After a torturously long winter, Game of Thrones is back. The fifth season premiere, titled “The Wars to Come,” charted the course for the HBO epic’s most politically ruthless season yet. Sansa is still suffering from Stockholm syndrome (only this time courtesy of Littlefinger), Cersei has a flashback hinting that Daenerys or Margaery may usurp the throne, and Dany is once again struggling with her station as the great emancipator-Queen of Meereen—and, of course, her feral dragons.
But the most action occurred at the Wall, where Mance Rayder—aka the King-Beyond-the-Wall—and his wildling clan are being held prisoner by the army of Stannis Baratheon and his redheaded consigliere who likes to bring leeches into the bedroom, Melisandre. In one memorable scene, the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light confronts Jon Snow in a lift, asking him, “Are you a virgin?” Jon says he isn’t. As for when and how the bastard lost his V-card, well, the well-coiffed actor who plays him isn’t so sure it happened in that cave with Ygritte—you know, the time we all learned that Jon does know something, and that something is oral sex.
“We don’t strictly know he did get laid in the cave,” says a chuckling Kit Harington. “I’d like to point that out. We know he did other things, but we don’t know if he fully went there.”
Fair enough. Another gripping sequence transpired between Jon and Mance, with the former attempting to convince the stoic wildling leader, who spared the bastard’s life not too long ago, to “bend the knee” at the foot of Stannis and join forces with Stannis and the Night’s Watch to take Winterfell from the vicious Bolton army.
“He is divisive,” Harington says of Jon. “There are people who love him or hate him, and it’s because of the mercy he shows to the wildlings by referring to them as ‘Free Folk.’ He’s trying to change the hearts and minds and the way things have been done forever at The Wall.”
Harington continues, “It’s a conflict like many conflicts. It’s two groups of people who have been killing each other for centuries, and to try and change people’s minds about that and get them to like each other all of a sudden and fight for the common good is not an easy task. He’s trying to diplomatically and peacefully change opinions for everyone’s good, but that’s always going to put him at risk.”
Mance, of course, refuses to bend the knee. After all, he is the man who once told Jon, “Stand, boy, we don’t kneel for anyone beyond the Wall.” Though he admits he is very scared, he says that he must retain his—and by extension his people’s—honor, and choose the way he must die.
“If I were to walk away and hand these people over to another contender for the throne, I would have betrayed everything I believed in,” says Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, who plays Mance. “So, are you willing to die for what you believe in, or will you parlay to get more for your people? ‘No, I refuse to take this, I know it’s wrong, and I’m willing to sacrifice myself for the journey we were going on.’ That’s what he chose to do.”
According to Hinds, the argument Jon makes with Mance is a valid one, and perhaps the wildling’s feared leader is committing a selfish act by refusing to kneel for the sake of his people.
“You know what? Jon Snow might well prove to be right,” Hinds says. “Men are stubborn, and whatever cause they believe in, they believe in their own ethical and moral cleanliness—their truth—and they can often be wrong. Jon has been developing from a young man to taking responsibility and arguing his points astutely, and down the line, this will go a long way towards fulfilling his destiny as a major player for control.”
Later that night, Mance is given one last chance to kneel before Stannis as he’s escorted to the pyre, but refuses. So he’s tied to the pyre, and Melisandre brands him the “King of Lies” in a death speech before setting it aflame. A few of the burning shots were Hinds, but most of the burning scenes were accomplished via a stuntman and a dummy.
“It’s pretty awful, but you know what, it’s some pretty cool stuff I’m doing!” says Melisandre’s Carice van Houten. “To light a dummy on fire is very cool. These scenes are not un-dangerous, too. I have to make sure to keep my hair and dress out of the fire!” She adds, “You’re in for a treat this year, if you like shocks.”
As Mance burns and howls in agony—breaking his composure for the first time ever—Jon takes pity on the wildling leader, whom he’s grown to respect, and shoots him in the heart with an arrow, putting his suffering to an end.
“When he’s first at the Night’s Watch he sees wildlings as the enemy—as an evil race of people who deserve to be locked away,” says Harington. “But through seasons two and three and spending time with them, he realizes they’re humans just like anyone else. He becomes a humanitarian in that way. So it’s something Jon knows he’s going to do when he sees Mance burning—if he can’t stand it, he knows where the bow and arrow is. He knows how he’ll show mercy to him.”
We will see a different side of Jon soon, though. “But in the same vein, later on in the season, you see Jon do the exact opposite,” Harington says. “You see Jon not show mercy, which is an interesting about-face. Jon’s shown mercy plenty of times in the past with Ygritte, Mance, and others, but here, he has to do something in cold blood which shows that he has the other side to him as well.”
Now in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, Mance—spoiler alert!—isn’t actually dead. Rather, the man killed is Rattleshirt, and Melisandre has used her magic to glamour the poor fellow to look like Mance. And the wildling chief plays a substantial role in the books after his “death.”
Hinds says that this will be yet another instance where Game of Thrones deviates from Martin’s books. Mance, ladies and gentlemen, is dead.
“I don’t think there’s any coming back from a good ol’ toasting!” he says. “In the books, I believe he transforms into something else. But no, I’m done.”
It was a fitting end for 62-year-old Hinds, who hails from Northern Ireland—the same place where the two-night burning sequence was shot.
“The director, Michael Slovis, came up to me and said, ‘I’m very sorry I’ve just met you and I have to put you to death.’ I said, ‘You’re forgiven! Hell, you didn’t write it,’” says Hinds, laughing. “It was just a light toasting, really! A superficial grilling, done by the beautiful Melisandre, so at least I got something nice to see before I was torched.” He adds, “It was a heck of a night in County Antrim halfway up a hill just looking at people before the match was struck and laid down. After it was finished, they announced, ‘That’s it, the end of Ciarán Hinds,’ you say your goodbyes, and then they move on to the next shot. Very kindly everyone said, ‘Yeah, bugger off,’ so I slipped off into the night.”
A car came for him and he, in true Irish fashion, sipped a celebratory whiskey by himself as it drove away from the Thrones set for good.