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In the Game of Streaming, You Either Win or You Die

Prime Video has spent nearly a billion dollars to ensure that ‘The Rings of Power’ is the next ‘Game of Thrones.’ There’s just one little thing standing in its way: ‘House of the Dragon,’ the literal next installment of ‘Game of Thrones.’

Amazon/HBO/Ringer illustration

When HBO premiered Game of Thrones in 2011, the show was hardly a sure bet. The network best known for prestige crime dramas like The Sopranos and The Wire didn’t seem like a natural fit for a sprawling fantasy series, let alone one with an original pilot so infamously terrible that it had to be almost entirely reshot. (If Warner Bros. Discovery wants to chip away at its massive debt, the company should make the first Thrones pilot available on-demand in all its awful glory.) HBO’s faith in Thrones was ultimately rewarded: The show became the most decorated prime-time series in Emmys history and earned a level of cultural significance that’s nearly impossible to attain in the modern, fractured television landscape. But while there was no small-screen precedent for Thrones, its mainstream appeal was still comparable to another fantasy franchise that captured the zeitgeist in the early aughts: The Lord of the Rings.

Despite Westeros being considerably more bleak and brutal than Middle Earth, George R.R. Martin has repeatedly cited the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s series on his own work. (Those R’s aren’t a coincidence.) And just as Thrones cleaned up at the Emmys, Peter Jackson’s trilogy adaptation won the adoration of the Academy: In all, the trilogy captured 17 Oscars, with The Return of the King winning all 11 it was nominated for in 2004, including Best Picture. Also pretty important: The trilogy collectively grossed nearly $3 billion at the worldwide box office.

But if The Lord of the Rings helped pave the way for fantasy adaptations like Thrones to get off the ground, it’s only fitting that the HBO series returns the favor. On Friday, Amazon’s Prime Video will debut the first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the long-awaited payoff to the company’s $250 million acquisition of the television rights for the franchise in 2017. Throw in the actual cost of the production and Amazon has already footed a $715 million (!) bill for The Rings of Power, making it the most expensive season of television ever made. It’s an unconscionable amount of money to spend on a series, and with Amazon reportedly committed to five seasons, The Rings of Power will sail past the billion-dollar mark in no time. (The second season begins filming in October.)

Setting aside that Jeff Bezos could spend more than a billion dollars without ever worrying about his company’s bottom line, the conditions responsible for The Rings of Power are a direct result of Thrones’ transformation into a cultural (and commercial) force. Now, fantasy series as far-ranging as The Witcher, The Wheel of Time, and The Sandman are vying for the streaming equivalent of the Iron Throne. Bezos himself made it clear that he wanted Amazon to create the next Game of Thrones, and with The Rings of Power, he’s betting on Tolkien’s expansive universe to attract an audience similar in size to the one that made the journey to theaters for a taste of Middle Earth. The only problem for Amazon and other streamers is that the same franchise that kick-started television’s fantasy boom is also trying to keep hold of the crown. The next Game of Thrones might very well be, well, the next Game of Thrones.

Two weeks into its run, the Thrones prequel House of the Dragon has already taken HBO by storm. The series, which charts the fall of the mighty House Targaryen from the height of their powers—hint: here be dragons—had the biggest premiere in the network’s history, and followed that up with slightly higher ratings in its second week. (Unsurprisingly, the show has been renewed for a second season.) Any concerns that the underwhelming end to Thrones would dampen the mood for a prequel Martin has memorably coined “Hot D” have been put to bed—now, the question is less about whether the franchise has a future and more about how many spinoffs HBO can get off the ground.

This is the result HBO had in mind when it set the premiere date for House of the Dragon. With The Rings of Power’s release date set in stone nearly a year in advance, HBO looked at the calendar and, rather than steer away from the storm, chose to steer directly into it. By setting Dragon’s premiere for August 21, HBO guaranteed two-plus weeks of unfettered press running right into Rings’ release and set up a highly competitive scenario in which the two shows’ finales would be released within days of each other. (For its part, Amazon took that blow and then made its own adjustments, choosing to release the first two episodes of its series on the same day to ensure that Rings will end before Dragon does.) And sure enough, the success of House of the Dragon has somewhat knocked the wind out of Amazon’s sails before The Rings of Power has even gotten the chance to impress viewers.

Nevertheless, House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power will have seven weeks of overlap during their respective schedules—at which point even more comparisons will be drawn between the two. But while HBO was surely being opportunistic in choosing to air House of the Dragon before The Rings of Power, the minds behind both shows have downplayed the notion of a rivalry. “We’re not even on the same night!” Martin told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s not a death match or anything. I wish them success. I hope they wish for our success. We don’t have to be bracketed together.” On a more vaguely reconciliatory note, The Rings of Power co-showrunner J.D. Payne offered well wishes to “anyone else working on storytelling.”

Of course, nobody responsible for these shows can control the cultural conversation surrounding them, and given that they’re both about competing for power—be it a throne or rings that decide the fate of a realm—there’s a natural inclination to declare a “winner.” But the mind games concerning the rollout of both shows has certainly invited competition, no matter how much Martin tries to deny it. As HBO chief content officer Casey Bloys coyly told The Hollywood Reporter like a mischievous member of the Small Council: “It’s nice we ended up being a couple weeks ahead of time.” However, with one series just two episodes into its run and the other still yet to premiere, it’s way too early to announce a verdict. In the meantime, it’s worth considering what Martin is preaching: the idea that these shows can coexist.

For as much as Martin was inspired by Tolkien, the world of Westeros couldn’t be more different from Middle Earth in how it’s portrayed on screen, with wanton violence and backstabbing being the norm. (House of the Dragon has already lived up to the billing with fatal C-sections, men being fed to crabs, and an on-screen castration.) Conversely, even with fearsome orcs and monsters like the Shelob, The Lord of the Rings coasted on more wholesome vibes through the sincerity of its heroes’ moral convictions; Martin couldn’t subvert fantasy tropes without Tolkien establishing them in the first place. By all accounts, The Rings of Power continues the tradition of Middle Earth earnestness, making it as different in tone from House of the Dragon as a nihilistic comedy like Veep is to Ted Lasso.

A peaceful coexistence between the two series would certainly benefit HBO and Prime Video, which could both use a win. For HBO, House of the Dragon’s early success has been a welcome reprieve from an otherwise tumultuous period at parent company Warner Bros. Discovery as it attempts to cut costs ahead of an impending streaming merger between Discovery+ and HBO Max. (It feels oddly appropriate to have Targaryens taking over HBO when the rest of Warner Bros. Discovery is on fire.) Meanwhile, with the possible exception of The Boys, Prime Video has never managed to create an original hit anywhere near the level of Thrones. Even if the company faces far fewer financial concerns than competitors—Amazon is doing just fine no matter how its streamer performs—it will want to prove that The Rings of Power is worth its enormous price tag.

In any event, House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power have plenty of runway to win over audiences thanks to their early renewals—becoming the next fantasy megahit will be a marathon, not a sprint. And while the minds behind both shows might downplay a potential rivalry, their respective success (or lack thereof) seems destined to be intertwined in the years to come. If the worlds of Westeros and Middle Earth have taught us anything, it’s that times of peace will inevitably be disrupted by conflict.