In 2008, David Benioff was promoting his latest novel when New York magazine’s Boris Kachka asked him what he was working on next. Benioff replied, “I’m doing a series at HBO. A crappy way of describing it would be The Sopranos in Middle Earth. I was a huge fantasy geek growing up. I was the Dungeon Master in my D&D game. Actually, most writers I know were the Dungeon Masters.” Benioff would later say that he regretted describing Game of Thrones in relation to the network’s just-ended megahit. Still, the self-described fantasy geek got his wish. He and his collaborator D.B. Weiss have become the biggest Dungeon Masters on Earth.
Game of Thrones begins its swan song on Sunday. But you probably knew that, and even if you didn’t, the laments of the series’ many fans have been difficult to ignore. When HBO split the final season in two, viewers complained that the network was dragging things out. Now that the end is a month away, innumerable speculations about how the show will end serve as group therapy for fans grieving the inevitable. The television-watching public does not want Game of Thrones to end—because what would take its place? What fictional world could viewers lose themselves in, knowing others across the (real) world were losing themselves along with them? No matter who winds up victorious in Game of Thrones’ finale, viewers will lose something precious: that sense that, whether at a bar’s watch party or on projectors in backyards or on the couch with family or alone in front of a touch screen, millions of others are doing the same thing at the same time, connecting viewers with those unseen others as much as to the characters on screen.
Thrones’ meteoric rise has been thoroughly documented. But beyond the ratings, the show has become omnipresent, vaulting past such piddling considerations as whether it’s still any good (eh) and into the fabric of our lives. (The latest “cross-licensed” giveaways from Major League Baseball include a bobblehead that dresses up taciturn pitcher Madison Bumgarner as the melodramatic Jon Snow.) Oversaturation has not dimmed interest: Episodes of the latest season have been pirated more than 1 billion times, notwithstanding the increasingly poor reviews. In personal essays and Quora threads, die-hard fans of George R.R. Martin’s source novels and Day 1 viewers continue to lament the show’s attempts to appeal to a broader viewership—which really is the purest proof that Thrones has become, if not democratic (it’s a show about a ruling class on premium cable, after all), then at least communalistic.
Although Game of Thrones’ reach has been broadened by the influence of social media, the idea of cultural consumers imagining themselves as an interconnected group is an old one. Social scientist Benedict Anderson argued in 1983 that the daily newspaper and the novel were the cultural technologies that allowed early 19th-century citizens to group themselves into what he calls “imagined communities,” a feeling that led to the rise of what we now think of as nationalism. The newspaper connected a nation to the wider world, and the novel provided a nation with fictional ones. Game of Thrones’ great promise was to somehow do both. On the eve of the show’s third-season premiere, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald wrote, “What we thought was an exercise in transforming a book into television may actually have helped turn television into a book.”
Where 19th-century printers had cheap pulp paper, 21st-century TV networks have the internet. Fan sites and social media have kept Thrones in people’s lives well outside the show’s run. “We’re able to see how far-reaching Game of Thrones is throughout the world, that everyone’s watching the same thing together,” Vanity Fair critic Joanna Robinson told the Ringer’s Alyssa Bereznak. Of course, this isn’t literally everyone in the world—2017 estimates put HBO’s subscriber base at 142 million, of which about a third is in the U.S. But the weekly flood of Twitter jokes and Instagram memes and Tumblr posts lets viewers think of themselves as part of a massive group, an experience that feels more precious as it becomes rarer. Underneath the laments about the show’s conclusion runs a deep anxiety about that feeling’s potentially permanent disappearance.
Hardcore fans hate when their art goes mainstream because it makes them anonymous, and that is exactly what Game of Thrones’ ascendance has done to its viewership. Like a nation’s imagined community, the show’s global public has found an increasingly intense shared identity—we’ll finish this thing even if they kill every last character we love—even as its numbers have ballooned. Sunday’s millions will watch the premiere as much to divine how the show will end as to discover how the creators will break our hearts with every plot twist and every death. With the shared agony of this masochistic catharsis comes a vast feeling of camaraderie.
The sheer vastness of Thrones’ fan base makes each individual fan more anonymous. Forget trying to stand out with a perfect fan theory or the hottest take. The show has seen every take known to the living and the dead. But anonymity in the face of Thrones’ ubiquity isn’t a bad thing. In fact, after a disappointing seventh season and nearly two years of waiting, I’m convinced it’s the best remaining thing about the show. It might not measure up to other, more idiosyncratic favorites—I hold an unshakable belief that The Americans is the best series of the 2010s—but it’s a kind of relief to settle into a show that doesn’t feel like it’s targeting you, or that at least hides it well. (Remember that Netflix surveils its users as intensely as any tech giant, and that House of Cards was basically commissioned by an algorithm.) Though the pilot’s near-total reshoots famously left the showrunners wondering if the Starks and the Lannisters would ever make it to air, it seems obvious now that grown-up Lord of the Rings would appeal well outside “the demo.” Set against the proliferation of shows and services aimed at increasingly niche audiences, the insane extravagances of Game of Thrones feel like an embarrassing, rare, and affordable luxury. In our algorithmic age, there’s comfort in the crowd.