This article contains spoilers for the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
As I contemplate returning to King’s Landing with the premiere this week of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel series “House of the Dragon,” a sense of glum inevitability settles in. Just watching the trailer, with its splices of hand-to-hand combat, dragon-riding and scowling faces beneath wild wigs, is giving me some unpleasant déjà vu.
Like almost everyone I know, I watched all eight seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Some of it was compelling; some of it I was wildly indifferent to. But not watching those 70-odd hours of television never felt like a real option for me: I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons. I’m into the fantasy cinema renaissance. I’m a culture writer. I’m on Twitter.
In the countdown to the premiere of “House of the Dragon,” the articles and tweets are treating it as a foregone conclusion that we’re going to watch this show — or at least several million of us will — even if we aren’t particularly keen to.
So how about we just … don’t? It’s understandable that HBO wants to reclaim the cultural dominance of “Game of Thrones,” the most popular show in the network’s history. The prequel was a costly bet, and as HBO’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, faces down $53 billion in debt it has little room for error.
But we don’t all have to play along, and dutifully return to the weekly viewing and discussion on talk shows and in think pieces, social media and group chats. If we are going to collectively interrogate something at the virtual water cooler, couldn’t it be something else? Do we have to submit to what the entertainment industry’s overlords have decreed will be the Next Big Thing?
I don’t begrudge anyone that virtual moment of connection, the pleasure of a shared cultural experience and critical dialogue — why I liked a director’s choice and you couldn’t stand it; why a beautiful scene made us cry. I guess I just wish we were using the greatest communication network ever created to dig a little deeper into the vast array of stories that exist, and to examine what they mean to us.
The things I disliked about “Game of Thrones” weren’t the same things others disliked. Onscreen gore doesn’t particularly upset me, as a horror fan. I can handle rape and incest when they are plot points in a story. (If you’re into fantasy, you know these are, for better or worse, common in the genre.) As for the glaring lack of diversity in “Game of Thrones” — I couldn’t even get all that upset about it. Sometimes a show has so many problems that I’m glad there aren’t more people of color in it. Keep us out of it, I say.
But after seven seasons of the show — half of which were fair to middling — the final season was an all-out head-scratcher, with an ending that was about as wrongheaded as you can get. So many nonsensical decisions, to advance a story I cared less and less about!
Now I ask myself, do I really want to dig any deeper into the family at the center of the new show, House Targaryen? Knowing they’re eventually going to turn out a queen who uses her pet dragon to incinerate much of the town is pretty anticlimactic.
If you’re an all-in “Game of Thrones” superfan, perhaps it doesn’t matter — you’ll watch “House of the Dragon” and probably enjoy it (or enjoy complaining about it). And of course, it’s possible that “House of the Dragon” will be better than “Game of Thrones.” George R.R. Martin, the author of the book series the shows are based on, seems optimistic. There are indications that the franchise is trying to respond to criticism of sexism and lack of diversity. Lessons were probably learned amid the mayhem and misfires of “Game of Thrones.”
But I’m far from the only person feeling a bit “meh” about the prospect of this new show, even if considering sitting it out triggers some F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out). One of the things that “Game of Thrones” had going for it was that it stayed in the zeitgeist week after week. It felt like required viewing for those eager to be culturally conversant (like “being cool” in high school — but for adults). And you had to watch it quickly, lest the recaps and memes spoiled it for you along the way.
But in several significant ways, the television landscape is different now than it was in 2011, when the original “Game of Thrones” premiered. Since then, the ubiquity of streaming and binge watching toppled the cultural dominance of premium cable. The pandemic then changed our viewing habits again. We have become gluttons for content, gorging on show after show, leaving them unfinished as we start new ones, gobbling them up and moving on with Pac Man-like intensity.
And perhaps in part because of the enormous financial success of “Game of Thrones,” there are so many other series that scratch the same itch for mystical beasts, breastplates and political machinations. The most direct competitor will be the new J.R.R. Tolkien prequel, “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” Amazon Prime’s “Lord of the Rings” spinoff will offer the Ye Olde English trappings, grave battles and vast production budgets that “Thrones” fans adore. It too will face the challenge of living up to the expectations of fans, in this case those raised on Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s dazzlingly epic films — but at least it doesn’t come with the baggage of the “Game of Thrones” universe.
If what you’re hankering for is full-bore high fantasy, nothing beats Netflix’s critical and audience darling, “The Sandman,” based on Neil Gaiman’s genius comic series. If you prefer your magic and spells without the vaguely medieval stylings, you have three seasons of the American fantasy horror drama “Locke & Key” to plow through, or might I recommend a heavy binge of “American Gods”? If violent wizards are your thing, turn to Netflix’s “Witcher.” Dragon-lovers might enjoy “Stranger Things” for its spooky creature horror.
There are worthy contenders outside of the fantasy genre too. If you came to Westeros for the familial cruelty and back-stabbing, no show does those better than HBO’s “Succession.” And some of the most stunning world-building on TV is in HBO’s spectacularly weird workplace drama “Severance.”
Of course, this is all just television. There are far bigger problems in the world than its brilliance or mediocrity. But escapism is the point here: Watching and then talking about the romances and betrayals and epic battles of fictional people can provide a break from the intractable problems and sociopolitical daymares we wake up to in the real world every day.
Let’s have those conversations. But let’s talk about more than what happens at King’s Landing.
Scott Woods (@scottwoodssays) is a writer and poet in Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of a collection of essays, “Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods.”
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