Alternate histories are hot right now. Take 2017’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in which a cadre of Christian fundamentalists seize power in the US, stripping women of most of their basic human rights. Or Amazon’s recent spin on Philip K. Dick’s dystopian nightmare The Man In The High Castle. That series imagines the Nazis as World War II victors in control of the the eastern United States (with Japan ruling over the West Coast). Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are the next team in line slated to write, produce and run a series that flips history on its head—but is that such a good idea?
Confederate, like GoT, will air on HBO beginning some time after that show’s eighth season wraps up (we still don’t know whether that will be in 2018 or 2019). The premise, says the network, is this: “Confederate chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”
“We have discussed Confederate for years,” say Benioff and Weiss, “originally as a feature film. But our experience on Thrones has convinced us that no one provides a bigger, better storytelling canvas than HBO. There won’t be dragons or White Walkers in this series, but we are creating a world.”
While we’re waiting until the premiere to render a final verdict, we do have questions. Chiefly, is this a world we need on television right now? And can it be done in a sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent way that takes into account the fact that, for many people who experience racial and ethnic inequality in very real ways every day, this alternate history doesn’t feel that far removed from actual history and the current political climate in the US? Finally: are two white men really the right people to be leading the charge towards this risky, problematic subject?
The reaction on social media has been icier than a horde of White Walkers. While there’s no doubt that Benioff and Weiss are deft hands at managing sprawling epics with huge casts and an intimidating number of interconnected storylines, their current show has been a target for criticism when it comes to issues like gender and race. (See: pretty white lady Daenerys Targaryen cruising around the Seven Kingdoms freeing slaves like a blonde, benevolent god—so that they can join her army. No presh though!)
— Zora Neale Hustlin’ (@MarsinCharge) July 19, 2017
For the GoT team to pull it off, they’ll need to tread lightly and very carefully. To that end, they’ve brought on a pair of writers (Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman) who can broaden the range of viewpoints. But Confederate will have to do more than that. Unlike Game of Thrones, set in a world imagined completely from scratch by George RR Martin, this show will have ties to reality—both historical and modern day. That means that it takes on the responsibility of having to directly comment on the state of race relations in America. In other words, it needs to say something. Otherwise, what’s the point?