A year ago this week, Tyrion Lannister gave his now-famous speech, Bran became Bran the Broken and the king of Westeros, Jon Snow ventured north, and Game of Thrones came to an end. In honor of the conclusion of the last piece of monoculture, The Ringer will spend all week looking back on Thrones—focusing not just on its final season, but celebrating its entire eight-season run, reminiscing about its host of memorable characters, and pondering where some of them may be one year later.
It’s been a year since our watch of Game of Thrones has ended, and for as underwhelming as the series finale turned out to be, we have not had anything on television like it since. For six weeks in 2019, my apartment hosted Thrones viewing parties—every single person in my friend group was a big fan of the series. I have watched and recommended many superior shows in the past year—Succession, Fleabag, Watchmen, and Better Call Saul come to mind—but none of them came close to reaching Thrones’ cultural ubiquity. (Succession might have if the entire populace worked in digital media.)
This shouldn’t come as a shock: Thrones has long been billed as the last piece of TV monoculture. The series was a legit phenomenon whose success might not be replicable; when the premiere aired in 2011, it captured our collective attention just before the television landscape started accelerating toward its present streamercentric, fractured state. But that’s not going to stop networks and streamers from chasing Westeros’s high.
The Sisyphean quest to create the “next Game of Thrones” has been ongoing for years, and perhaps has a greater sense of urgency now that Thrones is over and audiences are once again open to a widely shared television experience. But as futile as these efforts have seemed, there have still been a lot of hopeful contenders over the years—shows both currently airing and ones in development have garnered hype as the next big thing. And while not all of the “next Game of Thrones” series are built around elaborate fantasy worlds, such expansive storytelling is certainly part of the appeal. Below, we track the series trying to live up to impossible expectations.
His Dark Materials
If we were going just off source material, I’d consider His Dark Materials a front-runner among shows trying to recapture the magic of Thrones. Philip Pullman’s terrific series wields thrilling fantasy elements—a parallel world where the physical manifestation of a person’s soul, called a daemon, takes the form of an animal—and larger themes like organized religion, free will, and the trials of adolescence. Pullman’s series received a 2007 feature film adaptation (which was boycotted by the Catholic Church), but the scope of his novels make television the desired medium for an adaptation.
The first season of HBO and BBC’s coproduction of His Dark Materials arrived in 2019, and if the struggle to satisfy Pullman’s passionate fan base wasn’t enough of a hurdle, the show didn’t do itself any favors by making Tom Hooper the director responsible for establishing the series’s aesthetic. You know, Tom Hooper—the same filmmaker who gave us the living nightmare of Cats. While His Dark Materials isn’t a Cats-level disaster, the show was hamstrung by a couple iffy casting decisions—like Lin-Manuel Miranda as an unconvincing aeronaut Lee Scoresby, who in the books is supposed to be a grizzled TEXAN—and looks as bland as the rest of the works on Hooper’s hugely overrated résumé. (I’m sorry, but The King’s Speech does not deserve an Oscar.) A second season of His Dark Materials is already in the works, and even if it doesn’t make the series the next Game of Thrones, I hope that the show at least becomes more worthy of Pullman’s work.
Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings
This one’s kind of self-explanatory. If there is any fantasy work that could rival the hype of Thrones, why not one of the godfathers of the genre? George R.R. Martin has frequently cited the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s series on his own, and when Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings into a blockbuster trilogy, the movies didn’t just make bank, they also won a lot of Oscars. Aside from obvious comparisons to Thrones, there’s a historical precedent to The Lord of the Rings being a massive critical and commercial success. (The less said about Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, the better.)
Amazon paid a significant amount of money to acquire the Lord of the Rings TV rights—a reported $250 million, and that’s before taking into account how much it’ll cost to actually produce a series set in Middle Earth. The company is clearly betting that this show will become a big hit once it eventually arrives on the streamer. (Production on the first season was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) The show isn’t going to be a rehash of the movies: It’ll delve into the Second Age of Middle Earth, allowing fans to see another part of Tolkien’s expansive world brought to life on the screen. Given how much Amazon has already invested into this thing, the company has to hope the Lord of the Rings TV adaptation is the one fantasy series to rule them all in a post-Thrones landscape.
Much like Thrones, Westworld had a bumpy journey to the airing of its first season on HBO—it was an expensive, three-year production process that reportedly cost the network more than $100 million. (If you haven’t, read up on the failure of Thrones’ initial pilot; it sounds hilariously bad.) The show’s early buzz drew favorable comparisons to HBO’s success with Thrones: In fact, Westworld’s first season had even higher ratings than the first foray into Westeros. Before Thrones had finished its run, it appeared HBO might have found an in-house successor with killer robots in place of dragons and ice zombies.
And then, well, Westworld became a parody of itself. While there were a couple standout episodes, the second season juggled multiple timelines and tried so hard to keep audiences guessing about what was really happening that it turned lots of people off from the show. Not even the spectacularly random appearance of Marshawn Lynch could rescue Season 3, another underwhelming affair defined by haphazard storytelling. Westworld will eventually bring itself back online for a fourth season, but the only thing the series has in common with Thrones these days is being reduced to a punch line.
Netflix’s boasts about the viewership numbers on its original programming should always be taken with a giant boulder of salt, but the apparent hype around The Witcher doesn’t feel entirely unfounded. For whatever reason, last holiday season, The Witcher—based on the short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, which were also turned into a very popular video game series—seemed to take over for Bird Box as the Netflix content we collectively consumed (and memed).
I have no idea how people watched The Witcher, but if your viewing experience was anything like mine—buzzed on wine, eating a questionable amount of leftover pie—then the series was a perfect slice of weirdo escapism. I love it so much. There was Henry Cavill grunting his way through scenes as Geralt of Rivia, gnarly creature designs, and one song so catchy that I probably just got it stuck in your head again. Really, the only thing holding The Witcher back from being the next Thrones is the show’s release model: By dropping all the episodes at once, Netflix prevents the show from becoming weekly appointment viewing. We watch the show at our own leisure. Regardless, I will keep tossing coins for more Netflix Witcher content for years to come.
Westeros and the Upside Down don’t have anything in common, but you have to look only at the way entertainment outlets like The Ringer cover both series to understand the massive appeal of Stranger Things. (I’m also channeling my blogging PTSD, having written eight pieces for Season 3’s eight episodes in the span of a week last year; please clap.) Riding a wave of ’80s nostalgia and an impressive roster of talented and adorable young actors, Stranger Things was easy to love and even easier to binge in a weekend.
But as excellent as the show’s first season in 2016 was, the second and third seasons didn’t have as strong of a batting average—a detour with Eleven to Chicago in Season 2 was an ambitious swing that resoundingly missed. A fourth season will bring back David Harbour’s Jim Hopper as an apparent Russian POW (?!?!), and the longer this series goes on the more it risks jumping the shark. And like The Witcher, Stranger Things’ release model on Netflix makes it so that the show’s hype cycle is over within a week or two—not exactly the kind of series that can dominate the discourse for months like Thrones. I could rewatch the Stranger Things title sequence on a loop and never tire of it, but I don’t think that counts.
On the surface, a show set 200 years in the future with humanity spread out across the solar system wouldn’t appear to have a lot of similarities with Thrones, but there’s a reason The Expanse is often explained as “Game of Thrones in space.” An adaptation of the James S.A. Corey (a pen name for cowriters Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham ) book series of the same name, The Expanse has a scope that rivals the myriad kingdoms of Westeros, and a mysterious blue alien substance called the protomolecule that might as well be known as Space White Walkers for the threat it poses to humanity. If you haven’t watched The Expanse and think the Thrones comparison is a stretch, Abraham previously collaborated with Martin; it feels like the author’s penchant for meticulous world-building rubbed off on him.
After The Expanse was canceled by Syfy after three seasons, the show was revived on Amazon, where it aired a terrific fourth season and was renewed for a fifth that wrapped production before the pandemic put everything in Hollywood on hold. If you watch any “next Game of Thrones” show, let it be The Expanse. It is a modern sci-fi masterpiece that—I know I’ll get some flak for this—is already superior to Thrones and has a brain trust committed to sticking the landing. (Some offense to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.) The Expanse might not have Thrones’ viewing numbers, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of your undivided attention.
Amazon’s Event Horizon
Just kidding, but it’s still gonna be lit.
The Mandalorian (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe on Disney+)
There are very few modern fandoms as big as Thrones’, but two, in Star Wars and the MCU, belong to Disney’s galactic empire. And with Disney entering the streaming wars at the end of 2019, we got our first live-action foray into a galaxy far, far away on the small screen with the crown jewel of Disney+’s launch, The Mandalorian.
Boosted by a delightfully random cast—welcome to the Star Wars universe, Nick Nolte, Carl Weathers, and Werner Herzog?!—as well as the adorable Baby Yoda, The Mandalorian was a balm for fans in the time of The Rise of Skywalker’s messy conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. Jon Favreau’s series playfully leaned into the tropes of a TV Western, and a stellar season finale ensured the buzz around The Mandalorian would carry into its second season, coming later this year. While Star Wars is a more family-friendly universe than that of Westeros, that plays into The Mandalorian’s hands by allowing the show to have a wider reach. (I hope most 12-year-olds aren’t watching Thrones; seems like a bad idea.)
Disney+’s impressive subscriber numbers show that the series won’t have trouble getting exposure through its platform. Plus, dropping episodes each week allowed The Mandalorian to stay in the discourse for months, rather than days or weeks. Once Disney begins releasing some of its MCU miniseries, Disney+ will have more than a few pieces of original programming that, if they don’t quite reach Thrones’ peak, might come as close as any show can in our splintered TV landscape.
The Game of Thrones Spinoff(s)
Could the “next Game of Thrones” literally be … the next Game of Thrones? It’s the most obvious scenario, and of course HBO won’t hesitate to expand the universe of what became one of the most popular shows of all time. The question isn’t whether a Thrones spinoff (or two, or three, etc.) will be watched by a lot of people—even pulling half of the show’s usual audience would be a big win—but whether it can live up to massive expectations.
I’m a little skeptical that history will repeat itself after the first planned Thrones spinoff—a prequel about the Long Night, starring Naomi Watts—was axed after the pilot was shot. This is a normal part of the TV-making process—not every show that makes a pilot gets a full series order—but it seemed like a foregone conclusion that a Thrones spinoff would be green-lit. (Could the pilot really have been that bad?) HBO will hope its second attempted spinoff, focused on the rise of House Targaryen, will be more in their wheelhouse. But if House of the Dragon is going to live up to its predecessor, HBO better be willing to fork over a ton of cash for that CGI-dragon budget.