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HBO is trying so hard to make a Game of Thrones spinoff work

Three new series in development show the difficulty of recreating success

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It’s been two years since Game of Thrones ended its landmark eight-season run, leaving a void that HBO, frankly, couldn’t be more desperate to fill. The network’s manic search began in 2017, before the seventh season even premiered, when the network announced that not one, but five spinoff shows were in development. But only one of those developing shows ever made it to the pilot phase, and it was promptly canned along with the others. Further announcements followed: A series based on author George R.R. Martin’s Dunk and Egg novellas, an animated series for HBO Max, and one show that does appear to be getting made, House of the Dragon, a prequel set to arrive in 2022. HBO isn’t interested in just one successor, though. It wants Seven Kingdoms’ worth of content — and so this week, news broke of three more Thrones projects. With so many spinoffs in the works and nothing but the original series to go off of, it’s worth asking: What would even make for a good Game of Thrones spinoff?

The simple answer, of course, is that no one knows. The next hit is often nothing like the one before it — by the time Lost ended in 2010, countless dramas mimicking its mythology-driven mystery were already struggling for attention and failing. One year later, Game of Thrones debuted in a world that was almost certain no one would watch a gritty epic-fantasy series on a prestige subscription network. But with a little bit of distance and a whole lot more of the World of Ice and Fire coming our way, it’s worth thinking about what we now think of when we think Game of Thrones — what is that bloody, murderous je ne sais quoi audiences may want more of?

Consider the three new projects: One, under the working title 10,000 Ships, is about the warrior-queen Princess Nymeria, who founded Dorne. Another is set in Flea Bottom, the slum of King’s Landing that viewers got to see throughout the original series. The third and reportedly furthest along is tentatively called 9 Voyages, and about Corlys Velaryon, a legendary sailor from Game of Thrones history.

We don’t know what shape these will take — they could be movies, limited series, or ongoing shows with aspirations to run long. (9 Voyages, the only project with a developer attached, is under Bruno Heller, whose previous shows include The Mentalist and Gotham.) But they all seem to be after a very different flavor than the epic fantasy of Game of Thrones, likely because House of the Dragon, which will follow the Targaryen family 300 years before the events of the show, is meant to be the home for that classic Thrones feel, while everything else expands in different directions.

This feels like a very Marvel Studios approach to a franchise, but as we’ve seen plenty of times, the Marvel approach isn’t applicable to every seemingly rich setting. It’s worth noting that all the projects publicly known about — whether they’re canned, in development, or on the way — are prequels. On one level, this makes sense; that’s where all the unadapted material about Westeros lies. But it’s hard to build momentum with prequels. Anticipation is what fuels Marvel’s successes and papers over its weaknesses. And outside of that, a strong sense of identity and the developing stories of familiar characters keep fans invested. If none of those things are on the table, what’s left to make a good Game of Thrones show?

Is it sprawl? The fact that Game of Thrones was vast enough to contain a multitude of micro-shows, from family drama to political thriller to war epic? Maybe it was the mystery, the way it was adapting an unfinished popular work, and had to provide answers fans had only guessed at? Or is it something more cynical, the way no character felt safe and anyone could die at any moment? All of these things feel core to the Game of Thrones experience, but none of them are unique to Game of Thrones. All three of these characteristics can also be found in, for example, The Walking Dead — a show currently attempting to sustain a pair of dubious spinoffs, even though it’s a shadow of its former self.

The future of Game of Thrones is an interesting puzzle that crystallizes what it takes to make expensive, buzzy TV right now. In the best possible outcome, these new spinoffs all happen, but they’re Game of Thrones shows in name only, and in practice just a way to sneak, for example, an expensive pirate show into a TV industry that’s now almost entirely geared toward existing intellectual property. In the darkest timeline, it’s a parade of cynically engineered shows that attempt to recreate the feeling of their parent show in superficial ways: all that sprawl, violence, sex, and lore that might prove entertaining, but might also just loop us back around to where we started.

This is another reason why the fictional history of Game of Thrones is a perplexing thing to mine. In the end, it was a story about how cycles of violence perpetuate themselves on a grand scale, and it was at its most interesting when it followed characters who wanted to break the cycle. When they finally did, the fans weren’t happy — but they clearly objected more to the execution than to the resolution. Ultimately, any new Game of Thrones show will face the same barriers: No matter how the audience feels about the story concept, it won’t work unless there’s an equally compelling idea at its core, like the eponymous “game” that summed up the endless machinations of the original show. Chasing that high is a hell of a gamble — everyone wants more of the thing they love, but they aren’t going to forget how much it burned them the first time around.

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