The Uncertain Future of Game of Thrones

HBO renewed the highly successful ‘Game of Thrones’ with two seasons. The show scored HBO’s highest rated episode since ‘The Sopranos’ went off the air with the season four premiere. That doesn’t even include the millions of viewers who watch through alternative channels. Meanwhile the show’s marketing reaches the far corners of the earth and the dozens of actors are upgraded to the higher levels of stardom. ‘Game of Thrones’ is a global phenomenon in every way. Rightfully so. It’s one of the most consistent shows in quality on television. Last season’s unprecedented climax sent fans screaming into their pillows. The new season is as anticipated as the Super Bowl or a Hunger Games sequel. There seems to be no end to the show’s success. Yet, the future of the show is worrisome to say the least.

<i>Personally, I have only read halfway through the first novel in the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series, so this column will most definitely not spoil future episodes. It solely focuses on the behind the scenes issues. That does mean there are some small reveals about the story structure, though not the actual story. Reading is at your own risk. If you have read the books, please refrain from spoiling them in the comment section.</i>

Anyone who has seen the premiere ‘Two Swords’ knows that it was primarily a re-introduction to the current state of story lines. From the fans there’s a consensus that this is probably for the best. ‘Game of Thrones’ viewers know by now that patience will be rewarded. The loyalty to and faith in the showrunners by the fans is remarkable. Yes, the show takes its sweet time but does anyone care if the journey itself is so satisfying? In that regard, writer George R. R. Martin finds himself in a very fortunate, if not well earned, place. He draws out the map and producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss follow him faithfully. What keeps me awake at night is that we only have ten episodes a season. The penultimate episode is designed to blow your brains out. The last one eases into a set-up to next season. Ten episodes and the writers aren’t wary in using one of them as a reminder of what we already know. Even if it’s a job that’s sufficiently done by entertainment sites and HBO specials in the weeks leading up to the premiere.

It’s a public concern that Martin has yet to finish the book series on which the show is based on. For a while now he promises ‘The Winds of Winter’ is nearly finished. Even though there’s already a chapter online, fans are sceptic. Understandably so. Between each of the first three books there were roughly two years. Five years later book four arrived. Another six years later book five was done. That happened “only” three years ago. Martin takes his time and by the old gods and new, I say: fine. If the story can remain as detailed and unpredictable as it has been, Martin should take all the time he needs. Were it not that he simply doesn’t have it. I am but one of the millions of fans who are already having withdrawals when the show leaves us for nine months a year. Season four kicks off with the second part of book three. That leaves us with two books to cover before we need book six. No wonder HBO believes there are easily two more seasons to go.

Now things are looking dim. It must be said book five is significantly bigger than its predecessors. It could easily take up a season, if not two. I read here and there [minor spoiler] that book four departs all story lines and introduces brand new characters. The show’s mythology will vastly broaden. For those of us waiting for Khaleesi’s dragons to take over King’s Landing, that’s mighty unfortunate news. For the show’s creators that is both good and bad news. Good because it gives them the opportunity to take more time and space to fill up the upcoming seasons. Bad because the production has to grow in size. ‘Game of Thrones’ has the largest cast on television. It also has one of the largest budgets (HBO remains silent on the numbers, but you can bet it rivals that of summer blockbusters). The show films in three locations spread over Europe for a large chunk of the year. More locations and actors and an even larger budget are hard to imagine. Though HBO and the producers must have figured it out otherwise the two season deal wouldn’t have been closed. The show has 42 actors under contract for season four. That’s a lot of money for putting actors on hold were the show to follow the books and put current stories on hold. It’s not going to happen. Then there’s that other problem. The kids are growing up. Though ‘Game of Thrones’ has little issues with recasting roles (hello new Tommen), no one else will play Arya other than Maisie Williams. Not gonna happen. But Williams is hardly the little rascal she was in the show’s pilot. There’s no other way the show is going to leave current events and spend a season abroad. The only viable option is to combine book four and five and fill the upcoming seasons slightly different from the books.

That all seems rather logical and even workable. HBO seems to believe in it. But where does the show go beyond season six? Recently the show’s maesters talked to Vanity Fair. ‘Last year we went out [..] to sit down with him and just talk through where thing are going, because we don’t know if we are going to catch up and where exactly that would be. If you know the ending, then you can lay the groundwork for it. And so we want to know how everything ends. We want to be able to set things up. So we just sat down with him and literally went through every character.’ Weiss added that he sees the show last for about seven or eight seasons. ‘It doesn’t just keep on going because it can. I think the desire to milk more out of it is what would eventually kill it, if we gave in to that,’ Weiss said. It’s one thing for the creators to not want to continue for too long, stretching the show out like so many others. It’s another to wrap up such a rich and long story up within the next four years. Two seasons are definitely on the way, with complicated and big stories to fill them. What’s left for the books that have yet to be published? With some luck part six will be out by the time season six airs. It’s a possibility that it will give the final seasons of the show the narrative it is accustomed to. Book seven on the other hand, will probably never make that deadline.

Recently Martin blurred out some comments concerning ‘Game of Thrones’ films to accommodate the larger scale of the series. That sounds more like a wish fulfillment than a realistic solution. Didn’t Martin, Weiss and Benioff choose for television because the plot was too complex for a two hour movie? Then there are the technical terms of which I know not enough to make correct assumptions. The larger strokes are these: HBO has its most successful show in years. There’s not way the cable network will end the show on its own. I know very little about publishers, but I’m making the wild guess that the publisher behind a successful series such as Ice and Fire won’t give its writer or the producers the blessing to film the plot of the yet to be written climax. Even if Benioff and Weiss go beyond season seven or eight, book seven cannot be filmed the way the others are; translated to the screen with each year one season and ten episodes.

So what’s left? Beats me. Torture me for a season. Chop off my head. No one outside the offices of HBO and the minds of Martin, Benioff and Weiss know enough to confirm the future. Even if they would, they’d be talking about a season that airs in the year 2017. There’s a lot of changes to be made between now and then. Most optimistic guess? ‘Game of Thrones’ adapts the British/‘Mad Men’ route and opts for larger gaps between seasons. Season five and six will be spread out over multiple calendar years, which gives Martin the time to catch up. There will be more seasons than seven or eight and the show will tell the entire story of Ice and Fire the way it always has. That’s the option that is most preferable. Martin certainly aims for it. The reality is a lot less optimistic. Money, actors and just plain productive thinking makes it hard to consider such an outcome. No matter how successful a series is, with this scope it’s unheard of to take such risks. HBO has given a rather lucrative sign of confidence with the season five and six renewal. But how much more money can it possibly put in the hands of Martin? The other option is that Benioff and Weiss find their own way to the end. Martin’s imagery is no longer faithfully adapted to the small screen. The two masterminds know now how the series will end and have a schedule to obey and thus motivation to find a short cut. It’s possible the story will differ little from the books, or maybe Martin will change his way to the end completely. In any way the show and the books have to go their separate ways. It won’t be rushed. Look at the pace, patience and detail with which the show is filled. It seems logical that the show cannot continue until Martin finishes the books. Financially, practically and technically it’s to be expected that Benioff and Weiss write their own way to the ending of ‘Game of Thrones’.

If you disagree about my hypothesis, rest assured. Every presumption I’ve made concerning ‘Game of Thrones’ has been wrong. I’m almost proud to say Benioff, Weiss, Martin & co are far more intelligent than me. For four years they’ve been making one of the most unpredictable shows on television. Wherever this show is going, if winter ever really does come, is for me to guess and for them to know. There’s nothing else to do but to crawl in front of the screen come Sunday and enjoy the steady paced but oh so brilliant stories with no ending in sight.

This column was first published on on April 15th.

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