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Game of Thrones worked best as a communal experience

Why did Daenerys Targaryen snap so suddenly in Game of Thrones’ final season? One fan in a New York bar has a theory he’s happy to share: Varys has been slowly poisoning her. “That’s why she looks so terrible,” Michael says of Daenerys in the penultimate episode, referring to a scene in which she looks exhausted and unwashed. “[This poison] makes you go crazy and violent before you’ve had the final dose,” he adds. “So the fan theory is that he succeeded in poisoning her part-way.” Thus, her genocidal spree.

Michael isn’t sure he’s bought into the idea entirely, but all is about to be revealed. Dozens of fans have gathered to watch the final episode of Game of Thrones on a dimly lit patio in north Brooklyn. It’s pleasantly warm, which means an errant mosquito or two. Noise from a nearby air conditioner makes the rise and fall of a dramatic music cue impossible to hear.

And then there’s the maddening, unpredictable nature of bar Wi-Fi, which is still buffering 10 minutes past the show’s start time. Fifteen minutes late, after a long period of a pinwheeling “wait” icon and frozen on-screen faces, the show starts, but the volume is frustratingly low. The episode’s first lines are overwhelmed by viewers yelling for subtitles no one can figure out how to turn on. “Is there a doctor in the house?” someone quips. Another 10 minutes passes while heroic patrons step up to do tech support.

The group experience can be a lot of work, and it involves frustrated waiting to see a program we could all be watching from the comforts of home. But there is emotional strength in numbers, a need to turn to the person next to you in open-mouthed disbelief, as if to say, “Are you seeing this?” A show where a pregnant woman once got shanked in the stomach like it was a prison showdown — not even the worst thing to happen on Game of Thrones — demands to be watched with other people. And a $7 beer is a more palatable price of admission than a monthly HBO subscription you’re “borrowing” from a friend of a friend.

The nearly decade-long saga captured the public eye in an unprecedented way. It’s easy to shock people by admitting you don’t watch the dragon fantasy show. Game of Thrones fans are so engaged with live-tweeting that they laugh in the face of online spoiler culture, a force so powerful companies like Marvel have established spoiler warnings before trailers. A million ding-dongs are clamoring for HBO to remake one of the most expensive shows in TV history.

Game of Thrones even has its own sort of YouTube react genre, where cameras capture some of the show’s most shocking moments from people watching at home and together in bars. Game of Thrones is already being hailed as “the last showwe’ll watch together — a premature title that assumes we’re all marching toward the death of prestige television, social media, and the shared experience. Instead, it’s safer to say we’ve just lived through the blueprint for how the internet has changed the way we consume media. Game of Thrones changed how a TV show could be a modern social experience.

At least, that’s how some fans used to see it. Game of Thrones now? “It sucks,” says Andres, a fan of George R.R. Martin’s books who says he’s waited 15 years to see how this story will end. Tempered expectations is the vibe at the bar, where many viewers say they’ve been let down by the breakneck pace of the last two seasons. It’s not that the show has gone places they don’t want, but rather that it’s been done so clumsily. These fans aren’t mad, they’re just disappointed.

Tonight, Andres is here to down a few beers with a buddy and usher the show off into the sunset. He loves the experience of watching it in public, where “a lot of people share the same thing you like.” But his hopes aren’t as high as they used to be. “It just became a regular TV show,” he says. “You already know what to expect.” And indeed, the predictions Andres makes about Jon and Daenerys are exactly how their story plays out.

Another fan, Melissa Lugo, expresses equal disappointment with the show’s season. She’s tuned in over the years for what she calls a great story, one that pulled her in completely and sent her down many internet rabbit holes, following fan theories. “It takes you away,” she says. “It’s such an escape.”

The bar has strict rules about its watch parties. Loud attendees get enthusiastically shushed by rapt viewers. The bar adds $20 to your tab if you spoil an episode for people inside who haven’t seen it. As the episode plays out, it’s so quiet, you can hear a pin drop. Or, more accurately, a glass shatter. Someone’s beer has just flunked the “What do we say to the god of death?” test, but viewers are so engrossed with the drama on the screen that no one even flinches. It’s a quieter crowd than most bar reaction videos might lead you to believe.

But it’s still a unique slice of a shared experience. A murmur ripples through the crowd as Dany’s fate is revealed. Tyrion’s jokes land well, though Sansa gets the biggest laugh of the night with a simple “Sit down” aimed at her overambitious uncle. People cheer when Jon finally gives poor, one-eared Ghost a pat, and express mixed emotions over the new ruler of the seven — err, six — kingdoms. They process it together, as they experience it together.

When the final credits roll, a few patrons remain seated, picking over which theories proved correct. HBO may have big plans for the show’s universe, but Game of Thrones is over. Love or hate that finale, it’s the end of eight seasons of twists, tears, and a lot of fire and blood. “The cliché would be that it’s a bittersweet ending,” says Yusuf Razzaque, who’s watched the show from four different countries. It’s been a great adventure to have experienced during its TV run, but he’s content to let it end. “In five, 10 years from now, we can watch this again,” he says. What is dead may never die, especially with a streaming subscription.


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