Picture: FINANCIAL TIMES/OLIVIA WISE
Picture: FINANCIAL TIMES/OLIVIA WISE

One balmy evening two summers ago, I stepped into a London pub in the hope of a quiet drink. It was 9pm on a Monday, but the Three Compasses was already jammed. A chorus was being led by a group waving their beers like conductors’ batons. Couples were clinging to one another. At one point a young man stood up, pointed at a projector screen and yelled: “Get a grip, Theon!” Monday nights, it transpired, were Game of Thrones nights.

If similar scenes have played out in homes and bars around the world in recent years, this weekend they will be even bigger. The final season of HBO’s fantasy epic arrives on a tide of cultural anticipation unseen since the climax of Harry Potter. So far, the trailer has been viewed more than 50-million times on YouTube. Over seven juggernaut seasons, the most ambitious TV show of our era has become a phenomenon that is casually referenced by politicians and novelists as a byword for the most brutal and cynical way of wielding power.

At the centre of the Game of Thrones universe are two questions: one, how a strange work of fiction — which features, among other exotica, dragons, eunuch warriors and the living dead — came to have such a hold on our culture; and two, how it’s all going to end. For as the show careers towards its finale on May 19, we are heading for one of those once-in-a-decade events in which it is almost unseemly not to take an interest.

“I plan to be very drunk,” the show’s co-creator David Benioff told Entertainment Weekly in March, referring to the night of the final broadcast, “and very far from the internet.”

Depending on how you look at it, Game of Thrones is either a very good TV show or a very bad one. The premise, for anyone who has somehow yet managed to escape watching, is that the land of Westeros is divided into seven kingdoms run by seven dysfunctional families that have for centuries existed in a state of on-again-off-again civil war, the result being that the entire show is orientated around a protracted battle for overall dominion — and one rather garish Iron Throne.

Adapted for TV by Benioff and DB Weiss, based on an unfinished series of novels by the American fantasy writer George RR Martin, the show exhausted its source material in 2016; since then Benioff and Weiss have been following a blueprint provided exclusively to them by the novelist, so even the most ardent fans still have no idea where the narrative is headed.

The case against the show rests largely on its preoccupation with the lowest forms of entertainment. The first episode includes three beheadings, four instances of borderline nonconsensual sex and six full-frontal shots of naked female bodies. There’s also a scene in which a character is slit with a sword so that his digestive system falls out on to the floor; another then remarks: “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair.”

The show’s willingness to revel in sex and violence feels particularly out of kilter in our era of heightened sensitivity to gender politics. Some of its most transgressive moments would surely never have happened in the #MeToo era. The camera frequently lingers on the female body — it’s worth noting that in the first seven series of Game of Thrones, only one of its 19 directors was a woman — while rape occurs with what feels like unreasonable regularity and in often ludicrous scenarios (at one point a major character, Jaime Lannister, rapes his twin sister while she mourns at their dead son’s tomb).

“I stopped watching around the point in season three when Joffrey, a 15-year-old despot, was encouraging two prostitutes to beat each other to death,” says the writer Will Self, referring to a preposterously villainous boy king, whom his almost equally vindictive mother Cersei (who was also, incidentally, the rape victim) installs on Westeros’ Iron Throne in the hope of pulling the strings behind the scenes. “I’d been watching it with my teenage son, and I suddenly thought: Really? Is this the sort of thing I want him to experience as entertainment?”

But all the things that make Westeros squalid and disturbing are also the things that make it such rich dramatic terrain. Drawing on JRR Tolkien and the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, among other fictional and historical touchstones, it conjures a pre-bureaucratic world in which politics operates primarily through subterfuge and force, a formula that has only taken on greater resonance in our new age of strongman politics. A drama of personalities — from the tyrannical Ramsay Bolton, who feeds his enemies to his dogs, to the cerebral Tyrion Lannister, the cheerful strategist behind much of the show’s chicanery, played to much acclaim by the actor Peter Dinklage — its early seasons were a slow but often richly satisfying exercise in political manoeuvring.

As the show has progressed, its audience has outgrown the original core fan base (the 2011 pilot was watched by a relatively niche audience of 2.2-million in the US; the most recent season finale reached 12.2-million American viewers, and that year the show also held the dubious honour of being the most pirated series ever), its tenor has shifted. Once a complex playground for hardened devotees, it has since simplified its politics and narrowed its focus, transitioning almost imperceptibly over the course of the latter seasons into a more straightforward battle of good versus evil.

“As the budgets have increased, the scope, the panorama of the drama, has become huge,” says Cambridge historian Helen Castor. “But at the same time, the story has become less historical and more mythical … it feels much more, in a sense, Arthurian.”

One of the show’s most notable early features was its tendency to dispatch beloved characters at a moment’s notice, the most divisive example being the first-season beheading of Sean Bean’s Ned Stark, who until that point had been the moral heart of the show and was therefore presumed indispensable. “If I watch [the US TV series] 24,” co-creator DB Weiss told the Oxford Union in 2014, in reference to the dramatic benefits of the show’s seemingly indiscriminate killings, “I never wonder whether Jack Bauer’s going to live or die, I’m just wondering how he’s going to get out of this situation.”

But as Game of Thrones draws to a close, it is less concerned with the fate of individual characters than with that of Westeros as a whole. At the end of the penultimate season, a maniacal army of undead “white walkers” who have been threatening to descend on the seven kingdoms since the pilot, were on the brink of doing just that. Our last moments in Westeros were spent in the presence of a fire-breathing dragon that was destroying the approximately 200m high wall that had been keeping the walkers at bay — a feat of lavish computerised imagery unlike anything seen before on the show.

“It appears that Tyrion’s assessment was correct,” Jon Snow, the show’s ostensible hero, says to his new ally Daenerys Targaryen, upon appraising Westeros’s predicament. “We’re f***ed.”

A parallel is often drawn between the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s, the artistic heyday in which filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman made their most celebrated and challenging works, and the recent “golden age” of television. In this analogy, Game of Thrones is Star Wars — the blockbuster that changed everything.

Arriving in 2011 into a richly creative landscape whose prized assets were challenging, insular psychodramas like Mad Men, it showed audiences that a TV show could provide not only sophisticated dramatic arcs but also spectacle. Importing a model that had proven hugely successful in cinema, it repurposed an existing fictional world with a dedicated fan base into a high-budget visual experience, in the manner of The Lord of the RingsHarry Potter and early Marvel film franchises of the 2000s.

But since Game of Thrones first aired, the TV landscape has shifted dramatically. The arrival of Netflix and Amazon — and latterly Facebook, Snapchat and Apple, among others — coupled with a marked increase in the amount of content being commissioned by each (Netflix is expected to spend $15bn on programming this year), has resulted in a diverse but fractured landscape, widely dubbed “Peak TV”. In it, networks are competing for ever-dwindling shares of the available audience; each is desperately trying to find a tent-pole production that will set it apart from the rest.

“There’s so much more content now than there was when The Sopranos or even Breaking Bad debuted,” says Alan Sepinwall, author of The Revolution Was Televised, “and we all watch on different schedules. So it’s much harder for any show to become a water-cooler phenomenon in the Peak TV era. Game of Thrones may be the last of its kind.”

Nevertheless, networks are still trying to replicate its success. In November 2017, Amazon announced that it had bought the rights to adapt The Lord of the Rings into a TV series that will reportedly cost $1bn, part of a broader strategy that involved a shift towards higher-budget productions with “global appeal”. “The mandate from [Amazon chief] Jeff Bezos is clear,” reported the industry publication Variety two months before the deal was announced. “Bring me Game of Thrones.”

For Benioff and Weiss, the road ahead has not been entirely smooth. In July 2017, they announced plans for their next epic, a controversial work of alternate history called Confederate that imagined a world in which the American civil war ended in a stalemate and slavery remained legal. “Confederate is the kind of provocative thought experiment that can be engaged in when someone else’s lived reality really is fantasy to you,” American author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic, in response to the announcement. The hashtag #NoConfederate trended at number one in the US on Twitter.

For now the project is delayed indefinitely — though not, the network says, due to the controversy. But HBO’s appetite for the epic remains: an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, co-produced with the BBC, is due to air this year, while Damon Lindelof, the creator of Lost, is working on an adaptation of the DC comic Watchmen. The cultural capital accrued by the Game of Thrones universe, meanwhile, is to be invested further: a prequel series has been commissioned, with Naomi Watts in the lead role. Four more spin-offs have also been discussed.

Somehow, though, it feels unlikely that any of these will capture the zeitgeist quite like the original. “The next Game of Thrones is probably not going to be a fantasy epic,” says Sepinwall, “in the same way that the next Sopranos wasn’t another gangster story. That’s never how this works.”

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, once said: “The audience is like a child. ‘Come to the table,’ you say. ‘Here’s your meal.’ You’ve got potatoes, you’ve got vegetables, and they want the ice cream.”

Perhaps all Game of Thrones has ever been is ice cream — the guilty pleasure of an infantilised generation who can no longer be bothered to put themselves through the rigours of serious works of art; a show that, in the words of the novelist Adam Foulds, has a “spray-on tan of classiness”. But for many who love it, it doesn’t feel that way.

A few weeks before the final season airs, I return to the Three Compasses, the site of my own Game of Thrones awakening. Today, the pub is bustling with exactly the sort of millennial punters one thinks of as the show’s target demographic. At a small outside table I find three young women laughing and chatting under a warm heat lamp. “Oh my God, I love Game of Thrones,” one of them, Eliza, tells me when I ask if they’ve been following the show. “It’s been so long since the last season I’d almost forgotten about it.”

“I just don’t like it,” interjects her friend Flo. “I’m sorry, but it’s the sex, the violence, the whole thing. The way the show treats women, it just doesn’t sit right with me.”

“But loads of the women are really powerful!” shoots back Eliza.

A back and forth ensues: the pros, the cons, the dragons. “OK, fine,” says Flo eventually. “Maybe I’ll try it again.”

It strikes me that perhaps some of the appeal of Game of Thrones lies in exactly these kinds of exchanges — in the endless discussions invited by the show’s many contentious features. In fact, a better analogy for the experience might be found not in serialised drama but in sport: the post-match analysis, the passionate allegiances the show inspires, even its tournament-style structure, which tapers satisfyingly towards the unveiling of an eventual “winner”. These all feel more reminiscent of the football World Cup than The Sopranos.

But there’s also something more to it than this. In the fractured landscape of the streaming era, where consumption is hyper-individualised, there is a rare pleasure in being part of a cultural collective. The evening I visit the Three Compasses, a slim young man, James, tells me he had resisted Game of Thrones for years but finally crumbled last season. “The thing is,” he says, “it might be a load of old shit. But you just don’t want to be on the outside, do you?”

• Ross is an FT Weekend writer

© The Financial Times 2019