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'Game Of Thrones' Keeps Its Finger On The Pulse As It Enters The Home Stretch


This is FRESH AIR. As everyone has surely heard by now, on Sunday night, HBO will begin airing the final season of "Game Of Thrones" - a show with a huge and fanatical international fan base. Although HBO hasn't made any episodes available for screening, our critic at large, John Powers, couldn't resist talking about why it's a show that defines our era.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: When "Game Of Thrones" premiered eight years ago this month, I was skeptical. I mean, who wanted to see a "Dungeon & Dragons" epic loosely based on the 15th century War of the Roses? Then I watched the first episode, which built to the most shocking ending I'd ever seen on TV. A knight who's been caught making love to his own sister pushes a 10-year-old boy from a hundred-foot tower. That got my attention, and obviously not just mine.

As it starts down the homestretch on Sunday, this HBO franchise has become the world's most popular show. Some journalists are even writing elegiac articles about how, given our fragmented media environment, "Game Of Thrones" may be the last TV series that everyone watches at the same time in order to be part of the conversation.

It's easy to understand its popularity. Set on the imaginary continent of Westeros, invented by novelist George R. R. Martin, "Game Of Thrones" tells a juicy story of heroic knights, canny eunuchs, religious fanatics, psychopathic kings, fire-breathing dragons, savage wars, strong women, naked women and men whose castration anxiety is caused by actual castration.

All this lurid stuff is deftly orchestrated by series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who give us a changing world of changing characters. For instance, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's handsome, villainous Jaime Lannister - he's the one who pushes the little boy off the tower - gradually develops a complicated moral sense.

Over the years, "Game Of Thrones" has risen from being a nifty potboiler to a timely expression of a zeitgeist that contests everything from gender to climate change to immigration. Heck, Westeros even has a big wall to keep out aliens. It's become so much of our cultural lingua franca that when liberals compare Donald Trump to King Joffrey or conservatives compare Hillary Clinton to Cersei Lannister, they assume you know what they mean.

Of course, like any truly great piece of pop entertainment, the show doesn't make an obvious political statement. It is a stew of energizing contradictions. In fact, it sometimes feels like a strange collaboration between Dick Cheney and Rachel Maddow. The world it depicts is Cheneyesque (ph) in its doom-laden vision of life as a dog-eat-dog struggle for power. Without power, the show suggests, you are nothing, and your ideals are pointless. Without strong authority, there is chaos.

At the same time, the series is shot through with a jaunty Maddowesque (ph) liberalism, a belief that not only is compassion possible, but that the most compassionate people are apt to be outsiders - the debauched but honorable dwarf Tyrion Lannister, played by Peter Dinklage, who gets the show's best lines; Kit Harrington's bastard Jon Snow, who is literally resurrected to help save the world; and Emilia Clarke's Daenerys Targaryen, who, after being forced to marry a hunky barbarian, mothers three dragons and becomes the slave-freeing Khaleesi who offers potential followers a rather steely vision of freedom, as we can hear in this speech from last season.


EMILIA CLARKE: (As Daenerys Targaryen) I'm not here to murder, and all I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over rich and poor to the benefit of no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world. I offer you a choice. Bend the knee and join me. Together, we will leave the world a better place than we found it. Or refuse and die.

POWERS: From the show's beginnings, we've heard dark mutterings that winter is coming - the show's obvious analogue to climate change - and with it, the arrival of the White Walkers, humanoid ice creatures that will slaughter everyone in their path. And season after season, we've watched this existential threat be ignored by leaders and would-be leaders, sunk in their smaller obsessions with revenge, family, sadistic pleasure and, of course, personal power.

In the upcoming episodes, the main characters will face the consequences of such carelessness, and "Game Of Thrones'" true vision will finally reveal itself. Will Westeros be saved by the alliance between Jon Snow and the mother of dragons? Will Cersei truly join with others to fight the army of death, or will she still be scheming? And, if the latter, who will finally kill her?

The smart money is on her brother and lover, Jaime. I'm not kidding. There are already gambling pools on who will live and who won't. That's because the series' great narrative strength has always been its ruthlessness. With most shows, you know who's safe. Don Draper isn't going to die in Season 2 of "Mad Men." But here, you don't.

Major characters have been killed off every season, and we know that some of our favorites will die this time out. In fact, what makes the show special is that, given the Hobbesian reality of Westeros, we can't be completely sure they won't all die. Naturally, I don't hope that this will happen, but I do find it exciting that, for once, it just might.

GROSS: John Powers is our critic-at-large. We want to congratulate our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, who is also a poet, and just received a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Nathaniel Rich about the missed opportunities to halt or at least slow down climate change or with Emily Bazelon about the new movement of prosecutors trying to reform the justice system, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMIN DJAWADI'S "THE KING'S ARRIVAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.