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HBO’s First ‘Game of Thrones’ Pilot Will Be a Prequel—but Maybe Not the One You Expected

From what we know, the show will focus on the Age of Heroes, and the dragon status is uncertain

HBO/Ringer illustration

When Game of Thrones is on its game, it’s like no other show on television. Thrones isn’t just the biggest show in HBO’s history, it may be the last piece of monoculture we have. So, of course, HBO wants to keep it going. The cable giant announced Friday that it had ordered a pilot for a prequel show set during the Age of Heroes, a time some 10,000 years before the events in the current series when much of Westerosi myth and legend is born.

HBO described the show in a statement:

Taking place thousands of years before the events of Game of Thrones, the series chronicles the world’s descent from the golden Age of Heroes into its darkest hour. And only one thing is for sure: From the horrifying secrets of Westeros’ history to the true origin of the white walkers, the mysteries of the East, to the Starks of legend … it’s not the story we think we know.

The cable giant had previously ordered numerous scripts for potential series to continue the Westeros story, and now it’s landed on one. George R.R. Martin wrote the story for the pilot alongside Jane Goldman, who served as a writer for the Kingsman movies, several X-Men films, and Kick-Ass, among other works. Martin and Goldman are cocreators, and Goldman is set to serve as showrunner, should HBO pick up the full series. The earliest it would air is 2020, a year after Thrones has concluded.

The Age of Heroes is ripe for exploration. The books and show have hinted at characters and stories from that time, but those stories have rarely been treated much more seriously than as fairy tales that Old Nan would tell young Bran. The Age of Heroes setting gives Goldman and her writers a chance to connect this prequel series to the current show without handcuffing themselves to a well-worn narrative like Robert’s Rebellion or Dunk and Egg. As HBO’s statement says, this show is not “the story we think we know.”

A quick dissection of HBO’s somewhat vague statement suggests that the new show will put the fantasy elements of the story on center stage, something that is only appropriate for the “Age of Heroes.” The most prominent “Stark of legend” could be Bran the Builder, a legendary figure who supposedly built the Wall to protect against the Others. The “true origin of the white walkers” line particularly stands out. In Season 6, Thrones showed us that the white walkers were created by the Children of the Forest to protect against the First Men. Now it appears HBO will serve up the backstory to those events. And “its darkest hour” is almost certainly a reference to the oft-mentioned Long Night, when white walkers overran Westeros. It also appears the show won’t stick only to Westeros: “the mysteries of the East” could refer to almost anything. There are entire continents that Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire have left unexplored.

(If you’re asking where the dragons are, the answer is that it’s unclear. There is at least one dragon who is claimed to have been in Westeros during the Age of Heroes, but like so much from that time period, what is fact and what is myth is unclear.)

Some of the criticisms lobbed at Thrones in recent years have been aimed at how the show has shied away from fantasy. Often the series has fast-forwarded past some of the magic to make more room for politics or action or literal shit. As The Ringer’s in-house maester, Jason Concepcion, put it in September:

One of the things that [Mallory Rubin] and I are concerned about is the kind of ham-handed way the series has dealt with the fantasy elements, certainly as the show has moved beyond the books — a way that almost seems like they’re embarrassed of those elements. And, sure, fantasy stories are about those things, about princes and magical swords and all that stuff, and those things are certainly childish in a certain way. But that’s where their power comes from.

In the Age of Heroes, fantasy has to take center stage. More than Bran the Builder, the Wall, and the white walkers, a time when magic flourished in Westeros has the potential to be exhilarating for fans of Thrones lore. And with 10,000 years of separation from the current series, there’s no telling which way Goldman and HBO could take the show. One thing for sure has been promised: It won’t be a story we “think” we know.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.