So, finally, the Game is over.
After eight series, 73 episodes and some 80 hours of some of the best television of all time, Game Of Thrones is at an end. Bran the Broken, the boy crippled in the very first episode, closed the series sitting on the much-coveted Iron Throne. Metaphorically, at least. The actual throne was incinerated by fire-blasting Drogon, grieving the death of his ‘mother’. Game of Molten Slag, anyone?
The final season was bigger, bloodier and more dragon-y than everything that had gone before. And by the standards of this ground-breaking blockbuster TV drama, that’s saying something.
But the final, shortened series – only six episodes long – was also more divisive than ever before. Even ardent fans complained of rushed plot developments, over-the-top destruction and unbelievable action. Would noble Daenerys really have torched the innocent civilians of Kings Landing like she was firebombing Dresden? Would heroic Jon Snow really have stabbed through the heart the woman he called his queen and his lover (not to mention his aunt)?
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who played Jaime Lannister, admits that Game Of Thrones didn’t end how he’d expected it to end
Jerome Flynn (wisecracking knight Bron) recalls filming a season seven clash in a national park in Spain. ‘We were boys in a sweet shop, really,’ he admits
‘It was paperless on the last series,’ reveals Liam Cunningham, who played smuggler-turned-knight Ser Davos Seaworth. ‘We couldn’t carry iPads onset, so we had to carry our phones with us to read our lines!’ exclaims the Irishman
‘…we had different names on the call-sheets!’ says Dutch actress Carice Van Houten, who was priestess Melisandre. ‘All made-up names. I kept forgetting my name! Such a ridiculous thing!’
Kristofer Hivju (left), the Norwegian actor who played the big-bearded, wild-eyed fighter, Tormund Giantsbane
Jon Snow (Kit Harington). After eight series, 73 episodes and some 80 hours of some of the best television of all time, Game Of Thrones is at an end
Also denting the show’s credibility for diehards, two continuity whoppers: the appearance of a Starbucks coffee cup and a plastic water bottle in two separate scenes. Ouch.
Talking before the finale, all of the cast were tight-lipped as to the outcome. But Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who played Jaime Lannister, admits that Game Of Thrones didn’t end how he’d expected it to end. ‘No, not quite,’ muses the Danish actor. ‘But there is a logic to what the writers do, so it feels very true to the nature of this show. So I thought they did an amazing job with how they ended it. [But] surprises, yes, still.’
To keep those surprises on lockdown, the production went to extraordinary lengths. Such was the anticipation surrounding the final race for the Iron Throne that, during filming, even the cast on the Belfast set were often kept in the dark. Physical scripts were conspicuous by their absence. They were delivered to the actors via special iPads, two-step authentication and an app that self-destructed the scripts, Mission: Impossible style, after a couple of days.
‘It was paperless on the last series,’ reveals Liam Cunningham, who played smuggler-turned-knight Ser Davos Seaworth. ‘We couldn’t carry iPads onset, so we had to carry our phones with us to read our lines!’ exclaims the Irishman. ‘It used to drive Peter Dinklage mad,’ he adds of the American who played Tyrion Lannister and who had a huge amount of life-saving political oratory to deliver in the final episode, ‘Because they were so small – he couldn’t see the lines on his phone.’
‘And also we had different names on the call-sheets!’ adds Dutch actress Carice Van Houten, who was priestess Melisandre. ‘All made-up names. I kept forgetting my name! Such a ridiculous thing!’
‘Me too!’ exclaims Cunningham. ‘I’d go: Who the f*** is that? You had [to remember] the actor’s name, the character’s name and also the aliases. I was Lucan something.’
Peter Dinklage, who played Tyrion Lannister, had a huge amount of life-saving political oratory to deliver in the final episode
Still, the secrecy was worth it. No spoilers meant feverish global anticipation. The facts speak for themselves. The last episode, broadcast last Sunday, was viewed by 19 million people in the US alone. It was the most watched HBO show ever, beating even the final episode of The Sopranos. The lengthiest instalment, episode three, The Longest Night, was almost feature-film size. It was centred on the epic battle for Winterfell at which little Arya Stark defeated The Night King.
For sure it was tough to watch. The decimation of the Dothraki army, as well as the loss of fan favourite characters like Theon Greyjoy (played by Alfie Allen), Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton) and zombie dragon Viserion (played by the best CGI special effects in the business) was brutal stuff.
‘It was very moving, saying goodbye to it all,’ admits Richard Dormer, who also died in episode three. ‘We were all pretty exhausted, and very cold and wet. A lot of bruises. Our sword arms were tired!’ admits the actor who was Beric Dondarrion, AKA the man with the flaming sword.
Of course, that episode was even more brutal to make, taking almost two months to film. As Coster-Waldau remembers with a mischievous grin: ‘It was really gruelling – for the crew. For most actors, we weren’t on every day. But the fact that the crew shot for 55 nights in one go, in Northern Ireland, in January and February, is pretty horrible.’
Joe Dempsie who played the blacksmith Gendry (left), disappeared from the show for three series then he reappeared in series seven, in time to play a key role in the closing two series, not least of which was becoming Arya’s (right) first love
Isaac Hempstead Wright played crippled Bran Stark, the youngster who ultimately triumphed to become King of Westeros
When Jacob Anderson wasn’t filming scenes as chief Unsullied warrior Greyworm, the Bristol-born actor pursued a music career under the name Raleigh Ritchie
Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen). The final season was bigger, bloodier and more dragon-y than everything that had gone before
The actual throne was incinerated by fire-blasting Drogon, grieving the death of his ‘mother’. Game of Molten Slag, anyone?
Still, not every battle was, well, a battle. Jerome Flynn (wisecracking knight Bron) recalls filming a season seven clash in a national park in Spain. It wasn’t quite a month-long adventure holiday, but… ‘We were boys in a sweet shop, really,’ he admits. ‘We got to play out a version of really being in a battle, on these incredible horses, with the best stuntmen in the world supporting you to live out that fantasy.’
The Lannister knight and his fighting partner had some great scenes together. Luckily, even though he’s Danish, Coster-Waldau knew all about Flynn’s musical past, as half of ‘singing soldiers’ Robson and Jerome. So, ‘for sure’, he took the mickey. ‘I did that early on. In one episode we actually did a song, which was a wonderful opportunity for Jerome to revisit his days as a pop star. So, yes, we did take the p***.’
And, of course, Simon Cowell is their fault…
‘Yes, Robson and Jerome was his first hit! So it’s their responsibilities that Simon Cowell is now all over the world,’ laughs the Dane.
Another key, equally entertaining pairing in the show was that of tall-walking knight Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and semi-tamed wildling Tormund Giantsbane. Kristofer Hivju, the Norwegian actor who played the big-bearded, wild-eyed fighter, was as tickled as GoT fans at the possibility of a romance between the pair. The wildling’s heartbreak when he realised Brienne had chosen to lose her virginity to Jaime Lannister would have made a White Walker cry.
‘Yes!’ Hivju booms with a hearty laugh between pinches of Scandinavian chewing tobacco. ‘I saw this beautiful Valentine’s Card: ‘I love you as much as Tormund loves Brienne!’
In fact, Hivju reveals, Tormund had on his side one of the greatest romantic singers of all time. He describes watching early footage of his first scene, when he meets Jon Snow (Kit Harington): ‘What’s your name, boy?’ challenged the battle-hardened wildling. ‘Twenty little men tried to put their swords through my heart. And there’s 20 little skeletons buried in the woods.’
The cast all agree that the show ended at the right time, and in the right way
Such was the anticipation surrounding the final race for the Iron Throne that, during filming, even the cast on the Belfast set were often kept in the dark
But spoken in his regular voice, those lines didn’t sound impactful enough. So Hivju decided to channel one of his favourite singers. Which is why Tormund sounds like Leonard Cohen.
‘I did that and [thought], Wow, that’s the character! So I had to re-dub the whole season because the voice was wrong.’
Joe Dempsie also knows about having to adjust and adapt. His character, the blacksmith Gendry – who was really the bastard son of King Robert Baratheon – disappeared from the show for three series. He was last seen in season three, rowing off into the night – a scene that inspired countless internet memes. Then he reappeared in series seven, in time to play a key role in the closing two series, not least of which was becoming Arya’s first love.
‘Yeah, it got really cliquey while I was away,’ he jokes. ‘No, it was seamless. I’d stayed in contact with a lot of people in the intervening years, but I was wondering if an awful lot would have changed. It did take me a couple of days to reacclimatise to the scale of thing – the number of people on set, how big the sets are, and how long it takes to make. But other than that, it was straight back in.’
Jacob Anderson also had a life away from Game Of Thrones. When he wasn’t filming scenes as chief Unsullied warrior Greyworm – soldiers so tough they don’t need genitals – the Bristol-born actor pursued a music career under the name Raleigh Ritchie. He admits that his role on Game Of Thrones was a blessing and a curse in terms of being taken seriously as a singer.
‘Some people were like: ‘Oh, you’re the guy with no d*** from Game Of Thrones! How can you have a life outside this massive show?’ There’s this idea that a show this big swallows everybody. So, yeah, in some ways it does. But on a person-to-person basis, people realise once they hear my music that it doesn’t relate in any way to the show.’
‘But you are going to do a version of the theme tune on your second album, right?’ adds Dempsie with a laugh.
‘Shhh, you’re not supposed to tell anyone!’ replies Anderson.
Now that the Game is over, the cast can reveal other secrets, too.
Isaac Hempstead Wright played crippled Bran Stark, the youngster who ultimately triumphed to become King of Westeros. He spent much of the show being carried by Kristian Nairn, the almost-seven-foot Northern Irishman who was saintly giant Hodor.
‘I was literally strapped to his back from day one, so he kind of had to get on with me,’ says Hempstead Wright of a man he now calls a close friend. ‘But when I was younger, I used to sing Spongebob Squarepants songs in his ears. It really, really annoyed him! And obviously I was getting bigger every year, so the poor guy’s back started getting damaged.’
Of all the cast, Hempstead Wright went through the biggest life-change: the youngest returning cast member joined the show when he was ten. Having just turned 20, that’s ‘literally half my life on Game Of Thrones. It’s really bonkers. It’s only recently that I’ve come to terms with just how weird my childhood has been. You go with it while you’re doing it. Then when it stopped, I realised I’ve spent my formative years on the world’s biggest television series.’
He ruefully acknowledges that, when he tried to have a teenage life away from the show, things didn’t work out. He began studying maths and music at Birmingham University as production began on season eight.
Firstly, fellow freshers mobbed the man also known as Three-Eyed Raven, and bombarded him with emails and tweets. It got so bad he was eventually assigned a campus police officer.
Beyond that, ‘it was impossibly difficult, so I left. I spent all my time at university stressing about going back to Belfast, then all my time filming was worrying about getting back for lectures. I’d spent nine years juggling school, so I need a bit of time off.’
But now, at last, Hempstead Wright is looking forward to getting his life back: he has a university place this autumn. He might find himself craving the simplicity of an attack by The Night King, or indeed the challenge of ruling the Six Kingdoms: now he’s studying neuroscience.
Not that everyone is ready to move on and is feeling a sense of relief just yet.
John Bradley, the Mancunian and diehard Red who plays Samwell Tarly, is probably looking forward to being able to catch more Manchester United matches. But when we talk he admits that, even though he wrapped filming last May, discussing a year on the end of the show still makes him emotional.
‘All the way through shooting the final season I was trying not to think about it. The weight of the poignancy could have crushed you! Even at lunchtime on the last day I was saying to myself: I’m not gonna think about it ’cause we’ve still got half a day. And now, with a bit of distance, it feels an even more special time.’
Still, the cast all agree that the show ended at the right time, and in the right way. Every departing actor was given a farewell speech from the producers and a bespoke leaving gift: a storyboard of a key scene involving their character.
Hivju’s was ‘a fighting sequence’ – but Tormund had so many, ‘I don’t remember which one!’ Hempstead Wright’s was his pivotal moment from the very first episode: ‘Me being pushed out of the window!’ Coster-Waldau’s was ‘when Jaime’s hand was chopped off. That’s something nice to be reminded of for the rest of my life!’
Still, the Dane will be forever grateful to series creators DB Weiss and David Benioff for ‘sticking to their guns. God knows they must have been tempted by the constant truckloads of money being parked outside their house in case they wanted to do a couple more years. But they never seemed to want anything but to tell the story in this exact way.
The final episode was the most watched HBO show ever, beating even the final episode of The Sopranos
Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). The last episode was viewed by 19 million people in the US alone
The final, shortened series – only six episodes long – was also more divisive than ever before
‘That does give you a sense of pride to have been part of this thing, that didn’t overstay its welcome.
‘So it’s really nice to be done,’ Conster-Waldau concludes. ‘I feel really proud that we’ve done it – and ended it now, rather than after a 12th season that no one watched.’ And for sure, for all the raging controversy online about how the final series panned out, with those blockbuster viewing figures, this is a show that people will be debating for weeks and months, if not years, to come.
‘You’ve got to move on,’ thinks Liam Cunningham. And he points out that, for all the international fame that now surrounds stars like Harington, Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Lena Heady (Cersei Lannister), no one is bigger than the show.
‘Game Of Thrones was the star of Game Of Thrones. We were participants in [making] that thing which turned into a cultural phenomenon.
‘It’s a bit like being in a big band – you’re breaking your ass on the stage, but it’s the audience who really enjoy it. You really weren’t at the concert – you didn’t experience it because you were playing instruments.
‘Which is not a bad thing, because they were the best instruments I’ve ever seen!’ he laughs. ‘On Game Of Thrones we were playing a Stradivarius! It was beautiful.’