Game of Thrones wraps up its fifth season this Sunday, sending fans of HBO’s epic fantasy back into another year of sobbing and hair-pulling until it returns in 2016. Sure, anyone suffering Westeros withdrawals could always read (or reread) George R.R. Martin’s excellent books that inspired the show, but those tomes aren’t exactly a small time commitment, and we know you people are busy, what with your jobs and your families and your social media fiddling. (Other former fans of the show have given up on watching it after a few highly controversial scenes in this most recent season.)
Thankfully the streaming landscape is vast and full of possibilities, and those possibilities include several suitable Game of Thrones substitutes. We can’t promise you dragons, but we can promise you all the intrigue, violence, and sex you can stomach … and four shows you really ought to watch regardless of whether Game of Thrones is even on your radar.
1) Rome (2005-2007)
Along with Deadwood and Carnivale, Rome was the byproduct of an era when HBO was on a tear producing ambitiously budgeted historical dramas—before HBO’s accountants noticed that ambitiously budgeted historical dramas were really damn expensive. Like Game of Thrones, Rome involves a huge cast of characters, byzantine political machinations, and all the betrayal and double-crossing you’d expect from a show about the glory days of the empire. The two seasons unfold during Julius Caesar’s civil war and in the aftermath of his assassination, with a pair of soldiers named Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) serving as the show’s narrative anchors. Their lives wind through and provide context for all the pseudo-historical shenanigans.
The show’s production values are lush and gorgeous, serving up a Rome that’s every bit as convincing as any incarnation of the empire ever put to the silver screen. The scripts nicely balance the political scheming against the more personal stakes, and there’s plenty of the good old-fashioned sex and violence HBO has made its staple for several decades now. The real stars of the show, however, are the stars of the show: McKidd and Stevenson are hugely entertaining, and it’s their Forest Gumping through the background of history that gives Rome its heart and soul. Sadly, only two seasons were produced, and although there were rumors of a spin-off movie, it never materialized.
Where to watch: Both seasons of Rome are available on Amazon Prime.
2) The Tudors (2007-2010)
Showtime spent a long time alternately trying to rise out of the shadow of HBO or beat it at its own game, and The Tudors was a case of the former. Right as HBO’s Deadwood/Rome era was drawing to a close, Showtime stepped up to the plate with The Tudors, focusing on the lusty and turbulent reign of King Henry VIII of England (played with scenery-chewing glee by Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The show was created by Michael Hirst, who knows a thing or two about crafting addictive historical drama: He’s also responsible for both of the excellent Elizabeth films that starred Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I, and he later went on to create Showtime’s The Borgias (also worth your time and available on Netflix).
If you remember anything at all about Henry VIII from history class, it’s likely his six wives and their tendency to meet unfortunate ends. Unsurprisingly, Henry’s love life plays a major role in The Tudors, and part of the fun is getting to meet each new wife—especially the ones you know are on a collision course with tragedy (Game of Thrones’ own Natalie Dormer plays the infamous Anne Boleyn). Meyers himself is a riot, making Henry a love-to-hate-him figure who wouldn’t know a moment of true introspection if it was coming at him with a headsman’s axe. And hey, there’s future Superman Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk!
Where to watch: All four seasons are available on Netflix Instant.
3) Spartacus: War of the Damned (2010-2013)
Starz’s Spartacus presents a very different, much more stylized take on the empire than HBO’s Rome, but it’s no less entertaining. If you’ve never seen the show, do yourself a favor and don’t let the mediocre first episode drive you away; this is a series that becomes exponentially better in its second episode and just keeps improving throughout its outstanding first season. The show follows the betrayal, capture, and enslavement as a gladiator of the man who would come to be known as Spartacus, and how his personal quest of vengeance eventually ignites a fire that burns into the very heart of Rome.
Spartacus features easily the best action of any show on this list, with gladiatorial combat sequences that unfold as beautifully choreographed ballets that just keep one-upping themselves in creative ways to destroy the human form. More importantly, the entire series is anchored by a stellar cast, headed in the first season by the late Andy Whitfield, a magnificently talented and charismatic actor who was felled by cancer just as he was poised to become a huge star. He brings a such a sense of vulnerability and humanity to Spartacus that it’s hard not to feel bad for his eventual replacement, actor Liam McIntyre, who does a solid job but simply can’t compare to Whitfield’s performance.
Thankfully, there’s plenty of reason to stick around for the full series run, not least the brilliantly John Hannah and Lucy Lawless as one of the most entertaining on-screen couples you’ll ever encounter. The show also does the cycle of betrayal and comeuppance better than just about any other, and it’s enormously satisfying when justice finally catches up with some of its more delightfully despicable characters.
Where to watch: All three seasons and the prequel miniseries Gods of the Arena are available on Netflix Instant. (N.B. Watch Gods second, in the order it was originally aired. It takes place before the first season, but also contains some spoilers you won’t want spoiled.)
4) Vikings (2013-present)
And The Tudors’ Michael Hirst makes a second appearance on this list with Vikings. What can we say? The guy gives good historical drama. Vikings is based on the sagas of the legendary hero Ragnar Lothbrok, who pops up repeatedly in Norse poetry. He made England and France’s lives miserable with his raiding/pillaging acumen, and eventually he became the king of freaking Denmark. He was also, according to the tales, killed by being tossed into a pit of snakes. (I’m going to assume those snakes were all on fire, and that he ate at least 90 percent of them before finally succumbing to his wounds. Also, if this show doesn’t eventually end with that pit of snakes, I’m going to be very disappointed.)
Similarly to Spartacus, Vikings introduces us to its main character long before be became the subject of folklore and tall tales. Travis Fimmel’s Ragnar starts as a farmer, but destiny calls after success as a raider puts him at odds with his Earl (Gabriel Byrne), setting off an exercise in penis measurement that can only end in violence. Fimmel is devilishly likeable in the lead, but just as compelling is Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha, Ragnar’s first wife and a shieldmaiden destined for power in her own right. Game of Thrones has no shortage of strong, badass female characters, and Lagertha would undoubtedly enjoy swapping notes with Daenerys Targaryen if given the chance. (Another standout is George Blagden as Athelstan, an Anglo-Saxon monk Ragnar takes as a slave and whose embattled faith while immersed in Viking culture is one of the more interesting elements of the show.)
Where to watch: Amazon Prime has exclusive streaming rights to the show’s first three seasons. A fourth season is due on the History Channel in 2016.
Screengrab via elf holbrook/YouTube