HBO has announced Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s follow-up to the fantasy epic, and the concept is … eyebrow-raising. Confederate is another ambitious genre epic, which makes sense given Benioff and Weiss’s track record. Confederate also takes place in an alternate timeline where the South successfully won the right to secede and maintain slavery as an institution, which is less expected.
Here is the full press release, which promises that the story will follow “a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall”:
Predictably, the announcement immediately inspired a volley of preemptive pessimism and skeptical tweets. The prospect of two white men who have already come under fire for how they have depicted fictional oppression taking on a subject as repugnant as American slavery is extremely delicate. (Depicting slavery also means depicting sexual assault, the very issue on which Game of Thrones has been most severely criticized.) No work of art can be judged until it exists, but it’s hard not to read the logline and immediately envision all the infinite ways this could go wrong: humanizing slave owners/hunters/sellers; taking an unsettling amount of sadistic glee in oppressive violence, as Thrones itself has been accused of doing; “modernizing” slavery for the present day, with all the adaptive choices that entails. And that’s before considering the real-world political climate into which Confederate arrives, where racism and misogyny at a national level are already a daily concern.
This isn’t the first time a similarly fraught and dystopian premise has been attempted recently; The Man in the High Castle, about a bizarro America where the Axis powers won World War II, has already aired two seasons and been renewed for a third. I’ve always found The Man in the High Castle to be somewhat gun-shy about exploring the full horror of its premise, and I’d be interested to see what becomes of an analogous concept in the hands of creators willing to truly go there, with the requisite scholarship to back them up. (On the other hand, even the disappointing Man in the High Castle has blundered enormously; pity the New York City commuters horrified to be surrounded by Nazi imagery on their daily ride.) Benioff and Weiss are many things, but no one could accuse them of being gun-shy about plumbing the depths of human depravity. They have also, over the course of Game of Thrones, shown themselves to be attentive to the many rungs of a fictional society — the oppressors, the oppressed, and how it’s possible to be both at once. And to repeat: The show hasn’t been made yet. The collective reaction to Confederate says as much about reactors’ current state of mind — in many cases, understandably cynical — as the yet-to-be-fulfilled possibilities they’re reacting to.
It should be noted that Confederate’s creative team isn’t entirely white: Benioff and Weiss will be joined as writers and executive producers by Nichelle Tramble Spellman (Justified, The Good Wife) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire). But it’s Benioff and Weiss whose names are at the top of the page, and Benioff and Weiss who will earn Confederate the attention and accompanying scrutiny it’s already accruing. Confederate hasn’t shot so much as a frame and it already has the potential to inspire as much discussion as its predecessor. That’s an impressive feat — but one that could work either for or against the show. We’ll find out after Game of Thrones.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.