The last of the Starks. Picture: HBO/Helen Sloane

"Game of Thrones" has enjoyed an almost decade-long run. That's nearly ten years of our lives spent watching a TV show. True, some were a bit late to the party, with others just about holding onto the train in last-minute binge watch efforts. Either way, every fan contributed to getting season eight a well-deserved 44.2 million views (and counting). 

GoT fans – both those who love and those who hate the show – have experienced every possible emotion these past few weeks. People are upset, frustrated, outraged, sad, even heartbroken. Some, because they didn’t get the ending they wanted, or felt the characters deserved, but most, because we’ve had to bid farewell to something we’ve held dear for so long. With no more predictions left to make, and no more theories to cook up, we look at the people who played a big role in helping GoT unseat all other shows. Without the fans who loyally (and stubbornly) tune in, stream, and shamelessly pirate each week, this thing would not be the phenomenon it is.  

We challenged a few fans – both new and old – to think about what "Game of Thrones" truly means to them. What made them stick with a show for this long? How do they feel now that it’s over? What is it about HBO’s epic fantasy that’s affected us all on such a visceral level?

Entertainment – The Show That Kept Us Guessing

One of the reasons we kept coming back, is that the show was full of surprises. Thanks to its layered characters and masterful plot construction, GoT constantly shocked us. 

For Kaanitah Ahmed, who’s currently in matric, it was the great, unpredictable storyline that won her over, even though the show’s violence was initially off-putting. "At first I didn’t think I could watch it – I found it too gruesome. But as time went on, it really just became a world where I could escape my crazy life," Kaanitah says. 

Pam Newham, author and former teacher, watched seven seasons in 6 weeks. For her, it meant an hour of unmissable entertainment. Pam says, "The characters and setting grabbed me from day one. Short action-packed scenes kept me glued to the TV. Episodes always ended far too soon!" For Pam, nothing yet comes close to replacing GoT.

Qaasim Noordien, an IT student from CPUT, says he caved two months ago when all the GoT hype finally got to him. After years of avoiding the show, he finally understood everyone’s obsession with it. "I haven’t been a fan of GoT for long, but I must say, since I started watching it’s all I ever think about!" he says, laughingly. Not being able to make accurate predictions of who’s going to die next, is one of the many reasons Qaasim kept watching. He seems relieved to have been able to devour a new episode each night. Qaasim admits, "If I thought Jon Snow was dead for more than two days, I would have died!"Indeed, imagine how the rest of us felt after waiting a year to learn the truth.

When you think back to episodes like "The Red Wedding" or "Battle of the Bastards," you might remember the feeling of being hooked up to an electric current, poised on edge of your seat, wondering if it was possible to get a heart attack from a show. There are some spin-offs in the pipeline, but GoT remains a tough act to follow.

Blame It On Peer Pressure

There's a meme about people being peer pressured into watching GoT. We heard from two fans whose good friends goaded (i.e. forced) them into watching episode one. Let's be honest, we don’t want to leave anyone out of our ‘watercooler’ conversations, right? More fans make the world a brighter place. The viewers we heard from don’t regret being converted one bit.

Alicia Horlin shares Kaanitah’s experience of being turned off initially by the gratuitous violence and sex, but it was two ex-students who convinced her to give it a shot. Alicia smiles as she remembers watching the pilot. "When the head goes flying in that first episode, I laughed my a** off, thinking, 'What the hell am I watching?'" Laughing at such unexpected, almost flamboyant violence, is of course a natural response, but Alicia quickly learnt there was more to the show than shock value. GoT had a damn good storyline. It was never about cheap thrills, though it may have appeared that way right at the start.

Robin Williams, who works as a recovery assistant, says her best friend had been trying for years to get her to watch. "I wasn’t really into medieval-type movies," Robin recalls. "But when Ned Stark died, I knew there was some other sh*t going down in Westeros. It’s been an incredible journey to watch this story unfold." For Robin and Alicia, it was great to escape to The Seven Kingdoms for a while. They were converted in the nick of time, and feel all the sorrow along with fans who’ve watched religiously since 2011. Alicia might even miss her 3am alarm on Mondays, now that we’ve reached the end.

A Fantastic, New World

At this point, we can safely assume GoT has surpassed most people's expectations with its almost supernatural success. Academic and content developer, Wesley Anderson, admits he was initially put off by GoT. "When I did finally start watching it, around when season 5 was on the air," he says, "I was very happy to see that it was actually quite unique with the way it dealt with traditional fantasy tropes." For Wesley, it was the dialogue that drew him in to the characters and made them feel full and vivid. Wes admits the series has its limitations, but still hails it as "the best pop culture fantasy of our generation".

We spoke to PhD student, John Bard, who’s faithfully followed GoT since 2011. When he learnt of the books, John tried to stay clear of them. "I knew they would be better than the show, that they would ruin it for me,” he says, "and I was right. But I love the universe George created, and will continue to love it." John claims the books are better than the series in every way, but admits he’s stuck with the show because it is was good entertainment and "miles better than most else on TV".

GoT Me In My Feelings

I once saw a colleague break into hysterical sobs at work. She'd made the mistake of watching The Red Wedding during her lunch hour. This series has captured the hearts of millions, because it appeals to the emotions in all of us. GoT is the type of show that can, and has, made grown men cry. The characters have displayed every possible human vice and virtue over the course of eight seasons. We saw the worst, and the best parts of humanity in this fictional realm.

Fazlyn Fredericks-Carr, a PGCE student, says she’s been loyal to the show precisely because of its characters and their definitive personalities. She was drawn in by people like Jaime and Cersei. "I had to continue to watch to see if, and how, they would change and grow," Fazlyn says. "You caught glimpses of humanity, even if they were few, far between and short-lived." Fazlyn is the type of fan who had to set 'GoT Rules' in the house. On a Monday evening, everyone knew not to disturb her while the show was on. Spoilers were also strictly forbidden. Her family might be relieved to have these house rules lifted, but Faz is sad to say goodbye to all her favourite characters. I know there are at least 44 million others who share her grief.

The penultimate episode enraged many, but the last one left most of us with an overwhelming sadness. Even those who were at peace after the finale, had to face the truth: This is the end. Zaakir Deminck, a VW technician, takes us back to the last episode of season one with a rather wistful response. "At first, I thought it was just another series about old time war, until Dany rose from those ashes with a dragon shouting on her shoulder," he says. "Right there I bent the knee to my Queen, and I was on her side right until the end." Zaakir says he’s satisfied, but also deeply saddened by Danaerys Targaryen’s death. All he wanted was to see her rule with those dragons at her side. "I hope no one hurts Drogon," he laments.

In earlier years, whenever people asked me why I loved "Game of Thrones," I’d respond with a smile and tell them to just watch the show. If they returned after a few episodes and asked how I first got into the series, I’d probably cave and tell them the story. It wasn’t peer pressure, hype, or even idle curiosity that turned me on to GoT. 

It was a guy who’d read the books years before HBO made them famous. I was 20 when I purchased the boxed set. Now these books are heavy, and don’t easily fit into a handbag, but I carried them with me, hoping the guy would catch me reading them, and that we’d have something to talk about. You see, for me, Game of Thrones has always been about connecting people, about breaking down the boundaries that keep us apart. In case you’re wondering, my plan worked. And now my crush has ended, but the love I have for the books, series, and generally overpriced merchandise, will last forever.

Ask any GoT fan what the franchise means to them, and it’s difficult to get a straight answer. The response is almost always loaded with emotions. In truth, I don’t think it matters whether you were peer-pressured into jumping on the GoT train, if you discovered it on your own, or if you simply watched it on a whim. If you’ve travelled this journey with us, chances are you’ve made some amazing friends along the way. I think ‘watercooler show’ is too simple a term to describe everything "Game of Thrones" has come to mean. It’s become a vital escape for people at the end of a stressful day, it’s inspired hope in dark places, and it’s united us in both joy and grief. The show is the common ground on which many a friendship was built. I think once you’ve held someone’s hand through eight traumatic seasons, that bond right there, is rare, and eternal.

*Ayesha Abrahams is a former high school English teacher and editor, who's currently completing a MA in Creative Writing. She's also an IOL's "Game of Thrones" panel contributor.