SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of last night’s Game Of Thrones Season 6 finale.
David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, creators of HBO’s George RR Martin novel-based series Game Of Thrones, opened their final episode with a bang and provided enough shocking twists, bloody score-settling and power plays in a series record long 69-minutes to hold their own against last week’s seemingly unbeatable Battle Of The Bastards. That episode brought us a battle between forces commanded by Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton that was one of the most ambitious production feats ever seen on a TV screen.
Last night, the field vying to rule the Seven Kingdoms got smaller; the raised-from-the-dead Snow’s birthright was revealed, and new alliances were forged, with the icy Night King and his undead horde serving as the looming doomsday menace. Here, Benioff & Weiss — who this season didn’t have Martin’s books for a road map for the first time — discuss the finale and how it sets up for Season 7.
DEADLINE: Before we get into last night’s season finale, let’s spend a moment on the previous episode, Battle of the Bastards, which pitted Jon Snow against Ramsay Bolton. Game Of Thrones has always been distinguished by unforgettable battle scenes, from Blackwater to Jon Snow’s clash with the Night King and his White Walkers. Battle of the Bastards was a high water mark as Ramsay badly outmaneuvered Snow with a ruthless strategy to use his archers to create a wall of bodies — comprised of his infantry and the enemy. He then choked the survivors with a line of shield-bearing soldiers with long spears, pressing forward with deadly precision. That strategy seemed too scary to not have been used successfully. Alexander the Great? Julius Caesar? What was your inspiration?
WEISS: There were lots of inspirations for it. One of the things we realized going in, the period of the great costume epics were over by the time the 70s and its gritty, grim reality of those films. You’d see big amazing costume period drama battle sequences, and scenes that were gritty and realistic, but there’s never really been a medieval battle with scale and scope, with a few small exceptions. Actually, I wouldn’t call Gladiator and some of those films small exceptions; obviously Ridley Scott is the one who has done most of it. But the combination of the true brutality of that kind of conflict, and the scale and scope of that kind of conflict, we felt there was a niche there. We could maybe do something new, if only because we were in a position to have the scale and scope of the whole thing and to really give us a sense of what that kind of conflict really felt like, on the ground. Which, from all historical accounts, was truly terrible.
DEADLINE: There were unforgettable images of Jon Snow, hacking away with his sword, bodies flying in chaotic war action all around him, and then he’s buried by a wall of bodies, suffocating. What’s the most difficult part of shooting scenes like those?
BENIOFF: The hardest part is the horses. They make everything difficult and more complicated. They’re dangerous to themselves and the people around them, and they have their own minds and don’t take direction as well as people do.
WEISS: Or dragons.
BENIOFF: We’re lucky we have a brilliant horse mistress, Camilla Naprous, who has been in charge of the horses since the first season. She has always said, c’mon guys, give me something more interesting to do this season. We thought we’d really throw a challenge at her and give her Battle of the Bastards. So much of it comes down to the preparation. We have amazing stunt performers and in Miguel Sapochnik, a director who’s so good at spending hours and hours and hours on every shot beforehand, so that he knows exactly what he wants when he gets to the battlefield on the day. We only shoot ten hour days, so you have to pack a lot into those ten hours. I’ve never seen a director so meticulous in his preparation as Miguel. It pays off when you see what he gets onscreen.
DEADLINE: How many moving parts, people and horses are involved?
WEISS: There is a lot of CG. There are 500 extras and 50 or 60 horses that get blown up to look like a total of between 7000 and 8000 men and an appropriate number of horses for that cavalry charge.
DEADLINE: Neil Marshall directed the Blackwater episode and had been serving up frightening imagery for years when you tapped him. How did you know Miguel prove he was ready for Battle of the Bastards and would convey the terrifying fear, adrenaline, and gasping for air as the enemy closed in and Jon Snow’s forces were trapped?
BENIOFF: This year, we went in with a lot of confidence because Miguel had done Hardhome the year before.
DEADLINE: That was the attack by the Winter People on the Wildling village.
BENIOFF: That was a fantastic battle episode, so we knew he’d have the vision for this type of thing. He was working with his DP Fabian Wagner, who also did Hardhome, we went in with a lot of confidence. It was scary going into Hardhome, when we hadn’t worked with Miguel before and didn’t really know him that well. It’s a bit of a gamble. He came in with high recommendations from people who’d worked with him before, saying how meticulous he is in preparation. It’s always a little bit of a crap shoot. We won the lottery getting Miguel, a director who proved just right for the material we gave him. And he was incredibly collaborative. The three of us spent a lot of hours together, talking over everything.
WEISS: It’s great, because things have finally, in the past season or two, started to contract in a very positive way. It was such an expansive world for such a long time. Obviously, we’ve had to say goodbye to a lot of characters and storylines we loved a lot. The ones that are left are ones we’ve been engaged in so long. Writing for Maisie [Williams] is always great, writing for Peter [Dinklage] and Emilia [Clarke] is great, especially now that they’ve come together in the same story line. Writing all the stuff for Kit [Harington] and all of the epic stuff he went through to get to now. There isn’t anyone left we don’t love writing for, because we’ve been writing for them, for so long. We know then so well at this point.
DEADLINE: It seems like every time Cersei settles a score, she pays a high price. She empowered the religious fanatics to get back at her disrespectful daughter in law and her brother, which led her to be humiliated in a prison cell and culminated in her nude walk of shame. Last night, while The Mountain is introducing himself cruelly to Cersei’s former tormentor Septa Unella, it meant he was not babysitting Cersei’s distraught king son, and the kid jumps out a window to his death. Now, she is out of heirs. What is your sense of Cersei as you’re writing her? Is she heartbroken over losing her children? Has she got any heart left?
BENIOFF: We had intended the connection you just made, so we’re glad you made it. If she had been more focused on her family, and less on enjoying her revenge on someone who had done her wrong, then Tommen’s suicide probably never would have happened.
WEISS: Not to give a frustrating answer, but that’s what so much of next season is going to be about; finding out what Cersei’s mind-set is. Who is she? While Cersei has certainly done a lot of horrible things in her life and she could be a very cruel person, the one thing that was redemptive about her was that she genuinely loved her children. Now they’re all gone, and I think that is very interesting for us. Who is she without her children? The answer is something you’ll find out next season. That’s so much of what is to come that I’ll just give it away if I start delving into it now.
DEADLINE: Arya is disguised as a young servant girl when she kills Walder Frey. At first, she glanced seductively at Jaime Lannister. Was Arya targeting Jaime, and when he didn’t respond, she took out the man who killed her mother and brother in the Red Wedding? And was there symmetry to how Walder invited Robb to a feast to celebrate his wedding, and then Arya feeding Walder pies baked containing body parts of his own sons?
BENIOFF: That’s 100 percent on the money. A+. The funny thing is, she came because Walder Frey is on her list. Jaime is not on her list, that I recall. But he is a Lannister and that allowed us an opportunity for misdirection, to show this pretty girl making eyes at Jaime Lannister. This whole scene is about how it sucks to be Bronn, and have to sit there while all the pretty girls make eyes at Jaime Lannister. But the eyes she was making toward him were about who he was, and the murderous wheels of vengeance were spinning in his brain. Maybe she could get a two for one on this deal. That ends up not happening, though, and she takes care of the original target.
DEADLINE: Now that Walder and Ramsey Bolton are out of the way, you have done away with two of your most deliciously evil villains. Your most formidable villain going forward is the Night King, who leads the White Walkers. How much of a challenge has it been, writing a menacing character who doesn’t talk, when your greatest villains established their loathsomeness through dialogue as much as atrocious acts?
WEISS: I don’t think of the Night King as a villain as much as, Death. He is not like Joffrey, or Ramses. He’s not really human anymore. To me, evil comes when you have a choice between that and good, and you choose the wrong way. The Night King doesn’t have a choice; he was created that way, and that’s what he is. In some ways, he’s just death, coming for everyone in the story, coming for all of us. In some ways, it’s appropriate he doesn’t speak. What’s death going to say? Anything would diminish him. He’s just a force of destruction. I don’t think we’ve ever been tempted to write dialogue for the Night King. Anything he said would be anticlimactic.
BENIOFF: Now that you bring it up, though, what would you have him say?
WEISS: Going back to the killing by Arya of Walder Frey, there’s an echo there from earlier in the series when Bran Stark told the story of the Rat Cook, who baked his enemies into a pie. It was clearly a call back from there.
DEADLINE: You subtly telegraphed that?
WEISS: Three years ago. Yeah.
BENIOFF: Iwan Rheon is a great actor, and he’s going to go on to a long brilliant career. And most of the characters he’ll play will not be evil. He’s not one of those who can only play a bad guy.
WEISS: We first saw him when he auditioned for Jon Snow. He was incredible and went down to the very end, in terms of our pick for Jon Snow. He’s an incredibly versatile actor. It was so much fun to write for him because he’s such a charismatic kid and he’s got such intelligence and a sense humor. He never just played Ramsay like the snarling villain. He put a little spin on every line and so it was great to write for him and to watch him perform, and especially in his last couple of episodes. That last scene with Ramsay and Sophie [Turner]’s Sansa probably goes down as one of our favorites. To watch the two of them alone, with the dogs…He could very well have been a boring character, because he’s so evil and beyond redemption. And Iwan kept him interesting the whole way.
DEADLINE: Bran’s half uncle, after rescuing his nephew from the White Walkers a few episodes back, left the boy and said because he’s half undead, he couldn’t go further. He said the wall wasn’t just ice and rock, that it contains spells that keep the dead in the North. The fans talk about the Horn of Joramund, a device in the books said to have the power to topple the wall. The Wildlings searched for it at one time, early in the series. Any hints on where this is going?
BENIOFF: We don’t want to give away too much. There are the books, and the show, and it would be a disservice to both if we went into too much detail on whether we’re going to use this or that. What is laid out in this season is, very clearly, that the wall isn’t just a physical structure keeping the army of the dead out. If the Wildlings managed to make it over, which they have, and the Night King has so much more in the way of both power and troops who’ll do literally anything he says…we’ll keep it at that for now.
DEADLINE: How deadly an enemy did Cersei make of Lady Tyrell [Diana Rigg] by killing her grandkids in that inferno Sunday night? Lady Tyrell, who now has no heirs, bonded with Oberyn’s deadly widow and house of Dorne matriarch Elaria Sand, and they aligned with Daenerys Targaryen. Cersei took all they loved, except for the hate they now hold for her.
WEISS: They are both powerful, ruthless women, one more so than the other, but they were very much about their families and the furthering of their names and their house, for the children they loved. Now, their conflicts have left them both with no future, or at least not the future they had considered their primary goal. It changes a lot of things for both of them, going forward.
DEADLINE: There is a decidedly female-centric vibe as the field to rule the Seven Kingdoms boils down to a few. Two of the major throne aspirants are women and Jon Snow has his half sister Sansa behind him. What’s it like being able to write that story line, when you don’t see near enough of it in films and television?
BENIOFF: The world of the show is one where women’s prospects would seem severely limited, compared to our own world. It’s based on medieval reality, where women were often considered the property of their husbands. They were very sharply circumscribed a set of activities and possibilities for their lives. One of the things that has been most fun about the characters we work with in the world George created, was that so many of the most interesting and formidable characters are women. The obstacles that stand between them and what they want are so much more formidable. It was lots of fun and rewarding to think about the ways they could overcome obstacles and press their advantages and interests the way men would. You’d be hard pressed to call Cersei a heroine; she just blew up several thousand people, few of which had done her any particular wrong. But she’s a formidable, severely flawed and damaged person.
Going back to your question about who’s most interesting to write for? On lots of levels, she is the most interesting to write for, largely because Lena [Headey] is such an absolute genius actress. The character itself is somebody who is driven by motivations that are in some ways so base, so angry and negative. But in other ways, so understandable to anyone who takes the time to imagine what it means to be in her position, to have grown up in her situation, to have these children you’d do anything for, even if it means burning cities, buildings and people to the ground to keep them safe. It’s something lots of people can understand. The irony you pointed to earlier, is that the very action she takes leads her to lose the last and possibly sweetest of her children. All of that stuff feeds into her as a character who is endlessly interesting to think about on a daily basis.
DEADLINE: This was the first season where you went past George RR Martin’s books. What was the biggest challenge?
WEISS: All of it. The first season was incredibly faithful to the book, and then subsequent seasons each diverges a little more from the books. It’s something George talks about; when you make a few changes, those changes multiply. And now, we get to the point we’re beyond the books. The biggest challenge has been just not having the books, they’ve in the past even in Season Five where we were different from the books in many great respects, we always had these big set piece scenes we could use as anchor points for the season. Whether it was Cersei’s walk of shame, or the attempted assassination on Dany where she’s rescued from the gladiator pit by the dragon, we knew we had these great moments to count on. Cersei’s walk of shame, the walk of atonement is almost identical to what it was in the book. This season we didn’t have that. With the exception of a couple of beats. On the Iron Islands, and the things that happened there, and the great reveal with Hodor, which George told us about. Other than a few key things, we were really beyond the books and to me it’s a testament to George’s characters and the world he created. At this point, after so many years writing for these characters and spending time in George’s world, we had to be able to walk on our own feet. A lot of people go in and have to create their own characters and they do fine with it. At a certain point, if we weren’t able to do it, then shame on us. George gave us an incredible gift with probably more fantastically drawn characters than I’ve seen in pretty much any book ever. If we weren’t able to do that, we weren’t the right people to be running the show here.
BENIOFF: We’ve been talking about the ending, from the beginning. It’s a strange phenomenon, we’re in this territory where you are walking on your own and can’t rely on the written material anymore. As we get close to the ending, we’ve been talking about that for so long, things come into better focus. Once we get to the final end game, we’ve got very specific ideas that have grown organically over the past six plus years about where everything will end up.
DEADLINE: When you have President Obama asking about plot points and whether Jon Snow would stay dead, it indicates you haven’t overstayed your welcome. You could continue this struggle for a long time.
WEISS: Like President Obama, we want to leave while all the people watching this show are really into it. Get out at a high point and not have it be, well thank god that’s over.
BENIOFF: It’s two more seasons we’re talking about. From pretty close to the beginning, we talked about doing this in 70-75 hours, and that’s what we’ll end up with. Call it 73 for now. What Dan says is really true, but it’s not just trying not to outstay your welcome. We’re trying to tell one cohesive story with a beginning, middle and end. As Dan said, we’ve known the end for quite some time and we’re hurtling towards it. Those last images from the show that aired last night showed that. Daenerys is finally coming back to Westeros; Jon Snow is king of the North and Cersei is sitting on the Iron Throne. And we know the Night King is up there, waiting for all of them. The pieces are on the board now. Some of the pieces have been removed from the board and we are heading toward the end game. The thing that has excited us from the beginning, back to the way we pitched it to HBO is, it’s not supposed to be an ongoing show, where every season it’s trying to figure out new story lines. We wanted it to be one giant story, without padding it out to add an extra 10 hours, or because people are still watching it. We wanted to something where, if people watched it end to end, it would make sense as one continuous story. We’re definitely heading into the end game now.