Jonny Mahon-Heap is a culture reporter for Stuff, intent on burying the “bury your gays” trope for good.
Warning: This story includes spoilers for House of the Dragon season one.
OPINION: Life is fraught in Westeros – what with all the incest, regime change, and fire-breathing dragons – and it’s especially full of strife if you happen to be queer.
HBO’s US$200m (NZD$355m) Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, succumbed to one of television’s most controversial tropes in recent weeks – establishing a beloved queer storyline, before snatching their happiness away, as the couple met their devastating, violent end.
The trope, referred to as “bury your gays”, has become depressingly common in mainstream television or cinema.
It’s popular across the board: in independent film (in the likes of Beach Rats, I Am Jonas, and Holding the Man), Oscar-winners (films such as Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia, and A Single Man), and prestige drama series ( most recently in The 100, Killing Eve, The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy).
The disproportionate deaths of queer people, courtesy of the “bury your gays” trope, sits uncomfortably with LGBTQ+ fans for two reasons.
Firstly, the trope suggests that gay characters are more expendable than their straight counterparts, especially when their death is used for enlightenment or simply to move the chess pieces forward.
Secondly, it suggests that there is something inherently tragic to LGBTQ romance and relationships.
House of the Dragon’s gay problem renewed debate about how queer characters are treated on TV: specifically, the ways they are killed off to advance the core, heterosexual plot.
In House of the Dragon’s ‘We Light the Way’ episode, the “bury your gays” trope is employed with brutal abandon, thanks to the especially violent beatdown death of Ser Joffrey Lonmouth (Solly McLeod).
The plot involved a marriage of convenience between Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) and Laenor Velaryon (Theo Nate) – merging their kingdoms to cement their power, and agreeing to turn the blind eye to each other’s indiscretions.
This would allow Velaryon to continue his relationship with Ser Joffrey Lonmouth – the Princess had a side piece of her own, in the form of knight Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel). When Joffrey informs Criston he knows about their arrangement, all hell breaks loose, and Criston ends up murdering Joffrey in a violent rage.
The trope came into play as a show’s queer characters are often within fingertip’s distance of happiness. Indeed, the show makes Joffrey’s death take place sooner and in a more violent fashion than in George RR Martin’s book.
What makes this feel uncomfortable for LGBT fans is that the attitude is endemic to the Game of Thrones world: Westeros has a well-known problematic track record with queer characters.
Life is cheap in Westeros, but more so for its gay men like Oberyn Martell, Loras Tyrell and King Renly who suffered distinctly more violent deaths. It’s especially strange, given Westeros is a fictional place, so there’s no reason for the same bigotry and homophobia to exist there.
Already, the prequel series centers the misery of women and queer characters: on three separate occasions, we have been shown the brutality of childbirth in especially graphic scenes.
This habit of failing gay characters is distressingly familiar for fans of shows like The 100 or Killing Eve. The latter especially prompted an online outpour for the dispatching Villanelle just as she was rewarded her happy ending. The horrific violence of House of the Dragon makes for an even more ignominious end.
Gay audiences are accustomed to being fed a banquet of crumbs. We watch queer characters exist on the sidelines; we take stock of their furtive glances, their suppressed passions, and their quick embraces, the ones that never fully flourish into outright queer joy.
This idea that the longing, suffering, and tension of queer lives takes place on the margins, and can only result in an unsatisfactory ending ties into conventional wisdom that queer lives are unfulfilled.
The message that it sends is that living openly is a violent delight, due to have a violent end, and that the age-old risks of being open can only ever result in unhappiness.
That’s not to say queer fans are pushing for staid, uneventful plots – by all means, kill the queer characters off too! But when the writing favors unnecessary deaths and needless misery, LGBTQ viewers will demand more carefully considered, nuanced writing – with queer characters that exist for more purposes than to just advance the core, heterosexual plot.
In the case of House of the Dragon, Joffrey’s death, a sadistic and cruel end that culled the series’ first and only queer couple, serves only to advance the chess pieces for the next episode.
Thanks to the emotional outpouring from fans, House of the Dragon may have killed off its only gay characters, but, in so doing, also made them eternal.
Now, let’s bury the ‘bury your gays’ trope for good.