In the days of streaming networks and cyber hacks, watching television can feel like a lonely pursuit. Hell may be other people, as both Sartre and the spoiler-phobic know, but one of the appeals of must-see television is that we are watching something together. What’s wrong with a display of unity?
One of the few nonsporting events to draw a crowd towards the largest screens it can handle has been Game of Thrones, the adult-leaning fantasy series rather unfairly described as "just tits and dragons" by one of its guest stars. Since the showrunners, DB Weiss and Daniel Benioff, have run out of George RR Martin's pulpy books to adapt, there have actually been far more sightings of the latter than the former.
That has made for an enjoyably swashbuckling and mercifully less sadistic seventh series, but it has had serious consequences for a suggested drinking game in one lively Dublin bar, which hosts weekly screenings of each new episode.
For the premiere, in the Back Page in Phibsborough, Dublin 7, a sheet encouraged participants to drink at every “gratuitous display of nudity”, but the series’ change of emphasis soon put paid to that. On Monday, for a terrifically exciting (if geographically troublesome) penultimate episode, whistles are more likely to get wetted “every time someone swears” (17 times, by a strict count), “every time you see a White Walker” (plentifully) and “every time someone loses a body part” (some form of intervention would have been necessary).
School nights are pretty abstemious, though. "I'm not sure if a lot of people play it on a Monday," says Ian Alvey, the Back Page's manager, as he prepares two large spaces for the first of two viewings. The bar's policy is to catch up with the previous episode beforehand, then move directly into the new broadcast.
Attendance for the premiere episode was through the roof, but subsequent hacks and accidental leaks of episodes had thinned out the community. This, the penultimate episode, has leaked early, and Alvey worries that attendance might disintegrate, like a battalion of wights whose White Walker has just been vanquished.
But bookings are still strong, and as tables begin to fill with tables of friends, work colleagues and slightly confused tourists (“Oh, sorry, I was on French time,” one customer, worried she is late to the party, tells her waitress), Alvey estimates that 60 per cent of the crowd will come unsullied by spoilers.
At the tables, those projections begin to seem optimistic. Among a group of four South American workmates, all but one has watched it already. “How am I supposed to ignore it, knowing it’s already out there?” a young woman named Isabella asks. This is a common predicament for fans: do you cheat, like a perfidious Walder Frey, or remain burdened but stoic, like that pure driven Jon Snow?
At another table of five, only one has come innocent to what the episode holds in store, and as it disgorges its adventures and twists, her friends watch for her reactions as frequently as they do the screen. (She doesn’t disappoint.)
There are good reasons to come regardless. "I came to see my friends," says one woman, Daphne. "The atmosphere is good and they have great pizza." (A GoT-themed variety, for meat-lovers, may contain more flesh than the series.)
As the bar becomes fuller it also becomes quieter: all the better to appreciate how a dragon’s roar or a wight’s wail sounds when punched through a surround-sound PA system that reverberates through every pint glass. The mood is focused and good-natured with attention mostly rapt. Some watch with their chins in their hands; others with their hands on their throats. Hecklers have previously been politely but firmly shut down; a waitress who dares to call out an order number – “115?” – is met with a chorus of shushes.
In a crowd, it transpires, the Hound is a major hero, his profane one-liners eliciting sympathetic chuckles, with a vocabulary that is apparently contagious. “Shiiiiiit,” breathes one spectator, unconsciously, when Jon Snow’s adventurers find themselves surrounded by a swarm of the undead. It helps to break the tension.
Others answer back, or issue their own helpful commands under the cover of the PA volume. “Would ye get te f***!” says one exasperated watcher, as Jon Snow bewilderingly delays his escape, while her partner considers the geographical distance the expedition had asked an emergency message raven to cover, at lightning speed, and frowns deeply.
The world of Game of Thrones is actually more proximal than that: behind them sits the actor Rory Dignam, who appears in a small part in the season finale. (He diplomatically declines to share a single detail.)
A tale of ale
At its breath-taking conclusion, which draws immediate applause, the Back Page fans begin to share theories and wishes. “I hope Jon and Daenerys get together,” offers Isabella, a popular position, despite the growing consensus that they must be aunt and nephew.
Ty, a backpacker from Toronto, hopes for something more like a military alliance between them, nominating Podrick Payne (a lowly but amiable squire) as a very dark horse contender for the Iron Throne, with Gendry – the bastard son of the deposed king Robert – as a more poetic possibility. “Jon doesn’t want to be a ruler,” he explains.
As the audience files out, Ian Alvey begins to clean up the room, even as a rumour swirls around the bar that the series finale has been hacked and might leak before Monday. Alvey is not too worried. People might choose to watch it huddled around a laptop, he agrees, or squinting at their phones, but, in this world, fantasy loves company. “Besides,” he says, “we’ve got better ale.”