We now know what it takes to unite a bitterly divided America: medieval battles, dragons, and a substantial serving of nudity. During its eight-year run, HBO’s fantasy saga Game of Thrones has dominated the cultural conversation like no other piece of entertainment. (See Television.) While Americans increasingly watch series at their own pace on services like Netflix and Hulu, Thrones remains appointment TV. Tens of millions tune in each week to see the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens slaughter, romp, and stab one another in the back. Republicans and Democrats are equally obsessed: President Trump has tweeted Thrones-inspired memes (“SANCTIONS ARE COMING”), while Sen. Elizabeth Warren has praised the series for calling out inherited privilege. (The genocidal Queen Cersei, she says, is just another spoiled 1 percenter). Thousands of Thrones-loving parents have even named their kids after main characters—tiny Aryas, Khaleesis, and Tyrions now walk the land. When the battle for the Iron Throne ends in a couple of weeks, it will leave a hole in the cultural fabric that no number of Star Wars spin-offs will be able to fill.
How did a show that could have been dreamed up between dice tosses in a Dungeons & Dragons session become the stuff of watercooler conversations? Perhaps we’re all so exhausted by real-world drama—partisan political squabbles, mass shootings, climate change—that it’s a relief to escape to a fantasy world, even one where children are burned alive to appease cruel gods. Or maybe we keep watching because Thrones is an unvarnished reflection of our own reality. In the fictional realm of Westeros, the truly pure of heart rarely win power. If they did, poor Ned Stark would still have his head. Instead, power ends up with the power hungry or with less-than-perfect leaders willing to compromise their values. In Westeros as in Washington, it’s a dragon-eat-dragon world.