Well do I remember my excitement when the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones was first announced. As a dyed-in-the-wool fantasy nerd and a reader of the series from its late ‘90s inception, I thought its translation to the screen was a no-brainer: With Martin’s iconic characters, vivid world, and film-ready dialogue, HBO was handed a cinematic gift on a platter. I went on to defend the show from the initial snobbery with which it was received by critics, most notably by Ginia Bellafante of The New York Times, in a Huffington Post essay that went viral. And for a while there I felt vindicated, as the first couple of seasons of the show did ample justice to the books.
It was sometime in the third season—maybe when Theon Greyjoy was being castrated and tortured for what felt like hours—that I turned to my husband and mused, “You know… I’m not enjoying this.” The castration scene, which is nowhere to be found in the books, was hardly the first of its kind: The showrunners seem to delight in presenting pain and suffering in graphic detail. The gleeful sadism of this particular scene—in which Theon is teased into an eager erection by a couple of temptresses as an unwitting prelude to his castration—was the straw that began to break me. I started to notice that more and more, the showrunners were eschewing Martin’s smart dialogue. I noticed that most scenes between two characters had a tendency to end with either a stabbing or a sex act, with numbing predictability. I noticed showrunner David Benioff’s comment in an interview: “Themes are for eighth grade book reports.” And I sure as hell noticed the choice of the showrunners, independent of George R.R. Martin, to depict the rape of Sansa Stark. I began to realize that for all the sex and torture in HBO’s Game of Thrones, its sensibility was that of a teenage sociopath. It had no maturity and no soul.
The realization was a crushing disappointment. I’m a sucker for everything epic fantasy aspires to do and be; I get chills during the Game of Thrones opening credits—easily the best part of the show—for the sheer intensity and scope they promise. If the show had delivered on that promise, no one would have been more delighted than me. But: “Themes are for eighth grade book reports.” OK, then. Message received.
Some time later, when a friend told me to watch Netflix’s The Dragon Prince, I thought it would be—I don’t know, cute; it’s a kids’ cartoon.
The Dragon Prince begins like a traditional fantasy narrative: a conflict between nations based on past wrongs, some scheming for the throne, and the numinous presence of a magic that can be used for good or ill. The primary protagonists are a couple of young princes, who become embroiled in a plot involving possible war after their father, the king, is murdered by the enemy nation.
Here’s what makes The Dragon Prince a show for kids: There is no sex, no graphic violence, and—so far, at least—nothing too terrible happens to the protagonists. There is an adorable animal companion. Oh, and no one says “fuck.”
Yet despite the show’s PG rating, it’s mature as hell. The hallmark of immaturity is a tendency to oversimplify. The Dragon Prince does the opposite with its characters, whose complexity can compete with the characterization of many adult television shows. Maybe it’s the consequence of not having the option to torture people horribly (or shoot nude prostitutes full of arrows—thanks for the memories, Joffrey!), but The Dragon Prince turns this seeming limitation to its advantage: No one is purely evil in this story. The characters that do terrible things contrive to justify themselves in ways that are almost convincing. We’re not talking about the villains of superhero shows who always have a “motive” that usually makes no sense. (How was the Daredevil villain going to “save Hell’s Kitchen” with human trafficking? Just kidding, I don’t want to know.) The people who commit villainous acts in The Dragon Prince contend with genuine inner conflict, and manage to do just as many good deeds to balance the bad to the point that it can all become… confusing, in the best possible way. Just when you think you know what to expect of a character, you’re introduced to a new angle, a new element of backstory.
And a funny thing about themes in stories is this: They don’t exist simply to be unearthed by obedient students for book reports. They’re not the literary equivalent of eating your vegetables. A work that grapples with the hard truths that confront us on a daily basis tends to result in a more complex, unpredictable, emotionally hard-hitting story—because the truths about the world are inherently complex and often there’s no straightforward bromide that solves them. Now, take a fantasy that grapples with real questions, real challenges, and the potential for powerful storytelling is off the hook.
When The Dragon Prince takes on themes of power, identity, political complexity, and relationships, it’s with the accentuated impact of the fantastic. While there’s a pleasurable sense of wonder to exploring the magic as its layers are steadily revealed, magic fulfills a significant thematic purpose. Magic is presented as an unnatural act for humans, involving killing animals and succumbing to dark powers. It functions as a temptation both for the villain and the protagonist, but also a possible means of redemption and self-discovery. And as a series of wrenching scenes in the second season drive home, magic can present deceptively simple solutions to moral dilemmas.
What begins as a simple quest to prevent a war expands over time. We see that the stage for this story is vast; that past events have rendered the present more complicated than we recognized, at first . In that way, it’s like the world we live in. As in our world, it is perilous to forget history, but equally perilous to cling to it too much. As in our world, the people who believe in simple, easy solutions for the world’s ills are not only wrong, but dangerous.
In the second season I was moved to tears more than once by what is ostensibly a children’s TV show. The questions it poses have no easy answers. One clear value runs throughout—that of compassion. The only clear-cut wrong is to do harm to others. Everything else, from war to famine to the decisions of rulers, is presented in shades of grey. Watch to feel deeply, to wrestle with conflicting ideas, and be swept up in enchantment. In other words, watch The Dragon Prince to get the best of what epic fantasy can achieve.
Ilana C. Myer has worked as a journalist in Jerusalem and a cultural critic for various publications. As Ilana Teitelbaum she has written book reviews and critical essays for The Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and the Huffington Post. Last Song Before Night was her first novel, followed by Fire Dance. She lives in New York. Find her on Twitter @IlanaCT.