Winter is here: How 'Game of Thrones' took over American politics
© Hill illustration/iStock images

The world is still waiting to find out who ends up on the Iron Throne of Westeros, but in Washington, one thing is certain: "Game of Thrones" reigns supreme among lawmakers, candidates and much of the nation’s capital.

The HBO series, based on the Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin, has become required weekly viewing for the political world since its premiere in 2011. As the show nears its final episode on Sunday, the buzz surrounding the drama has grown hotter than dragon fire.

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And politicians from both sides of the aisle use the fantasy mega-hit’s shared cultural vocabulary to help make their points. President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE has more than once sent out "Thrones"-inspired images and messages on his Twitter account, including warning Iran that "sanctions are coming," a play on the Stark family’s famous "Winter is coming" house words. When Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's tax bombshell | More election drama in Pennsylvania | Trump makes up ground in new polls New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments MORE (D-Mass.) wanted to make a point about income inequality and entrenched power last month, she wrote an op-ed titled "The World Needs Fewer Cersei Lannisters."

"It’s a show that in its first five years really caught our attention by really defying storytelling convention," says Anthony Gierzynski, professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Vermont. "Just when we think that the good guy or the side that we’re rooting for is going to get ahead, something horrible happens," says Gierzynski, author of "The Political Effects of Entertainment Media: How Fictional Worlds Affect Real World Perspectives."

In the rollercoaster, often-topsy turvy world of Capitol Hill, that unpredictability could be strikingly relatable. Or maybe it’s the constant, bloody clashes and Machiavellian scheming that seem all too familiar.

"In this age of intense polarization, in terms of rhetoric and the way partisans see the other side as a threat to the country, the story where that’s definitely the case in 'Game of Thrones' — that might really resonate. As well as the whole struggle for power," says Gierzynski.

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"I think from the very beginning, it’s all about kingship," says Jana Matthews. Five years ago, the English associate professor developed her own "Game of Thrones" course at Rollins College based on the book and TV series. The show, she says, "does just enough historically to cement its place in the world of fantasy and also the pre-modern world. You can enjoy it and analyze it critically from that end, that lens. But at the same time, it’s close enough to some moments to see patterns of contemporary American politics and political history that we are able to read it as an allegory."

The fictional series, which has set records for both legitimate viewership and bootleg pirating, has for years spilled into the real world when lawmakers and politicians seek to use it to connect with a wide audience.

In 2014, then-Democratic House hopeful Seth MoultonSeth MoultonOvernight Defense: Congress recommends nuclear arms treaty be extended | Dems warn Turkey | Military's eighth COVID death identified Bipartisan congressional task force recommends extending nuclear treaty with Russia Overnight Defense: Nearly 500 former national security officials formally back Biden | 40 groups call on House panel to investigate Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds MORE rallied supporters in Massachusetts with a "Thrones" reference, tweeting, "Sorry Game of Thrones fans, we will not be settling the #ma6 election by trial by combat. Come knock doors this weekend instead!"

Three years later, former House Speaker Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE (R-Ga.) compared special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to the headline-making series.

"I think this is closer to 'Game of Thrones' than it is to anything normal," Gingrich told Fox News's Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityFox News tops broadcast networks for first time in 3rd quarter Former White House physician echoes Trump's accusation of Biden drug use for debates Will Chis Wallace's debate topics favor Biden over Trump? MORE. "This is a classic story of an outsider trying to reform an institution, and the institution, in this case the deep state doing everything it can to destroy the person who has usurped power," Gingrich added, referring to Trump.

Following the completion of Mueller’s probe, which did not find evidence to accuse the Trump campaign of conspiracy with Moscow, the president himself tweeted victory in a similar style to "Game of Thrones" promotional images.

"Game over," the April message read. HBO issued a statement following the tweet, saying, "Though we can understand the enthusiasm for ‘Game of Thrones’ now that the final season has arrived, we still prefer our intellectual property not be used for political purposes."

It’s unclear if Trump is actually a fan of the show. The White House didn’t return ITK’s request for comment about whether he’s among the millions of "Thrones" viewers.

With a massive audience — last week’s penultimate episode raked in more than 18 million viewers in two airings — being clued into what’s happening in Winterfell or the Iron Islands might just make political sense.

Former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer says Trump right on China but wrong on WHO; CDC issues new guidance for large gatherings The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says country needs to rethink what 'policing' means; US cases surpass 2 million with no end to pandemic in sight MORE (D-Md.) doesn’t watch the show himself — although the 2020 White House hopeful’s staffers are big fans, we hear — but tweeted out a CNN story comparing him to “Thrones” character Eddison Tollett. “My staff tells me this is a good thing,” Delaney, a 2020 White House hopeful wrote. “Everyone liked Edd. They also tell me that we’re not renaming our Maryland HQ ‘Castle Black.’”

Last month, at a Democratic leadership press conference, Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesDemocratic leaders: Supreme Court fight is about ObamaCare Pelosi: House will stay in session until agreement is reached on coronavirus relief Races heat up for House leadership posts MORE (N.Y.) said, "The founding fathers did not want a system where a king was in charge. Donald Trump appears to believe that he is a king. This is not Westeros. It's Washington, D.C. "

But attempts to serve up some "Thrones" hot takes can backfire. Earlier this week, Warren, a 2020 presidential candidate, pushed back on talk that she revealed a "Game of Thrones" spoiler while discussing student loan debt during a speech in Philadelphia, quipping that "it’s a little hard to do a spoiler 21 hours after the program aired."

Dodging spoilers like Arya Stark avoiding falling walls in King’s Landing is John Dickerson’s mission ahead of Sunday. The “60 Minutes” correspondent and former “CBS This Morning” co-host counts him and his wife among “Game of Thrones’” watchers. The pair hasn’t seen the last three episodes because of work, but has hatched a gameplan in time for the finale.

“We’re going to catch some shows Friday and Saturday to get caught up. We have largely remained spoiler-free somehow and so all of the upset, trouble and pain that people have been feeling we have in store for us before the final devastating blow on Sunday,” Dickerson tells ITK.

“Winter is coming with the intensity of a Bouillon cube,” quips Dickerson.

The show has, however, seen its share of backlash over the years — particularly during its final eighth season.

Actress Jessica Chastain was among those who called out the series earlier this month for suggesting that the character of Sansa Stark, played by Sophie Turner, drew strength from her history of being a rape victim. ”Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger," the “It: Chapter Two” star wrote to her more than 700,000 Twitter followers.

Critics have also decried Emilia Clarke's downward spiral in her role as Daenerys Targaryen from a fierce leader to a "mad queen" in the closing episodes. "Sadly, 'Game of Thrones' never fixed its problem with women," a Thursday headline in USA Today read, with TV critic Kelly Lawler writing, "It's painfully clear that 'Thrones' is a series created by (and in large part written for) men."

A Change.org petition to reshoot season 8 “with competent writers” had more than 1 million signatures as of Sunday afternoon.

So how will Washington cope once someone finally claims the throne once and for all...and the show’s over?

"I think we’ll do what we always do: you’ll run the narrative to the end of the watercooler and then we’ll move on to something else," Matthews says with a laugh.

"This has been a show that has transfixed the nation and transfixed the world and for really good reason," the medieval literature expert adds. "I think it’s really given us some interesting things to think about and to analyze critically about ourselves and the world around us. But ultimately, we’ll move on to another show."

But what is dead may never die, and Dothraki or Valyrian speakers might not actually have to move too far from the series — HBO has said a prequel starring Naomi Watts is in the works.

Former "Star Trek" actor George Takei had his own concerns about what’ll happen once the sun sets on the Seven Kingdoms for the last time.

"I worry that after Game of Thrones ends, all our complaining is going to be redirected at the various Democratic candidates," Takei wrote on Twitter on Thursday. "Keep it positive, friends."