The epic series notorious for shocking deaths is starting to plan for its own inevitable demise.
Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have previously stated they’re hoping to conclude the show with seven seasons. A few months ago, HBO took a step toward reaching that mark by optioning the cast for another two rounds. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Benioff says. “We still have a long way to go and things to figure out, but we definitely know where we’re heading and the major end-beats.”
But wait: Is HBO really prepared to commit to a 2017 end date for the most popular show in the company’s history?
Not exactly. Or rather: They prefer not to, but will if they must.
“This is the hard part of what we do,” sighs HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. “We started this journey with David and Dan. It’s their vision. Would I love the show to go 10 years as both a fan and a network executive? Absolutely.”
So if the producers prefer seven seasons and HBO prefers more, what happens? A conversation. Perhaps more than one. Like amicable spouses who avoid a sensitive area of disagreement, this issue is something HBO and the showrunners haven’t discussed thus far (“So about season seven–” / “Hey look, a dragon!”). “We’ll have an honest conversation that explores all possible avenues,” Lombardo says. “If they weren’t comfortable going beyond seven seasons, I trust them implicitly and trust that’s the right decision—as horrifying as that is to me. What I’m not going to do is have a show continue past where the creators believe where they feel they’ve finished with the story.”
And then there is that pesky movie idea. George R.R. Martin is among those who have lobbied for concluding the series with a feature film. It would mark a rare and risky TV-to-film leap, but Thrones plays like a movie already and has a huge and passionate global audience. The recent IMAX limited release of Game of Thrones generated an impressive $1.9 million at the box office for showing two repeats of the series in 205 theaters across Super Bowl weekend.
HBO isn’t keen on a Thrones film even if it’s a potential box office blockbuster, however, because the format switch could be construed as snubbing their loyal subscribers. (The showrunners won’t comment on the matter.) “Certainly there have been conversations where it’s been said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do that?’” Lombardo said. “But when you start a series with our subscribers, the promise is that for your HBO fee that we’re going to take you to the end of this. I feel that on some level [a movie would be] changing the rules: Now you have to pay $16 to see how your show ends.”
Yet another possibility is that HBO might opt to extend Thrones with a spin-off. There have been no specific conversations on that front as of yet, though Martin has a development deal at the network. The author is currently writing the next book in his saga, although at this point he’s not expected to keep pace with the show. (Martin has two books remaining and no publication dates in sight.) Since the showrunners know Martin’s master story plan, they’re preparing to plow ahead into some new, unpublished narrative territory next year — assuming Martin doesn’t get The Winds of Winter out before next spring.
Perhaps the most likely outcome for the end of Thrones is having an extended, split-run seventh and final season — where more episodes are ordered than Thrones‘ usual 10, but half air one year and half air the next. This would get HBO another “season” without having to renegotiate with the cast since all the episodes are technically part of the seventh round they’re already optioned for. AMC employed this strategy with the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but HBO used this technique first with the sixth and final season of The Sopranos, which consisted of 21 episodes instead of the usual 13. Additionally distributing the final two hours beyond HBO with some sort of theatrical run for fans who want to see it in the theater wouldn’t be surprising, either.
For now, the showrunners will only say that giving Thrones the strongest possible ending is their biggest priority. “We want to go out on our absolute highest note,” Weiss says. “We don’t want people to finally see the end and say, ‘Thank god that’s over.’” Adds Benioff: “We know basically how many hours are left in this story. We don’t want to add 10 hours to that. It’s about finding that sweet spot so it works for us and for HBO and, most of all, it works for the audience.”
For more Game of Thrones, pick up this week’s double issue where we go behind the scenes of season 5 across three countries for 30 pages of content about the show’s past, present and future. Get the issue here or subscribe to EW instantly and get every issue on tablet and in print. For ongoing Thrones scoop, follow @jameshibberd.