Padraig Butler doesn’t quite recall when he became God Emperor of the Brotherhood Without Banners. For the past 18 years, the 43-year-old aviation forecast manager has made an annual pilgrimage to Worldcon, the science fiction and fantasy convention, to celebrate the work of A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin. And it was almost 18 years ago when he first traveled from his hometown of Dublin, Ireland, to Philadelphia that he began the journey to God Emperor.
As the story goes, the newly minted organization—named after an outlaw group in the book series—had organized a party in honor of Martin. After an evening of drinking, one well-served fan known on online forums as Aghrivaine (and whose real name is David Krieger) presented the author with a sword and asked to be knighted. The author agreed under one stipulation: that Krieger and the other revelers join him on a 1 a.m. “quest” to Pat’s King of Steaks. That night, after about 20 BWB members filled their stomachs with the local fare, they were dubbed the Knights of Cheesesteak.
In the early years of the book fan club, when the size of Brotherhood Without Banners meetings was still manageable, these food-centric titles became a badge of honor. (See: the Knights of Poutine, the Knights of Deep Dish, the Knights of Haggis, and, regrettably, the Knights of the Dumpster). Per Martin’s decree, additional honors were added to recognize participation. A member who had attended at least three major BWB meet-ups would be dubbed a lord. After five, a prince. And after seven, king. Butler has been to 16 Worldcons and about 100 other Thrones-related conventions and ad hoc get-togethers, securing his kingdom, on top of his cheesesteak knighthood, a long time ago. “Eventually George was asked, what do we call Padraig now?” Butler recalls. “He said: ‘That’s it. He’s a king. He will stay king until somebody removes him from his throne.’” Butler doesn’t have any plans to stop going. “Now people just say: ‘You’re God Emperor.’”
Butler has visited a total of 12 countries and four continents to meet with his fellow bannermen, building an international social network worthy of an ordained world leader. And thanks to a nexus of technology and entertainment, the indie book series he fell in love with in the ’90s has become a kind of cultural passport, both a reason to see the world and a way to connect with the people in it.
Over the years, he has also watched in awe as Game of Thrones has exploded into an omnipresent piece of pop culture before his very eyes. One day he’d board a train to see multiple passengers reading Martin’s books. Then he’d look up to see giant billboards advertising the premiere date of HBO’s adaptation. Eventually his colleagues at the airport even began discussing the show as a source of tourism. (A 110,000-square-foot attraction called the Game of Thrones Studio Tour will open in Ireland in spring 2020.) After nearly 20 years of celebrating the series, and seeing it morph into a best-selling book series, television show, extended universe, and commercial advertising powerhouse, it’s still hard for him to process the franchise’s reach. “It’s kind of like: Whoa, this is everywhere now.”
April 9, 2019
This month, HBO will premiere the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, a television adaptation based on Martin’s books that, by all measurements, has become a monolithic global and cultural sensation. Numberswise, the show is a prestige TV anomaly. It premiered in April 2011 to an average 2.22 million live viewers, and, according to Nielsen, its audience has grown by the millions every season since. The Season 7 finale broke a series record for ratings, drawing 15.4 million viewers across live television, HBO Go streaming, and the company’s stand-alone subscription app, HBO Now, in a single night. (That year, HBO had about 54 million subscribers worldwide.)
Thrones is also the most consistently stolen show in the world. Since 2012, the series has topped TorrentFreak’s annual “most pirated” television list every year it has run a new season. And after a handful of high-profile hacks and episode leaks in 2017, its seventh season finale was immediately passed around by 400,000 people as soon as it was released online. The series has inspired such impressive theft that media researchers have devised a patent-pending system to track the torrenting numbers and locations of its final season in real time. “There’s no question in my mind the final season of Game of Thrones is going to be the most downloaded show ever,” Abigail De Kosnik, a co-lead on the effort, called the Alpha60 Research Project, recently told me.
If we were to rely on numbers alone to determine the most culturally significant series in the past decade, this piece might be about The Big Bang Theory. (The latter sitcom averaged about 20.4 million viewers by its ninth season.) But the gradual rise of David Benoiff and D.B Weiss’s fantasy epic has managed to cast a dragon’s shadow on pop culture and the media that covers it. Thrones’ near-permanent footing in the zeitgeist has just as much to do with its audience’s near-constant dialogue with the show as it does the size of the audience. And the audience’s near-constant dialogue with the show is inextricable from the shifting technological and cultural forces that have supercharged entertainment media and enabled the far reach of social networks. “Friends and Seinfeld were huge, but Game of Thrones is different in scope,” Joanna Robinson, a television critic for Vanity Fair, told me. “We’re able to see how far-reaching Game of Thrones is throughout the world, that everyone’s watching the same thing together. There’s so much power in that.”
In penetrating the public’s subconscious, Thrones has risen to a new level of global monoculture and become the de facto water-cooler topic of the decade. The series’ mix of detailed mythology and historically influenced political intrigue makes it a worthy story topic for both a subredditor and The New Yorker’s television critic. And its characters and themes have grown so recognizable that they’ve proved as effective at selling Johnnie Walker as they have in communicating foreign policy, however politically horrifying that may be. Thanks to a following that has organized around the original book series since the early days of the internet, and a media environment that thrives on obsessive fandom, Game of Thrones the show has become a launchpad for careers, consumer products, and entire online ecosystems. (Not to mention a particularly passionate subsection of coverage here at The Ringer.)
But as technology continues to shape entertainment, it’s become increasingly difficult for studios to re-create the gargantuan success of a franchise like Game of Thrones. The internet has spawned a hyperactive attention economy that has revolutionized both the content people consume and how they consume it. As on-demand streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Apple pour their riches into the entertainment arms race, both the budgets and standard of quality for television have been raised. At the same time, viewership data and recommendation algorithms have driven studios to make shows that are far more fractured and niche. “We’ve moved from three, four broadcast networks on to hundreds of cable channels on to single digital platforms that offer you a huge plethora of choices across its hundreds of millions of subscribers,” said Dan Cryan, the research director of digital media for London-based research firm IHS Markit. As tech corporations extend their reach to all entertainment, the same pattern is playing out for movies, music, and magazines.
As a result, the overwhelming popularity of Game of Thrones has become rare in any genre. As my colleague Alison Herman noted in 2017, “Thrones is the last vestige of the monoculture, a dying and distinct model with its own advantages and blind spots.” How, exactly, did the show ride the technological and cultural waves of a shifting media ecosystem to become the most beloved, most despised, most everything show of all time? The answer is best summed up by one of the series’ shrewdest maxims: “Chaos is a ladder.”
In 1997, Linda Antonsson was browsing her local bookstore in Gothenburg, Sweden, when she came across a paperback version of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. It was the first entry in what the author predicted would be a trilogy titled A Song of Ice and Fire, and it told the story of several great houses volleying for power across the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos, told from the perspective of a handful of compelling characters. The book had debuted the previous year to little fanfare. “It hadn’t really made much of a splash in hardcover,” Antonsson recalls. But when she started reading it, she was hooked.
Nobody else she knew had read the book, so she turned to the internet in search of other Martin fans—what was a relatively new experience in the ’90s. “I’d read a lot of fantasy but I never had anyone to talk fantasy with,” she told me. “I had all these things that I wanted to discuss and no one to talk to.” Swedish citizens weren’t able to acquire their own dial-up connections until 1995; before that, Antonsson would occasionally log on at the computer center of her university, where she was studying classical archeology. When she finally scored a personal internet connection, she surfed from bulletin board to bulletin board, discussing everything from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time book series. “It was an amazing world to get into, to be able to find all these people who shared your interest about these things that felt rather obscure.”
Through these early-internet forums, Antonsson also discovered ElendorMUSH, a text-based, multiplayer role-playing game that simulated the Middle Earth environment described in Tolkien’s novels. (The term MUSH stands for “multi-user shared hallucination.” This was before World of Warcraft, when computers did not have powerful graphics cards and gamers had to use their imaginations.) It was there, in the “culture” Antonsson joined, that she’d met Elio García. At the time, García was studying English literature and medieval history at the University of Miami. And the two had spent the past few years parsing the finer details of Middle Earth on Usenet threads, the precursors to online forums. After finishing A Game of Thrones, Antonsson convinced a skeptical García to read it too.
Soon they were stanning together. In 1998, the internet was largely being used as an information-finding utility rather than a social network. But with the help of a few AltaVista searches, the two found as many Game of Thrones fan forums as they could. Among their results were Dragonstone, which García recalls was run on a shaky internet connection in Australia; Harrenhal, which was built upon the Lycos web services platform Angelfire (and somehow still exists today); and a forum called A Song of Ice and Fire, run by a user named “Revanshe.” This was around the time the entertainment world was just beginning to understand the marketing power of mythology on the internet. And from poking around on fan forums dedicated to the Wheel of Time series, Antonsson had witnessed first-hand how clues and unsolved plot points had driven conversations. She saw the same fervor unfolding with ASOIAF.
“Some of the biggest and most intense discussions were always about mysteries,” Antonsson said. “The first thread that I remember reading on the Dragonstone forum was the discussion of Jon’s parentage and the very few clues to it that existed after the first book.”
Revanshe’s ASOIAF forum eventually became big by 1998 standards, amassing what García estimates was about 1,000 regular users. When it was time for Revanshe to go to medical school, she passed down the site to García, who had already become a moderator.
Meanwhile, García and Antonsson had been scheming to start their own MUSH game set in Westeros. To ensure an accurate depiction, they put their academic backgrounds to use and became the self-appointed geologists, botanists, zoologists, anthropologists, and historians of Westeros, chronicling every data point they could scrape from A Game of Thrones on a Microsoft Word document they called “The Concordance.” They shared the database on the ASOIAF forum, paving the foundation for the fan-edited online encyclopedia that is now known as A Wiki of Ice and Fire. The wiki, which would be fleshed out a few years later, is made up of 23,081 pages of content and has undergone 236,642 edits since its launch. It has also inspired the founding of 11 foreign-language sister sites.
From observing the Wheel of Time fan forums, they were also aware that correspondence with authors was frequently lost on disparate online threads. So it was around that time that they began chronicling Martin’s interviews, emails, forum replies, and personal blog posts. (That year they made their first point of contact with the author, to ask for permission to make the MUSH game. Months later, he agreed, and the two still run the A Song of Ice and Fire MUSH as a side project.)
The steady growth of Martin’s online following—paired with his involvement in the science fiction and fantasy scene since the 1970s—generated a fair amount of buzz for Martin’s second installment in the series, A Clash of Kings. “Martin may not rival Tolkien or Robert Jordan, but he ranks with such accomplished medievalists of fantasy as Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson,” wrote a cautiously optimistic Publisher’s Weekly. At the time, Peter Jackson was preparing to film the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and producers and filmmakers who saw potential in the fantasy genre began circling Martin for the rights to his story. (He demurred, convinced his tale could never be squished into a movie format.)
That was when García and Antonsson got serious in more ways than one. Amid their bonding over Tolkien, Jordan, and Martin, a romance blossomed, and a few months after Clash came out, García moved to Sweden. Everyone they’d spoken to about the series was enamored of it. “We had quite a few proselytizers who talked about flogging the books to friends, family, co-workers, et cetera,” García said via email. “And it was all quite organic. Random House didn’t spend its time trawling for ways to market to us or get us to do their work for them, fans just did it because they loved it.” Encouraged by the fact that the initial book wasn’t a one-off, they launched Westeros.org, pooling the forums they’d inherited, the data from “The Concordance,” and their records of Martin’s public comments. It began as a side project run on a dinky server at home as they continued to pursue their respective academic goals. But eventually, it would become the go-to source of analysis and information about the universe, its author, and everything in between.
All the while, Martin’s series continued to draw in more readers and grow more unwieldy. The manuscript for his third book, A Storm of Swords, was 1,521 pages long, and some publishers weren’t able to bind it. But his support among the online fantasy community remained stronger than ever, and Publisher’s Weekly called this installment “one of the more rewarding examples of gigantism in contemporary fantasy.” When it was released in 2000, it nevertheless debuted at no. 12 on the New York Times best-seller list.
By the time Martin released A Feast for Crows in 2005, he secured his spot as the preeminent fantasy writer of the decade. The book shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list and Time dubbed him “the American Tolkien.” But he’d also run into the same length issues with Feast as he had with Swords. His solution was to split Feast in two and tell the story for only half of the characters, rather than half the story for all of the characters. He explained as much in the fourth book’s postscript, just after a cliffhanger ending. “In hindsight, I should have known better,” Martin wrote on his personal website in 2005. “The story makes its own demands, as Tolkien once said, and my story kept demanding to get bigger and more complicated.”
What may have been a frustrating publishing limitation for Martin was a near-maddening source of suspense for his growing fan base. After waiting five years between the third and fourth books, readers were still left to wonder about the fate of favorites like Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen. The next installment would come out in 2011, an agonizing six years later. And it was during these stretches of silence, when fans had no new material with which to occupy themselves, that they began to focus on creating their own. “I’m not sure that the popularity that existed beforehand with the books could have come about if the books had come out extremely rapidly,” Antonsson said. “Having time between a series of books is what fuels discussion in communities. It’s longer lasting.”
Digital access and social platforms were evolving to support these types of obsessions. Between 1995 and 2005, global internet usage ballooned from 44.4 million users to 1.026 billion. Simple blogging platforms like LiveJournal, WordPress, and Xanga made it easy for people to start personal blogs and share their thoughts about anything, however arbitrary or niche. And the web’s very first social networks, including MySpace and Facebook, were in their infancy, as was the concept of podcasting.
As Martin continued to update his fan base via a LiveJournal called Not a Blog, his adoring fans dealt with their impatience in increasingly creative ways. Most took to trawling the forums of Westeros.org or Tower of the Hand, where they could parse every possible theory surrounding every plotline and propose their own. A faction of impatient readers broke off to form an aggrieved community known as the GRRuMblers. Winter Is Coming website founder Phil Bicking clung to a 2007 announcement that HBO had acquired the rights to the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and refocused his energy on a Blogger site that chronicled the casting, filming, and production of the series. Even before the pilot had been shot, fans on Bicking’s site began treating casting announcements like unsolved mysteries. Much like a blind-item gossip-monger, Martin would post hints for who was cast in which role on his blog, to fuel the fire. “Then the fan base would spend days poring over those, trying to crack the quiz,” Bicking said. “We figured out all of them. I was shocked that people were able to figure out even Isaac Hempstead Wright, who plays Bran, and was in one commercial before that.” Bicking remembers starting two separate threads to discuss casting rumors, and watching them fill up with close to 1,000 comments each. “Right then, I was like: ‘OK, this is a pretty decent-sized and dedicated community that I have here,’” he said. The mainstream press was taking notice. “Has any recent TV show generated more online excitement—when it’s not even a TV show yet?” wondered The Hollywood Reporter in 2010.
When HBO premiered Game of Thrones in 2011, Martin was already famous. He had sold more than 15 million books worldwide, been profiled in The New Yorker, and could throw his legion of worshipers and haters into a frenzy with so much as a vacation photo posted to his LiveJournal. All of this meant that when the show debuted on April 17, it did fairly well by television standards. About 2.22 million people watched the premiere as it aired, which was less than the number of viewers garnered by A&E’s Storage Wars and AMC’s The Killing, and more than E!’s Khloe & Lamar.
Still, critical reception was spotty. While many reviewers praised HBO’s ability to set a lush and captivating stage for Martin’s complex, sprawling story, others took it as a sign of the network’s decline. Slate called it “quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap.” The New York Times described it as “a costume-drama sexual hopscotch.” In a line indicative of a much larger conversation about the legitimacy of nerd culture and its perceived lack of gender inclusion, critic Ginia Bellafante slammed the show for glorifying “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half,” and dismissively concluded that “if you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort.”
Meanwhile, Westeros.org’s servers were crashing. The buzz leading up to the show’s premiere had left García and Antonsson with about 17,000 registered Westeros.org members. But the couple was wholly unprepared for the wave of interest that followed the series premiere. The night it aired, the site was torpedoed by Google searches, and the two of them tended to their single server like a colicky newborn. To divert the flow of traffic, García adjusted the website so that only registered members could see posts. “I figured that would stop people from coming,” he said. The next day he woke up to 9,000 new account requests. García spent hours manually approving the newcomers. The wait between the third and fourth novels spurred a slow, steady increase in fandom, maybe one or two thousand members a year joining the forum. But with the arrival of the TV show, they could amass several thousand in a single day. “It was overwhelming,” García said. “The members of our forum called the rush of new people ‘The Floob’—a flood of noobs.” It was around then that García and Antonsson quit their academic pursuits to focus on the site full time.
Though the couple has lost some of the visitor number data from those early days, Antonsson recalls watching the ebb and flow of traffic on A Wiki of Ice and Fire as newcomers reacted to the first season’s major plot points. These spikes were particularly pronounced in Episode 9, when the show’s hero, Ned Stark, was unexpectedly executed. “Right after the episode ended, everyone went to the Ned Stark page to check: He’s OK? Right?” Antonsson recalled. (He was not.) The season finale of the show was watched live by about 3.04 million households—about 820,000 more than the premiere. The first season would later go on to be nominated for 13 Emmys and win two, for Outstanding Main Title Design and for Peter Dinklage’s performance as Tyrion in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category. By killing off Westeros’s hero before the season had even concluded, Benioff and Weiss had shocked their spring-chicken viewers, delighted the books’ superfans, and planted a seed of curiosity that would carry the show through the next eight years.
What García and Antonsson witnessed on their website in those early days paralleled the two-pronged Game of Thrones conversation that would soon emerge in media and on the internet at large. After every new television episode, non-book-readers (now presumably in the millions, given the show’s viewership) would rush to the internet for context, while book readers (also a growing base) would snicker in knowing amusement and then parse the differences between the show and the canon. This para-layer of conversation, as The New York Times’s T Magazine once called it, could at once provide newcomers with a better understanding of the Westeros universe and allow veterans to test their detailed knowledge of the canon against the show.
No one saw this more immediately than the media members on the front lines: the recappers. By 2011, the internet’s recap-industrial complex was in full effect, and Todd VanDerWerff, then an A.V. Club writer who is now a critic at Vox, was a willing participant. But as soon as he began reviewing Thrones episodes, he noticed this dichotomy. “It very quickly became a mess in the comments,” he said. “It was a really interesting split between the two audiences.” As a solution, he and a colleague rejiggered the system so that there would be separate recaps for each faction, to great success. Similarly, when Robinson set out to launch her Cast of Kings podcast, she organized it so that both perspectives, the book reader and the non-book-reader, would be represented. At Grantland, Jason Concepcion’s Ask the Maester column used plain language to break down the intimidating lore for both enthusiasts and rubberneckers. (He continues this tradition at The Ringer, in a column by the same name, on Binge Mode with Mallory Rubin, and when writing about the Knicks.)
To understand what Thrones’ debut meant to the public in 2011, it’s helpful to consider the state of television at the time. Prestige dramas were in their heyday: Both AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad were still on air, riding out the brooding antiheroism that HBO had perfected with The Wire and The Sopranos. Shows like Lost, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and the recently premiered The Walking Dead were proving that serial sci-fi and fantasy could be mainstream, but their exclusion in the wider cultural conversation prevented them from attaining the influence that Don Draper enjoyed. “The people who were serious about TV were talking about very different shows,” Robinson said. “They weren’t talking about genre shows.”
Though cultural gatekeepers were far from ready to embrace fantasy, or nerd culture in general, technological and industry forces were already in place to make the genre a hit. Not only had fans spent a decade organizing online around franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones, the entertainment industry as a whole began seeing the built-in marketing value of expansive, world-based action films. In 2005, Marvel signed a 10-movie deal to expand its cinematic universe to lesser-known characters. Its first entry in the series, Iron Man, became the eighth-highest-grossing film of 2008. Its 2012 follow-up, The Avengers, was the proof of concept that high-budget superhero films were moneymaking crowd pleasers. It brought in more than $1.5 billion worldwide, making it the highest-earning movie of the year and the third-highest-earning movie of all time.
At the same time, the rapid development of streaming technology was bulldozing television industry norms. In 2010, very few cable providers offered their current programming on demand. “At that point we were very much at the start of the trend of people watching when and how they want, rather than when something was on,” said Amanda Lotz, a media studies professor at Queensland University of Technology and the author of The Television Will Be Revolutionized. Streaming platforms like Netflix had just begun to popularize the idea of on-demand content, familiarizing the public with the idea of flexible watching schedules. In 2010, the company announced that streaming on its platform had surpassed DVD use. And the popularity of shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad was partially credited to their availability on Netflix. “By every measure, we are now primarily a streaming company that also offers DVD-by-mail,” the company’s CEO, Reed Hastings, said in an earnings call that year. In 2011, the company made its first move into original programming, outbidding AMC and HBO for a political drama called House of Cards. Its debut in 2013 would launch a thousand think pieces about the power of the binge watch—a practice that allowed viewers to consume an entire season in one sitting.
The tech industry is famous for emulating behavior led by early adopters’ most illicit consumption habits. Though Netflix may have introduced the first legal iterations of truly bingeable content, many millennials weaned on file-sharing platforms like Napster and BitTorrent were already very familiar with the practice. Ernesto Van der Sar began tracking torrenting behavior around 2007 on his website, TorrentFreak, and soon noticed that traditional cable ratings didn’t necessarily translate to popularity among torrenters. “There is some overlap, of course, but you couldn’t say that if a show did well on TV or had X number of viewers, that it would do equally well on torrents, or vice versa,” he said. Fantasy shows like Lost or Heroes—anything that allowed users to live in a kind of alternate, detail-rich universe—were especially popular among torrenters. And as HBO was slow to make the show available to stream online, torrenters stepped in to fill the void.
During its second season, Thrones viewership continued to grow, pulling in 3.9 million live viewers during its season premiere in April 2012 and closing out with 4.2 million live viewers in its season finale. Its stock rose among cultural institutions as it won six of the 11 Emmy awards for which it was nominated, including awards for makeup and costumes. But most notably, it became the most torrented show on the internet that year, bringing in an impressive 4.28 million downloads for a single episode. (Because torrents must be measured in real time, Van der Sar typically relies on the sharing activity around a single episode, typically its finale, to determine his annual ranking.) This milestone was both a testament to the never-ending conversation generated by the Game of Thrones universe at large, but also to HBO’s growing pains. As Van der Sar noted in his writeup at the time, Americans were stealing the show because, despite the growing number of cord cutters in the world, HBO did not yet offer a stand-alone subscription, let alone a way for paying subscribers to livestream an episode online as it aired. Viewers abroad were pirating it because it wasn’t legally available in their home countries. And though HBO offered the show to some international audiences, it often made them wait an entire week to catch up—what any spoiler-prone viewer who spends their days on Twitter might consider an eternity.
As Game of Thrones has grown in popularity, above board and below, pirating has offered a window to its importance in the global conversation. De Kosnik’s analysis of the torrenting activity that took place during the seventh season, co-led by her husband, Benjamin, found that, alongside major American cities like Dallas, a large portion of pirating takes place in major international cities like São Paulo, Guangzhou, and Mumbai. Though the De Kosniks’ research doesn’t account for streaming piracy, or for geo-spoofing—the practice of redirecting your IP address to another location to avoid being traced—it nevertheless offers a snapshot of the global economy’s cultural priorities. Not only is Game of Thrones a visually stunning and action-packed series that transcends language or culture, but it is also a way to feel included in the increasingly connected world. “I think it can be a kind of cultural capital, a kind of cultural wealth,” she said.
Though Thrones had managed to stay afloat in the cultural conversation into 2012, its true breakthrough moment came about during a historic television event that is now cryptically referred to as “The Red Wedding.” The show’s third season premiere began with its usual growth—a couple hundred thousand viewers up from its second season finale. But when its penultimate episode hit on June 2, 2013, it shook the world of television forever. “The Rains of Castamere” began with routine expository scenes that implied that the heroic Stark family was closer than ever to achieving a well-deserved victory against the Lannisters. But it ended with a surprise bloodbath that claimed the Starks’ most promising players, an unborn heir, and even a direwolf. Showrunners have long known that killing off beloved characters tends to elicit strong emotions from their audiences, but Thrones was maybe the first series to bring that technique to another level. “After three seasons of the show, the audience really became connected to the characters, and really truly emotionally invested in the show,” the episode’s director, David Nutter, told me last year. “This was the perfect time to pull the rug up from under them, to let the audience know that this is not a safe world in any respect.”
Fans were aghast. Social media lit up with dedicated viewers who were angry, sad, confused, heartbroken—generating a conversation so unavoidable that I, a Game of Thrones virgin, decided I should spend the next two weeks ducking Twitter and binge-watching the first three seasons before the biggest television event of the decade was spoiled for me. Memes about Martin’s blossoming career as a wedding planner circulated. And here, too, the book readers augmented the conversation. Aware of the bloodshed that was in store, many of them filmed their blissfully ignorant friends as they watched the traumatic murders unfold and posted them on YouTube. Soon after the episode aired, Conan O’Brien invited Martin on his show to watch a compilation of reactions to what he called “the most stunning thing many of us have seen in television, maybe ever.” About 5.22 million people watched Catelyn Stark’s throat get slit that night, and 5.39 million tuned in to the series finale the following week. The show had secured itself in the critical landscape as inventive, daring, must-watch television.
In response to the public’s fast-changing viewing habits, HBO had already steadily expanded streaming service options for cable subscribers via its HBO Go app and its website. But during Thrones’ fourth season premiere, the service crashed. Demand for the show had become so widespread that even its own network couldn’t predict it. (HBO declined to comment for this story.) Though the number of households who watched the premiere live was larger than ever, Nielsen was tracking significant gains via a metric that measures the live program viewership alongside seven days’ worth of residual views via DVR and streaming platforms. Take the Season 4 premiere “Two Swords”: Its live viewership was an impressive 6.64 million households, but given seven days to breathe on the internet, it climbed to 8.3 million. According to García, the end of Season 4 was also A Wiki of Ice and Fire’s biggest day of traffic ever, bringing in about 944,000 visitors the day after the finale.
Once the show entered its fifth season, it was impossible to avoid. “It almost felt like Dallas or something, where you’ve got to watch it to be able to talk at the water cooler the next morning,” VanDerWerff said. “The whole country kind of shut down for it.” Boosted by HBO’s launch of its stand-alone streaming service, HBO Now, the show jumped to 10.4 million cumulative viewers for its season finale. Historically, hit TV shows rarely sustain their highest viewer numbers into their final episodes. Once a “will they? won’t they?” plotline is resolved, or the writers simply run out of interesting material, the audience moves on. Game of Thrones is exceptional because its audience has consistently grown from season to season. It had also become a commercial cash cow. Uber launched an advertising campaign called #RideOfThrones, which gave fans based in New York the chance to sit in the infamous Iron Throne. For Red Nose Day, Coldplay’s Chris Martin directed cast members in a 12-minute musical that poked fun at some of the show’s more taboo plotlines. (It currently has 31 million views on YouTube.) Soon after a Season 3 episode in which a minor character named Hot Pie bakes Arya Stark a loaf of bread in the shape of a direwolf, the actor who played him partnered with a U.K. delivery site to open an online bakery called You Know Nothing Jon Dough to sell cornbread in the same shape. Even President Obama made his love of the show known in an interview with Ringer founder Bill Simmons. “The problem with Game of Thrones, though, is that I don’t remember the names of any of the characters,” Obama, ever the relatable president, told him. Indeed, the show was so popular that dads flubbing the names of Thrones characters was already a meme.
Thrones has now infiltrated our culture so deeply that it pulses through our language and policy discussions. Just as Japanese lifestyle sensation Marie Kondo has turned her last name into a verb for deep cleaning, “pulling a Red Wedding” is universally understood to mean a slightly more violent version of the same thing. The oft-repeated saying “Winter is coming” has become a meme so universally embraced that it’s now repurposed to serve the interests of politicians. Earlier this year at a Cabinet meeting, President Donald Trump unveiled a poster in the style of the show’s medieval font that read “Sanctions are coming,” in reference to the administration’s plans to reimpose penalties on Iran. Whether this proposal might actually contribute to a geopolitical environment that poses the existential threats similar to White Walkers is beside the point. The gesture was, in its essence, a politician marrying his own larger-than-life media presence with the most well-known show in pop culture. Monoculture sampling monoculture.
Today, Thrones is more than just a beloved book series, show, and advertising premise, it is a massively valuable asset. Not only has it won over the most influential members of Hollywood—encouraging stars like Brad Pitt to bid $120,000 at a charity auction to watch Game of Thrones with Emilia Clarke—but it has become a cornerstone of further development. At this year’s Super Bowl, it collaborated with the foremost football advertiser, Budweiser, for a commercial starring one of its dragons. This February, its parent company, Time Warner, was approved for an $85.4 billion merger with AT&T, which promptly signaled the company’s need for a “broad” programming slate. It should be no surprise, then, that Game of Thrones is on the verge of its first foray into “extended universes,” following in the footsteps of such IP as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. “The universe is too rich not to try,” Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming, recently told The New York Times. A prequel exploring the history of the White Walkers and the Stark family, starring Naomi Watts and Miranda Richardson, will go into production this summer. (Hungry for its own Thrones-like universe, Amazon recently paid $250 million for the adaptation and production rights to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, which it will use to make its own epic TV show.)
It makes sense that entertainment corporations are rushing to re-create the legendary success of Thrones. But given the way that digital media has matured since the show premiered eight years ago, achieving the same omnipresence is about as unlikely as Ned Stark rising from the dead to fight alongside the Night King. (A possibility! But a slim one.) For one, the show’s unparalleled groundswell of fandom was able to grow during the ideal moment of the wide-open early internet, amid the real-time writing of a hit series by an author whose procrastination has become a meta narrative in itself. For another, the on-demand revolution has rewired television to be far less lavish and far more niche. The success of companies like Netflix and Amazon suggest that a nimble, “diversified” programming slate—that is, one that has been carefully designed and budgeted according to viewer demographics and their watching habits—is the formula for future success. And over time, audiences have come to expect entertainment in large doses at their own convenience. Game of Thrones represents the end of an era, but in many ways it is a relic of an already defunct one; it is the lucky surfer who rode the last big wave of funding and grandiosity into the calm, calibrated waters of new media.
With that change, millions of people will gain nearly unlimited access to a seemingly endless slate of tailored entertainment. But they will also be losing a powerful commonality. In its best times, Thrones transcended entertainment and unified strangers. Chad Trim, a 23-year-old software salesman in Austin, Texas, told me that he met his best friend in the summer of 2016, when the two would watch the show together. “He would come over to my apartment complex every week to watch with me,” he said. When 23-year-old Estifanos Mehari and his girlfriend decided to start the show in 2017, they were in the early stages of a relationship and unsure of whether it might continue. “The obsession the show spawned within us and between us made it feel unique to our relationship, like our own little playground,” he told me. “My love for Thrones and the love I felt for my girlfriend seemed to grow at the same time.” Mark Lewis, a physician in Utah, recalls how one of his young metastatic colon cancer patients referenced the series to add levity to their otherwise grave clinic visits. “As her disease progressed, we often talked GOT,” he told me. “She saw herself as Khaleesi, forged by fire.”
And then there’s the God Emperor Butler. Though the show is coming to a close and it’s unclear if or when Martin’s remaining books will be published, the community he enjoys around Thrones lives on. This August, long after the series finale, he’ll be attending his 17th Brotherhood Without Banners meeting at Worldcon in Dublin. “It would be kind of sad not to,” he said.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.