FIRST AND FOREMOST, if you haven’t seen the finale, the VERY LAST EPISODE EVER of Game of Thrones, you have no business reading anything about it. That is to say, if you care about spoilers and all (seriously, you know who you are commenters who STILL CHOSE TO READ A THING LABELED THUSLY). Sorry for the yelling. *deep breath*
Isaac Hempstead Wright, who has played Brandon Stark across all 8 seasons of the HBO series, wrote an op-ed piece for The Hollywood Reporter detailing his emotions and experiences as the show ended. It’s a long (but good) read, and as viewers of his work, we owe it to Wright to dive right in, however you feel about King Bran the Broken.
[this op-ed appeared in it’s entirety over on THR]
It would be hard to overstate just how important a part of my life Game of Thrones has been. Practically every key life event I have ever experienced is in some way connected to my time on Thrones. Having finally reached this milestone in TV history and my own personal history, I am looking back on these unique and formative years of my life.
I come from a family with no experience in the acting world. My mum and dad are teachers, and my step-dad runs a printing company — not exactly very Hollywood. As a child I was fond of make-believe games, and so it made sense to join a drama group. After a brief stint trying to make it in my local football team (it is fair to say the Premier League won’t be calling any time soon), I traded Saturdays outside in the cold for the warm environs of my local drama club. (The ultimate irony is that for the next 10 years, I would be spending weeks on end in cold, muddy fields.)
My drama teacher noticed that I might have the makings of a child actor — patience, enthusiasm, an ability to listen well — and suggested I go forward for auditions. My parents were skeptical of the whole idea of child acting and so were keen not to let it become too much of a focus, hence I was allowed to do six auditions, with my final one being for an HBO pilot called Game of Thrones. After I got the part, we were presented with a 30-page contract which would sign six years of my life away. None of us knew what to do or how to react. At the time, there were conversations between my parents about whether this was something they should let their 10-year-old do. Sending your child to work hasn’t been very fashionable since the Victorian times. Looking back now and knowing what an extraordinary chance I was given, it makes me feel slightly sick to think of how I would feel now had we decided not to do it. It is truly one of those pivotal moments in one’s life that will alter its entire course.
One thing I am grateful for is the fact that I was around adults, in a working environment, from a very young age. I think I was quite a mature kid anyway, but being in a world where you have genuine responsibilities, and are a direct part of something which the whole world will analyze intricately, makes you acutely aware of how you need to behave. I had to grow up very quickly, and sometimes I feel as though I have lived a life’s worth of experience already, despite only being at the start of mine.
Becoming a teenager on the show was strange. Your teenage years are difficult enough without the added complication of being on the world’s biggest television show. The Game of Thrones community feels like a family, and so I found myself getting frustrated when I effectively watched my older siblings getting to go out and grow up while I was still being chaperoned by my mother.
The phenomenon of Thrones is not something I am ever likely to experience again in my life. The level of hysteria and speculation around it is unprecedented. When we shot those final scenes of the Starks on the bay in King’s Landing, we were told not to leave our hotel room in Croatia for fear of giving something away. When we got into the cars to go to set, we were smothered in blankets to obscure our faces and costumes. HBO also booked out every single room with a possible view of what we were shooting so that nobody could take any covert photographs. We were also accompanied by a top security guard who arranged every move we made as though we were Secret Service agents on some mission abroad. Sometimes you had to remind yourself that this is only a TV show.
As I sit and write this now, I realize my very last week on the Game of Thrones set was exactly a year ago. We spent five days shooting in Seville for the Dragonpit scene, which was a fairly spectacular way to wrap up our time on the show. Several other actors who were not even in the scene were flown over to throw paparazzi off the scent, and they were pretty grateful for their free holiday while we shot under the unrelenting sun.
One thing I can say about Thrones with confidence is that I have never, ever been in a comfortable temperature. In Belfast, my days were plagued with sodden, muddy feet and biting winds, and then in studios (and sunny Spain) I would overheat swaddled in my myriad cloaks and furs. Thankfully, we had nifty inventions called cool suits which pumped ice water around cables pressed against our skin. You could always tell when an actor was making use of their cool bag; you would find them slumped in a corner with a glazed expression over their eyes, sitting in rapture at the relief from the blistering heat.
The first day of the Dragonpit scene was all my coverage. I can remember being slightly unnerved by this: It was a mammoth scene (around 10 minutes of dialogue between us all) and I’d hoped to have a bit more time to play it out and get a feel for it with everyone else. Before long, though, I got into the swing of things, and at the end of the day Joe Dempsie, who plays Gendry, complimented my performance and I was reassured. We then returned to the hotel, where there were crowds the likes of which I’d never experienced before. Masses of people were screaming and shouting and pressing their faces against the car window hoping to catch a glimpse of one us. It was like being one of the Beatles at the height of Beatlemania; I must say I am glad it is not something I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
When it came to the very final shot, it all dawned on me. This was to be the death of my character; it would be the last time I would ever breathe life into him, the last time I would sit in my costume on a Game of Thrones set and think about what it feels like to be Bran. That was something I had done as a regular fixture of my life since the age of 10, and so it felt very sad to be saying farewell. What was nice about that final shot was that it was a very long wide, and so we needn’t have run through the whole 10 minutes of dialogue — but we did. Our microphones were off and nobody will ever hear those performances, but for me, it felt like a wonderful last opportunity to really be Bran. The camera was so far away you could hardly see it and we had a rare chance to act directly across from one another with no machinery or lighting in the way, as if we were onstage. It was a very special goodbye to my character.
After “cut” was yelled for the last time, David and Dan came and presented us with our wrap gifts as well as delivering us each a speech. They said some incredibly kind things to me that I shall never forget, and as they said their final words and it was clear the day was done, I lost my composure. It all became a bit of a blubbering mess as we bid farewell to people we’d worked with for a decade of our lives — people who had known me almost as intimately as an uncle or aunt would, seeing me grow up year by year and become the person I am today. It was overwhelming.
I can remember walking back to base from set that beautiful Spanish evening instead of taking the car. The sun was just setting, and as I walked through ancient Roman ruins in the dying sun, I thought about how this empire was now at its end. This great monolith in my life that had been a yearly source of fun and familiarity was to be no more. I would no longer have an excuse to spend weeks around these great friends of mine. I would no longer be splitting my time between home and my second home of Belfast. It was a moment that was quite impossible to have imagined ever happening when I first embarked on this unique journey all those years before. It was very poignant, and final.
But upon returning to the hotel feeling slightly somber, I spent some time outside chatting with and signing for the fans who had patiently waited outside all day. Any sense of sadness disappeared, because I realized that, while this journey may have been over for me, it was far from over for the world. It drove home to me the reason we do what we do, the reason we sit out in the heat in strange costumes saying made-up words: People love to watch Game of Thrones. People adore the thing I have been a very small part of, and that is something very special indeed. Game of Thrones will stick around for many years; new people will discover it, others will rewatch it, and so it will go on. Bran may have been “dead” to me at that point, but he lives on in the intangible realm of the televisual world and in the hearts and minds of fans worldwide. And that, no matter how sad I may have found it leaving the show, is a feeling so profound that I couldn’t possibly be sad for long.
As for me, I am thrilled with the way the show ends. At the beginning of the show, Bran is a disabled 10-year-old with slim chances of surviving in this harsh universe. He will never be the warrior who comes in on horseback and saves the day, but he is resilient. He survives attempted murder more times than I can count; he journeys with only a handful of other people to one of the most dangerous and northerly points on the map, and he returns one of the most powerful characters in Westeros. I find it an extraordinary character arc to see him go from a vulnerable character totally dependent on others to the one person who holds all the keys to understanding the world. Bran becoming king is a victory for the still and considered people of this world, who too often get sidelined by the commotion of those who are louder and more reactionary. He doesn’t shout to make himself heard, but instead waits and chooses his words and actions very carefully. In that, I think Bran presents a valuable reminder to us all in this day and age where sensationalism is rife and anybody can voice an opinion to millions, to sit and consider things a little more carefully.
The ending of the show has been dramatic and unexpected. Witnessing Dany descend into primal anger is hard indeed, and I can see why people took it to heart. But Thrones is at its best when it does things that hurt us — Hodor’s death, for example — and episodes five and six of the final season are no different. There is perhaps no harder scene to watch than when Jon kills the woman he loves in the hope that it might save the kingdom. It is an impossibly difficult decision to make, and the jury is out on whether it was the right thing to do — and we will never know.
In that lies the cleverness of Thrones: Nothing is tied up neatly, and we are instead forced to ponder what the fate of this once great kingdom will be after everything has gone so wrong. Nothing sums it up better than Tyrion’s line to Jon Snow when asked if he had done the right thing, which I have been covertly using in interview questions to answer how I feel about the years I have given to Thrones: “Ask me in 10 years.”
Life doesn’t have neat, happy endings; it is ambiguous and ultimately inconsequential. To end Game of Thrones with uncertainty is perhaps the most honest way to end a story so vast and complex — and that uncertainty is what we all feel as we begin our life after Thrones.
Thank you to the cast and crew for the 8 seasons of high fantasy that was Game of Thrones.