Is "House of the Dragon" Burying Its Gays?

Ollie Upton | HBO
Ollie Upton | HBO

HBO's "House of the Dragon" is not for the faint of heart. There's incest, war, manipulation, traumatic birth, and a lot of violence. But the tragic — and particularly brutal — death of Joffrey Lonmouth in episode five still managed to raise many fans' eyebrows.

If you missed the episode, the basic thrust of the storyline is that princess and heir apparent Rhaenyra Targaryen (a distant ancestor of "Game of Thrones" protagonist Daenerys Targaryen) is set to marry Laenor Velaryon, the heir to Driftmark (and Rhaenyra's second cousin). The match is advantageous to both houses, and the couple come to a comfortable agreement: they will have children and marry for duty but are free to have lovers as they see fit.

This agreement is initially beneficial to both parties, as Rhaenyra is sleeping with her sworn knight Criston Cole (and has a whole thing going on with her uncle, Daemon), and Laenor, her future husband, is gay.

Following the conversation between Rhaenyra and Laenor, we see the heir to Driftmark with his lover, Joffrey. In a scene that feels notably soft for "House of the Dragon," a series that thus far has largely portrayed its characters having sex out of duty, obedience, and political manipulation rather than for pleasure, Laenor and Joffrey kiss on the sand dunes near Laenor's home and celebrate their good luck: not only can they stay together, but Laenor's intended seems to both know and accept that he prefers men.

But by the end of the episode, the scene feels more of a bait-and-switch, as what had seemed to be the introduction of a loving relationship ends with Joffrey brutally beaten to death by Cole in a rage.

That type of about face isn't atypical for "House of the Dragon." Across the board, the series plays with viewers' (and characters') expectations. After King Viserys sacrifices his wife to keep his infant son alive in childbirth, the baby's death is abruptly and shockingly revealed when viewers see the tiny body alongside his mother's funeral pyre, for instance. Other characters are often killed within just minutes of being introduced, including Daemon's wife Lady Rhea in the same episode.

But what feels different about Joffrey's death is that these characters were queer and, momentarily, happy. In media, a common plot trajectory is to "bury your gays" — what scholar Haley Hulan describes as a literary trope where "a same-gender couple and with one of the lovers dying and the other realizing they were never actually gay, often running into the arms of a heterosexual partner."

In recent years, "bury your gays" has been less about returning to heterosexuality and more defined by tragedy, as with the CW's "The 100" or AMC's "The Walking Dead." After the former show killed off beloved queer character Lexa, several television writers and producers even created a pledge saying that they, among other things, "refuse to kill a queer character solely to further the plot of a straight one." And in case you're thinking these deaths are simply a coincidence, Autostraddle did a round-up of 225 dead lesbian and bisexual characters on TV.

The trope hurts queer viewers beyond just a fondness for a show's characters. The message is clear: you can be gay, but don't expect a happy ending. And after repeated exposure to this message, stories like Laenor's and Joffrey's don't feel isolated — it feels like a warning, or sometimes even a threat. Not to mention that queer representation on screen is limited enough; losing queer characters prematurely can be frustrating when they're already in the minority.

But isn't unhappiness, human messiness, ego, and violence the main hinge point of "House of the Dragon"? Certainly no one is actually happy on this show. The King is dying, the patriarchal realm is set to reject Rhaenyra as queen, and marriage is more confinement and political obligation than a commitment of love and trust. Even so, just once it'd be nice to see a queer couple last longer than one episode.