Restraint was never exactly a word that was in Game of Thrones’ vocabulary. HBO’s hit fantasy series was eight seasons of pure bombast – perhaps the first TV show with a scale to rival Hollywood’s great epics. Fans marvelled at the vast battlefields, the CGI dragons; every dollar of its budget (a whopping $15m per episode by the series’ end) was up there on screen. So when, in 2017, two years before the series would finish airing, it was announced that a number of spin-offs were in development, it seemed almost inevitable. You couldn’t exactly sidle up to the creators and wisely inform them that sometimes less is more. More being more was what won them their kingdom.
Earlier this week, the first teaser trailer dropped for House of the Dragon, the earliest of the planned spin-offs coming to HBO Max. Set 200 years before the events of Thrones, the series features an ensemble cast that includes Matt Smith, Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy. With a name like House of the Dragon, audiences might mistake it for an off-brand investment series fronted by Theo Paphitis. Or perhaps a family sitcom centring on a quick-tempered matriarch. But no, this trailer assures that this is the same Thrones you knew and loved, right down to the spiky seat itself. But while the prospect of more Thrones seems like the surest of bets – like betting on Nadal to win the French Open or Spurs to lose a cup final – there is still a lingering doubt. Can the public really stomach another few rounds of George RR Martinis? Maybe, just maybe, we’ve already had enough.
There are several reasons to question the logic of an expanded Thrones universe. The first and most obvious was once an ossified rule of television: spin-offs are always terrible (except when they aren’t). For every Frasier or Better Call Saul, there are a hundred Joeys – insipid cash-grabs that try and fail to chase down some elusive past high. While the contemporary trend of “cinematic universes” and cross-medium tie-ins (WandaVision or The Mandalorian, for instance) has slightly inured audiences to the once-detested stench of spin-offery, there’s a reason they were always considered a risky prospect.
The main selling point of House of the Dragon, and indeed the other touted spin-offs, has always been Game of Thrones’ world – the indulgent fantasy lore of Martin’s books. But this was only ever one part of the original series’ appeal. We mustn’t underestimate the draw of the characters – none of whom will feature in House of the Dragon – and the performances. Alongside Thrones’ cadre of hammy veteran thesps, there were less-proven actors of breakout star quality; the ascendant Hollywood profile of actors such as Jason Momoa, Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington is testament to this. It’s worth remembering that Thrones was marketed, in its first season, with the presence of Sean Bean. The House of the Dragon cast may all be terrific, but there’s not a household name among them, save perhaps for Matt Smith, whose own Hollywood career has failed to ignite since he found fame in Doctor Who nearly a decade ago. Thrones’ showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss are absent from the spin-off, with the job instead handed to Ryan Condal, the co-creator of Colony and a credited writer on the execrable Dwayne Johnson thriller Rampage.
There is also Thrones’ own reputation to consider, which can only be said to have waned in the past few years. This was partly due to a final season that was widely considered lacklustre, capped with a finale that was deeply unsatisfying. Almost overnight, the needle of consensus tipped from “great” to “flawed”; you could almost hear Thrones tumble down the “best of” lists, smacking its head on Mad Men on the way down. Of course, this may end up proving an unlikely boon to House of the Dragon – sometimes, as in the case of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or the forthcoming Dexter: New Blood, an otherwise superfluous spin-off or sequel can be seen as the opportunity to right a wrong, to wash the taste of a rotten finale out of the audience’s mouth. But House of Dragon isn’t necessarily the right Listerine.
The multivarious problems of Thrones’ final season – arbitrary plot twists, frustrating character arcs, lighting that all but obscured entire battles – aren’t the only reason Thrones’ stock has dropped off since the finale. Over the course of its run and since, the show faced increased scrutiny over its treatment of women, and its harrowing, gratuitous scenes of sexual violence. These were dialled down as the series went on, but shocking, extreme violence was always in Thrones’ fibre, and, you’d have to say, a significant part of its core appeal. Comments by female members of the cast have also given fans pause for thought; in 2019, Emilia Clarke claimed she was pressured into performing nude scenes, while earlier this year, Hannah Waddingham said she was waterboarded for 10 hours while filming a torture scene. House of the Dragon can and must do better, but the more problematic aspects of the original series can’t ever be erased.
In agreeing to not just one but a whole handful of prospective Game of Thrones spin-offs, HBO Max committed to something big. It’s an epic undertaking, a journey that could last for a decade or more. But there’s no guarantee it’s going to be an easy trip. They must traverse a route littered with the mouldering cadavers of unloved spin-offs past, with thwarted ambitions and the perils of an ever-more-suffocated TV landscape. Here, as they say, be dragons.
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