We caught the HBO-sponsored ‘Game of Thrones’ exhibit before it shut up shop in New York‘s midtown on April 3. Its next stop—on a global tour that began last month in Toronto—is the Brazilian megapolis of Sao Paolo. There, it shall continue its mission of transporting “viewers into the breathtaking and enchanted world of Westeros.” We have no problem admitting our devotion to the books of George R.R. Martin and gladly bend the knee to the hit HBO TV series as well.
So we approached Westeros-on-57th Street with great excitement, even when stuck in a vast line of fans that stretched a whole avenue block. “I can’t wait to see the Mother of Dragons,” said one gum-chewing prepubescent who probably should have been at school. But he was to be disappointed—Emilia Clarke was nowhere in sight (nor were any of the show’s other actors). We, too, were underwhelmed. Here’s why.
1. The Iron Throne. The line to sit upon this exact replica of the Iron Throne was too long, so we were unable to take our rightful seat and perhaps, as a result, are a bit bitter. But herein lies a problem: It’s the Iron Throne! It was forged with dragon-fire by Aegon the Conqueror! It was made out of a thousand swords of the Targaryens‘ subjugated foes! Unworthy kings feel the constant cut of its blades on their posterior! Yet, we watched, bemused, as all the cheery small-folk of the tri-state area ascended the dais and took their perch, grinning stupidly for pictures. We asked one of these grinners how he coped: “Dude, I think I sat on plastic,” he said.
2. Blackwater Bay. We were rather excited to reenact the defense of King’s Landing through a video-game simulator where you shoot flaming arrows at pools of glowing-green wildfire in Blackwater Bay. You do this by pulling taut an actual bowstring and letting fly at Stannis Baratheon’s ships below. But one of the other visitors shoved past us rudely, sending our first arrow askew. We made up expertly with our next two shots, obliterating whole swaths of the attacking armada, but lacked the one final shot to “beat” the game. We asked the attendant whether it would be possible to try once more, but he, an uncharitable scoundrel of a Lannister, said no. We will not forget.
3. Westerosi Lore. The exhibit purports to deepen viewers’ understanding of the realms and peoples of Westeros: there are artifacts—swords, broaches, chess-pieces—and costumes from a number of the Seven Kingdoms and a few wall-blurbs explaining the provenance of some of the more influential Houses. But it tells little most bannermen worth their spears would not already know. We stood nonchalant before a set of headless mannequins garbed in the furs and coarse attire of the Wildlings, those who dwell north of the Wall. We know about Wildlings. But what about those who preceded them? The First Men. The Children of the Forest. The exodus of the boat people of the Rhoyne. The burly, blonde Andals who invaded Westeros in some earlier era, like the Angles and Saxons of Dark Ages Britain. Of these deeper histories, the exhibit speaks not.
4. Orientalism. Let’s say it: George R.R. Martin is great at conjuring a medieval European facsimile—Westeros—but when he arrives at peoples and places in the vast eastern continent of Essos, he can make you cringe. His Essos, after all, is a realm of slavers and savages, creepy, black-lipped warlocks and creepy, red-haired women who give birth to this sort of thing. From the bloodthirsty Dothraki to the merchants of Qarth, Martin’s Essos brims with stock Orientalist cliches of venality, decadence, brutality and avarice. (In Dungeons & Dragons terms, Essos seems solidly Neutral Evil.) The small display case representing the East shows implicitly how much less realized this part of the Game of Thrones universe is compared to Westeros. That said, the full-face head gear in the case, made out of interlocking gold coins, reminded us of the helmets of Sassanid Persia or the kataphraktoi of the Byzantine Empire and was pretty cool.
5. Food. Food in Game of Thrones is a big deal. In Martin’s books, you read pages upon pages describing the grease dripping off roasted capons. You pass through platters of lemon cakes, mounds of fresh-baked bread, blood sausages, river trout baked in clay, suckling pigs. There is so much talk of food that we now have fan-made recipe books. A brewery in upstate New York has begun crafting Westeros-themed ales. Was any of this on offer at the exhibit? Sadly, no. After an eternity in line, nothing would have suited us better than a strong cup of Dornish wine. The lady at the exhibit’s exit, though, was unimpressed by our request.