In the show's premiere, "The Heirs of the Dragon," Queen Aemma Arryn (Sian Brooke) died while giving birth to the anticipated heir of King Viserys (Paddy Considine), a baby boy named Baelon. But it was the way she died that was so upsetting (not to mention traumatic) to some viewers. With the baby in a breech position and none of the modern tools available to help get it out, the King was forced to choose: baby or wife.
Viserys chose the baby. Rather than cut away to another scene, the woman was then tied down and cut open, and she begged for her life while her husband watched her die. The cameras captured a surprising amount of detail for such a harrowing death, which also marks the prequel series' first casualty.
According to episode director and co-showrunner Miguel Sapochnik (who also directed notable episodes of Game of Thrones, including "Battle of the Bastards," "The Long Night," and "The Bells"), the crew filmed several versions of the scene, but he felt it was important that the one that made it in was as horrific as it was.
"It seemed important to highlight something that was the most traumatic event — it's kind of what breaks the family apart," he recently told Metacritic and other outlets during a roundtable interview. "We spent a long time trying to make sure we weren't glorifying it — that it was horribly real and that it wasn't excessive in the sense that we weren't dwelling on it."
On the heels of everything that has happened with the overturning of Roe vs Wade, the creatives also feel the scene pinpoints modern trauma and anger over choice and body autonomy.
"We showed it to as many women as possible and asked the very question, 'Was this too violent for you?' And unanimously, the response was no," Sapochnik said.
"Often the response was, 'No, if anything it needs to be more. You shouldn't be shying away from this thing that's happened' because it's raising a point that seems very, to hear, a real trigger for women, which is this idea of choice and that she doesn't get to choose," he added. "She's effectively murdered by her husband and that is a good indication of the state of play in this world that we're inhabiting, where women aren't getting a choice."
That murder is juxtaposed with the equally graphic jousting match between Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) and Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel) in the episode, a purposeful demonstration by Sapochnik and the other creatives to further drive home just how dangerous being pregnant in Westeros can be.
"The birthing bed is almost a battlefield [where] you have a 50-percent chance of survival," he explained. "It seemed like an appropriate time to draw that parallel visually. Between the two, the male and the female struggle, one's fighting on the battlefield, the other is fighting for survival, sometimes from the person closest to her."
Considine revealed that creating the scene was equally intense and everyone was exhausted and emotional after shooting it. However he also shared that some of the things they captured on camera were even worse than what was shown in the final cut.
"It was a lot more broken and a lot more emotional," he said. "Maybe that was too much to show early on."
But as brutal as the scene was, it was an important one for his character because Aemma's death — coupled with the death of her son the next day — sticks with Viserys for a long time.
"It's almost a given that he must produce a male heir, but he puts his wife at risk," he said. "She had miscarriage after miscarriage, and the final [pregnancy] resulted in her death. That's something that profoundly affects him throughout his whole story. So, there are regrets about decisions, and there are regrets about serving the realm and being a king."
And as far as the rest of the story goes, Sapochnik says there will be four distinct birthing scenes in Season 1 and each will have its own specific theme. However, nothing in the show's first season, in his opinion, is as violent as the Aemma's death.
"The most violent thing is what you saw in Episode 1," he said. "The theme for that birth was torture. Then there's a birth where the theme is the agony and the ecstasy; there's a birth where the theme is impasse; and there's a birth where the theme is a battle."
House of the Dragon airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO and also streams on HBO Max.