Wide Angle

Game of Thrones’ Most Powerful Story Was the One We Told Ourselves

We used politics to justify its importance, then shaped our politics around it.

An American flag with the Stark sigil instead of stars behind King’s Landing with dragons flying over it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO.

As I write this, the mass phenomenon known as Game of Thrones has been over for a little more than a week, but it’s already zooming out of the cultural rearview mirror like a rocket-launched giant. Before it slips completely out of view and becomes yesterday’s obsession, I want to think about why it so recently seemed to blot out the whole horizon. Why did a sprawling fantasy series loosely inspired by a 15th-century British conflict—plus dragons!—become the It Show in a moment of It Show extinction? Why was Game of Thrones Game of Thrones? There isn’t just one answer to this question, but like a dogged player of Trivial Pursuit, I want to try to assemble the pieces of the pie.

When Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, the antihero was on his way out, though dawdling about it. Tony Soprano had been off the air for years, and Walter White and Don Draper would soon join him, but the copycat biz was booming. Prestige TV has always encompassed a hodgepodge of styles—gangster tales, cops and robbers, drug sagas, Westerns—with some thematic and structural similarities: a male antihero, sex, violence, moral ambiguity, darkness (both literal and figurative), surprise, an alienating relationship to the audience, generalized machismo, an auteur. By the early 2010s these elements were being slavishly imitated, and TV was full of rote antihero fare, as trendy as then-trendy cupcake shops, but with a grimmer color palate.

Game of Thrones was not like these shows in one very obvious way. It was set in a pre-technological, fictitious land, full of kings, dragons and alternaetive spellings. But in so many other ways, it fit right in. Notoriously expensive, plainly ambitious, obviously macho (even with all its female characters), it both delivered and upended fantasy genre conventions—and subverting genre conventions is itself a convention of prestige TV. Game of Thrones’ fantasy elements helped it remix tired TV tropes, even as the series’ prestige bona fides helped it overcome the undercurrent of geekiness that has long dogged even the most popular fantasy works. It wasn’t Middle Earth; it was HBO.

But Game of Thrones was a Trojan horse, a polished dramatic series smuggling swords and linebacker furs into the time slot once occupied by The Sopranos. The fantasy elements in the show’s belly were instrumental to its success. The readers of George R.R. Martin’s books acted as the series’ hype men, framing the project as uniquely ambitious—the wonk’s fantasy novel, the Wire of mediaeval epics, realpolitik storytelling, the cynic’s quest narrative—long before the show could fully communicate any of that for itself. The details in the books’ thousands of pages also enabled Game of Thrones to industrialize, with the help of Twitter and Reddit, the kind of granular theorizing first performed on Lost.

Game of Thrones was the ideal text on which to practice and then perfect a new sort of extra-textual relationship to TV. Theorizing about the show, which increased season over season, was so dense that it trickled out to viewers who weren’t reading the books at all but learned of fan theories as they were explicated on the internet or repeated over the watercooler. A certain degree of sleuthing—be it by osmosis, Wikipedia, or accidental spoiling—became part of the Game of Throne experience, just as it is a part of the robust genre Game of Thrones helped spawn: puzzle TV, which includes shows like Westworld, Stranger Things, Mr. Robot, and Making a Murderer, and has followed antihero shows as the most reliable mass-buzz format of the moment.

In addition to prestige and puzzle TV, Game of Thrones was also a part of a third trend: the political show, although that was not apparent when it first premiered. It arrived around the same time as Homeland, The Americans, the first season of Parks and Recreation, House of Cards, Scandal, and Veep, a group of series that deposited the antihero, and increasingly the antiheroine, into explicitly political settings. All of these shows hewed, in some ways, closer to reality than Game of Thrones—they were set in America, for one thing—but they also skewed further from prestige TV conventions, simply by being comedies or melodramas or just about women. In its early seasons, Game of Thrones seemed more like The Walking Dead, another hugely popular series about the disintegration of civil society and the zombie threat, than any of these political series—but then our politics intervened, turning the show into a scrim upon which, it sometimes seemed, every real-world crisis could and would be projected.

Like a Three-Eyed Raven Game of Thrones had one eye on the past, in that it was decked out in the respectable-making duds of prestige TV; one on the future, in that it jump-started a whole new way of relating to TV as a multimedia game experience and web-traffic jackpot; and one on the present, a labile text constantly being read into our political moment.

From the start, the show had inspired heady questions and conversations. What makes a good leader? What holds a society together? Is moral rectitude a bad strategy? These were not, in the context of the show, simply theoretical queries, but ones that had a direct bearing on the fate of the show’s protagonists. From the beginning, there were viewers who relished diving into the particularly arcane details of, say, the Iron Bank’s fiscal policy or the Targaryen family tree, but one of the distinguishing features and geeky pleasures of watching this particular dynastic soap opera was that even viewers who were in it just for the story, the dragons, the stunning reversals—in it because it was an epic fantasy show!—could find themselves touching on larger questions simply because they wanted to understand why, exactly, Ned Stark had lost his head.

But Game of Thrones’ big questions took on a whole new level of urgency as Donald Trump became president. The show’s concerns became preposterously relevant, as did its vision of a society riven by tribal affiliations and distrust. That its themes and predicaments, that the autocratic impulses it had not only chronicled but made appealing to so many viewers, were suddenly so relevant gave it a burst of dippy, prognosticating power. A show that had, during Barack Obama’s tenure, seemed a little out of step with the times suddenly knew exactly what time it was. Our desire to understand what had occurred in the real world—why? How?—was so great that we latched on to anything potentially instructive. If Game of Thrones knew we would get here, could its details, interpreted in the right way, tell us where we were going next?

Season 6 of the series, the first to regularly top 25 million total viewers, ended just weeks before the Republican National Convention. It was also the season that finally outpaced Martin’s source material. The series was off book and, so it seemed, was America. It was at this point that Game of Thrones and the Game of Thrones industrial-entertainment complex entered its maximalist phase, in which the show and the discourse around it became not only omnipresent and traffic-hoovering but increasingly impassioned and political. There remained different ways to engage with the show—as a puzzle, as a ripping yarn about character, as a political allegory—but the first and the third, in particular, ratcheted up in intensity. The speculation about what would happen next got more prolific, intricate, and scholarly, while thinking about the show’s political arrangements began to take on a different kind of vibration. Theorizing about how Game of Thrones might handle an existential threat like an approaching zombie horde stopped being just an intriguing thought experiment and took on a sort of hopeful shimmer. Might the series offer us a recommendation for (depending on your ideological orientation) stabilizing climate change or protecting our national borders?

Politicians began to drape themselves in the series’ imagery, aggrandizing the show by using it as a tool of politicking. Donald Trump cast himself as the Night King, a bit of incoherent propaganda that effectively associated him with something extremely popular, while bringing the show further into the realm of real-world politics. Each reading of Game of Thrones that saw in it parallels to nuclear strategy, global warming, tyranny, gender politics, Trump, Vietnam, Iraq, and so on—as insightful as many of those parallels were—did so as well. By the final season, when Elizabeth Warren was (prematurely) praising Dany as the long-time-coming female leader we really need, an episode or two before she turned out to be a war criminal, politicians and GoT were feeding off each other in nonsensical ways that nonetheless buoyed both.

That politicians wanted to be associated with Game of Thrones couldn’t make more sense: It’s hugely popular! It’s relatable! It’s cool! But in using Game of Thrones to lighten themselves up, they lent a gravitas to the show. Game of Thrones exists in a moment when the heinous political environment makes pop culture a genuine escape, but that escape can feel so frivolous that pop culture is constantly trying to justify itself in political terms. Game of Thrones was entertaining and escapist, while permitting us to feel that we weren’t quite escaping. At this particular moment, that is a beguiling combination.

One knock-on effect of the fragmentation of the entertainment monoculture is that what we’re left with is politics: It’s the story—even though it’s not just a story—that everyone is following, and it pulls everything into its tractor beam. Game of Thrones, over its run, tracked a shift in prestige TV’s center from the antihero show, with its aesthetic and moral innovations, to the political show—not necessarily a show about politics but a show that is doing political work or can be leveraged for political uses. Game of Thrones—absurdly, given the racial makeup of its cast—came to exist on a continuum with shows that, by expanding diversity and representation on television, are understood to be political because of their larger goals and concerns. Unlike these series, Game of Thrones did not have grand ambitions to change how the entertainment system operates (unless it’s to ensure we’ll be living with expensive GoT knockoffs for the next five years). It’s “work,” if you can call it that, was to make us feel that in thinking so much about it, a fiction, we were studying the real world.

The ending of the show put some of those fevered political readings in their place.
The final stretch of episodes, like all the ones that came before, can be read in all sorts of relevant ways—what does Dany’s razing of King’s Landing say about U.S. foreign policy?—but in the final 40 minutes, the series sidestepped the opportunity to draw some grandiose conclusion about Who We Are and Where We Are Going, just as it had previously declined to give us a recommendation on what to do about existential threats. (Do we have an Arya to stab climate change in the heart?) It didn’t even take the opportunity to be grand and grandiose. In sprinting through all the negotiations that would finally put a winner on the Iron Throne, it accentuated its own fictitiousness: It was a story, and, it was getting late, and it had to end. “There’s nothing more powerful than a story,” Tyrion groaningly explained, as he selected the future king. But Game of Thrones had spent years big-footing the zeitgeist because of all the ways it was read as more than just a story—until, suddenly, it wasn’t anymore.