featuring: Jennie Garth, Kayleigh Shikanai, Devin Cecchetto, Vinson Tran, Christian Martyn, Austin Ball, Pamela Johnson, Kudakwashe Rutendo.

"Bad Influence" is streaming for free on Tubiget the app

About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she spent four years lovingly analyzing the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her column When Romance Met Comedy for The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).

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