What Game of Thrones Meant to Venezuelans Around the Globe

We use it to share something with friends who leave the country. We watch it searching for answers for our own ceaseless winter. Few people will miss this show as those who live in a country that feels like scorched by a dragon.

Photo: HBO

It’s Sunday evening and your WhatsApp groups are exploding. At any other moment, you’d be worried—did they jail Leopoldo? Is the military raising in arms? Has the usurpation finally ceased?—but you don’t worry, because you know it’s indeed about your tale of violence and political intrigue, just in a fictional land, with dragons.

Game of Thrones is by now a well-known global phenomenon. Based on the fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, it follows the conflict of several warring factions to seize and hold the throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, in a fantasy world where magic, dragons and zombies exist.

It’s one of those TV shows that define eras, the same way Lost, Breaking Bad and, in Venezuela, Por estas calles, did in their time. It’s also one of the few moments where public attention in Venezuela focuses on something other than the real-life drama. Looking at the trending topics on Twitter on a Sunday evening, you’d swear Daenerys Targaryen is the new Zulia governor or something.

The show started in 2011, on HBO. Although, at the time, cable television subscription was booming in the country—reaching a peak 68% of all homes in 2015—HBO was viewed as an exclusive walled garden for those who could afford the premium services of cable company DirectTV, while most would opt for something more affordable, like Inter or NetUno.

At the time, I was in college and I remember introducing the show to others, with the help of a bootleg DVD. Many were squeamish with the sex and violence—which have become normal—but what really confused them was that it didn’t look like TV. It looked like a movie, maybe quaint now, but there weren’t many shows trying to do something with this scope.

In many ways, GoT is one of the few things a whole generation of Venezuelans, currently spread around the globe, sits down and enjoys more or less together, with a viewership comparable to World Cups and award ceremonies. You can pretty much follow any given episode by the sheer number of viral images, reviews or just snarky comments on Sunday evening.

I believe that, for Venezuelans, part of it has to do with migration.

Take, for instance, the group of friends I started to watch the show with. Back in the early 2010s, we were all attending the same Maracay college, two hours west of Caracas. At the time, migrants were less than 2% of all Venezuelans, and everyone unanimously bashed the stories in a documentary about young privileged Venezuelans leaving, Caracas: Ciudad de Despedidas.

Flashforward to 2019, where moving out of the country has transitioned from the brain drain of the upper and middle classes to a generalized reality, unavoidable for the entire nation. My group of friends still talks about GoT, but now there are three in Spain, three in the U.S., two in Peru and only me in Venezuela. Sure, we talk about other shows and movies, but this is one of the few where we’re all on the same page.

Instead of college cafeterias and living rooms, our meeting places became Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, filled with snarky comments and viral images fusioning Venezuela’s reality with the characters and situations of the show. It’s not just popular for being the last show many became fans of before leaving, it’s that we see ourselves in this drama we watch to not to think of our reality.

Some memorable comparisons include Robb Stark’s youthful leadership and early death to Henrique Capriles’s promising political rise and early burnout, the secrecy of Jon Snow’s survival and Hugo Chávez’s terminal illness, and Daenerys’s likeness to María Corina Machado, including Twitter declaring that she has “gone chavista”.

In the past, fiction about injustice and authoritarianism has helped us shape, voice and comprehend our real-life nightmares, whether it was the intention of the author or not. Science fiction and fantasy, divorced from the constrictions of the real world, have offered a fertile playground to explore these themes, we see it prominently with George Orwell’s 1984, but that’s hardly the only example seen in Venezuela.

A few years ago, it was pretty common to see memes and comments comparing shortages of food and power to The Hunger Games and, during the 2014 protests, I saw many going out to protest doing the famous three-finger salute that instigates a revolt in the poor, exploited districts against the oppressive rule of The Capitol.

Game of Thrones speaks to us because, in its bare essence, it’s the story of survival and resilience of the Stark children. They’re caught in a political conflict inherited from their elders’ mistakes, decimated by the circumstances, they rally behind leaders with untimely demises, against mad tyrants who don’t care about ruling over a pile of ashes as long as they come out on top.

It’s unlikely there will be anything like Game of Thrones again. With the advent of Netflix and other streaming services, we’re no longer bound to watch everything at once and, with the Venezuelan diaspora settling in and growing apart, our connections become more strenuous.

There will be stories, for sure. Tales that will fill us with excitement and awe the same way they filled the minds of our prehistoric ancestors by the fireplace, and inspire us and help us to understand and define better the world that surrounds us. But our Sunday evening watch has ended and, as we leave Westeros to return to our real-life drama, we can’t help but face the reality of how life in Venezuela is dark and full of terrors.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.