I totally meant to bleed for Game of Thrones. I just forgot to sign up.
Fortunately, a very patient man in vaguely medieval garb reassured me that donating blood wasn’t actually a prerequisite for entering Bleed for the Throne – the activation-slash-blood-drive presented by HBO and the American Red Cross at South by Southwest.
He let me into the enormous event space, and I found myself in Westeros – or as close as I was ever going to get to Westeros, anyway.
Bleed for the Throne consists of three parts, not counting the blood drive. The literal centerpiece is a hall made up to look like some combination of a church and a throne room, with the Iron Throne in the middle (with a glowing Red Cross logo behind it) and pews running down each side.
Turn right, and you’ll find yourself outdoors, in a rough approximation of a Westerosi war camp; turn left, and you’ll make your way through an audiovisual journey recapping familiar storylines from the show.
I started with the latter, and was promptly confronted by a knight demanding to know if I was willing to bleed for the throne. He would turn out to be the first of many. I announced that I was not only ready to bleed, but to die, and he ushered me into a series of rooms meant to represent four separate characters who’ve “bled for the throne”: Jon, Arya, Cersei, and Tyrion.
I put on the headphones I’d been given, through which Jon Snow recapped these characters’ storylines so far. Some of those rooms were niftier than others; Cersei’s involved large projections of faces yelling “SHAME” at you, and Tyrion’s a photo opp with a statue of The Mountain. None of them offered any new clues or insights about where these characters might go next, or at least not that I saw – this entire portion of the event was built around stuff that had already happened.
Things got significantly more interesting as I returned my headphones (“Please return your audio devices at the desk,” Jon instructed politely) and passed into the camp. Tents dotted the outdoor space, while actors dressed like northmen or Unsullied or Braavosi swordswomen milled about.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’d be like to live in Westeros, this immersive experience seemed to provide an answer. There was never any shortage of things to gawk at, from the two men practicing sword-fighting in one corner to the fortune teller inviting people into her tent.
Unfortunately for me, a person who hates talking to strangers, there was also never any shortage of people to talk to. All those actors I mentioned above kept coming up to me and trying to make conversation, usually by asking whether I knew how to fight, what house I came from, which side I was on, and, of course, whether I’d bleed for the throne.
That these actors so fully committed to their roles, never breaking or backing down even in the face of my nervous laughter, is a testament to their professionalism. But small talk is small talk, and at least in my experience, it doesn’t get any less awkward when the person on the other end of the conversation isn’t really a person at all, but a simulacrum of a person.
Perhaps someone more open or outgoing would have found it fun, rather than mildly terrifying. Certainly I saw other SXSW attendees improvising backstories to tell the knights, or quizzing northmen on Jon Snow’s chances of defeating the dead. Me, though, I started turning the other way whenever I saw an actor headed toward me, and hoping they didn’t find me too terribly rude for doing so.
Which, in truth, is probably exactly the experience of being a commoner in Westeros. If you’ve watched even a few episodes of Game of Thrones, it’s clear that the roads of Westeros are littered with the bodies of smallfolk who just wanted to go about their own business, but had the misfortune of attracting the attentions of more powerful people demanding to know their allegiances or pressing them to fight.
I may like to think of myself as a power player like Cersei or a hero like Brienne, but when it comes down to it, I probably have way more in common with an anonymous fruit-seller slaughtered for being in the wrong territory.
That realization (and the fact that the camp is only so big) drove me back into the building to attend service, which was headed up by a red priestess making impassioned declarations about the coming war and whatnot, as a choir sang the Game of Thrones theme song.
The Iron Throne stood behind her, empty but awash in light. One could nitpick the logic of the scene, I guess – the Iron Throne is not inside a red temple – but it was hard to argue with the dramatic impact.
Attendees who’d donated blood were invited to step forward and kneel before the throne, and rewarded with Hand of the King pins. I remained in the pews, where another red priestess periodically swept through to whisper to one attendee or another.
When she got to me, she warned me that the path before me was dark, but that she could see a light at the end, and she implored me to go toward that light.
I took her at her word, and after a few minutes made my way out of Bleed for the Throne and back into the streets of Austin. I was thrilled to have visited Westeros, and lived to tell the tale. But as a commoner at heart, I was even gladder that I could go back to watching Westeros from the safe distance of my TV, rather than trying to survive it on the ground.