The £12 million battle scene that took 11 weeks to film (and lasts for an entire episode). Emilia Clarke’s emotional farewell. And dragons… LOTS of dragons. As winter finally arrives in Westeros, the Game Of Thrones cast and crew tell Event why the dazzling finale of this epic fantasy saga will take your breath away
It is hard to remember a time when a television series was as feverishly anticipated as the eighth and climactic round of Game Of Thrones, which airs on Sky Atlantic tonight at 2am – or, for those who can contain their excitement, at the more civilised hour of 9pm tomorrow.
Emilia Clarke returns in the new season of Game Of Thrones. It is hard to remember a time when a television series was as feverishly anticipated
After eight brutal, sexy years, countless tons of ice and snow, an Ed Sheeran cameo and a GOT-inspired tweet from Donald Trump – ‘Sanctions are coming’ (to Iran) – the finale of the epic fantasy saga has been shrouded in the kind of secrecy usually reserved for matters of national security.
All we know is that it promises more gruesome deaths, plenty of plot twists and the longest battle scene ever made for television. Several fake endings have been shot, and only the producers, key cast members and author George RR Martin, on whose epic A Song Of Ice And Fire novels Game Of Thrones is based, know how it will conclude.
Who will win the last battle to rule the Seven Kingdoms and ascend the Iron Throne? Or will the White Walkers and their Army of the Dead wipe out all humanity, now that they have penetrated the 8,000-year-old ‘Wall’ of ice and invaded the lower lands, with the help of a fire-breathing dragon? Perhaps most pressing of all, how will the makers of Game Of Thrones possibly top all that has gone before?
IT’S A FACT
President Obama received an advance copy of season four as it was impossible for him to work the TV screenings into his schedule.
Today it’s the world’s most-watched series on TV, but Game Of Thrones had an unpromising start. Martin had always insisted his novels were unfilmable, and initially it looked like he might be right. The pilot had to be recast, rewritten and 90 per cent re-shot after a disastrous early screening. ‘Massive problem,’ wrote co-creator David Benioff after he watched it with HBO TV network bosses. ‘We’d just made a lot of mistakes,’ he later conceded.
The series premiere, fashioned by replacement director Tim Van Patten, quickly established a new benchmark in blockbuster TV, setting up a grisly and compelling tale that has been shown in 186 countries. Last season’s US premiere alone attracted 30 million viewers, with another 4.7 million in the UK.
Since season six, the TV series has overtaken the unfinished series of books, galloping ahead with record numbers of beheadings, poisonings, slayings and that doom-ridden mantra: ‘Winter is coming’.
Today it’s the world’s most-watched series on TV, but Game Of Thrones had an unpromising start. Martin had always insisted his novels were unfilmable
Since season six, the TV series has overtaken the unfinished series of books, galloping ahead with record numbers of beheadings, poisonings and slayings
One of the show’s long-standing trademarks has been its flair for bloody and entirely unexpected deaths
Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). The scale of the show and its extraordinary success has heralded unexpected pressures for its stars
One of the show’s long-standing trademarks has been its flair for bloody and entirely unexpected deaths, often involving the kind of big-name stars who are usually treated with a bit more respect. Never has a series been so ready to dispense with its A-listers in such brutal and cavalier fashion.
Accordingly, lead character Ned Stark (Sean Bean) was killed off in the first season. Another hero, Robb Stark (Richard Madden) met his end in the infamous Red Wedding scene, which also marked the end for his mother and pregnant wife. Charles Dance’s character, Tywin, the head of the Lannister family, was shot in the chest with a crossbow by his son Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) as he sat on the lavatory. Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell glugged poisoned wine while goading her nemesis about the murder of his son. There have been only five episodes in which nobody has met a grisly end.
IT’S A FACT
Recreations of many of the show’s locations – Winterfell, Castle Black, etc – will feature in a new Belfast Studio Tour later this year.
The scale of the show and its extraordinary success has heralded unexpected pressures for its stars. Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, Daenerys’ (current) on-screen lover, has spoken of needing therapy to deal with anxiety after the fate of his character became a focal point of the show. ‘When you become the cliffhanger of a TV show the focus on you is f****** terrifying,’ he said.
Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons), who was waitressing in London before taking on the role, revealed only last month that she suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm after season one, and another after season three, both requiring surgery. ‘I emerged… with a drain coming out of my head. Bits of my skull had been replaced by titanium.’
Nonetheless, when Clarke and Harington, two of the series’ biggest stars, filmed their final scenes late last year, both were in tears. ‘I started to do a little speech,’ says Clarke. ‘I got three words in and then I completely broke down. This series has meant so much to me.’
Although filming concluded months ago, there have been no leaks to signpost the outcome of the final season. The cast first received their scripts in October 2017, just three days before they were all called together for a read-through of all six episodes – the first such meeting since season three. The scripts arrived via password-protected emails that ‘self-destructed’, Mission: Impossible-style, after they had been read. When the ending was filmed, there were no call sheets – the typical daily list of cast, crew and other information distributed on set – to prevent anyone working out who was left alive in the final key scenes.
NEVER SEEN THE SHOW? THESE THIS FIRST…
Game Of Thrones is the TV adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire fantasy novel series. The plot is based loosely on the War of the Roses and the drama set in a harsh, medievalstyle landscape, where four rival families are battling to win the Iron Throne and the right to rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
As the war rages, audiences have been introduced to the incestuous love between a queen and her royal brother, armies of the undead, and acts of such searing ferocity that some of the cast have had to undergo therapy for the trauma.
Ideally, you’d start watching with series one, but you can easily pick up the action now.
Fans of the show include Stephen Fry, Madonna and Sue Perkins, who presents Thronecast on Sky Atlantic – an aftershow to the main series – and claims to have tried to get a cameo for Mary Berry.
Don’t be put off by the ‘fantasy’ label. The show has picked up fistfuls of awards for its star performances, stunning cinematography, sumptuous locations and brilliant but often X-rated scripts. As beautiful to watch as its tales are brutal, this is television drama at its most compelling.
What is certain as we approach the final curtain is that matters are on a knife edge, with the Night King’s Army of the Dead on the march. Former rivals Daenerys and Jon Snow are allied on the battlefield as well as the bedroom – though Snow does not yet know that he is really a Targaryen, and that Daenerys is in fact his aunt. Meanwhile the scheming Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) intends to deal with all her rivals once and for all. ‘There are moments in this season,’ says Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister, ‘that will take your breath away.’ And he should know: it was Jaime’s crippling of young Bran Stark in the first episode – he pushed the child out of a window after the luckless boy caught Jaime having sex with his sister Cersei – that sealed Game Of Thrones’s reputation for jaw-dropping moments.
One such moment this year will undoubtedly be the battle between the Army of the Dead and just about everyone else left alive. At the end of the last season, the Night King, the master of the White Walkers, was seen taking his army southward after they had destroyed the huge Wall of Ice built to keep them out. At the same time, the remaining human rulers south of the Wall were converging on Winterfell, the northern fortress. It is here that the great battle will take place, and the indications are that it will be monumental.
‘This final face-off between the Army of the Dead and the army of the living is completely unprecedented,’ says writer and producer Bryan Cogman. ‘This has never been done in television, or even in a movie.’
Game Of Thrones has a history of epic battle sequences that began with the Battle Of The Blackwater in season two, outdid itself with the Massacre At Hardhome (season five) and reached legendary proportions with the Battle of the Bastards last series. Blackwater cost £6 million, took a month to film and required 250 extras; Hardhome took five weeks to film, cost nearly £8 million and required 400 extras; the Battle of the Bastards took 25 days, 70 horses, 500 extras and stuntmen, plus 600 crew members.
True to the title of George RR Martin’s novels, the final series promises plenty of both ice and fire
Robb Stark (Richard Madden) met his end in the infamous Red Wedding scene, which also marked the end for his mother and pregnant wife
Game Of Thrones has a history of epic battle sequences that began with the Battle Of The Blackwater in season two, outdid itself with the Massacre At Hardhome (season five) and reached legendary proportions with the Battle of the Bastards last series
All of those will pale in comparison to this season’s finale, which has cost £12 million and took 11 weeks to film. The Battle of Winterfell is rumoured to be the longest continuous battle sequence ever committed to film, commanding an entire episode and enlisting virtually every major character who has survived this long, as well as some you thought hadn’t, including – spoiler alert – Beric Dondarrion, played by Richard Dormer, last seen fleeing the zombie dragon.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Michael Gove cites Tyrion as his favourite character: ‘This misshapen dwarf, reviled throughout his life, thought in the eyes of some to be a toxic figure, can at last rally a small band of loyal followers.’
- The most high-profile (and controversial) cameo was from Ed Sheeran; the singer-songwriter appeared in season seven as a singing Lannister soldier to surprise Maisie Williams.
True to the title of George RR Martin’s novels, the final series promises plenty of both ice and fire. The need for the former was one reason why the series has been so long in the making: production was delayed in 2017 while they waited for winter in Northern Ireland –which was coming, but not quickly enough. Filming couldn’t wait for a blizzard, so producers had to improvise, with whole fields covered in fake snow and actors sweltering in heavy clothing under hot lights.
‘Everyone had to have more layers because winter is coming and they’re supposed to be much colder,’ says costume supervisor Kate O’Farrell. ‘But some of the sets were just hot, because there are lights and fires burning.’
The answer was ‘cool suits’ like those worn by Formula 1 drivers, with tubes containing cold water running through them. Of the main characters, only Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) didn’t wear one, because her costume was too tight and it would have been visible.
Rory McCann had different problems. His character The Hound has heavy scarring on one side of his face, so McCann has had to wear a prosthetic silicone wound in every scene for the past eight years. ‘I was always first into the make-up truck to get it attached to half of my face. It was sweaty and horrible and half my beard had to be shaved off to attach it.’
Then there was the challenge of dealing with the vast quantities of ‘blood’.
‘We use real stone floors in the castles and the bloods we use won’t wipe off,’ says head of construction Tom Martin. ‘If it’s someone’s head hitting a wall then we’ll have to remove a complete section and replace it with a really soft foam so the person’s head can go right in to it safely. Then you have another section that you do the melon trick with, where you hit it [using a melon filled with blood] to do the blood splatter. So you end up with three set pieces just to achieve one effect.’
The most high-profile (and controversial) cameo was from Ed Sheeran; the singer-songwriter appeared in season seven as a singing Lannister soldier to surprise Maisie Williams
Viewers know the end result is worth it – all that blood, ice and fire have created a series like no other. So how will viewers react to the ending? Liam Cunningham (Ser Davos Seaworth), said: ‘It felt like it was wrapped up properly, in a box with a ribbon on it. George RR Martin said the ending would be “bittersweet” and now I know what he means.’
Series eight of ‘Game Of Thrones’ begins tonight at 2am on Sky Atlantic (repeated tomorrow at 9pm)
Who’s odds-on to take the throne?
Contenders from the house of Targaryen
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)
The heroine… possibly. Still believes she is the last Targaryen and has amassed a vast army of followers and two dragons (her third was killed then resurrected into a zombie by the Night King) to help her claim the throne. She ended last season heading north to Winterfell to battle the Army of the Dead. But a streak of madness runs in the family – her father was the Mad King. Has she started enjoying burning her rivals a bit too much? Odds for the throne? 10:1
Jon Snow (Played by Kit Harington)
The hero of the story… possibly. Snow is the generic surname given to bastards in the north and Jon has always believed that he was Ned Stark’s illegitimate son. Viewers now know, although he doesn’t yet, that he is actually a Targaryen, with perhaps the best claim to the Iron Throne of anyone. He will, presumably, have mixed reactions to the news, now that he’s sleeping with Aunt Daenerys. Odds for the throne? 5:1
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke); Jon Snow (Kit Harington)
…and the house of Stark
Arya Stark (Maisie Williams)
The daughter of the executed Ned Stark (see Most Shocking Moments, below). She always wanted to be a knight and is now an expert assassin after training with the mysterious ‘Faceless Men’. Author George RR Martin reportedly promised his wife he would never kill Arya Stark (she is said to have threatened to leave him if he does) and she is gradually working her way through her list of assassination targets. Odds for the Throne? 12:1
Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner)
Arya’s older sister. Once believed the fairy tales in which a princess marries a wonderful prince, but her horrendous experiences during her betrothal to the monstrous Joffrey Lannister and her marriage to the equally horrific Ramsay Bolton have turned her into a far tougher character. Odds for the Throne? 4:1
Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright)
One of the show’s most enigmatic characters, Sansa and Arya’s sibling lost the use of his legs in the opening episode after Jaime Lannister pushed him out of a tower window at Winterfell. He does, however, have other powers, and has become ‘the three-eyed raven’, a mystic with the ability to see events from the past, present and future. There’s a suggestion he can even change the past. What’s more, he can move his consciousness into other animals. Dragons maybe? Odds for the Throne? 4:5 FAVOURITE
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey)
The wicked queen, who delivered one of the show’s signature lines when she told the doomed Ned Stark: ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win – or you die. There is no middle ground.’ She has lost two of her children to her enemies (a third committed suicide) and has been forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing in shame. But she’ll do anything for the throne. Her plan? To let the White Walkers and ‘the living’ take chunks out of each other and then swoop in and dispatch the remains of both of them. Odds for the Throne? 16:1
Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)
It’s been a long, strange trip for Cersei’s brother-lover, who started the series as an out-and-out baddie but is now disgusted at his sister’s machinations and has resolved to help the living in the fight against the dead. He was last seen heading north to join the battle against the White Walkers. Is it possible he could now be carrying a torch for Brienne (below)? Odds for the Throne? 40:1
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)
Cersei and Jaime’s very little brother has become the fans’ favourite character. He is quick-witted, funny, resourceful and loves books, wine and women, though not necessarily in that order. He is now Daenerys’ chief counsellor, the ‘Hand of the Queen’. Last seen on the ship with Daenerys and Jon Snow heading north towards the impending battle at Winterfell. Odds for the Throne? 9:1
Also in the running…
Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie)
Statuesque, earnest, loyal warrior. Has bested the brutal Hound and Jaime Lannister, two of the best fighters in the realm, in hand-to-hand combat. The last season saw her finally and unexpectedly fulfil her oath to Catelyn Stark to protect her and Ned’s children – as all three Starks are alive and back at the family home Winterfell. Now Brienne’s blood oath transfers to Sansa, and she will be a key figure in the fight against the undead. Odds for the Throne? 100:1
The Night King (Vladimír Furdík)
The leader of the Army of the Dead was a tough enough opponent as it was, able to turn whole armies of human corpses into his own zombie foot soldiers with just a wave of the arm. And now he has one of Daenerys’ dragons, Viserion, at his disposal. It was Viserion, with the Night King on his back, who burned a hole in the Wall, enabling the undead army to march on through and head south. Does he want the Iron Throne or just to turn everyone into blue-eyed zombies? Odds for the Throne? 10:1
Gendry Baratheon (Joe Dempsie)
The bastard son of King Robert Baratheon returned to the series at the end of last season, and there was little reason, unless he was destined to play a major role at the end. Unlike almost every other character, Gendry has a genuine claim to the throne, and he has transferable skills – he’s a blacksmith and the armies of the living are going to need weapons for the fight against the Army of the Dead. Odds for the Throne? 7:1
Ten shocking scenes that made of jaws hit the floor
A BRUTAL BEHEADING
Season 1, Episode 9
The sadistic young King Joffrey has Lord Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark beheaded (below left). When first broadcast, this scene shocked viewers who, even as the executioner stepped up and raised his sword, expected a reprieve or a rescue. Sean Bean – Ned – was the star of the show and playing the hero. Surely they wouldn’t… whoosh, chop! Oh yes they would.
In Game Of Thrones’ own version of Dunkirk, Jon Snow and his men evacuate a huge group of Wildings from a coastal village while under attack from the Night King and his army of undead. From their ships, Snow and the good guys watch in horror as the Night King raises his arms and everyone slain in the battle is revived as a zombie
THE DEMON DELIVERY
Season 2, Episode 4
In front of the horrified Ser Davos, the Red Priestess Melisandre demonstrates the power of her mysterious religion by giving birth to a murderous shadow demon, the product of her union with Stannis Baratheon.
A WEDDING DAY MASSACRE
Season 3, Episode 9
The Starks are betrayed at a wedding. Robb, his pregnant wife Talisa, mother Catelyn and thousands of their men are murdered by their supposed allies. The infamous massacre becomes known as the ‘Red Wedding’ in Westeros and set social media alight as viewers reacted with horror and surprise at the deaths of so many major characters.
THE KING IS DEAD
Season 4, Episode 2
After behaving like a colossal jackass at his wedding to Marjery Tyrell, King Joffrey suddenly starts choking and then convulsing. Within seconds he’s dead, his face contorted and darkened, blood trickling from his nose. He’s been poisoned – and pretty much everyone he’s ever met has sufficient motive to do the deed.
The sadistic young King Joffrey has Lord Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark beheaded. When first broadcast, this scene shocked viewers who, even as the executioner stepped up and raised his sword, expected a reprieve or a rescue
THE EYES HAVE IT
Season 4, Episode 8
Tyrion Lannister, accused of the murder of Joffrey, has elected for trial by combat. For the prosecution is terrifying Lannister loyalist Ser Gregor ‘the Mountain’ Clegane; for the defence, the charismatic Prince Oberyn, the ‘Red Viper’ of Dorne. Just when it looks as though the limber prince has won a famous victory, the huge Ser Gregor knocks him to the ground, gouges his eyes out and crushes his skull with his bare hands. It’s a definite KO.
ESCAPE FROM THE UNDEAD
Season 5, Episode 8
In Game Of Thrones’ own version of Dunkirk, Jon Snow and his men evacuate a huge group of Wildings from a coastal village while under attack from the Night King and his army of undead. From their ships, Snow and the good guys watch in horror as the Night King raises his arms and everyone slain in the battle is revived as a zombie.
EATEN ALIVE… BY HIS DOGS
Season 6, Episode 9
It’s a highly competitive field but psychopathic sadist Ramsay Bolton is perhaps the nastiest piece of work in Westeros. When one of his victims, Sansa Stark, was finally able to get revenge by allowing his starving hounds to eat him alive, a fandom cheered.
IT’S A FACT
Madonna is such a fan of Queen Daenerys she once asked to borrow her costume to wear to the Jewish festival of Purim.
Season 6, Episode 10
Having been humiliated and seemingly outwitted by religious fanatics the Faith Militant, Cersei gives her entirely proportionate response by blowing them all up in the Great Sept. As she watches the explosion from a balcony, she takes a sip of wine and allows herself a smile of satisfaction – the face that launched a thousand memes.
A FINGER IN EVERY PIE…
Season 6, Episode 10
The treacherous Walder Frey is just about to tuck into a pie served by an attractive maid but… what’s this in the filling? A human finger? The serving wench is none other than Arya Stark in disguise. She has baked Frey’s sons into a pie and now deftly dispatches Walder.
A DRAGON RISES FROM THE DEAD
Season 7, Episode 6.
The Night King has downed one of Daenerys’ dragons and has the dead beast dragged up from the bottom of a lake. He lays his hand on the dragon’s head, its eye opens – and it is the icy blue of the White Walkers. Game changer. Neil Armstrong
Who wins the Game of Quotes?
‘The things I do for love’ Jaime to Cersei, while pushing Bran Stark out of a tower window
‘There is only one thing we say to death: not today’ Swordsman Syrio Forel to Arya, while teaching her how to fight
‘You know nothing, Jon Snow’ Ygritte’s catchphrase of sorts for her enemy/lover
‘Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder’ A devilish Littlefinger to the courtier Varys on power
‘Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour’ Tyrion’s advice to Jon Snow on being a bastard
‘If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention’ Ramsay Bolton to the subject of his torture, Theon Greyjoy
‘You’re going to die tomorrow, Lord Bolton. Sleep well…’ Sansa to her abusive husband, Ramsay, ahead of the Battle of the Bastards
First pictures from the long-awaited new series
Jon Snow and Daenerys fight side by side, but now he also shares her bed. What will happen when they realise that Jon is also a true Targaryen and that the Mother of Dragons is really his aunt?
Cersei Lannister with her maverick adviser Lord Qyburn and bodyguard Mountain (behind her)
An army of mercenaries, hired by Cersei and called the Golden Company, head for the scene of battle
Daenerys introduces Jon Snow to her two remaining dragons, Drogon and Rhaegal
FIVE WAYS IT COULD END…
1. Daenerys Targaryen rules with her dragons as henchmen – she has been using Jon Snow all along to win over the Starks, she conquers the Lannisters and then burns off Jon and his family, along with all other claimants to the Iron Throne.
2. Gendry Baratheon, the true heir to Robert Baratheon by blood, is chosen by Jon Snow and Ser Davos to restore Westeros to its ruling house, from when the series began.
3. It would be very Game Of Thrones for Cersei Lannister to end up on the Iron Throne, only to find herself ruling over a decimated kingdom of ashes.
4. Brienne of Tarth, the one character who has consistently put honour and loyalty ahead of self-interest, is selected by all the warring parties as a compromise they can get behind.
5. Bran Stark is in fact The Night King – a popular fan theory – and when the Army of the Dead conquers the human armies at Winterfell he leads them south to take King’s Landing. Benji Wilson
TV’s top contenders to be the next ‘Game Of Thrones’…
1) Unnamed Game of Thrones prequel
What Set thousands of years before Game Of Thrones, it will chart ‘the world’s descent from the golden Age of Heroes into its darkest hour’. Thrones author George R R Martin has said: ‘There’s no King’s Landing. There’s no Iron Throne. There are no Targaryens… We’re dealing with a different and older world.’ Unofficially referred to as The Long Night.
Who HBO (the makers of Game Of Thrones). Kick-Ass writer Jane Goldman is at the helm, Martin is a co-producer. It stars Naomi Watts, John Simm, Josh Whitehouse and Miranda Richardson.
2) His Dark Materials
What The trilogy of Philip Pullman novels about the adventures of Lyra Belacqua in a multiverse that combines philosophy and particle physics with witches, armoured polar bears and daemons.
Who BBC. The eight-part season, covering the first novel, Northern Lights, will star James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s written by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter And The Cursed Child), and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) is directing. A second season has been commissioned.
When The trailer promises ‘Coming soon’.
3) The Witcher
What A series of short stories and novels by Andrzej Sapkowski about freelance monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia, who has supernatural powers. The character is the subject of a successful video game series.
Who Netflix. Henry Cavill, best known for playing Superman, is in the title role. The showrunner Lauren Schmidt, who has previously worked on Daredevil and The West Wing, has hired directors from Game Of Thrones and Outlander.
When Late 2019.
4) Lord of the Rings
What Based on events before the J R R Tolkien trilogy but little else is known.
Who Amazon. The company reportedly paid a staggering $250 million to acquire the rights. There is no casting news but the showrunners are rising star writers J D Payne and Patrick McKay, who had been working on the now cancelled Star Trek 4.
When Probably 2020.