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George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels provided the skeleton upon which David Benioff and Dan Weiss built out Game of Thrones. The novels also provided the series finale with one last wink and nod to the audience who originally hail from the books: newly minted Grand Maester Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) presenting Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) with a history book about the past eight seasons of events, appropriately titled A Song of Ice and Fire.
Alas, Tyrion does not appear within the text, despite being Martin’s favorite character.
It’s one of the many heartwarming ways in which Game of Thrones concludes, even as there’s much to feel bitter about — Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) losing her life at the hands of Jon Snow (Kit Harington), for one thing. For Bradley, however, there’s another sensation entirely: relief. The actor, who first learned the ending during a script read in October 2017, can now discuss the way in which Game of Thrones ends without consequence, now that the whole world knows the fate of Westeros, and the identities of the Small Council leading the way: King Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), supported by Tyrion as Hand of the King; Bronn (Jerome Flynn) as Master of Coin; Davos (Liam Cunningham) as Master of Ships; Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard; and Sam as the brains of the operation. Ahead, Bradley delivers one final goodbye to Game of Thrones — though as he highlights, it’s not really a goodbye at all, is it?
Congratulations, John. At last, you can speak about the ending without fear of reprisal.
Ah, it’s such a weird feeling. (Laughs.) It’s so weird to know you can be completely candid about everything without risking the wrath of anybody. Having answers to some of those questions out there is such a liberating experience. There’s a real sense of satisfaction amongst the cast that we finished this story and given a resolution to the questions people were asking for a while. We can breathe easy and we can look back now that we have some distance. We can look back on a job well done. We were so busy looking over our shoulders for spoilers, dodging awkward questions all the time. Now we don’t have to do that anymore. Now it’s just a narrative, start to finish. Now we can just look back.
Well, let’s look back. It’s a packed final season and a packed series finale. Where do you even begin with what you can speak about freely?
As soon as we found out the last season would only be six episodes, we thought David and Dan were very bold. We thought it was brave, trying to wrap it up in six, knowing how many stories there were to tie up and how many major resolutions they needed to land. It might lead you to think six episodes is not quite enough. Then we got the scripts, and we started reading them back in October 2017, and we saw what a rich season it was going to be. The episodes were slightly longer than the average episode, and they contained so many pivotal events and so much information. The season was going to gain and gain momentum. That’s when we really started trusting they could do this in six episodes. They were going to be six very eventful, monumental episodes.
Look at episode five. It’s such a big one, that leans so heavily on fight choreography and VFX and all of that stuff. It’s just a big, cinematic, highly choreographed and highly stylized episode. If you contrast that with the tone of episode six, I feel both of them are such a great showcase for what the series is all about. One has so much action and spectacle, where episode six is mainly about talking. It shows how you don’t have to have 200 extras and 55 night shoots to bring things to a conclusion. So many scenes in episode six — like the one with Jon and Tyrion — felt like the kind of scene some people may have thought we wouldn’t do anymore, that we didn’t have time for anymore; that the show was dealing too much in spectacle and not enough in humanity and motivation. Episode six was a real poke in the eye who thinks that was the case. There was so much humanity in episode six. So many stories got tied up in really quiet, low-key ways.
Think about the election of Bran as king. It was done through a brilliantly written and a beautifully acted monologue from a wonderful actor, one of the central parts of the show. Bran didn’t become king because he’s the last man standing and everyone else was wiped out by a dragon. It wasn’t done as spectacularly as that. It was done through political rhetoric and persuasion. It was done with language, and performance of that language. It was David and Dan recapturing that essence of what these people were all about. There’s an intellectual capacity in Tyrion that sometimes is the best way to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be about the millions of dollars you spend on CGI. It can be about putting the right words in the right character’s mouth. It was such an effective way of doing it. It let the actors act and let our characters do the talking. The series finale is such a great contrast to episode five.
Looking specifically at Sam’s story…first of all, fans long speculated that he would be the one to write A Song of Ice and Fire. They were close!
I was really thrilled about how [Benioff and Weiss] handled that. It was a combination of fan service and a slight little twist. A lot of people know George and the Tolkien template he’s used in his series from the start. A lot of people maybe predicted Sam would have devised the narrative of the Song of Ice and Fire book, and it would be a meta-textuality in how the series ends: Sam writing the books, the drama that everyone’s just watched. It would have been an interesting way to end it. But because so many people were predicting that, but at the last second there’s a slight diversion from people’s predictions — that it wasn’t Sam, but Archmaester Ebrose (Jim Broadbent) who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, and Sam just came up with the title — it was such a delicious twist in the tale. We nearly gave the predictors what they wanted. It must have been so frustrating, but also thrilling, for people who predicted it. It was really clever, to pull the rug out from under those feet, nearly giving them exactly what they wanted, but taking it away at the last minute … it was an evil but delicious thing to do.
Beyond naming the book, Sam boasts a grand new job as Grand Maester on the Small Council. He’s thriving at the end of the series, both with his career and also in his personal life with Gilly, little Sam and a baby on the way.
I was watching Sam in that Small Council scene, and it was the first time ever that I watched the series and felt a weird kind of separation from the character I was seeing on the screen. Anytime before that, I would look at Sam and I’d see myself playing Sam, which is only natural. But this time? I was looking at him independently of me. I was watching this character I was just about to say goodbye to him and where I’d be leaving him. I looked at him as a human being. I was so incredibly proud of him and what he achieved over the course of this series.
Contrast the way he is now to where he was when you met him halfway through season one. Back then, he was a target for ridicule and contempt. The world cast him aside and thought he was of no worth at all, and he thought he was of no worth at all. He was just kicked around by his family, abused by people at Castle Black … he was treated like an individual who had nothing to offer. Over the course of these eight seasons, with everything he achieved and learned about himself, that transformation leads you to look at a person who is highly valued because of the skills he has. It’s not because of some physical transformation where he can cut a man in half with one swing of a sword. It’s that the world has caught up with him. The world’s perception of him has changed. He’s looked at as someone of worth and value. He’s needed because of his intellectual capacity, his empathy, his compassion, his wisdom. All those attributes, he’s had them all along. Now all of his good character traits have been prized and valued. His presence on that Small Council is going to change things. It’s going to lead to a better world. He’s going to contribute all of his humanity and his heart. He can change the realm for the better. When we met him, he was a shell of a boy with no confidence. Now, he can have a positive impact on the world. I’m so proud of the place I left him in. He’s an essential person with an essential perspective in any room he’s in.
How about the room we leave him in — the Small Council meeting, one of the final scenes of the series?
Filming that scene was a really beautiful experience. There was such a sense of character around that table. A lot of the criticisms that have been aimed at this season is we relied on spectacle and a huge CGI budget, that it’s very cinematic but an element of characterization is gone. But I think certain parts of this episode, and especially this scene, give the lie to that attitude. What you have around this table are five very strong characters. What you’re watching when you watch this scene are these extreme personality types butting heads and trying to find a way to coexist and get on as well as they possibly can for the greater good. Tyrion is the ringmaster, trying to keep the peace. Bronn is too cool for his own good. Davos is trying to throw a wet blanket on Bronn and lead by his own moral code. Sam is the academic, trying to do right according to history. Brienne is someone with so much decency through the journey she’s been on. We wanted to get across that this could be a program all of its own, almost. It could be a play.
When that scene finishes and the camera pans away and we’re left with them talking and bickering and arguing, I wanted it to feel that I was sad to be leaving them. I wanted the audience to feel like they wanted a seat at that table. How great would it be to be a fly on the wall, listening to all of these arguments, the banter? It creates a whole new comic dynamic that the show has never had before. Having all those personalities interacting in that way … it would be an amazing spinoff. I think people would want to see that, the sitcom of what they’re arguing about every week. All of the people at that table have so much to offer dramatically. It creates a warmth. It breathes a different dynamic into the show at the very last moment. The show has always done this. It’s always infusing new flavors and new disciplines into this landscape. Hopefully, people will be sorry to leave these people to it; hopefully they will want to have seen what they were going to be arguing about next.
A lot of people are talking about wanting to see more stories with these characters, since it does end with room to interpret their next adventures.
There’s a sense that you’re abandoning them, or leaving them to it. You can imagine what they’re getting up to now. You can imagine the adventures they’re up to. You can imagine what Arya is going to encounter on her travels, how Sansa is going to rule the North, all of these things. As long as you keep that imagination alive, the show will never really end. You’ll never really say goodbye to these characters. They may cross your mind every now and again. That’s a great legacy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Read all of THR‘s Final Path series, featuring character-by-character predictions:
1. Jon Snow
2. Daenerys Targaryen
3. Tyrion Lannister
4. Cersei Lannister
5. Jaime Lannister
6. Sansa Stark
7. Arya Stark
8. Bran Stark
9. Samwell Tarly
10. Theon Greyjoy
11. The Hound
12. Brienne of Tarth
15. Davos Seaworth
16. Jorah Mormont
18. Tormund Giantsbane
19. Beric Dondarrion
20. The Dragons
21. The Night King
22. Across the World of Ice and Fire
23. Final Predictions
Follow THR.com/GameOfThrones for continuing coverage.
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