A long list of Game of Thrones characters can claim to have saved Jon Snow. Ned Stark saved him from Robert Baratheon by hiding his identity and adopting him as his son. A horse (and the healers of the Night’s Watch) saved him after Ygritte shot him with three arrows. Maester Aemon saved him from Janos Slynt and Alliser Thorne at Castle Black. Stannis saved him when the wildlings were holding him at knifepoint on his failed mission to murder Mance Rayder. Tormund saved him at Hardhome by vouching for him with the Free Folk. Jeor Mormont saved him by giving him Longclaw, the blade that bailed him out of a White Walker encounter. Melisandre saved him by bringing him back to life after he actually did die at the hands (and knives) of the mutinous Night’s Watch. Sansa, Littlefinger, and the Knights of the Vale saved him from a second death at the Battle of the Bastards. Daenerys and Drogon saved him when he was surrounded by wights beyond the Wall. Benjen Stark saved him soon after, when the wights pursued a half-frozen Jon. Dany and Drogon saved him again during a showdown with the Night King.
To that roll call, we can add another new savior, perhaps the most powerful of all: a multinational media company’s insatiable craving for high-profile IP to serve as ammunition in the streaming wars. On Thursday, The Hollywood Reporter revealed (and Variety and Deadline corroborated) that a live-action Game of Thrones spinoff centered on Snow is in early development at HBO. Kit Harington, who was twice nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of the sad-boy Stark bastard who turned out to be a Targaryen, is reportedly attached to the prospective series to reprise the role he played for eight seasons, which neither he nor HBO has confirmed. In August 2019, Harington jokingly complained that HBO hadn’t sent him Snow’s sword, the one prop he’d hoped to keep in his personal collection. Maybe the network was just holding on to Longclaw until it was time for the actor to wield it once more.
This is simultaneously enormous news—if you’re into famous fantasy franchises or entertainment-industry scorekeeping—and, for the foreseeable future, almost immaterial. On the one hand, it’s a possible sequel to one of the most successful series of all time, starring that series’ central character. To quote Terence Mann, the sequel could remind Thrones fans of all that once was good, and it could be again; if HBO makes it, people will watch. On the other hand, “early development” is a long way from finished product: As the network’s aborted first attempt at a Thrones spinoff proved, even the production of an expensive pilot is no guarantee of a green light. The latest scripted resurrection of Jon Snow—née Aegon Targaryen—is likely years away from reaching screens even if it does come to fruition, and as of yet, we know nothing (obligatory) about the sequel’s premise, the rest of its cast, or its writers, producers, or directors. Even inside HBO, many of those vital details may still be “TBD.”
Still, let’s play this out. Although HBO Max, unlike some streamers, has continued to add subscribers, the 2021 Discovery-WarnerMedia merger has reportedly prompted the new Warner Bros. Discovery to “scrutiniz[e] every aspect of the assets they took over.” Perhaps that scrutiny has placed a spotlight on the lack of Thrones; conveniently, Warner Television and HBO’s recent decision not to move forward with J.J. Abrams’s pricey Demimonde may have freed up some room in the budget to double down on an established brand. On the surface, it’s extremely unsurprising that HBO would attempt to milk more content out of a juggernaut like Thrones. In the age of rampant prequels, sequels, and reboots, what is dead may never die, as long as a large enough number of viewers have heard of the property and could conceivably sign up for more. From that perspective, the surprise is that three years have elapsed since the series finale without a Thrones sequel being floated.
However, a few factors specific to this franchise make this seemingly predictable development more momentous. In 2021, on the heels of the news that HBO was adapting Dunk and Egg—a trio of George R.R. Martin novellas set in Westeros some 90 years before A Song of Ice and Fire—I wrote about the stalled expansion of the Game of Thrones extended universe, which was then still largely theoretical even though the network had known in advance when its flagship show was ending and had time to plan its successor. Almost a year and a half later, no new Thrones content has come out, though the first follow-up, prequel series House of the Dragon, is finally due to debut on August 21. Given the Thrones universe’s slow growth rate relative to more established franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and the MCU—all of which have rapidly proliferated on TV since Thrones went off the air—any sign of significant expansion is noteworthy news.
Martin, who signed a five-year overall deal with HBO last year, is credited as a cocreator and executive producer of House of the Dragon, which is based on his 2018 history of House Targaryen, Fire & Blood. He’s also listed as an EP on the other Thrones prequels. However, he didn’t write a script for the first season of House of the Dragon. Although he’s said he’s consulting closely with HBO on all of the upcoming Thrones projects, he seems to be working in more of an advisory role than a hands-on capacity. The same will probably be true of the Snow sequel: Martin is perpetually swamped with projects, and it’s unlikely that he’d have the time or inclination to do more than sketch out the broad strokes of Snow’s future.
Nor would HBO want to hitch itself to his wagon in that way, in light of the pace at which he’s broken new narrative ground in Westeros’s present. Plus, HBO’s version of the post–White Walker Westeros probably differs in some respects from whatever Martin’s version would look like should he ever finish The Winds of Winter and A [Pipe] Dream of Spring. Martin, who has in the past ruled out the possibility of allowing other authors to tell licensed stories set in his world, may lament that a Thrones sequel would further cement the HBO narrative as the definitive timeline in most fans’ minds, but perhaps he’s accepted that that ship, like Arya’s, has sailed.
As I noted last year, one crucial choke point for the Thronesverse that hasn’t hamstrung those other sagas is that the creator of the franchise has remained heavily involved in the plans to expand—and until now, there was no precedent for a series that didn’t draw to some degree on lore he created. Martin hasn’t told any tales set after the fall of the Wall—as you may have heard, he’s still two books away from reaching that point on the page, having thus far failed to finish the sequel to 2011’s A Dance With Dragons, the fifth of seven planned volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire—and before this week’s forecast for Snow, there was no indication that HBO was willing or able to pick up the plot after Bran Stark’s Season 8 ascension to the Iron Throne. House of the Dragon and the six other Thrones-related projects in various stages of development—Dunk and Egg, 10,000 Ships (a.k.a. Nymeria), 9 Voyages (a.k.a. The Sea Snake), and three animated series—are all prequels, set decades, centuries, or millennia before the original HBO behemoth.
For that reason, any sequel series would be a big deal, potentially breaking a seal that has stymied HBO’s tentpole plans. And although this may be a symptom of the IP apocalypse, a sequel series that isn’t drawn directly from existing material—even one rooted in a well-known world and featuring a household-name protagonist—passes for refreshing in an entertainment landscape saturated with adaptations and prequels, the latter of which are extraordinarily difficult to do well.
One advantage for HBO is that a Snow-centric sequel wouldn’t risk sullying a spotless legacy. The ending of Game of Thrones was widely reviled in 2019—“There’s definitely a pain when people responded in certain ways to it,” Harington said last year—and its reputation hasn’t undergone a great improvement in the intervening years. In a May 2019 analysis of average IMDb user ratings for series finales, I noted that “Only a few other finales—including legendarily divisive endings like those of Dexter and How I Met Your Mother—occupy the same range relative to their series’ previous scores.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Dexter and How I Met Your Mother have each since received a sequel or spinoff. If one ending doesn’t land, a sequel can provide a chance at redemption, allowing the creator or rightsholder of a tarnished series to turn the page and change the narrative. Maybe HBO, like Littlefinger, is saying, “The past is the past. The future is all that’s worth discussing.” (Though HBO hopes its prequels to Thrones will generate extensive discussion, too.)
Then again, there’s no certainty that the sequel would be better than late-stage Thrones; maybe Tyrion was right when he said, “The future is shit. Just like the past.” The original series started to falter the further it went past its source material, and although Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss presumably wouldn’t be taking the reins, whoever succeeds them might not prove more adept than they did at telling tales set in Martin’s sandbox. Benioff and Weiss, at least, had high stakes to work with; a Jon Snow sequel would take place in a Westeros where winter is over, the White Walkers are destroyed, and the jockeying for control of the Red Keep and
Seven Six Kingdoms is at least temporarily paused (though democratic reform was rejected, and the wheel wasn’t broken). Prequels often suffer from a lack of suspense because audiences know what comes next. A sequel to Thrones might suffer from a lack of suspense because whatever comes next likely couldn’t compare to the continents-spanning, existential struggle of its predecessor.
So what would happen in a Snow sequel? At the end of Thrones, Jon—who’s discovered he’s a Targaryen and reluctantly killed his hookup partner/aunt Dany—has been banished to the Night’s Watch by his biological cousin/adoptive half-brother Bran, the new king of the Six Kingdoms. In the last scene of the series, Jon, Ghost, and Tormund lead the wildlings into their territory beyond the Wall. In August 2019, Harington weighed in on where Jon was going and how he was feeling:
Seeing him go beyond the Wall back to something true, something honest, something pure with these people he was always told he belongs with—the Free Folk—it felt to me like he was finally free. Instead of being chained and sent to the Wall, it felt like he was set free. It was a really sweet ending. As much as he had done a horrible thing [in killing Daenerys], as much as he had felt that pain, the actual ending for him was finally being released.
Harington’s interpretation isn’t necessarily canon, of course, but he seemed pleased with how his character’s story ended, so he might not have signed on for a sequel that completely rewrote where his arc left off. Odds are, then, that Jon won’t decide that he does want it, turn right around, and ride south again in the first scene of the sequel. If he did, then the series’ scope might have to expand to include some of the other characters who outlived the Night King, such as the surviving Stark siblings (Arya, Bran, and Sansa), Sam, Tyrion, Brienne, Bronn, Gendry, and Davos. (Not to mention Drogon.)
Harington, who appeared in Eternals last year, has expressed complex feelings about the series that propelled him to prominence; he described an “onslaught of relief and grief” after finishing shooting, checked into a wellness retreat to deal with “personal issues,” and took a break from acting after the series wrapped. At the last table read, Harington said, “I love this show more than anything” and observed that it would “always be the greatest thing I will ever do or be a part of.” He later remarked that taking off Jon’s costume for the last time “felt like being skinned” (Theon could relate), adding, “I love him. I loved being him.” He’s also acknowledged that watching House of the Dragon might be difficult because of his emotional attachment to Thrones.
At other times, Harington hasn’t sounded like someone who would want to wear the cloak and sword again. In 2019, he talked about being “broken” by the final season and sounded pleased that “that weight is off my shoulders.” Last year, he said, “I went through some mental health difficulties after Thrones—and during the end of Thrones, to be honest. And I think it was directly to do with the nature of the show and what I’ve been doing for years.” In 2020, he dismissed the idea of playing Jon again, even in a cameo, declaring, “Would I want to go back and do more? Not on your life.” Nor did he even entertain the possibility of playing characters who resembled Jon Snow, saying, “Having portrayed a man who was silent, who was heroic, I feel going forward that is a role I don’t want to play anymore.”
Maybe spinoff Snow would be a changed man. If the series is a smaller-scale adventure contained in the lands Beyond the Wall, the cast could be smaller and less reliant on preexisting characters, and the tone a little lighter—not that the Thrones follow-up is likely to go full Jon-Tormund buddy comedy, endearing as that would be. “You don’t get to spend eight years being the most serious, grumpy human being on the planet without wanting to go and do something a bit lighter afterwards,” Harington said last year, adding in a different interview that he’d acted in an episode of Modern Love out of a desire to do “something that takes the weight off” and “something fun.” In addition to dialing down the darkness, the sequel could also have the latitude to be weirder in some ways; not only could Jon encounter giants, ice spiders, and grumkins and snarks, but perhaps he and Ghost could explore the warging relationship they had in the books but never developed on the screen. Does this sound like an essential postscript to the series that dominated TV in the 2010s? Not exactly. Could it be worth watching? Sure. Will its looming arrival overshadow the multiple lower-profile prequels that could be coming out before it? Potentially!
Near the end of Game of Thrones, Bran Stark asks Jaime Lannister, “How do you know there is an afterwards?” In Hollywood, you don’t have to have greensight to see sequels coming: You know you can count on an afterwards when what happened before got great ratings, generated copious subscriptions, and made billions in profit. In terms of popularity and cultural impact, there’s probably no “next Game of Thrones.” But a next series starring a Thrones icon looks closer to reality than it did a day ago.