'Game of Thrones': John Bradley on the "Success Story" of Samwell Tarly

Sam and Gilly

Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and Gilly (Hannah Murray) were far away from the scene of the crime when Jon Snow was murdered, but it doesn't mean they don't have a long journey ahead.

On Game of Thrones, triumph and tragedy rarely pass without explosive results — quite literally, in the case of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) torching her enemies in King's Landing during the season six finale, "The Winds of Winter."

But there are the occasional moments of subtle, smaller victories. See: Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), who appeared in only three episodes during season six, but arguably accomplished more personal achievements than anyone else. At the end of season five, Sam left the Night's Watch just in time to avoid certain doom alongside the betrayed-and-briefly-killed Lord Commander Jon Snow (Kit Harington), instead heading south alongside girlfriend Gilly (Hannah Murray) and her infant son. Sam's ultimate goal was twofold: protect his loved ones and begin training as a maester of the Citadel in Oldtown, the second largest city in Westeros.

Sam's path toward Oldtown was slow and not without distraction. In the sixth episode of the season, Sam returned home to Horn Hill and reunited with his cruel father Lord Randyll (James Faulkner), weathering worse insults and injuries than he sustained even in battle against White Walkers and wildlings. But he stood stronger on the other side of the attack, snatching his house's ancestral sword Heart's Bane (a Valyrian blade, for those keeping track of such things) and finally leaving for Oldtown.

At long last, Sam reached Oldtown during the season finale, last seen giddily gazing upon the thousands and thousands of books in the Citadel's enormous library. What Sam couldn't have noticed, but many viewers certainly observed, was the massive gyroscope hanging inside the Citadel — the spitting image of the gyroscope at the heart of the Game of Thrones opening credits, prompting several theories about its importance in the grand scheme of the show.

John Bradley spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about Sam's triumphant and relatively short season, his feelings on Heart's Bane's future use and his thoughts on the Citadel's connection to the show's title sequence.

Sam leaves Castle Black for Oldtown in the season five finale. In the season six finale, he finally arrives at his destination. What's coursing through Sam's mind as he stares out at the cityscape of Oldtown for the first time?

It's a combination of two things, really. It's a double-whammy of pleasure. It's not only on the surface level of looking forward to everything he now has to potentially look forward to in his future — i.e., being in an environment he's always dreamed of being in, an environment he was so kept away from for all of his young life. He knew he was a latent academic who loved books, was obsessed with knowledge and the application of knowledge, but his father of course was somebody who shunned all of that on principle, believing you could solve all problems through violence, and academia had no practical application in the real world. Now, Sam's finally in a position where he's accepted and his skills are accepted. All of the certain attributes he possesses are worth something in this place, kind of for the first time. Even at Castle Black, he learned a lot there and was able to apply that knowledge a little bit, but he was still a bit of a fish out of water there. It's such a macho environment, with an emphasis placed on physical prowess, so he felt like a bit of a stranger there. Now he's in a place where everybody's like him. Everybody's an academic. Everybody's devoted to learning and devoted to knowledge. I think for the first time, he's arrived at a place where he feels at home with himself and doesn't have to pretend to be anything he's not. Everyone there will accept him for who he is, because they're exactly the same as he is. 

He has all of that to look forward to, but there's also a sense of achievement. When we first meet Sam, his ambitions for life are so modest. People wonder if Sam would be a good leader if he was given the Iron Throne, but he wouldn't ever want it. It's out of his even peripheral vision. All he wants in life is to be loved, be accepted and do the things he enjoys. It's not about power in the world. It's about the power of taking control of his own life. He's in a position now where he's achieved a lot of those things. He's now in this environment, he's fallen in love and that's something he never would have guessed would even be possible — not only because of all the psychological boundaries he has in place, and his introverted nature and his lack of confidence, but also the fact that he's even geographically somewhere that was so far away from women. He must have thought there was no chance he would ever fall in love. Being such a romantic deep down, that must have really had a weight, the thought he would never experience that. So the achievement of falling in love, keeping the person he loves close to him and going to a place where he's accepted — they're all ambitions he never thought he could achieve. It's a pipe dream. You find him at the end of season six having achieved all of that through one method or another. It's been a very slow and progressive success story for Sam.

When he's gazing out at the Citadel's library for the first time, seeing this phenomenal array of books and texts, he's smiling. In your view, that's Sam reflecting not just on the knowledge and wisdom standing before him, but everything standing behind him as well?

Yeah, I'd say so. It feels like the beginning of the rest of his life. I think it feels that he's struggled to find a home all of his life. Even at home, the environment he was born in, with the people all around him, he never felt at home there. He always felt very different, and very much an other. He didn't feel like he had a place there.

And that feeling is only reinforced further during Sam's trip back to Horn Hill this season.

Exactly. You see that even though he was raised out of that family environment by his father, and was banished away from the home and told to go up North, so far away from the environment he grew up in, surrounded by criminals and thieves and rapists … you do get the impression that Sam had more of a place at Castle Black than in his own home. Even though he was sent away from home, he still found his place at Castle Black easier than he found at home, because he had Jon. He found in Jon everything he was missing: a friend who cared for him, and a bit of a father figure as well. When he went home, you can see that Sam is an even further fish out of water than he was while at Castle Black. When he arrives at the Citadel, we see Sam coming home. You have a sense that for the first time in his life, he feels comfortable. He feels like he's in an environment where he can be accepted. Over the course of season five, you did see a slow narrative of Sam conniving his way out of Castle Black and over to the Citadel. He's worked very hard to get here. He worked very hard to appeal to Jon, get Jon elected as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, so that Jon's in a position to make that decision for Sam. The entire season five narrative for Sam was about getting Gilly and Baby Sam out of Castle Black, into the Citadel, and being in the environment where he can make a difference. 

And this really is about making a difference. It's not that he wants to go to the Citadel to spend the rest of his life there and have a comfortable life. I think he genuinely feels he can make a difference, and he wants to, because he's a very good and proactive character. He knows he can't make a difference in the conventional way, or on the battlefield. But he can make a difference here. It's all about Sam becoming self-aware and understanding his limitations and knowing his strengths can't be served at Castle Black. When he gets to the Citadel, he's feeling the achievement of everything he experienced so far finally landing and having its payoff, but also the start of a whole new sense of potential for him. He feels there's information here that can be applicable to the greater good. He feels he's in charge of his own role within that structure. He found his role, and he knows now that he can effect things, rather than constantly being effected by things. He feels he's at the point where he can change things for the better and change things for the greater good.

In the wake of the finale, it was pointed out that the gyroscopes hanging inside the Citadel are visually identical to the object in the Game of Thrones opening credits. Do you have an interpretation of the gyroscope, and what it means about Sam's greater story moving forward?

I only became aware of that after I saw the episode. On the day, it was all green screen. It's only after I saw the episode and people started telling me about the gyroscope. I think it could mean any number of things. One theory is that what we're seeing now and how we're experiencing Game of Thrones is Sam telling the story of Game of Thrones. If you take the logic of the story now, the story of Westeros and the story of the battle for the Iron Throne, it would be a book in that library. The visual motif of that is you're about to be told a story — the sense of an idea of being told a story, and people gaining that knowledge, the way Sam is absorbing knowledge in the library. 

The one thing I found moving about that object being the same in the Citadel and in the opening titles is that it's a testament to [showrunner David Benioff and Dan Weiss'] foresight, that they can plan something that only comes to fruition much later on. It shows an incredible kind of long game, in terms of giving people drips of information and being brave enough to puzzle people for a while. I think once that becomes apparent, that this is something we've seen every week, and now we're finally having it explained to us at the end of season six, shows us how much control they have as writers and how in charge of the form and structure they are. They'll only give out information when they feel you should get that information. I think it's a testament to the pace and the overall detail of the show.

What are your feelings about Heart's Bane, the ancestral Valyrian sword of House Tarly? How do you imagine it coming into play in the future?

We saw in Jon and Sam's final scene in season five, that Sam was talking about the effects of Valyrian steel on White Walkers. They're talking about Jon's experience at Hardhome, and how Longclaw came into play in a big way there. Sam's constantly aware of these details, and he knows that Heart's Bane is Valyrian steel. He knows the impact it can have. But it's an interesting kind of mix between the symbolism of Heart's Bane to him, and the practical use of it in the wider world. It's a coming together of head and heart, which you don't get very often. It's not always that satisfying. Quite often your heart can rule your head, or the other way around. But this is the first time for Sam where he's having something personally very satisfying and practically satisfying as well. 

I think when he took the sword, it was a symbolic gesture of him taking what's his. He has every right to have that sword and to use it for whatever practical uses it has. But he knows only too well that if it's wasted, and if it stays at Horn Hill, if it's just there as a symbol of the power of the Tarly house, if it's just an ornament, a little trinket or affectation, then it's not going to do the good he knows he can do with it. Although Randyll might be furious, and probably is furious, Sam knows only too well that as symbolic as it is and how much he would like to have it just to claim ownership and prove a point, that if he learns how to wield its practical use then it will be of much more good to him than it is displayed on a set of antlers in the Tarly dining room. It's a beautiful moment of when someone's impulse and bravery to do the right thing is combined with a slightly more abstract practical knowledge as well. It's a big payoff for him.

This was a slower season for Sam, seen in only three episodes this year. What's your ultimate outlook on experiencing a shorter season?

I really think this was quality over quantity this year. Even though there's not a lot in terms of numerical screen time, I think what I had in terms of content was the most satisfying material I ever had to work with. In the sixth episode, it's basically a 15-20 minute chunk in the middle of the episode. It felt like a little play, almost. It was like a short on its own in the middle of an episode, with its own beginning, middle and end, with a narrative to it. I don't feel I was undersold in terms of narrative. The narrative arc was as satisfying as any arc that Sam has had in a season. They worked hard to make up for the numerical lack of time by giving me material that would challenge me and move Sam's character on. He moves on so quickly over the course of those three episodes. When you look at it all together, it's probably not even half an hour. But if you start with Sam on the ship, and then he ends at the Citadel, that's basically him achieving everything he's ever wanted. 

Over the course of even that 15 minutes in episode six, I think they gave me a really good showcase. In one minute, Sam can be funny. In another, he can be broken. In the next, he can be brave and romantic and defiant. He changes so much in the course of that 15 minutes that I was very grateful to have the chance to showcase all of those things in such a relatively short period of time. Even thought it wasn't much in terms of minutes, I was very happy with the acting challenge and fulfillment and completion of that narrative arc. I was happier than I've ever been. I always said that Sam going home was the one thing I wanted to happen, ever since he told Jon about the horror stories [of his dad], and the growing progression of seeing what Sam is capable of — falling in love, killing the White Walkers and all of the things he achieved — you want to see him go home, because you want to see what will happen when he stands face-to-face with his father. Will the changes that have happened to him come into play? Will he look his father in the eye and say, "You have to respect me now. I have changed. I am brave. I am worthwhile." Or, will he have that emotional memory response and go back into his shell, and he'll revert to the broken boy he always was? 

I think, satisfyingly, it ended up being a bit of both. You do see him go back inside himself and how that treatment can really break a character. It starts to make sense, where all of his insecurities and pain are put into context. Sam starts to make sense. Then, at the end, when he takes the sword, he's no longer happy to accept that version of himself. The brave new Sam, the Sam that's achieved all of this, that's the Sam that we end up with. But he has to face parts of the old Sam before the new Sam can disregard that treatment and not accept it anymore.

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