The next TV series from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of Game of Thrones, will be an alternate-history drama depicting an America in which the southern states won the Civil War and slavery is still legal, HBO announced yesterday. In this timeline, slavery, the official premise states, “has evolved into a modern institution.”
Called Confederate, the show will also feature a “Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone” separating the northern and southern United States. Characters will range from freedom fighters to slave hunters to the “executives of a slave-holding conglomerate.” Confederate will begin production when Benioff and Weiss are finished with Thrones, which is scheduled to end in 2018 or 2019.
HBO’s announcement was met on social media with a collective groan. In fact, the backlash was so swift and so widespread that HBO must have anticipated it. Confederate seems tailor-made to incite vitriol—particularly in the current US political climate. HBO chose to announce the show now, while Benioff and Weiss are still in the midst of running Game of Thrones, instead of in a year or two when it might have been able to provide more information.
Twitter was inundated with takes on the show’s premise, almost all of them critical. One common refrain was that Benioff and Weiss, the creators of a show with race (and sexual violence) problems of its own, are not the right people to make a show about modern-day slavery. Others said that they were simply tired of sensationalized slave narratives, especially when there’s still so much race inequality in America today that can be traced back directly to slavery and the Jim Crow laws.
Perhaps to assuage concerns, HBO pointed out in its press release that Nichelle and Malcolm Spellman, who are black, will partner with Benioff and Weiss as writers and producers on the series. Nichelle is a veteran of FX’s fantastic series Justified, while Malcolm has written for Fox’s Empire.
The premise of Confederate, at the very least, acknowledges that slavery was the root of the American Civil War. Despite the name, it seems unlikely the series will humor the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” a thoroughly debunked (yet still widely held) belief that the southern states seceded from the union to preserve their way of living, not the institution of slavery.
Still, the idea of a reality in which the southern states wield power and slavery still exists (and all played for entertainment) has understandably ruffled feathers. For some, the show inherently can’t justify its right to exist, even if it’s written carefully, respectfully, and with a firm grasp of slavery’s history and legacy.
An alternate timeline in which the south won the American Civil War has been covered before in the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, which was generally well-received by film critics. Ben Winters’ 2016 novel Underground Airlines was similarly controversial in that it involved a white writer imagining a US in which slavery still exists.
Confederate joins Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle as recent TV dramas to explore alternate histories of the United States. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a near-future US that has been taken over by a totalitarian theocracy that forces women into sexual servitude. The Man in the High Castle imagines what might have happened if the Axis Powers won World War II and occupied the US. Neither show has met with nearly the amount of backlash Confederate received in just a few hours. HBO has not responded to a request for comment.