Production on “Game of Thrones” season eight is winding down. In a few weeks’ time, filming for the final season of HBO’s flagship program will be finished. Naturally, this means it’s time for HBO to begin greenlighting a spin-off series (or four). The channel’s stock is so Westeros dependent, it took the unprecedented step of commissioning no less than five scripts — all prequels and all spanning different historical eras of George R.R. Martin’s sprawling world — in the hopes of being able to come up with at least one success.
But in the end, the first HBO pilot greenlight was bestowed on the safest choice available, a retread of the original show with one important distinction: It will be written and run by a woman.
Because Martin hasn’t finished his series, a sequel series is not possible for HBO. There is a lot of information for prequels — but they remain hard to pull off, especially when showrunners try to tell a new tale. From the “Star Wars” prequels (including “Solo”) and “The Hobbit” trilogy to the "Battlestar Galactica" spin-off “Caprica” and the “Star Trek” flop “Enterprise,” the landscape is littered with failures.
Given this history, Jane Goldman, a screenwriter for “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kick-Ass,” has wisely decided to start with a safer route. Unlike most of the other options currently in development, Goldman’s prequel does not attempt to tell a new story, instead choosing to develop history repeating itself the first time. It is a plot retread of the current show, with heroic Starks, scheming Lannisters, a continent uniting, but with one epic difference: no dragons. By removing the budget-busting CGI creatures from the narrative, Goldman is smartly creating a series for HBO that won’t break the bank.
But the selection of Goldman is important for another reason. Based on Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels, “Game of Thrones” is perhaps one of the most popular and yet frustrating shows of our era. One of the original story’s key themes is how toxic masculinity and the patriarchy are as responsible for the violence and pain of this world as any war. The show, written and directed by men, has consistently failed to communicate this, instead focusing on the over-the-top horrors of the patriarchy like rape, as if to celebrate them. In doing so, it has repeatedly undermined its own attempts to examine the ways women can attain and use power in a patriarchal culture. In the #MeToo era, this simply doesn't fly anymore.
HBO is infamous for gratuitous nudity and sex in its prestige TV offerings, arguably starting with “Oz’s” debut in the late 1990s. But given the consistent criticism of the show’s treatment of female characters, HBO’s decision to entrust its first spin-off to Goldman is hardly an accident.
On the air for the better part of a decade, “Game of Thrones” straddled a sea change in our culture. Back in 2011, the male showrunners openly bragged about their use of women as a way to spice up plot exposition scenes. But the show's final season will play out in a very different pop culture landscape — one in which fantasy that doesn’t diversify doesn’t sell, and where plot points that lean on rape and the exploitation of women aren’t automatically accepted as necessary.
Over the years this societal shift has been reflected — albeit subtly — in the show itself. Scenes that once might have heavily featured objectified, naked female bodies started using clothed characters instead. In one orgiastic nudity tableau, a male character, once a partaker, now appeared horrified, and more sex scenes have occurred in the context of loving committed relationships. Seems like (incremental) change is possible, after all.
Though it may seem like everyone talks about it incessantly, “Game of Thrones” is not the most watched show on TV. Its social cachet, on the other hand, is essentially unparalleled. (While it sounds like a joke, I’m not kidding when I say I have no idea what entertainment sites did for traffic before “Game of Thrones” arrived.) It is therefore extraordinarily important for HBO to get this right, and it seems clear that executives feel having a woman’s point of view incorporated early and often is one way to make sure past mistakes aren't repeated.
Ultimately, bestowing the first pilot on Jane Goldman is a good sign, both for fans of the series and for HBO. It suggests not only that HBO has taken the complaints about “Game of Thrones” to heart, but also that it is ready and willing to change with the times. Even Lucasfilm hasn’t made that leap yet.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.