Essays · TV

The Sad Truth About The Future of Game of Thrones

Valar morghulis. But for books and TV shows, too.
By  · Published on April 15th, 2016

Valar morghulis. All men must die. A sentiment that applies just as well to your favorite television shows — the likes of Game of Thrones — as it does to the characters who live in and around Westeros. With season 6 of Thrones a few weeks away, we are once again excited about the prospect of visiting this world, it’s characters and its many blood-soaked storylines.

We are reminded today by a little interview with showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss on Variety that Game of Thrones can’t live forever. “I think we’re down to our final 13 episodes after this season. We’re heading into the final lap,” Benioff explained. “That’s the guess, though nothing is yet set in stone, but that’s what we’re looking at.”

And it’s not just them saying it. “That’s my understanding from them right now, those have been the conversations we’ve had,” says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. “Because where these narratives go, it feels like another two years to them. As a television executive, as a fan, do I wish they said another six years? I do.”

Whether this is part of negotiating in public (something that happens all the time) or a genuine insight into the discussions going on behind the scenes, it would appear that Game of Thrones is very much speeding toward its end. It’s something fans have known for a long time. Since the beginning, the plan has been simple: seven seasons to coincide with seven books from George R.R. Martin. That was when HBO and even Martin thought these seven books would exist by the time the show was ready to move past them. When this didn’t happen, plans had to be adjusted. And during those adjustments, rumors began to circulate that HBO was interested in seeing Thrones go beyond the originally planned seven seasons.

Why wouldn’t they? Game of Thrones is a massive success for the network. It’s a shining pillar of success for HBO’s drama slate, which has had a few false starts in the years since The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire. With the exception of the first few seasons of True Blood, HBO hasn’t connected with a dramatic sensation in the neighborhood of Thrones. Like Warner Bros. with its planned Harry Potter extension, it’s hard to let go of something that has carried you. It’s hard to let go of a show so popular, it is worth spending upwards of $10 million dollars per episode. The success of Game of Thrones, especially for HBO, is unprecedented. I’m sure they’d love to have it go on forever and ever. Within the past few months, it appeared as if they’d settled on eight seasons as a compromise.

This new revelation from the showrunners isn’t a surprise either. It’s a further compromise between the art and commerce of Game of Thrones. Weiss and Benioff only have so much story left to tell. Unlike George R.R. Martin, who could seemingly write forever about the minutia of daily life in Westeros, they have to be economical in their approach. The audience hangs on every detail of their show, hoping that the big payoff is imminent. If thirteen hours worth of story is all they have left, why should we expect them to stretch it just because we don’t want to let go?

The disappointing part is that even if Weiss and Benioff get their way and 13 hours is it, HBO will still split it into two seasons — much like what AMC did with the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Two more years of anticipation, marketing, and fuel for the speculation engine that drives Thrones fandom, all for a 6-episode final season. It’s becoming clearer why there was once talk about seven seasons and a movie to close things out.

The other big question for fans is what this means for George R.R. Martin’s books. He had originally planned to have his sixth book, “The Winds of Winter,” on bookshelves before season 6. It wasn’t until very early in 2016 that it was confirmed that this wouldn’t happen. Now we’re going to get a sixth season that dives into book six stories, ultimately spoiling some of George’s surprises. A year later, we’ll get a seventh season. The sixth book might arrive by then, but certainly not the seventh. Does Martin have it in him to finish the sixth and seventh books by that third year? Can he, as the author of this massive narrative, get his version done by the time the show is ready to bring us to an end?

That’s a big ask for a man who is still working on his current book five years removed from his last book, which was released six years after its predecessor. The timing still doesn’t add up, even if the show is actively stalling to ensure that Martin gets to be the one who finishes the story.

And what if he doesn’t finish? What if Martin decides that since the show is going to finish his story for him, that he doesn’t need to write two more books. It’s an interesting thought — one that our own Matthew Monagle brought up in our Slack chat today. What if he decides that he’s done and never finishes the books. Does he need to? He’s given the modern world one of its most popular stories. He’s seen it grow up and blossom into one of the all-time television shows. And once that show is gone, the shine ultimately wears off. The interest in his books might dip a little bit. Sure, there are people like myself who will read every word he writes until he hangs up his signature black fisherman’s cap. But the middle of the Venn diagram between hardcore O.G. Song of Ice and Fire fans and those who picked it up because of the show might lose a little interest. What if he loses the fire within that powered him to write over 4,000 pages of the best fantasy we’ve seen since Tolkien?

That’s the sad truth about Game of Thrones. It’s all going to end. The show and the books, one way or another. And like life, it will probably end a little sooner than we’d like and perhaps with some unfinished business.

Because in the end, All Men Must Die.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)