I Don’t Like it When the Dragons Get Hurt

‘Game of Thrones’ reminded us that all men must die; ‘House of the Dragon’ is teaching us that many dragons must die, too. But we don’t have to like it.

HBO/Ringer illustration

Spoiler warning

At the end of this week’s episode of House of the Dragon, Rook’s Rest and its environs are a smoking ruin. Hundreds of soldiers on both sides of the conflict lie dead or dying: crushed, scalded, or utterly incinerated. On a human level, it may be for the best that two of the beasts capable of creating such carnage are also incapacitated. Yet, as a human, I must admit that my sympathies don’t really lie with my melted fellow men. My main emotional response to “The Red Dragon and the Gold” pertains to its titular mounts. I don’t like it when the dragons get hurt.

When I remember the battle at Rook’s Rest, it won’t be primarily for Rhaenys resigning herself to death. It won’t be for a crispy King Aegon looking like Anakin on Mustafar. It certainly won’t be for Criston Cole possibly suffering a concussion. It will be for Sunfyre yelping in pain after getting clawed by Meleys, then screaming and smoldering as he falls. Or, moments later, Meleys—Vhagar’s jaws clamped around her neck—taking one last, devoted, apologetic look at Rhaenys before the light fades from her eyes and she plummets lifelessly to the ground. Yes, I felt worse for the dragon whose corpse crashed into Rook’s Rest than for the many members of House Staunton who were smooshed by said corpse.

I also felt worse for the dragons than I did for their riders—though the dragons made me care about the riders’ deaths more than I otherwise would’ve. House of the Dragon’s monarchs and their minions are mostly tough hangs. Rhaenys, along with her cousin Rhaenyra, was the most sympathetic and competent Targaryen (low bar, I know). Her loss leaves a likeability void. I’ve never rooted for Aegon, a failson whose own family loathes and despises him. Yet his final reunion with Sunfyre—juxtaposed with Rhaenys’s last greeting of Meleys—helped humanize him more than any previous scene. I mean, look at these adorable draggos:

In the seconds before the credits roll, Rook’s Rest is “basically just a collateral damage site,” director Alan Taylor says in the Inside the Episode postscript. But the dragons aren’t just the causes of that damage. They’re casualties, too.

Let’s stipulate that for the average person, dragons don’t make great pets. It’s hard enough to take care of an exotic fish that requires a custom tank, a special diet, and some weird water temperature to survive. That doesn’t even come close to the hassle and expense of semi-domesticating a dragon, partly because, in the latter case, the concern isn’t whether the dragon will survive, but whether you will. To have a hope of pulling it off, you need Valyrian blood, a dragon pit, and enough livestock to impoverish shepherds and goatherds for miles around. Throw in the 77 dragonkeepers—probably non-union jobs with lousy benefits, but still—the fancy saddle, and the liability insurance, and the upkeep is prohibitive.

However, if you happen to belong to a royal line of incestuous, silver-haired despots, dragons make perfect pets/superweapons. You’ll probably still spend enough coin keeping them healthy and happy to bankrupt the realm (if you don’t destroy the realm first), but that’s mostly the smallfolk’s problem. If you’re a Targaryen, the downsides of dragons are limited, and the upsides are obvious: They’re affectionate, they fly, and they strike terror into your subjects’ hearts while literally and figuratively warming your own.

“The Red Dragon and the Gold” didn’t downplay that terror. Dragons are like xenomorphs that aren’t afraid of fire. They aren’t invulnerable, but it takes a lot of luck to bring one down without a dragon of your own. And even if you manage to make them bleed, their blood is liable to burn you.

So yes, dragons may be massive, fire-breathing, mass-murdering monsters, which is why they tend to have nicknames like “The Black Dread,” “The Bronze Fury,” and “The Blood Wyrm,” instead of, say, “Mr. Scales.” But it still makes me sad when they suffer because, fundamentally, dragons are dogs.

Think about it: They bond deeply with their owners. They’re loyal and obedient (well, mostly). They … wear collars? See—exactly like dogs! They’re a Targaryen’s (and no one else’s) best friend. Maybe I’m biased because my own dog, a miniature dachshund with a Thrones-inspired name, is (on a much smaller scale) undeniably dragonlike—long, thin, hot to the touch, and quick to curl up on her hoard of stolen tennis balls, like Smaug on his mound of dwarven treasure. But basically, dragons are dogs, which means deep down, they’re good girls and boys.

Dragons may be dicks to everyone other than their riders, but that’s partly because non-riders haven’t gotten to know them. Admittedly, dragons make that difficult by biting, burning, and stomping people. Generally, though, adult dragons don’t hunt humans unless they’re threatened. It takes a Targaryen dropping a dracarys or an angōs to get them really riled up. Maybe I sound like some sort of dragonriding rights activist—dragons don’t kill people, dragonriders do!—but in this case, it’s kind of true.

Maybe, then, dragons get a bad rap because Targaryens are twisted tyrants who tend to use their pets to kill, conquer, and subjugate instead of just taking joyrides, accepting nuzzles, and dispensing scritches like any sensible dragonrider would. After all, some dogs may grow vicious if they’re trained to be, but we don’t blame those dogs for their humans’ misdeeds; we lament that they were mistreated. It’s not these dragons’ fault that they were hatched to the dragon-rearing equivalents of Michael Vick. I’m not holding Vhagar responsible for following Aemond’s murderous commands. In fact, I’m wondering, Won’t somebody please patch her poor wings?

Although dragon-on-dragon violence isn’t solely a product of Targaryen cruelty—see the wild dragon “Cannibal”—we know that #NotAllDragons are prone to attacking their own kind. Some dragons are sweet! Consider Silverwing and Vermithor, who were bound to sibling-spouses Good Queen Alysanne and Jaehaerys the Conciliator, respectively. The two dragons were raised in the Red Keep rather than the Dragonpit, to keep them close to their riders, and they led largely peaceful lives during Jaehaerys’s relatively conflict-free reign. Fire & Blood notes that “Silverwing and Vermithor oft coiled about one another.” Aww.

As of Season 2 of House of the Dragon, the two besties, now riderless and blissfully free, are just chilling together in the caverns of Dragonstone, not bothering anyone or being bothered. Skip this short excerpt from Fire & Blood if you don’t want to know what fate befalls them:

On the morning after the battle, the Conquerors of Tumbleton looked out from the town walls to find their foes gone. The dead were strewn all around the city, and amongst them sprawled the carcasses of three dragons. One remained: Silverwing, Good Queen Alysanne’s mount in days of old, had taken to the sky as the carnage began, circling the battlefield for hours, soaring on the hot winds rising from the fires below. Only after dark did she descend, to land beside her slain cousins. Later, singers would tell of how she thrice lifted Vermithor’s wing with her nose, as if to make him fly again, but this is most like a fable.

Is it really a fable, or are people just not used to seeing tender dragons because most Targaryens don’t raise them right? As A Song of Ice and Fire scholar Zach Kram told me, “Forget all the humans, that last line is the saddest sentence in all of Fire & Blood.”

Dragons died in Game of Thrones, too, but at least Viserion and Rhaegal were killed quickly, by sharp objects, before plunging into watery graves (albeit a temporary one, in Viserion’s case). They weren’t ordered to attack each other, and they didn’t get torn limb from limb or feel long-lasting discomfort.

Similarly, the bloody death of Arrax (along with Lucerys) in HotD’s Season 1 finale was mercifully brief.

Now, the depictions of graphic dragon anguish are ramping up along with the war. This is all the more tragic because after 80 years of peace, most of the Targaryens’ dragons aren’t conditioned for combat; Fire & Blood notes that Meleys, for one, has “grown lazy.” (Rhaenys says Meleys is “no stranger to battle,” a direct quote from the novella The Princess and the Queen, but that line doesn’t appear in Fire & Blood’s expanded retelling of the novella’s story, and it’s unclear how much Meleys could have fought.) Daemon and Rhaenyra’s dragons, Caraxes and Syrax, used to race each other for fun; now their only occupations are intimidation and defense. Of course, these dragon duels and deaths are supposed to be sad (as well as cinematic). Their pain is part of the fallout of this internecine struggle, and a key component of the series’ convey the senseless civil war. Mission accomplished, creators.

In 2020, behavioral scientist Clive Wynn told me, “If you’re watching fiction, then you take the death of people for granted, whereas the death of an animal somehow breaks through that fictional lightness.” This effect apparently applies even to fictional animals that lack real-life equivalents. I talked to Wynn for a story about humans’ attachment to fictional dogs, as evidenced by “Does the Dog Die?”, the crowdsourced site whose users warn others about dog deaths in media. The mandate of “Does the Dog Die?” has expanded over time: It now provides many other kinds of content warnings. In the “animals” category, only four species’ deaths are specifically flagged: dogs, cats, horses … and dragons. Site creator John Whipple says the “a dragon dies” warning was added in 2018, late in Thrones’s run. It’s come in handy during HotD.

Recently, scientists discovered that a small herd of woolly mammoths survived on an island north of Siberia until roughly 4,000 years ago, long after their brethren were wiped out everywhere else. The Targaryen dragons that survived the Doom on Dragonstone—and their riders, for that matter—remind me of those mammoths of Wrangel Island: isolated, inbred, and barely staving off oblivion. It’s not as if we’ve spent enough screen time with these dragons to get all that attached to them individually; sometimes I forget which is which! But when they bite it—or each other—I’m still sorry to see them go. Game of Thrones reminded us that all men must die; House of the Dragon is teaching us that many dragons must die, too. But we don’t have to like it.

The most upvoted comment on HotD’s “Does the Dog Die?” entry for “a dragon dies” ends with a warning: “More dragons will die as the series goes on.” It took a few episodes this season, but that prediction is coming to pass. Now, I’m not going full PETA here—I know no actual dragons were harmed in the making of HotD. (No actual Targaryens or members of House Staunton were, either.) And unlike some—well, at least one—of my colleagues, I wasn’t moved to tears for the fallen dragons. But I sure felt a twinge, or possibly a pang.

There is something beautiful about dragons meeting in midair, but “dance” is a euphemism. This is the death of the dragons—a near-extinction event, as we know from Thrones. And odds are it’s only going to get grislier. Snuggle your dragons while you still can.

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