Game of Thrones: An Epic Fan Experience

by: Chris Thompson

An advanced screening of “Two Swords,” Game of Thrones first episode of the fourth season, provides a glimpse into what is shaping up to be a truly epic season….

“If you have a cell phone, laptop, tablet or camera you must surrender them to security before entering the venue!” A husky security guard clad in black and a woolen cap emblazoned with the letters GoT across its front, shouts loudly to the crowd. “There are no exceptions! Barclay’s will not tolerate unauthorized photography or recording of tonight’s event.” Immediately after this exclamation a wave of chatter breaks out amongst the crowd surrounding me. “No cellphones, wow!” a youth exclaims to my left. “Gonna be an analog experience tonight babe. Can you handle it?” a tattooed hipster says to his equally tattooed girlfriend to my right. As I scan the eager faces of the multitudes queuing about me, I try and tap into that vein of childhood excitement reserved for the birthdays and Christmases of my youth. I close my eyes and try to feel the buzz. To merge with the collective exhilaration pervading the participants of tonights event. To my excitement, I find it envelops me with ease. This is going to be a great night I think.

It’s a Thursday evening in late March, the day after HBO’s “Game of Thrones” season four premiere party at New York City’s Lincoln Center ((The splashy premiere took place at Avery Fisher Hall. As cast members flowed into the event, they posed with a giant dragon guarding Lincoln Center’s famous fountain. Inside the hall, the New York Philharmonic performed a brilliant rendition of the “Game of Thrones” main title theme and the always chilling “The Rains of Castamere,” the Lannister family’s anthem. The philharmonic was conducted by the talented Ramin Djawadi, the driving force and creator of the shows music.)) and I’m standing in line below the shadow of Downtown Brooklyn’s newest venue, the curved, modern­ist Barclay’s Center. I’m about to become a part of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” Epic Fan Experience and the payoff, the whole reason why seven ­thousand of us are surrendering our electronic devices without question, spending an evening cut­-off from the fast-­paced world of texts, selfie’s and tweets is huge. We are to be treated to an evening of “Game of Thrones” extravaganzas, a dizzying tour of grand promotion, and most importantly, most ummm…epically, an early screening of the first episode of the fourth season of HBO’s celebrated fantasy series, “Game of Thrones”. That’s right friends, Season four. Episode one. “Two Swords”. Boom!

As I flow forward in line, I catch a group of female youths dressed as their favorite“Game of Thrones” characters ascending the escalators, spewing forth from the depths of the great Atlantic Terminal subway station like Wildlings fleeing from the woods. There’s two Ygritte’s, a rather convincing Melisandre and what I think is a Brienne of Tarth, if she were a diminutive five feet tall. Shrieking and laughing in a manner that only youth can inspire, they brush past the assembled 9-­to-­5’ers just off of work and ready to cut loose. Past the affluent Park Slope and Greenpoint families chattering about what to expect at tonight’s event. They thread themselves expertly between rosy-­cheeked couples bonding in the chilly evening air over their mutual love of George R. R. Martin’s sweeping fantasy series and the ranks of gossiping, expectant people with the same big question on all of their tongues: what do you think will happen tonight?

Arriving at their destination, the group of costumed girls turn and face the crowd, striking pose after pose for the assembled masses, as television cameras and reporters from the local news station swarm them with questions and microphones. And with that image, with that distillment of excitement and energy crystallized firmly within my mind, I crossed through the threshold, pushing into the glass-walled entrance to Barclays Arena. Instantly I was assaulted by the excitement pervading the echoing halls. By the infectious roar and clamor of the wandering fans. There were things to see. Experiences to partake of. Wonders to behold. And rather quickly, like an immune cell engulfing a bacteria, I became one with the “Game of Thrones” Epic Fan Experiencemerging with the dizzying fantasy unfolding all around me.

Immediately upon entering, fans were treated to a panoramic assortment of costumes and props worn by the actual actors in the “Game of Thrones” series. There was The Hound’s rather imposing body armor towering over Arya’s less­-assuming paige boy’s clothes. There was Melisandre’s blood­-red cloaked dress and the Onion Knight’s green and blue robes, both costumes flanking Stannis Baratheon’s jet black armour. And, just beneath the shadow of a diving dragon sculpture, fans could glimpse the breathtaking costumes of Daenerys Targaryen, The Mother of Dragons. There were other costumes as well. The indulgent royal armor and robes worn by King Joffrey and the finery worn by the court of King’s Landing. The lavish armor of the Kingsguard and the more subdued, more reserved fashions of the Starks of Winterfell. Overall, one was able to get a sense of the attention to detail demanded by the creators of the series, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, and it functioned perfectly as a window into why this show, on so many levels, has attained such success.

As I pushed further into the venue, quenching my thirst on a cross-promotional Ommegang Brewery Fire and Blood Red Ale (delicious…it tasted like victory, bloody victory, but in a bottle), I was soon beginning to realize that us fans were being treated to more than just an early premiere of season four. There was something momentous at play here. The walls seemed to be vibrating with the energy of all the unknowns that awaited us. At all four corners of the venue were staged full­-scale replicas of the infamous Iron Throne. And by the hundreds expectant fans were waiting in line for their moment to sit upon the imposing thrones cold, steely seat. There were free “Game of Thrones” t­-shirts and swag to be had at every turn. “Game of Thrones”-emblazoned iPhone covers, koozies for your beer, “Game of Thrones”­-themed Play Station consoles giveaways. You name it, it was probably going on.

But what caught my attention, and what would end up being a secondary theme to the night, was the music effusing the hallways and bars, food stand lines and merchandise racks. It was rap, hip-­hop and reggaeton. Musical genres that felt a bit out of place for an event celebrating high fantasy, but it was loud and deep and it sounded good. Like really good. So good that it caused me to stop my herculean attempts to engage all that was going on around me. So good that I removed myself from the surging throngs of revelers, took pause, and stepped back from the cycling crush of frenzied fans. And leaning against the cool brushed metal of Barclays lower promenade, enjoying an occasional pull from my ale, I stood there and attempted to place the music that was being played. Damn! I thought to myself. If only I had my iPhone. Shazaam would tease this song out in a heartbeat. But I didn’t have any apps. Or Google. Or text. All I had was my eyes and my ears. A piece of paper and a pen. I was sure I could make out rapper Common’s distinctive voice, but it was a song I had never heard before. Then I thought I caught Big Boi sputtering out some fast-paced rhymes, but I couldn’t be one­-hundred percent sure. Outkast is reuniting for Coachella and the summer festival circuits this year I thought, maybe this was a new single?

Rejoining the swirling crowds and completing what seemed like my third lap around Barclay’s shiny promenade, I came across a display that I had missed the first two circuits. It had been swallowed up by the crush of fans and now that it was getting closer to the “Two Swords” premier and people were taking their seats,  I could make out the booth with ease. It was an advertisement for a “Game of Thrones”­-themed mixtape entitled Catch the Throne and it pulled together ten hip­-hop and rap artists – ­including Big Boi, Common and Wale ­- with each one creating a single inspired by the show. There was Big Boi, Bodega Bamz and Magazeen tackling Season 1; Kilo Kish, Daddy Yankee and Dominik Omega spitting rhymes on Season 2; and Common, Snow Tha Product and Dee Goodz rocking out beats for Season 3. The mixtape was obviously another attempt by HBO to bank on the success of its previous “Game of Thrones”-themed albums, but this one was different, focusing on reaching the younger mixtape crowd as opposed to a more general audience ((HBO has released soundtracks for all three “Game of Thrones” seasons to date, some featuring original scores by the shows musical director, Ramin Djawadi and others featuring tracks by musical acts The Hold Steady and The National)).

These were the song’s I had been hearing! I thought. It all made sense. Striking up a conversation with a doe-eyed beauty promoting HBO’s mixtape, I learned that the albums tracks began with samples of dialog from the show and then explode into each artists traditional style of rapping, with some of the artists even choosing to throw in the occasional orchestral score. It was a larger than life album channelling a larger than life show. Making a silent vow to give the album a proper listen on my return home, I quickly sprinted to my seat, dashing between a pair of sigils that flanked the entrance to my section. They were from House Stark of Winterfell, my favorite, and on one was written in blood red script a frank reminder of just what is at stake in “Game of Thrones”. “The man who passed the sentence should swing the sword” it read. Ned Stark’s words I mused, and as I made my way down the darkened arena tunnel, my thoughts for a moment drifted to Eddard Stark, and what possible meaning could be behind episode one’s title, “Two Swords.”

Stepping from the bright lights of the promenade and into the dimness of the arena, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the change in light. But when it did I was amazed at what I saw. Above a stage usually reserved for such acts as Jay Z, Thom Yorke or Arcade Fire was stationed a massive screen that dominated the arena’s rear. It was as if I had stepped into the living room of a giant and as I searched out my seat, it became immediately evident that we were in for more than just a preview of the first episode. The stage below the screen had a drum set and turntables on standby, and just as I found my seat, the towering screen began to play a 15 minute featurette with cast and crew interviews about the making of the fourth season. As the mini-documentary ended and the lights began to dim a high school marching band splashed head-to-toe in their parade-level finery flowed from the corners of the stage. Instantly they erupted into a musical rendition of the “Game of Thrones” theme song, the crowd going eerily silent as the horn section began to play. But ultimately their stunning performance was met with marvel and cheer, ending with the assembled crowd showering them with wild applause. And from that moment on, the evening just got better and better.

After the marching band exited the stage, the arena lights dimmed further to rousing whistles and catcalls. I had no idea what to expect but I was hopeful that it might involve those drums and turntables set-up on the stage. As if mirroring my thoughts, from below the mega-screen emerged the rapper Common, seated confidently upon the Iron Throne and winning points for best stage entrance ever. Launching immediately to his feet and backed up by a live drummer and DJ, he burst forth into a rousing rendition of his song “The Ladder” from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” mixtape. Rapping passionately the songs hook “I sit and think when I’m in my zone/This life is like a game of thrones.” Common moved majestically across the stage, almost daring the audience to answer as he rapped repeatidly “Who wears the crown? Who wears the crown?”.

But a mini-set by Common wasn’t to be the end of the experience before HBO premiered “Two Swords.” No, there was much more fun in store and the crowd of fans went wild as next, “Game of Thrones” cast member Kristian Nairn who plays Hodor appeared on stage. Introduced by the evenings emcee as “The most talkative man in Westeros” Nairn’s presence on the stage was met with chants or “Ho-dor, Ho-dor”. Nairn/Hodor went on to explain that the cast and crew of “Game of Thrones” were “so humbled to have a fan base like you guys.” and that this evening was “meant to be a thank-you.” And then, as if having Hodor in the living flesh on stage wasn’t amazing enough, Nairn turned and introduced one more special guest.

Dressed in his finest iridescent silk vest and trademark black cap and wearing a tremendous smile on his face emerged the tour de force behind the entire book series and the co-executive producer of the hit show, George R. R. Martin. To delirious applause and fanatical cheers he thanked the crowd, humbled by this “incredible journey” and awed by “the most amazing fans in the world.” And being the nice guy that Martin is, he was more than happy to reward his legion of fans, telling us all that “this night is for you” before welcoming on stage additional cast members of “Game of Thrones.” And in quick succession the parade of actors began. There was the adorable Maisie Williams who plays Arya Stark, as floored to be there as we were to see her. There was Sibelle Kikilli who plays Shae, with her constant repetition of “holy shit” betraying how unfamiliar she is with her newfound fame. And to whoops and howls out sauntered John Bradley-West who plays Samwell Tarly (the White Walker-slayer!) looking clean-cut and dapper in his black suit and white dress shirt.

Since the cast members and Martin were there to answer our questions there obviously was a tangible excitement running through the crowd, but even before Nairn/Hodor could get the first one read, George R. R. Martin threw up his hand and exclaimed “I’m working on it!” An obvious reference to his unfinished Game of Thrones series of novels. The crowd erupted in laughter and raucous shouts of “We love you George!” The panel then went on to answer our plentiful questions and many new and humorous things were uncovered during the back and forth. When asked who in Westeros she wanted to kill most Maisie Williams/Arya Stark exclaimed “Geoffrey.” And when asked how she would do it she coldly replied “Sticking him with the pointy end [of the sword].” When asked what John Bradley-West/Samwell Tarly liked best about being an actor on “Game of Thrones” he replied “Kit Harrington’s ((who plays the bastard John Snow)) big brown eyes.” And when George R. R. Martin was asked if any of his characters in his books were inspired by real life, the crowd was treated to a series of equally revealing answers. Martin went on to explain that many of his characters are inspired from history and that he takes “bits of this” and “bits of that” and then suddenly you get The Red Wedding. And that if you really do your research, really dig in, you discover that “there are a lot of amazing women in history,” which is a thread that is woven deeply into the fabric of the “Game of Thrones.” With the end of the question and answer period came the heartfelt “thank you’s” and “we love you’s” from the cast members and shouted responses of adoration from the crowd. And then it was time to get down to business. Time to fire up that massive screen silently taunting all of us from above and to embark on what we were all truly there for – the premiere of “Two Swords.”

Of course I want to launch into the particulars of the first episode. To break it down and share with you all that I have seen and learned. To weigh the merits of why so and so did that thing against the backdrop of what is unfolding across Westeros. It’s been over two weeks that I’ve had to keep all these revelations bottled up inside of me, and it needs to get out already! But what good would that be? What benefit would that have for you? No, I think that instead I will leave you with just one thought. One tiny seed of information that should hopefully carry you through to this Sunday’s premier. And that thought is this: In the past, the first few episodes of the last three seasons have been rather slow, allowing for a gradual build-up in the story before the eventual punch in the gut. But this time. This time in episode one of season four. This time they throw us right into the mix and let me tell you, it hurts.

Season four, episode one of HBO’s hit series “Game of Thrones” entitled “Two Swords” premiers this Sunday night at 9pm on HBO. Get there! 

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