What’s Next for the ‘Game of Thrones’ Expanded Universe?

The success of ‘House of the Dragon’ proves that the ‘Thrones’ franchise has a future, but what will that future look like?

HBO/Ringer illustration

Before the premiere of the first Game of Thrones spinoff in August 2022, my colleague Ben Lindbergh wrote a piece asking, “What Constitutes Success for House of the Dragon?” He identified two key targets for the new show based on George R.R. Martin’s source text: First, “to quiet the talk about Thrones Season 8,” and second, “to make good on what any sci-fi/fantasy tentpole these days is designed to do—spawn successors.”

By the first measure, the first season of House of the Dragon was an inarguable success. While Thrones fans might never forgive the disappointing ending to the most celebrated fantasy show of all time, many still returned for the prequel; 10 million viewers tuned in for Dragon’s first episode on its debut night, making it the most-watched premiere in HBO history.

That success paved the way for an answer to Ben’s second criterion: The Thrones spinoff machine is now in motion. A third show set in the Thrones universe, based on Martin’s Dunk and Egg series of novellas, is in production and likely to air in 2025.

But the spinoff machine still isn’t moving much faster than a carriage to Volantis. Between the Thrones finale and last month’s five-year anniversary of that episode, only one season of Thrones TV aired. Season 2 of House of the Dragon is imminent, but the Dunk and Egg adaptation is the only other Thrones spinoff nearing release.

So with Dragon about to return—and with much and more about Martin’s work in Westeros still up in the air—let’s take a survey of notable trends in the budding Thrones expanded universe.

The Three Cs: Caution, Conservatism, and Cancellations

In the five years since Thrones concluded, HBO’s development team has taken a conservative approach to both the volume and type of spinoffs it’s producing. Unlike other large fandom franchises—Disney’s in particular—Thrones has avoided flooding the zone. Since 2020, over the same time frame that only one new season of Thrones TV reached screens, viewers have been soaked with a dozen new seasons of Star Wars TV and two dozen new movies or seasons of MCU fare.

Granted, Star Wars and Marvel have rich histories, with several decades’ worth of previous releases and source material, whereas Thrones reached screens for the first time in 2011 and has drawn on only a single author’s (faltering) output. And given that the former franchises are sputtering more than they’re succeeding these days, pumping out constant content might not have been the best strategy, anyway. Disney CEO Bob Iger is consciously slowing the Marvel and Lucasfilm pipelines.

Other prospective expanded universes, like The Lord of the Rings and Dune, seem to be embracing less frenzied rollout strategies, more in line with the Thrones approach. But like Stannis Baratheon, Thrones must march forward, in part because Martin’s fictional world is large enough to inspire more stories, and in part because HBO’s embattled parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, could use some big hits. CEO David Zaslav has publicly called for a greater focus on franchise development.

The desire for a Thrones expanded universe doesn’t mean that HBO is compromising its quality control to push out inferior products, however. You don’t need to be a Tycho Nestoris–level mathematician to calculate that the network has given more red lights than green lights to spinoff ideas.

Numerous rumored possibilities for Thrones spinoffs have been shelved or canceled: a Jon Snow sequel series; a show about the ancient warrior queen Nymeria and her voyage to Dorne with 10,000 ships; a zoomed-in focus on Flea Bottom, the slum of King’s Landing; and, most infamously, Bloodmoon, a prequel focused on the White Walkers thousands of years in the past that was canceled after its pilot was filmed.

Meanwhile, the shows to which HBO has given the go-ahead share a few overarching commonalities, starting with House of the Dragon.

“I think Season 8 had been divisive, Bloodmoon hadn’t worked out for them, and they wanted to retain their fans,” Miguel Sapochnik, who co-ran the first Dragon season, said in 2022. “They wanted to come back to what they knew.”

Dragon offered more familiarity and a smoother path to success. “It had everything that I thought we needed for a successful successor show,” Martin said. “It had all of the intrigue around the Iron Throne. It had the great houses contending. It had dragons—a lot of dragons—and battles and betrayals.”

The next entry in the Thrones expanded universe will be A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight, which has cast its two leads and is planned to air next year. This adaptation of the first Dunk and Egg story could fill the Thrones void in 2025 if Dragon takes another two years between seasons, as it did between Season 1 in 2022 and Season 2 in 2024. (Given the amount of CGI work that goes into creating a show with this many dragons, this extended timeline is no surprise.)

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms would also be a show about Targaryens, featuring some characters who are the direct descendants of those on House of the Dragon. And a pitch for another spinoff that seems viable, about Aegon’s Conquest (which brought the Targaryen family to power in Westeros), flows in the same vein. One source for The Hollywood Reporter described a Conquest story as “back to basics” for Martin’s world.

“The Targaryens span both directions,” Sapochnik said in 2022. “So as a spine to other possible stories and spinoffs … this is a great place to start.”

Planned Changes in Stakes and Format

Not every Targaryen story would deliver the same stakes as Dragon’s civil war, however. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms will span only six episodes and promises to adapt a smaller-scale, more static story than the original Thrones, or even Dragon with its shrunken map. Almost the entirety of The Hedge Knight—the Dunk and Egg novella being adapted for Season 1 of the show—takes place in one field in the Reach, at a short jousting tournament.

The Hedge Knight is a delightful read, as are the subsequent Dunk and Egg stories that could be adapted in future seasons of the show. These tales touch on political intrigue and connections to the crown. But they’re nowhere near Thrones or Dragon in their level of—to use Martin’s checklist—intrigue around the Iron Throne, competition between great houses, dragons, or battles.

That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, if A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms alternates summers with Dragon. It’s just a different sort of story. The Star Trek expanded universe is populated by a mix of settings and tones. And when the MCU was at its most successful, it included large-scale, universe-shifting confrontations like those in the Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War, plus wackier adventures in Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy.

“I’d like to see a range in our shows,” Martin said before the Dragon premiere.

That range could come in terms of medium as well, as Thrones production has been flirting with animated possibilities in addition to its live-action Targaryen shows.

HBO has long been reported to be considering an animated show about Yi Ti, a wealthy land far to the east on the Thrones map. Yi Ti is the rough equivalent of the Thrones world’s China, in the same way that Westeros is its Great Britain. No Thrones character ever visits Yi Ti—but Dragon’s Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake, did in his adventurous youth.

A Sea Snake spinoff is also in the works, and is now in the animated category as well. Martin wrote on his Not a Blog last year that the prequel-to-a-prequel pitch was shifting from live action to animation—“a move I support fully,” he said. “Budgetary constraints would likely have made a live action version prohibitively expensive, what with half the show taking place at sea, and the necessity of creating a different port every week, from Driftmark to Lys to the Basilisk Isles to Volantis to Qarth to … well, on and on and on. There’s a whole world out there. And we have a lot better chance of showing it all with animation.”

Animation would likely (if unfairly) limit the show’s audience ceiling, if it clashes with some viewers’ perception that Thrones tells “adult” stories and animation doesn’t. But if executed well, an animated “adventure of the week” show in which Corlys travels to new exotic ports every episode could offer a wonderfully refreshing change of pace while other Thrones spinoffs focus on the same places and houses ad nauseam. That structure was part of the joy of the first season of The Mandalorian, which visited new corners and peoples of the Star Wars galaxy each week. (Baby Yoda’s takeover of the internet helped, too.)

Uncertainty About the Next Big Thing

Smaller-stakes stories could enchant Thrones superfans who want to see every bit of Martin’s fleshed-out world. But they would lack the flash that HBO has tended to seek with its Thrones stories thus far.

A series about Aegon’s Conquest could theoretically serve as a tentpole project, echoing not only Dragon but also Daenerys’s dragon-aided conquest of Westeros in Thrones. But those echoes might spill over into repetitiveness, and an on-screen Conquest would probably function best as a miniseries rather than a multi-season spectacle, as the Conquest is quite speedy. On page 5 of Fire & Blood, Aegon the Conqueror is born; by page 25, he’s crowned king of the Seven Kingdoms.

A Conquest series has not yet been green-lit, anyway, and screenwriter Mattson Tomlin described his work on the idea as “very early days” earlier this year.

Other possibilities are currently limited by Martin’s page count. The Thrones scribe says he has plans for many more Dunk and Egg novellas, for instance, but Egg is still a preteen in the most recent story, two decades away from his surprise ascension to the Iron Throne.

The First Blackfyre Rebellion—another Targaryen-centric fight for the Iron Throne—sounds properly dramatic, but it’s been mentioned only in passing in various Thrones stories to date and isn’t slated for full exploration until Fire & Blood Vol. 2. (No, The Winds of Winter isn’t the only big Thrones book Martin hasn’t finished yet.)

To be fair, this won’t be a pressing problem anytime soon. With four seasons developed at a rate of two years between seasons, Dragon projects to continue through 2028, giving HBO essentially half a decade to plan for a successor flagship show for the Thrones universe. In the meantime, alternating Dragon with smaller-stakes fare could be more than enough to sate viewers.

But running out of source material is a long-term concern, as efforts to go off-book have failed dramatically thus far: Late-stage Thrones was reviled, and the Bloodmoon prequel was shelved. Getting ahead of the author, so to speak, might be OK for a more tangential story like an animated offering in Yi Ti, but the central stories in Martin’s universe need his hand to shape them.

No Sequels; or, an End Point to History

The most conspicuous absence from this list of possible future series is any story that would take place after the events of Thrones. They’re all prequels, or set far enough away geographically (as in the case of Yi Ti) so as not to matter.

In that sense, Thrones is stuck in the same place as Star Wars, which despite its greater output still hasn’t released any new material that takes place after the disastrous The Rise of Skywalker. (Supposedly, a movie that includes a future rendition of Rey beyond Rise of Skywalker’s stopping point is in the works, though mere announcements of new Star Wars movies are no guarantee that those projects will actually reach the production phase. Just ask Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.)

Both Thrones Season 8 and Rise of Skywalker were released in 2019, and both were such utter catastrophes that they effectively shut off any exploration of their respective universes’ future timelines. In Thrones’ case, because so many crucial elements of the conclusion were left unexplained—such as how Bran’s powers would influence his rule, or almost everything about the Night King, White Walkers, and winter seasons—it’s hard to envision where a sequel would even begin. It’s no wonder that Kit Harington’s Jon Snow sequel project never landed on a pitch exciting enough to push forward.

Fortunately for Thrones fans, Hollywood seems to have cracked the code to compelling prequels, including Thrones’ own. And who knows, maybe by the end of Dragon’s run, Martin will have finished his core A Song of Ice and Fire series in a more satisfactory fashion—both freeing him to work on more material that can be adapted into additional prequels, and paving the way for richer sequel possibilities. That outcome seems unlikely, but we can dream (of spring).

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