Sisters threatening to kill each other! Nephew-aunt incest blue balls! Ice zombies! Dragons! Death! Dragon-death!
“Beyond the Wall,” Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones and the penultimate outing of the season, gleefully embraced the show’s season seven ethos of moving things forward faster than Gendry can run an unforgiving frozen tundra (a speed that seems to defy the laws of time and place).
It was an intense, 70-minute adrenaline shot that saw Arya and Sansa turning on each other in Winterfell while Jon Snow and his fur-clad troupe of your faves (The Hound! Jorah! Tormund! Oh my!) fruitlessly battled a gazillion wights from a rock in the middle of a frozen pond—in the end necessitating a miraculous rescue from Daenerys and her dragons, coming to their aid at a speed even more nonsensical than Gendry’s record-setting snow marathon.
It all climaxes with the gut-wrenching death of Viserion, one of Dany’s beloved dragons, and by extension progresses forward toward our global collective goal of seeing Khaleesi bone her nephew. (Season one Lannister incest? Gross! Season seven Dany-Jon incest? Give it to me now!)
To make sense of the big episode, we spoke to its director, Alan Taylor. Taylor, who has directed seven Game of Thrones episodes—as well as episodes of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The West Wing, Sex and the City, and Mad Men—was around in season one when the show gave birth to the dragons. We spoke about the full-circle moment of helming one’s death, the inevitability of Dany and Jon’s hook-up, Arya and Sansa’s game of wits, and, as he says, “just the cool shit of dragons flying around and stuff.”
Reading the reaction to the Arya and Sansa scenes, it seems like people genuinely can’t decide whose side they’re on in that sisterly showdown.
Yeah. The intention really was to question whose side are you on in terms of who’s right, but also whose side are you on in terms of who’s more lethal. We know that Arya is dangerous. At the same time when Sansa says something like, “I won the Battle of the Bastards,” she’s absolutely right. So they both have acclaim. They’ve both been through hell and been changed by it. I certainly wanted to set up the idea as much as possible that either one of them could kill the other, and it could happen very soon.
What is the significance of Arya handing Sansa the Valyrian dagger at the end of that exchange?
I think she’s doing many things. She does like to pull the wings off flies a little bit. I think she’s scaring the shit out of Sansa, and then saying, “Try me.” (Laughs) I love the fact that she hands her the dagger then turns her back on her. I think it’s the ultimate “I’m not afraid of you” gesture. The most momentous thing that happens after the mutual threats back and forth is that Sansa sends Brienne away, which clears the decks for action that Brienne would prevent if she was there.
My colleague Melissa Leon wrote that the episode was like the writers embraced their “inner 12-year-olds” and were “just happy to revel in cool shit, like flaming swords and ice zombies.” What was it like for you to revel in that as a director?
I had a bunch of reactions when I first read the script. First of all, I realized I was doing the penultimate episode. It’s generally a big episode. Something major typically happens in the story arc in the penultimate episode. But then I got to Belfast and saw the other scripts and realized that actually every episode this season was pretty major. (Laughs) There was nothing more major about my episode, but I was grateful that I got to do the game-changing thing with the dragon. I was there when we gave birth to the dragons in season one. It was nice to do this full-circle of finishing one of them off. I knew it was going to have an emotional impact because those dragons are beloved by the audience as much as by Dany, I think.
Was there anything you were nervous about?
The part I was most nervous about was a lot of the talking at the beginning. Especially knowing that we were going to be shooting a lot of that stuff in Iceland. Just, oh god, how are we going to keep this alive and moving? That’s a lot of talking. Luckily these are characters that people are really invested in. Part of the fun of the series now is bringing these characters with different storylines together. There’s a tremendous appetite to see how the Hound is going to deal with Tormund, how is Jorah going to deal with Jon Snow? The braiding of those stories was a lot of fun. Plus, just the cool shit of dragons flying around and stuff.
You mentioned the emotional impact of killing off the dragon. What was the challenge in generating that emotional impact, so it wasn’t just “cool CGI of a dragon dying?”
It’s really thinking of it as a character we have a relationship with. Things we were doing with that battle had a definite tempo to it. You know, we were whacking zombies. But shifting gears to the moment when the Night King throws his spear, suddenly there’s a darker, slower, more momentous build. The way we line up the shot you understand that something on a different scale is coming. A lot of work went into the arc of how the dragon was going to go through its death throes. We crosscut to the various characters, because a lot of the emotion comes from watching it play on the faces of our heroes. Then we had this one shot that I’m very proud of where you cut to the lifeless dragon and its legs slide back into the hole in the ice. The shape of that shot felt like the right scale for letting go of this character and giving it its proper time. It’s tricky because there’s this battle raging and you can’t stop the clock and spend too much time on it, but you still have to give it its due. So it’s going from that shot to Jorah sort of taking it in and looking at Dany, then you see her reaction and we realize that she just lost one of her children. Then Jon Snow being enraged on her behalf finishes that emotional cycle of the dragon’s death.
Could you give us an idea of the scope of shooting a battle scene as unique as this one: in the winter weather, the CGI wights, and all those challenges?
I was struck by the fact that this battle was not actually of the biggest scale [for this show]. I still think the greatest battle ever achieved for television is Battle of the Bastards last season. Our battle was never going to be on that scale, so we focused on the intimacy. It’s seven guys on a rock. But what was a daunting challenge was the fact that our story requires us to be on a frozen lake in Iceland, but we’re in fact on a quarry in Ireland. So the level of technology and art that goes into making the scene believable was immense. That’s something I never experienced on television. You have a guy charging across the ice and he breaks through into the water. There are seven shots that have to be put together to make that effect play. Some are shot on green screen on a stage a month later, some are shot in a dunk tank, some are shot on location and the stunt guys are doing it. It’s a huge amount of work going into achieving that.
There’s an obvious obsession with the romantic chemistry between Jon and Dany. When you’re shooting that scene with them at the end of the episode, what are you thinking about in terms of how much to telegraph of that chemistry and that will they/won’t they tension?
There’s no secret that this is where this is going. Readers of the book have known that things were heading towards this destination for a while. Even the characters in this story know it’s heading in this direction. Tyrion is making fun of Dany about what’s brewing. So we knew it’s got to come at some point, and I was glad that I got to be there for a major step forward for them. The fact that Jon’s willing to now bend the knee to her as the next queen is a huge political step. The fact that they are starting to fall for each other is huge. It comes down to tiny moments and how they interact with each other. They’re holding hands and there’s this great look where she’s swooning and she steps back from it, but it’s clear that that’s our destination at this point.
One question that a lot of people I talked to had while watching the episode in real time was why in the hell does Jon Snow keep fighting when everyone else is on top of Drogon ready to escape?
If there were people that wondered that then maybe we screwed up. The intention was two things. One is that they’re climbing on the dragon and it’s a slow process. Their flank is unprotected and we see that there are wights coming towards them, so he had to battle those guys back. The other thing is that it is just very Jon Snow of him. (Laughs) To get caught up in it all and it not being the most tactical thing or strategic thing. I love the fact that Battle of Bastards hinged on him doing something that did not make sense: charging in and trying to protect his little brother exposed everybody to failure and basically lost the battle for all of them. For me, ideally people believe that he’s doing something heroic, guarding the flank so everyone can get to safety. Then once he gets caught up in it, there’s a moment of Viserion going down and he’s, again in a very Jon Snow moment, protectively enraged and hacks his way through a few more to get an eye line on his nemesis, the Night King. I believe in the psychology of him going to do it. I actually had more trouble believing and understanding Dany leaving when he goes into the ice.
How did you wrap your head around Dany’s decision to fly away and leave Jon in the ice?
We had to motivate that by the fact that now Drogon is in peril because there’s another spear being loaded up. I think you could pick apart almost anything. When we were doing it, we were questioning: Why isn’t Dany bringing both her dragons around to take out the Night King? There are subtle things going on trying to explain that as well. One is that she’s a mother and she just lost a child and she wants to save her other children. Another is, you’ll notice when the Night King walks forward with his spear he steps into a line of fire and the first brushes away from him when he steps through it. We saw that effect earlier in the series—that he seems to repel fire. So it’s possible that dragon fire may not work on him.
There are a few questions that people had about plausibility with the episode, especially in regards to time.
At every story point there are questions that come up and we’re trying to cope with them in ways that ring true to people. There’s been talk about: Why does Jon fight in the ice? And there’s been tremendous amount of talk about the airspeed velocity of the raven, which seems to be catching some people a lot. I don’t have an answer for that except to say those ravens are really fast.