What’s got us all geeking out over the world of Westeros? Jimi Famurewa braves rabid crowds and fake dragons at a Game Of Thrones fan convention to find out
Jeffrey ‘JD’ Duke needs to get inside. His group of friends, teeth chattering slightly in the early evening chill, keep telling him as much. The crowd outside the mouth of the Brooklyn subway is growing by the second, and that queue by the entrance to the arena, next to the 20ft hunk of fake rock, isn’t about to get any smaller.
Still, JD can’t help it. Just one more. He rearranges what might be the Western hemisphere’s least convincing fake beard, straightens his Robert Baratheon antler crown and poses for another picture, pivots in the shrinking space and does an on-camera interview with a plainly bemused lady from the local news channel.
All the while people are turning and pointing at JD and his friends, shrieking excitedly as they recognise the relevance of a wig or spray painted piece of cardboard armour, only stopping to fish out e-ticket printouts and spot acquaintances in the crush. “So are you on the train or off the train?” says a passing man in a Targaryen T-shirt into his phone, a note of panic in his voice.
Welcome, my friends, to the heart of the prestige television juggernaut in 2014. Welcome to a place where someone like JD, a 27-year-old waiter in a costume his mum made him, is a god among mortals. Welcome to the obsessive world of Game Of Thrones.
Love of the game
Ever since it arrived on screens in 2011, concluding its debut episode with a cheery bit of incest and attempted child murder, there has been growing evidence that GOT is much more than a cult digital proposition in the vein of, say, Mad Men or Girls. After all, 5.9 million illegal downloaders (a Breaking Bad-trouncing record last year) can’t be wrong.
But signs of the show’s unstoppable rise don’t come bigger than the massed hordes currently waiting to go into Brooklyn’s $1bn Barclays Center arena. This, you see, is the ‘Game Of Thrones Epic Fan Experience’, a sold-out event offering 7,000 devotees of George RR Martin’s blood-soaked fantasia a chance to, among other things, see the Season 4 premiere two weeks before it’s on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK.
They’ve come in their droves to bend the knee to their favourite show. And JD and his pals, a mostly female motley crew in wind-blown wigs and face paint, aren’t the only ones in costume. “We had like an hour and a half commute from Connecticut and I’ve had people complimenting my braids all the way here,” smiles Amy, a tiny 29-year-old in flimsy Khaleesi rags and dragon transfer tattoos.
That her boyfriend of six months, a 32-year-old called Will, has merely donned a T-shirt and Targaryen key ring hardly seems fair or, let’s be honest, surprising. “He’s the one who got me hooked on the show,” she continues, “I think in like, the first week we were together he said, ‘You’ve got to watch Game Of Thrones.’” She giggles. “I said, ‘This has to be a mutual love, or else,’” adds Will.
They’re kidding (I think), but the idea that you’d discuss box set preference with a prospective partner before politics or even religion makes sense, particularly here. This is clearly the apogee TV evangelism, but what’s powering the growing flock?
In line for the throne
Inside the arena, the air is thick with the smell of synthetic popcorn butter as conga lines of fans tour the various pre-show attractions and slurp $10 servings of Budweiser. There’s a small exhibition of costumes from the show, watched over by a fake dragon and a TV playing a loop of a major character being beheaded. “She’s so thin!” cries a woman spotting the waistline of Emilia Clarke’s iconic blue dress.
Elsewhere, fans swarm around a desk to pick up complimentary T-shirts, Catch The Throne, a mixtape of Westeros-inspired hip-hop (yes, really) featuring Big Boi from Outkast and Common, blares from speakers overhead. In one corner a woman is working the sword-shaped pumps on a busy bar serving official ‘Take The Black Stout’ and ‘Fire And Blood Red Ale’. Then there’s the big draw: four £20,000 replicas of the Iron Throne from the show that fans can be pictured sitting on. I spot JD, who had earlier told me, “I want to be Robert Baratheon and sit on my throne again”, trudging to the back of an enormous queue.
You don’t have to be in possession of a Los Pollos Hermanos T-shirt to know this is nothing new. Sopranos cook books. Mad Men pocket squares at Banana Republic. True Blood burgers. TV is now such a dominant part of our lives that it’s not enough to merely devour every episode and bang on about it to weary colleagues; we want to plunder every corner of these imaginary worlds.
“I always laughed at those freaks at Star Wars conventions,” says Giselle, a 30-year-old advertising exec wearing the day’s umpteenth Daenerys Targaryen costume. “But I’ve got very obsessed. It’s all about profound characters, bad decisions in life. I cried when they took Jaime Lannister’s hand. My boyfriend told me to shut up.”
Baying for blood
This idea of closet, or reluctant, geekery is a common refrain from people I speak to (JD bashfully pronounces his costume “the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done”, too many people to mention say ‘fantasy’ like it’s a dirty word), and it’s worth noting that the majority of people stalking the Barclays Center today are hardly the usual Orc-eared convention crowd.
Yes, Giselle at one point refers to her “husband” dying when discussing the Series 1 demise of Dany’s paramour Khal Drogo. And yes, JD is currently saving to pay for a $450 replica warhammer. But once I’m inside the arena and in my seat I can get a proper look at the very normal, very mixed crowd. There are middle managers in askew ties hefting pints, groups of college girls, guys that look like sun-kissed off-duty J Crew models, burly African-American double daters, noisy frat bros in low baseball caps.
It’s very much an equal-opportunity affair as the lights come up on stage to reveal rapper and occasional actor Common on yet another replica throne. He launches into a slightly baffling set comprising his song from the mixtape and some audience patter that reveals his knowledge of the show probably only extends to its title. “Put your hands in the air for Game Of Thrones,” he implores, mind visibly on his no doubt sizable paycheque. The audience dutifully follow his instruction, in between bites of nachos, and things only get weirder from there.
Spotlights trail a high-school marching band who, backed by gleeful whoops, rattle through the show’s theme tune. Kristian Nairn, the 6ft 9in DJ and actor who plays kindly Stark lummox Hodor, bounds onto the stage. “Hodor!” yells someone in the crowd. “Hodor,” replies Nairn before introducing cast members Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), Sibel Kekilli (Shae) and John Bradley (Samwell Tarly) plus, most excitingly, the architect of this whole enterprise, A Song Of Ice And Fire author George RR Martin.
The crowd erupts, losing its collective sh*t as Martin, resplendent in trademark mariner’s cap and John Virgo waistcoat answers some questions and awards one lucky, emotional fan the expensive throne on stage. “And now Hodor, will help you carry it home,” he laughs, breaking an awkward silence worthy of Mick Fleetwood and Sam Fox. Yes, it’s all very low-key.
No more heroes
A primal roar meets the cathode click and celestial hum of the HBO logo, and the thing we’ve all really come here for, the all-new episode ‘Two Swords’, is underway. The crowd by this point have lost all control of their vocal chords; whooping, cheering, bellowing catchphrases unbidden and wolf whistling during a seduction scene like the studio audience on a Seventies sitcom. “Aargh, you f*cker! Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry guys,” says a man behind me who seems to have developed a peculiar case of nerd Tourette’s. As soon as a grim close-up of a grisly murder all but gets a standing ovation, I think I finally understand one central reason for the show’s mushrooming fanbase and all this attendant pandemonium.
“I just love the fact that you never know if a character is going to make it through an episode,” was how Amy outside put it. “I like that it’s human beings in our raw, animal mood, before we were civilised,” was Giselle’s take. “It’s like a telenovella with better production values.”
That seems a stretch, but the fact that YouTube reactions to the merciless bloodletting of last year’s Red Wedding scene went viral is revealing. Shock deaths have become Game Of Thrones stock in trade, but there’s more to it than that. After 9/11, there was a careworn theory that the popularity of Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings et al was linked to a mass retreat from the horrors of the real world. For all their supposed darkness, here were stories where the hero triumphed in a magical, sumptuously rendered, old-fashioned land.
It may be superficially similar but, if anything, the opposite is true in Martin’s world. There, heroes are butchered, honour is punished, loyalty gets its throat slit. It’s a pretty bleak, and deceptively modern, cultural phenomenon. Plus, you know, just the ticket for selling £7.99 Brienne Of Tarth figurines.
Still, none of that is on the mind of the crowd now, as a Tyrion oneliner brings the house down.
I look around and spot a man stripped to the waist, sporting a lick of Dothraki paint, sipping a beer like he’s in his living room.
It’s OK. His favourite TV show – a strange modern amalgam of minor deity and major sports franchise – is playing. He’s among fellow true believers. He’ll be fine.
Game Of Thrones returns on 7 April on Sky Atlantic HD at 2am and 9pm – watch live and on demand on Sky or NOW TV
(Images: HBO; Sky)