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The Night is Dark and Full of Terrors: Ending "Game of Thrones"

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | June 13, 2012 |

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | June 13, 2012 |

By any metric - ratings, buzz, prestige, horse decapitations per season — Game of Thrones has established itself as one of the most popular shows on television. The ambitious fantasy extravaganza exploded in its second season — a series-high 4.2 million viewers watched the finale, up 38 percent from last year’s capper — to stealthily supplant “Boardwalk Empire” as HBO’s signature scripted offering and join “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” in the pantheon of modern event television. And due respect to Walter White and Don Draper, but they don’t have dragons. With a third season about to start production — and a fourth all but assured given the new two-year deals for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — this recent success appears to be the start of a long and prosperous journey for HBO.NBHBO

Well, maybe. One of the show’s quintessential themes, explained so succinctly by this season’s androgynous Arya Stark, is that anyone can be killed. In the coming years both HBO and “Game of Thrones” will face some difficult decisions about the show’s future, ones that will likely be made without all the pieces of the endgame fully evident. Below are the three largest foreseeable trouble spots, along with their likelihood of sabotaging the series before it reaches completion (defined as all seven of George R.R. Martin’s books depicted in some form). You’ll notice the absence of common gripes like piracy and aging. I’ve ignored these simply because they aren’t particularly crippling — the show thrives even in the face of rampant online torrenting and the young actors in the series are already much older than their counterparts on the page.

COST - There’s no way HBO can continue to fund Game of Thrones for another six-plus seasons

“Game of Thrones” is fucking expensive. Even by pay-cable standards, this series breaks the piggy bank so badly it leaves bones jutting through the porcelain. The first season set HBO back an estimated $60 million. The second, which received a 15 percent increase after Benioff and Weiss pleaded for the money needed to stage a proper Blackwater battle, delivered a tab just shy of $70 million. That’s an average $6.5 million per hour … so far. Why the qualifier? Well, remember the finale of the finale where ravenous snow-zombies ignored the fat-filled 400-pound Night’s Watchman cowering behind a rock so they could continue marching somewhere? Yeah, there’s a lot more of that as the books progress. In fact, the fantasy elements ramp up dramatically in the next three novels. The third, Storm of Swords, closes with a battle arguably more audacious — and certainly more difficult to film — than Blackwater. The world expands outside of Westeros to all corners of the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. Those dragons? They hit puberty. Quickly. All that means new sets, fresh actors and more visual effects work. The prospect of shelling out annual nine-figure budgets is enough to drive the bean counters to raging Xanax addictions.


The television world typically does a poor job of educating the average person as to how the success of a series translates into dollars. Movies have box office totals. Musicians can boast album sales and digital downloads. Television uses ratings as its default yardstick, a metric that’s not only antiquated but insufficient when trying to determine profitability.
For a pay-cable service like HBO there are three revenue streams — subscriber fees, DVD/Blu-ray sales and syndication rights. Forget subscriber fees for now as it’s far too difficult to attribute how much of an increase in subscribers, if any, is a result of one show in the portfolio. Home video sales are a different story. These are money faucets for premium cable services due to ownership rights that ensure them huge percentages of the gross sales; popular box sets can generate tens of millions of dollars on the back end. And “Game of Thrones” is very, very popular. After breaking HBO’s all-time first-week sales record, the first season went on to sell a total of 840,000 copies on DVD. Or, to put it another way, “Game of Thrones” DVDs made HBO almost $29 million. It earned another $29 million in Blu-ray sales in the first week of release. For those of you who don’t like the maths, HBO recouped the first season budget in home video sales alone. If HBO can maintain that pace it makes greenlighting massive expenditures in subsequent seasons that much more palatable.

Then there’s syndication. In 2005, A&E shelled out $2.5 million per episode for the rights to replay edited versions of Tony Soprano stuffing his piehole with gabagool. Even a conservative estimate puts “Game of Thrones” - another critically adored, highly rated serialized drama - well north of $3 million per. Assuming the series runs to completion with only the third book split across two years, “Game of Thrones” will have roughly 80 episodes to auction. That’s nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in sheer profit just by reselling existing content, more than enough to justify the upfront expenditures. Interest would have to tumble substantially for finances to play a role in cancellation.

LENGTH - The series is too long and too complex to see to fruition.

Five thousand and sixteen. No, that’s not the year Martin expects to complete his “Song of Ice and Fire” opus but the number of pages published so far. Obviously, adapting from source material this extensive requires a staggering time commitment.

Thus far the pattern has been one season per book. But that’s already changed. “Storm of Swords” is so dense and stuffed with major plot points that the producers announced season three would only cover the first half of the novel. The following two books — “A Feast for Crows” and “A Dance With Dragons” — are, respectively, the second-longest and longest books of the series thus far. Worse, they mostly take place concurrently rather than chronologically, likely necessitating a major merging of the narrative to avoid having prominent characters disappear for an entire year. With enough existing material to fuel the television series at least through 2016, does HBO really have the stomach for another three or four seasons beyond that?


If the show continues to print money and cultivate a rabid fanbase it will be exceedingly difficult for HBO to pull the plug. Nor would they want to. In the eyes of fans, HBO prematurely ending the series would be an offense on the level of clubbing a baby seal to death with a kitten. We live in a world where thousands of people mailed peanuts to a network in the hopes of keeping Skeet Ulrich on their television sets just a year longer. Successfully. Imagine the reaction if this show met a similar fate. Rubber heads on spikes sent to HBO offices? Network president Michael Lombardo’s name delivered up to the red god?

Furthermore, the adaptation doesn’t need to be as lengthy as the source material. “Storm” is the only novel that truly requires two years to bring to life. “Feast” has more fat than Precious watching Hard Boiled at a Cheesecake Factory. Trimming the story and folding the rest into “Dance” without losing the core characters/plot points is more than doable. Should HBO desire they could easily have the first five books of the series completed on screen by the end of 2016. However …

SOURCE MATERIAL - Martin takes eons to write and will never have the final two volumes ready when HBO needs them. Or ever.

Martin is not James Patterson, shitting out paint-by-numbers fiction twice a year. The dude writes like a tortoise on Ambien. After three books in a period of four years, Martin apparently decided, for whatever reason, to viciously and repeatedly sodomize the concept of deadlines. The gap between “Storm” and “Feast” was five years; “Feast” and “Dance” six. This pace becomes a problem when, say, a hugely popular television show is dependent on your source material to exist.

No release date currently exists for “The Winds of Winter,” the sixth book in the series. All anyone knows is that some of the chapters are written and that in an April webcast Martin mentioned that the final two books will weigh in around 1500 pages … each.

And then there’s mortality. As disquieting as it is to consider, there’s a possibility that the 63-year-old won’t live long enough to wrap the series. Martin resembles Santa Claus in many ways, particularly in the midsection, and the fact that he’s a Jets fan can’t thrill his cardiologist. Essentially, Martin could be one Mark Sanchezception away from expiration … and Sanchez throws a lot of interceptions. YOU’RE KILLING AN AMERICAN TREASURE, MARK! THINK BEFORE YOU RELEASE THE BALL!! Point is, there are real questions about both his capacity to have material ready when HBO needs it and his ability to finish it at all.


No one knows when the final two volumes will see the light of day. Given Martin’s traditional pace it’s highly unlikely that the series is complete by 2016, putting HBO in a very difficult position. Does the show go on hiatus and simply die on the vine? Do they stall and stretch the existing material as long as possible hoping “Winds” sees the light of day, exacerbating the aforementioned money/length problems? HBO can continue operating on a season-by-season basis if need be, although that practice opens the door for actor departures, budget fights, creative strife and all manner of other thorny issues. Absent firm release dates for the final two novels, though, they don’t have much choice. And what happens if another five years passes between the release of “Winds” and the final book of the series? Bottom line - if HBO runs out of literary road when they need it, the show is done.

However, should tragedy occur and Martin not live to complete his work, it’s hard to say how the network would proceed. Benioff and Weiss were given a detailed synopsis by Martin outlining the story and fates of the main characters should he pass away before the final two books are written, but questions of sensitivity and respect for the author’s wishes would force HBO to proceed carefully, if at all. On the other hand, in the event of Martin’s death “Game of Thrones” could become the only medium for anyone to learn how the epic concludes. In that scenario it’s almost impossible to imagine HBO taking the series off the air, particularly if it had the backing of Martin’s family.

It should be stressed that overall the series is in a fundamentally strong place and there’s little reason to worry for its short-term future. Then again, that’s just when most characters in “Game of Thrones” fall the hardest.

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