House of the Dragon’s Red Keep seems so bleak because it’s lost all its dragon sex art

Milly Alcock returned to the role of Rhaenyra Targaryen (via a Harrenhal-induced vision) in the last few episodes of House of the Dragon. And so did the thing the Australian actress once called the most surprising bit of House of the Dragon set design: the pornographic frescoes at the Red Keep.

“We’re walking around. We [Alcock and co-star Emily Carey] look up and we’re like, Huh… that’s interesting,” Alcock said in a 2022 roundtable ahead of the first season. “The tapestries of men and women making love; women and women making love — dragons making love, in the mix as well, with humans there. But like everywhere.”

If watching season 2 (or even season 1) of House of the Dragon didn’t feel like a non-stop parade of dragon sex frescoes, don’t worry; surprisingly they scan as pretty subtle on the show when they do show up, which is increasingly rare. Production designer Jim Clay said this was an intentional choice, in an effort to make it appear as if the luster has left the Red Keep in Aegon’s (and Alicent’s) tenure.

“The Targaryens are a family of immense power, and control, and incest,” Clay told Polygon. “The Red Keep — it was a sort of decadent place under [Viserys]. And then his wife died, and […] Alicent’s influence was a little more puritanical and monastic (despite her own activities).”

A chambermaid walking past a fresco of a bunch of people having orgiastic sex in House of the Dragon episode 1 Image: HBO

King Viserys (Paddy Considine) sitting in his room, with his King’s Landing model in front of him. You can see sex frescoes in the background behind him on the wall of his bedroom
A shot of a pornographic fresco in Queen Aemma’s chambers from the pilot (L), and of the sex art in King Viserys’ in episode 4 of the first season (R).
Image: HBO

The style was like the rest of House of the Dragon’s art, what Clay calls “essentially medieval.” (Though he notes he does “try to introduce elements that are not purely Renaissance, just so we change it up a little bit so it’s not familiar British or European Renaissance buildings.”) He credits season 1 showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik with the idea for the pornographic art as a means for showing how indulgent and even soft life was under Viserys’ rule. But it was Clay who enlisted artist Steve Mitchell to do the artwork for the show.

“Steve can do anything, from a small fresco to a huge, 200-foot-long backdrop,” Clay says of Mitchell’s work (which is also on display behind Harrenhal’s roundtable). Which is good, since they had a lot of ground to cover making King’s Landing feel lush. “It’s quite hard to make a building like that feel decadent because we don’t have art to put around other than the pornographic frescoes.”

Still, even that sort of background “soft furnishing” adds up — and its absence has contributed to the castle feeling more like what it is, and what Clay and his team were initially working to avoid: “a cold, stone castle.” It’s telling that most of the rooms in the Keep are starting to look like Otto Hightower’s more austere living quarters, including the Seven-Pointed Star of the Seven on the walls more prominently than before. It’s his tastes dictating much of the Red Keep’s look, whether he’s Hand to the King or not, with Aegon only on the throne through his manipulation. Even Alicent’s own eremitic style is a product of her father’s manipulation and influence, and the mood of the castle follows suit, leaving the castle more simplified and drab. And consequently, things feel much colder at King’s Landing — from the art on the walls, to the rat catchers hung outside, and the light filtering in through the windows.

Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) standing and looking at his mother (Olivia Cooke). Behind her you can see a wall with some human/dragon sex tapestries
A still from season 2, episode 4, where you still get a bit of House of the Dragon pornographic tapestry energy.
Image: HBO

Such details could be considered a small thing in the background of House of the Dragon’s larger war plot. But losing them communicates volumes about how the Hightowers run this regime, and how they want to move the family forward. This is a removal of lineage, erasing the intricacies (bizarre, commanding, and otherwise) of the Targaryen line in the same way that King Robert in Game of Thrones hid all the dragon skulls when he conquered King’s Landing.

So it makes sense that we see the art linger in one notable place in the most recent episodes of season 2, however nestled they are behind emptied bookshelves: in Aegon’s chambers, formerly Viserys’. There is still a bit of the old ways left in King’s Landing — but unfortunately, as the battle in episode 4 shows, that’s not enough to win a war.