On Sunday night, a long journey that riveted much of America and reverberated around the world came to an end: “Game of Thrones,” the fantasy series based on George R.R. Martin’s multi-novel saga, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” concluded on HBO. Millions loved it; many others were bemused by its popularity. But whatever one thinks of the series or the finale, it was an extraordinary phenomenon, if only because it managed to gain a genuine national fan base at a time when popular culture is increasingly fragmented. From college professors to supermarket clerks, “Game of Thrones” became the talk of America.
Set in an imaginary universe clearly based on our own — basically, medieval Europe and Asia with an added dose of the supernatural — “Game of Thrones” followed a motley group of characters in a world that rapidly descended from a largely illusory stability into brutal chaos. A king’s suspicious death led to a fight over succession, regional rebellions, and all-out war. Families were scattered, alliances betrayed, innocents butchered. Across the sea, a princess from a deposed dynasty planned her return with formidable foreign troops — and three dragons, back from seeming extinction. In the far north, malevolent undead creatures long relegated to myth were on the march, a looming threat to all living things.
Like Martin’s sprawling epic, “Game of Thrones” subverted expectations and moral judgments. In the first season, apparent protagonist Ned Stark died, doomed by his own honor and nobility — the first of several heroes who died shocking deaths. Seeming villains became quasi-heroes and earned sympathy. Others went in the opposite direction. The exiled Princess Daenerys Targaryen had a seemingly inspiring heroic arc — a sexually abused child bride who conquers unimaginable adversity to become both a powerful queen and a fighter for justice — only to descend into villainy at the end.
The HBO series’ real-life saga had some strange twists of its own. With Martin making notoriously slow progress on his books (the fifth of the planned seven novels was published nearly eight years ago), the show was increasingly unmoored from its source text; the last three seasons were based on Martin’s outlines for the two still-unwritten novels and original content. This undoubtedly affected the quality of the writing, which sometimes felt rushed and contrived. But all in all, given the challenges they faced, the showrunners did a pretty impressive job; I for one thought the final season had some truly superb material, though there should have been an extra couple of episodes to explore it.
One could say the “Game of Thrones” story — both the fictional tale itself and the fortunes of the show — mirrors the real world in eerie ways. The show began in 2011, when the liberal order in the United States and the world seemed largely stable despite troubles on the periphery. That order ended in 2016, when the rise of unexpected new leaders and movements have plunged the West into conflicts and power struggles that have often shaken our moral assumptions. (Thankfully, so far, these power struggles have not erupted into actual warfare.) Even the fact that the showrunners found themselves in uncharted waters and had to improvise on the spot could be seen as a metaphor for our unpredictable times.
At the end, fan reactions ranged mainly from grudgingly satisfied to bitterly disappointed. Still, after all the chaos and destruction, the show had a happy-ish ending for the surviving characters, with the implication that the new generation of leaders would build a somewhat better world. We can only hope that part has real-life parallels, too.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.