While GPF staff are always reading a great many books, we would be lying if we said that the content at the forefront of (most of) our minds this week was anything other than the finale of the eighth and final season of the HBO hit “Game of Thrones.” Our affection for the HBO series and the George R.R. Martin books that spawned it is no secret – we even wrote an April Fools’ Day piece dedicated to Westeros. While this may seem like a silly thing to dwell on, allow me to take a brief moment to explain why I think “Game of Thrones” is more than just another television drama. (Spoiler alert: If you have not seen the final episode or if you plan to watch the series, you should stop reading here.)
“Game of Thrones” lends itself especially well to the kind of work we do at GPF because it focuses as much on the impersonal forces that shape political leaders as it does on the stories of those leaders themselves. That is what allowed us to predict the ending of the story fairly accurately over two years ago. Martin, perhaps more so than any recent fantasy writer that comes to my mind, created a fantasy world with real-world politics. Yes, there are dragons and zombies and plenty of resurrections, but fundamentally, “Game of Thrones” is a show about politics, one that’s as adept at depicting the salacious political backstabbing of King’s Landing as the balance of power between the various kingdoms and the structural realities that dictated the wars between them.
“Game of Thrones” became a global phenomenon. HBO is an American television network, and Martin is a nerd who was born in New Jersey. But “Game of Thrones” attracted the attention of viewers worldwide. I know this because I travel quite a lot, often presenting GPF views at various conferences – and “Game of Thrones” would often come up after the conference was finished and while the participants were enjoying each others’ company. I even met a man in Israel who told me that while his English had been passable before he discovered “Game of Thrones,” he decided to seriously study English only because he wanted to understand “Game of Thrones” in the language in which it was created.
Why has “Game of Thrones” had such an effect on so many of us political junkies? This is a question I have asked myself many times since I first binge-watched the first four seasons of the series in 2014. The answer matters, because the stories we choose to tell ourselves say something deep about us. Stories like Game of Thrones are successful not because they are shocking or full of nudity, but because they hit at something rawer and more visceral: our loves and our fears, our hopes and our dreams, our disappointments and our desires. When “Game of Thrones” was at its best, it showed just how the road to hell gets paved with good intentions; how so much of what happens to an individual is based on chance, not destiny; how even the greatest heroes have to wade through the muck and the blood and the same moral dilemmas as those who history remembers as the villains.
Last week, when I was going through my Monday morning stack of reading, I was struck by a newspaper report about the Iranian government’s attempt to stop cafes in Tehran from hosting “Game of Thrones” screenings. What was striking wasn’t the government’s desire to control what people were watching, but the fact that cafes in Tehran were hosting the same kind of watch parties that I was hosting here in my own home in Texas.
I confess that I don’t know what this means yet, if it even means anything. (I expect some of you will tell me it means nothing and will be mad at me for wasting your time writing about “Game of Thrones.”) But what I do know is that, at least for a brief hour per week over the past several years, millions of people in the world were telling themselves the same story. Even more remarkable, it was a story about the uglier, less savory side of politics, set in a world modeled on medieval Europe, with some dragons added in for good measure, that had so many people from so many different backgrounds similarly enthralled.
Somehow, this strange world of Westeros managed to strike a deep chord in many of us about some aspect of political life that is universally experienced. But now the heroes are gone, and the government of King’s Landing has gotten back to mundane administrative duties like improving the water cisterns, repaving the roads, importing food – and so must we all, too.
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis