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The Game of Thrones Pop-Up Bar Should Be the Last Hurrah for a DC Obsession

The weirwood tree at Derek Brown's Game of Thrones pop-up bar. Photograph by Photography by Farrah Skeiky.

A lot of thoughts swirl in the Game of Thrones fan’s head upon stepping into DC cocktail maven Derek Brown’s spirituous tribute to HBO’s hit series about swords, dragons, and power-brokering. Is this a fantasy convention? A Renaissance fair? An escapist retreat from a dismal reality?

Well, yes, but it’s also a bar.

Brown has had great success transforming his trio of Shaw establishments into seasonally themed venues. First came the Miracle on Seventh Street, otherwise known as the Christmas bar. Then it became the Cherry Blossom bar. Lines snaked down the block and around the corner, selfies were taken, drinks were drunk.

Brown needed a different theme to fill the gap between the end of cherry-blossom season and the beginning of the holidays. So why not one of Washington’s other obsessions? Since the screen adaptation of George R.R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire series first appeared in 2011, DC–just like audiences everywhere–been entranced by Martin’s world of dragons, swordplay, and sex.

But where Washington and Westeros have truly bonded is on the game of thrones itself. Since it was apparent HBO had a hit on its hands, DC-area writers have previewed every new season of Game of Thrones by assigning real-world political figures their counterparts in the fictional Seven Kingdoms, or imagining how a map of DC might appear if it was done up in the style of the show’s opening credits. Was Hillary Clinton supposed to be Daenerys Targaryen, or does that appellation now go to someone like Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris? (I once wrote that former Mayor Adrian Fenty is the mother of dragons.)

With the release of trailers dangling hints of the seventh season, this now-tired parlor hobby is gearing up once again. Fox News’s Meghan McCain invokes House Stark’s motto when she warns members of Congress that, like winter, “midterms are coming.” Daily Show host Trevor Noah likens President Trump to the White Walkers, the zombie army from north of the Wall that threatens to destroy civilization. Martin himself recently told Esquire that Trump reminds him of King Joffrey Baratheon, the bratty product of Lannister incest who was offed in season four. (I’ll dare to differ from the fictional universe’s creator here and say that if Trump has an analog in Westeros, it’s Walder Frey, an aging lecher constantly griping that the rest of the world looks down on his fiefdom, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is the Night’s King, the head of the White Walker army and the show’s primary driver of unapologetic, nihilistic destruction.)

However you want to cast Washington-as-Westeros, Brown has created the perfect venue for it with his Game of Thrones pop-up. Absolutists might be drawn to the room dressed up as one of House Stark’s weirwood trees where they can sip a drink called “The North Remembers,” made from Highland Park scotch and Oloroso sherry, and served in a horn the way Ned Stark might have consumed his ale. Another room, featuring three model dragons—including one that emits smoke—seems like the spot for people who want to clink glasses and concoct plans to smash the patriarchy. (No Targaryen-themed drinks were on the menu the other night, but the Green Hat Gin-based “What Is Dead May Never Die” was a refreshing nod to Khaleesi’s ally Yara Greyjoy.) Loyalists might seek out the room Brown is calling the “Red Keep”–decorated with the sigils of Game of Thrones’ noble families and abutted a replica Iron Throne—and order the tequila-and-grapefruit “Shame” while they reminisce about Cersei Lannister’s walk of penance.

The Game of Thrones bar is an impressive work of devoted fandom. Order a “Shame,” and the bartenders ring bells and cry out like one of the High Sparrow’s righteous clerics; sit in the Iron Throne and imagine ruling over the King’s Landing court. On opening night, Brown himself could be spotted walking around dressed up as a man of the Night’s Watch, black fur coat and all.

But the bar also feels like a product of several moments. Just as it did with the Christmas and Cherry Blossom bars, Washington’s line culture is sure to thrive off of Brown’s latest creation, with waits rivaling the the amount of time Martin’s spent on The Winds of Winter. (You’ll definitely get inside, though, before Martin finishes the sixth book in his series.)

Photograph by Farrah Skeiky.

And then there’s the show itself. Game of Thrones isn’t Washington’s only television obsession. But no one’s redecorating their bar to celebrate Frank Underwood or Selina Meyer. Game of Thrones‘s pull is different, and maybe stronger. Just down the street from Brown’s joint, Drift on 7th is planning its own series of Westeros-inspired drink specials. The Washington Nationals are hosting a “Game of Thrones Night” on Friday, which the team has been plugging with a series of groan-inducing promotions. Are other area businesses planning their own Game of Thrones-themed specials? Boutique gyms that specialize in trial-by-combat? An event planner who specializes in Red Wedding-style nuptials?

This is not to bash the show or its many fans. Game of Thrones is thrilling, captivating television, and Brown has come up with a shamelessly fun tribute—with tasty drinks. But it’s also winding down. The upcoming seven-episode season, premiering July 16, is its second-to-last cycle, with just another six episodes coming in 2018 or 2019. What will happen to our collective fandom when it ends for good? Will Brown rebuild his bars around a different HBO property? Will journalists start comparing politicians to characters from Martin’s series? A Westworld-themed bar seems unlikely; so does the prospect of bloggers trying to wedge book-only characters like Osmund Kettleblack and Arianne Martell into their political analyses.

In the larger pop-culture schema, Game of Thrones has long since climbed into the ranks of franchises that’ll outlive their original air dates, with Dothraki warriors and Sand Snakes as common at conventions as Vulcans and Time Lords. Its Washington moment, though, is expiring, and possibly at the most inopportune time. Even with its format-busting takes on female power and fallible men, Game of Thrones has always been classic fantasy; one of its characters will get a happy ending on that Iron Throne. Meanwhile, our politics have seldom felt darker and more full of terrors. Brown’s bar might be silly and stunt-y with a line so long you’ll feel like you’ve marched from Dorne to the Wall by the time you get through the door, but it also strikes the escapist note HBO-watching Washingtonians are looking for right now.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.