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Game of Thrones Cast for Time Magazine

Thrones, a scrappy upstart launched by two TV novices in 2011, will finish its run as the biggest and most popular show in the world. An average of more than 23 million Americans watched each episode last season when platforms like streaming and video on demand are accounted for. And since it’s the most pirated show ever, millions more watch it in ways unaccounted for. Thrones, which holds the record for most Emmys ever won by a prime-time series, airs in more than 170 countries. It’s the farthest-reaching show out there—not to mention the most obsessed-about.

People talk about living in a golden age of TV ushered in by hit dramas like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. All had precisely honed insights about the nature of humanity and of evil that remade expectations of what TV could do. But that period ended around the time Breaking Bad went off the air in 2013. We’re in what came next: an unprecedented glut of programming, with streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu jumping into an ever-more-crowded fray. Now, there’s a prestige show for every conceivable viewer, which means smaller audiences and fewer truly original stories. Except for Thrones, which merges the psychological complexity of the best TV with old-school Hollywood grandeur. You liked shows with one anti­hero? Well, Thrones has five Tony Sopranos building their empires on blood, five Walter Whites discovering just how far they’ll go to win, five Don Drapers unapologetic in their narcissism. Oh, and they’re all living out their drama against the most breathtaking vistas not of this world.

The phenomenon is fueled by a massive worldwide apparatus that, in a typical 10-episode season, generates the equivalent of five big-budget, feature-length movies. Even as the series has grown in every conceivable way over the years—it shoots around the globe; each episode now boasts a budget of at least $10 million—it remains animated by one simple question: Who will win the game in the end? And if Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that every reign has to end sometime.

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