The sensation of dread began to creep up my spine during the last moments of “The Winds of Winter”, Game of Thrones‘ Season 6 finalé, right about when Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) first ascends the Iron Throne after lots of murdering and shoots her bewildered brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in one of the most deliciously tyrannical side eyes in TV history. It wasn’t that I’d been disappointed by the episode. Far from it. It felt shockingly glorious and appropriately destructive (Poor Tommen! Poor Margarey! Poor random King’s Landing folk burning alive in wildfire! Good riddance High Sparrow!). This episode is the best possible conclusion of an immaculately crafted, impeccably paced run of episodes that started with Season 5’s “Hardhome”, where the storylines that had been building for years culminated in an epic series of pitch-perfect twists that were always earned, no matter how unexpected they were. (“Hold the Door!”? Come on!)
The main source of my trepidation was that, with clearly so much plot left (and a self-imposed 13-episode limit on the final two seasons), I couldn’t imagine how showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff would be able to muster the energy to improve upon a cinematic achievement that would have put a serious dent in the creative juices of even the most dedicated filmmaker. As anyone who’s been on the internet in the last few months knows — they didn’t muster the energy. While seasons 7 and 8 were as visually stunning as a $15-million-an-episode show should be, there was a noticeable downturn in the quality of the dialogue and enough lazy storytelling gaffes. There was the awkward and rushed build-up to Littlefinger’s (Aidan Gillen) demise and Gendry’s (Joe Dempsie) implausible snow marathon. Not to mention the supersonic raven and dragon flights and Euron’s (Pilou Asbæk) fleet that could circle a continent at speeds that defy logic in a world of zombie bears. Such features foreshadow the series’ much-maligned, CliffsNotes-esque conclusion, a Targaryen-triggering debacle that has made countless keyboard warriors madder than a Wildling at a coronation.
Left with such an unsatisfying – perhaps ashen – taste in their mouths, and with an emotionless android that nobody likes ruling their most cherished fictional realm, it’s understandable if fans washed their hands of Westeros for good. (Even with at least three successor series in various stages of development.) But I’m willing to bet that they’d be wrong, like undead-icy-eyed wrong. I wager that the first part of the prequel — possibly titled Bloodmoon (or The Long Night or The Longest Night, depending on who you ask) – set 5,000 (or maybe 10,000) years before Bran’s Conquest and chronicling “the world’s descent from the golden Age of Heroes into its darkest hour”, according to
HBO – will at least be on par with Game of Thrones‘ first six seasons, and much better than the last two seasons. Yes, even though we still know next to nothing about its plot. Here’s why.
No More Dan and Dave
With the amount of shade being thrown at Weiss and Benioff these days, including numerous petitions to have someone else rewrite and re-film Season 8, it’s easy to forget how ridiculous a task of adapting George R. R. Martin’s insanely complex – and unfinished – narrative must have been. Especially when the show flew past the books and Dan and Dave (as they were once affectionately known) were given only the briefest outline of how they would conclude the seires. For years they succeeded wonderfully.
Whether beset by extreme burnout or a desire to get started writing the next Star Wars trilogy (a prospect that has already caused much displeasure amongst the Jedi-minded), it’s hard to argue that they didn’t phone it in at the end, especially since HBO allegedly offered them an Iron Bank’s worth of cash to continue writing more episodes and seasons of Game of Thrones. Recently, it’s been speculated that A Dream of Sprin”, Martin’s purported final volume of the Saga of Ice and Fire, will begin after the death of the Night King, meaning that Weiss and Benioff crammed what will probably amount to 1,500 book pages into the last three episodes. Yikes.
Regardless of whether you think the Game of Thrones‘ characters’ arcs would have benefited from more screen time or not, Weiss and Benioff’s watch has ended for good. That’s a great thing for the first prequel, as the new show will have the distinct advantage of a universe that’s already been built, with a showrunner – the English screenwriter/author/producer Jane Goldman – who won’t be bogged down by Westeros-weariness or be forced to try to adhere to impossible-to-adapt, already-beloved source material.
Thanks for your service, Dan and Dave. Now go and make Chewbacca a Sith Lord or something.
Jane Goldman, Empress of the Fantasists, Is a Badass
Speaking of Goldman, it doesn’t seem like there’s any vaguely Game of Thrones-related genre she hasn’t absolutely crushed, from high-flying action (2010’s Kick-Ass, and the Kingsman franchise, 2014-) to adventurous and romantic fantasies (2007’s Stardust, 2016’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) to supernatural horror (The Limehouse Golem, 2016, The Woman in Black, 2012) and alternate-history thrillers (The Debt, 2010). She also had a hand in writing both Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – widely considered the two best films in the X-Men franchise. She also hosted her own TV show researching paranormal phenomena, Jane Goldman Investigates (2003-), not to mention her frequent collaborations with larger-than-life eccentrics Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman. It’s hard to think of anyone more appropriately imaginative to bring to life one the most mysterious, violent, tumultuous, and magical eras of Westerosi history.
While the bigwigs at HBO have been known to roll out a dud every now and then (looking at you, Vinyl), Game of Thrones is by far the network’s most lucrative property and the show’s sequel will be the first time HBO has attempted a spinoff. It’s hard to believe that HBO would employ anyone who might further ostracize a fanbase that already feels slighted. It’s also quite telling that Goldman’s script was chosen – by both the network heads and Martin himself – over one by Bryan Cogman, an 11-episode, Emmy-winning Game of Thrones writer and resident super-nerd when it comes to Martin’s books.
Perhaps most importantly, Goldman has the freedom to create – and probably already has a very coherent idea for – a story arc with enough juice to guide it over a set number of seasons, with logical pacing and an approximation of an endgame, which is way more than Weiss and Benioff had to work with when they started.
George R.R. Martin Is Very Excited and Very Much Involved
It might seem like a no-brainer that the immense creative force behind the World of Ice and Fire would be heavily involved with anything related to his fictional universe, but that hasn’t always been the case. Sure, George R.R. Martin immersed himself deeply in Game of Thrones at the series’ outset as an executive producer and consultant, assisting with casting and even writing several highly regarded early episodes like the epic “Blackwater”. However, he abruptly sheathed his pen after Season 4’s “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”. By all accounts, Martin took an even more hands-off role once the show sped past the extant book material, leading to speculation of a rift between him and the showrunners that he was disappointed with Weiss and Benioff’s emphasis on CGI spectacles rather than subtle character building.
Whether or not there’s any truth to the rumors, what is clear is that Martin has been reenergized by the successor series, frequently posting about them on his popular Not a Blog site, taking a major role in the casting and development processes of the first one, and recently giving the first substantial interview about the show to Entertainment Weekly (James Hibberd, 6 Mar 2019) in which he professes his preference for the title, The Longest Night.
Although the pilot’s teleplay will be credited to Goldman, Martin will share some of its writing duties and will ostensibly lend his talents to later episodes in the virtually guaranteed event that the series is greenlit. Martin’s favorite character, Tyrion Lannister (played by Charles Dance in Game of Thrones) once quipped that “a true history of the world is a history of great conversations in elegant rooms.” No one is better at conjuring those conversations than the master himself.
From the cover of A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 2), George R.R. Martin (Bantam, 2000)
The Casting Is Spot-On
Even the best writing can’t succeed without the proper on-screen talent. Game of Thrones’ strategy of creating a mix of established “name” actors (Sean Bean as Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark) with less well-known yet acclaimed stage actors (Conleth Hill as Lord Varys) and unknown up-and-comers who turned out to be perfect for their roles (Kit Harrington, Emelia Clarke, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, and others) succeeded brilliantly, with one or two minor exceptions, notably Ed Skrein’s mercifully brief tenure as Daario Naharis in Season 3. So far, it looks like the prequel is following a similar template, which is great for an ensemble series that doesn’t have to live or die on the chops of one or two superstar protagonists.
That said, the prequel will have major talent. A-Listers Naomi Watts and Miranda Richardson have signed on to lead a notably female-heavy lineup that includes Doctor Who and Star Wars: Episode IX‘s Naomi Ackie and Georgie Henley; fantasy and science-fiction veterans like Jamie Campbell Bowers and Ivanno Jeremiah will be a part of this project, and Broadway standouts like Alex Sharp and Toby Regbo, (who recently turned in a very Joffrey Baratheon-like performance as the insipid Lord Aethelred on The Last Kingdom) will make appearances.
Game of Thrones caught some deserved criticism for its lily-white depiction of Westeros, especially in its early seasons. But with a more diverse cast set for the pilot, the show’s promise to “explore the mysteries of the East” (where people of color tend to live in Martin’s world), as well as potential journeys to even more far-flung locales like the Summer Islands and Sothoryos, the prequel should make for a much more inclusive viewing experience. The prequel will, hopefully, be devoid of any cringe-inducing colonialist overtones like in Game of Thrones’ “Mhysa” episode, when Daenerys and her dragons sack the city of Yunkai and free its slaves. Given the absence of fire-breathing war machines with imperialistic mothers in the upcoming show, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Ancient Westeros and Its Lore will be Deeply Explored
Yes, you read the above correctly. There. Will. Be. No. Dragons. They simply don’t exist (or haven’t been discovered) during the era when the prequel takes place. But for those fantasy freaks tempted to go full Mad Queen/King and set wildfire to their HBO subscriptions, it might be prudent to point out that The Age of Heroes, if the legends are true, is chock-full of otherworldly creatures. Mammoths, dire wolves, giants, and hound-sized ice spiders should be plentiful, as well as larger-than-life figures like Bran the Builder, the mysterious, wizard-like architect of the Wall, Winterfell, and House Stark (yes, those Starks); Azor Ahai with his flaming sword Lightbringer; Garth Greenhand, a god-king who demands blood sacrifices from his subjects; the epic swindler Lann the Clever who, besides founding House Lannister and stealing its seat Casterly Rock from the Casterlys, lived to the age of 300 and sired 200 children; and Symeon Star-Eyes, a blind knight who fights hellhounds ninja-style with a double-bladed staff, to name but a few.
Even if the “truth” behind the legends is a bit less outrageous in the prequel, Martin has confirmed that at the beginning of the show’s timeline, Westeros will be divided into roughly 100 kingdoms, meaning that the political intrigue, treachery, and maliciousness will be ramped up enough to make even an all-time schemer like Littlefinger reconsider his career options. Where chaos was a mostly discernible ladder on Game of Thrones, the prequel promises to be far less straightforward, way messier, and potentially much more fun. Add to that a bloody, millennia-old conflict with Westeros’ original inhabitants, the magical Children of the Forest, that lead to the “true origin” of the White Walkers and a deadly plunge into the world’s “darkest hour”, and you’ve got more than enough dramatic electricity to power countless podcasts and reaction videos for years to come. I mean, who doesn’t love a good descent into darkness?
The White Walker stuff is especially promising for hardcore fans left utterly unfulfilled by the Night King’s (Vladimir ‘Furdo’ Furdik) abrupt (and nearly unwatchable) defeat. After building him up as an unstoppable force of ultimate evil with a backstory begging to be told, Game of Thrones simply let him die without any definitive explanation for his motives – or how he knew that carting around massive dragon-lifting chains would pay off someday. Night King, we barely knew you, and now it looks like we finally will make a full acquaintance.
There’s always a chance that things won’t go as planned, that the prequel won’t be able to capture the once-in-a-generation magic of its predecessor. But with the crew, cast, and truckloads of dollars HBO has already assembled, it’s hard to imagine anything other than fantasy gold — unless Goldman bolts to reboot the X-Men in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Martin drops all of his other projects to focus solely on finishing Winds of Winter (ha!), or HBO decides suddenly that it doesn’t like making money. As far as prequels go, Bloodmoon/The Long Night/The Longest Night is shaping up to be far more of a Batman Begins than a Phantom Menace. Let’s just hope there aren’t any Jar Jar Binks’ in Westeros’ remote past.