The Sporting Life: Game of Thrones/Endgame/Game Over Edition

April 14 is a date that we geeks and nerds have long awaited, along with millions of non-nerds and non-geeks. It will mark the broadcast of the first of the six final episodes of arguably the finest and most successful television program in history. The first episode aired on April 17, 2011, and the final one will air on May 19, 2019. The next week, premiering May 26, HBO will air a full-length feature film documentary about how the eighth season was made.

Although it has only six American-born actors among its literally hundreds of named regular and recurring characters, it has amassed the largest viewership in HBO history in the United States. Ironically, one American actor, Peter Dinklage, has won three Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister on the show. The series itself has won 47 Primetme Emmys, more than any other primetime scripted TV series. Millions around the world watch, both legally and illegally. It is reportedly the most illegally-downloaded program in history, with estimates of over 77 million illegal streams of the first episode of the last season worldwide, and with over 15 million illegal downloads of that episode in the U.S. alone, in addition to the millions who watched legally.

George R.R. Martin’s best-selling book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” was brought to the screen by HBO, which has invested massively in the medieval fantasy epic. Each episode last season was produced for around 10 million dollars each, up from the 6 million for those in season two, and less than the estimated 15 million being spent on each of the six episodes in the eighth and final season, four of which will run almost 80 minutes each (movie length). Martin is a co-executive producer and has written one episode each season for the series, whose shooting locations include Northern Ireland, Malta, Croatia, Morocco, Scotland, Canada, the US, and Spain, and sometimes involve thousands of extras in a locale.

The series begins as several powerful families — kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars and honest men — play a deadly game for control of the fictional Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, as aligned 300 years prior by the Targaryen ruler Aegon the Conqueror, and to sit atop the Iron Throne. So, HBO decided to call the program Game of Thrones. Over the course of the 67 episodes comprising the first seven seasons, wars have raged, thousands have died, noble houses have fallen, marriages have been made, and weddings have been scenes of phenomenal tragedies.

Notably, the Stark family, or House Stark, has been split apart and reunited, offering the best hope for humanity, along with the rise of Daenerys Targaryen, the legitimate heir to the throne before it was taken from her insane father (the Mad King) in a coup (called Robert’s Rebellion) and eventually falling into the clutches of the Baratheons and Lannisters. Confused? You should be, as this is one of the most intricate and elegant (fantasy) dramas ever devised. And that is just the tip of the iceberg!

There really is so much more to unload (way to much to just unpack). If you haven’t seen this show yet, start watching! I am in the midst of a complete re-watch, and have rewatched every episode multiple times over the past few weeks, including many of the DVD commentaries. I can’t wait to sit down Sunday evening with friends and watch episode 68 (at press time as I write this, HBO has not released the episode titles for the season).

To promote this final season, six actual Iron Thrones were hidden around the world, and the network has been producing endless trailers and teasers and spinoff products. There are custom Adidas sneakers; branded Oreos; special cans of Mountain Dew; Johnnie Walker has eight different scotches, each named for a House in Westeros, along with a White Walker whiskey, all centered on one message: #ForTheThrone. But, Game of Thrones is no longer a game of thrones. It has become what author George R.R. Martin promised: a song of ice and fire! As the sweeping stakes of the show have escalated, the Iron Throne of Westeros, and the question of who gets to sit on it, has become less and less important to the story.

Game of Thrones has increasingly drawn its focus away from the actual Iron Throne and toward the looming battle royale with the undead White Walkers coming south of The Wall to invade the north and then lay siege to all living men and women. The saying “Winter Is Coming” is being truly realized, and now that the white walkers have seen that the Westeros season is changing to winter, they are heading south! All signs lead to an extensive, expensive, elaborate and historic cinematic experience when they attack in the Battle of Winterfell, which has alresdy been dubbed the greatest battle scen ever filmed, for television or feature film.

The book series promised a war between fire-breathing dragons and ice zombies since the first book was published in 1996. But, since Martin has only written five of the seven promised books the show is based on, the TV series has moved far past his published stories, so showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have crafted an elegant narrative with ever bigger and bigger battles, especially those directed by Miguel Sapochnik, in “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards”.

As the show roars into its finale, as Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) has said: “If we don’t put aside our enmities and band together, we will die. And then it doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.”

The question of who rules Westeros pales in comparison to the question of whether Westeros can survive. But last season ended with Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) still seeing the White Walkers as a possible weapon in her pointless jockeying to keep the Iron Throne. She’s still playing the game, even if no one else is.

Not that this matters to the title of the show. Game of Thrones has become a recognizable, highly successful brand, and so has the Iron Throne. They’re far too well known for HBO to want to change them, or even de-emphasize them in marketing. At this point, the title Game of Thrones is certainly more recognizable than Martin’s original A Song of Ice and Fire — even if that latter title better reflects what the series has become and what we can most expect from the final season.

So buckle up for a wild ride, as the army of the dead, led by the Night King, riding a flame-breathing zombie ice dragon (make sense of that!) invades the lands of Westeros against Jon Snow (or is he Aegon Targaryen) and Daenerys Targaryen (the Khaleesi and Mother of Dragons, etc.) and her two living dragons and their various allies and armies. This is indeed the siren song of ice and fire, and the forthcoming conclusion of this epic journey will be the culmination of a decade of global fandom that rivals any Star Wars, Star Trek, Middle Earth, or Harry Potter fandoms for intensity, dedication, cosplay, fan fiction, and endless online debate.

One more thing, a shout out to the phenomenal blacktors who have helped to make this the greatest television production in history (since “Roots”). Without detailing their characters, thanks especially to Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei) and Jacob Anderson (Torgo Nudho or “Grey Worm”), along with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Malko), Lucia Msamati (Sallador Shan), Nonso Anozie (Xaro Xhoan Daxos), Deobia Oparei (Areo Hotah), Reece Noi (Mossador), Chuku Modu (Aggo), and, OMG! Hannah John-Kamen was the Dothraki widow Ornella in the Lhazareen; know that this girl has played a First Order Officer in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, played Ghost in “Ant-Man and The Wasp” in the MCU, played F’Nale Zandor in “Ready Player One”, played Sophie in “Tomb Raider” and has played the lead character, Dutch, on SyFy’s Killjoys for five seasons. Another special shout out to Jason “Aquaman” Momoa, who played Khal Drago on Game of Thrones, an Hawaiian who identifies as a man of color (and just happens to be married to Lisa Bonet).

And, a final shout out to Ramin Djawadi, the Iranian-German score composer on the show. His opening theme is epic, and everyone knows it when they hear it, and he won the 2018 Primetime Emmy for his score on the seventh season finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.” I was lucky enough to attend the Atlanta stop on his Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience tour on March 14, 2017 in Phillips Arena. It was incredible to witness the 80-piece orchestra and choir perform the music there. I hope to hear the theme again this Saturday, April 13 played by the TSU Aristocrat of Bands at the Annual Spring Football Game; I know they have it in their repertoire, and have heard them play it live and on YouTube, as have many, many marching (and other) bands.

Con of Thrones coming to Music City Center July 12-14

This show is so epic, indeed, that it has spawned its own international fan convention, Con of Thrones, held first here at Nashville’s Opryland Hotel and Resort in 2017, held last year in Dallas, and returning July 12-14, 2019 to Nashville, downtown at the Music City Center convention center.

Con of Thrones is the premier convention for fans of Game of Thrones, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the epic worlds of fantasy author George R. R. Martin. From July 12–14, join some of the biggest fans, actors, and creators at the Music City Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Con of Thrones 2019 will feature panels, interviews, discussions, workshops, and more, all packed into an epic three-day weekend. Con of Thrones is produced by Mischief Management. For more information, for tickets, or to volunteer, check out their website: ConOfThrones.net

Guests announced at press time include Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime ‘Kingslayer’ Lannister on the show, and John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly, Maester-in-Training and BFF to Jon Snow, the ‘King in the North.’ More guest announcements will be made as more people buy tickets and they book them. I had a blast at the first one, and can’t wait for the third… See you there!