The end is here. For its eighth and final season, Game of Thrones, the HBO fantasy drama that has become a worldwide phenomenon since its 2011 premiere, is going back to the beginning.
Characters who haven't been together since Season 1 join forces against the Night King (Vladimir Furdik), warlord of the underworld, and his 100,000-plus-strong Army of the Dead. When they face off in a deadly tangle of swords and dragon fire at the massive Battle of Winterfell, not everyone will survive. And those left standing will have to decide who rules the kingdom.
'This [final] season definitely exceeds anything we've attempted before,' says executive producer David Benioff.
"It's our biggest season by far," says David Benioff, who, with Dan Weiss, is executive producer of the series, based on the novels by George R.R. Martin. "It's only six episodes, but it was the longest [amount of time] we've ever shot, the biggest crew, the most extras and stuntmen. More people set on fire than ever before. It was intense." (Four episodes will run upward of an hour and 20 minutes to fit in all the action; the series finale airs May 19.)
Why so much fire? It’s one of the only things that can kill the Night King's ranks of reanimated corpse soldiers. Thank the gods, TV Guide Magazine didn't have to dodge flames when we visited the Winterfell set in Northern Ireland in November 2017 during filming of the Season 8 premiere.
On that cold, gray day — pouring so hard there's the illusion it's raining up as the water bounces off the muddy ground — King in the North Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and self-proclaimed Queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), to whom he's sworn his allegiance, ride through the gates of Jon's childhood home, Winterfell, escorted by their soldiers. (The Winterfell set has been expanded with additional ramparts and towers for shooting the explosive action to come.)
The passionate couple doesn't yet know what viewers officially learned in the Season 7 finale: Jon is not the illegitimate offspring of Stark patriarch Ned, but actually the son of Dany's older brother, Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, whose death in a rebellion launched the kingdom into its current volatility. That makes Jon, whose real name is Aegon, the true heir to the throne — and Dany's nephew! When they discover the truth, "she ends up in an incredibly fragile place," Clarke says. "Jon is her only safety left." And incest isn't exactly straitlaced Jon's style. Says Harington, "He's not the kind of person who can [knowingly] jump in bed with a relative."
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Dany's top adviser, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), is keeping a watchful eye on the pair. He doesn't know the couple is blood kin, but "he understands the potential danger for everybody if their relationship goes south," says Dinklage.
A welcoming party has assembled to greet the group. A quick scan of the reception line reveals a Justice League–caliber ensemble, led by the Lady of Winterfell, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), a badass who learned Machiavellian ways from the best. But she's also absorbed ethics, diplomacy and military strategy from some in her alliance (not all of whom are gathered to meet the new arrivals).
Team Save Westeros includes little sis and trained assassin Arya (Maisie Williams); younger brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), now the visionary Three-Eyed Raven who can see past, present and glimpses of the future (and knows Jon's true parentage); wise military strategist Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham); master spy Varys (Conleth Hill); faithful fighter Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie); and Dany's former adviser and one of the realm's great knights, Ser Jorah (Iain Glen).
Right away there are signs of discord between Sansa and Dany. "Sansa is threatened," Turner says. "She worked so hard to control the North and feels like Jon should be loyal. It's frustrating to have Daenerys, who she feels is manipulating Jon, come in and take control."
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Tension between Sansa and Jon isn't new. "They always have difficulty," Harington says. Warm and fuzzies aren't guaranteed in his reunion with adored sister Arya either. "They have led brutal lives since we last saw them together in the series premiere," Harington says. "It's changed them. Are they going to be what we want them to be?"
Arya is not the innocent Jon left behind. "She is balancing the woman she's become with the girl she dreamed of being," Williams says. Young Arya was separated from the Starks, and her goal was always to be back with her family. "Now that she is, she has something to lose," Williams says. She'll protect them by stepping onto the battlefield for the first time, and staying on top of her kill list (those targets who have harmed her or her loved ones). In first position: Cersei Lannister.
Conniving Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) remains in the capital, King's Landing, despite telling the alliance she'd send troops north to fight the Army of the Dead. Instead, she's secretly planning to keep her soldiers at home to defend her city. That devious strategy divided her from her twin brother and lover, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Even after she revealed to him that she's pregnant with their child, Jaime insisted on riding north to join the fray. "Cersei is scared," Headey says, "but she stays in her safety lane, which is survival and a brave front."
Jaime believes leaving Cersei is what's best for her and their unborn child. "There is no future without defeating the threat," says Coster-Waldau. When Jaime reaches Winterfell, he'll come face-to-face with brother Tyrion. They have a twisted history, but ultimately, "Tyrion trusts his brother. He loves him," Dinklage says. "We have some beautiful scenes."
Hate her, love her or grudgingly tolerate her — the fact remains that Cersei Lannister deserves respect.
Fans will need those beautiful moments to catch their breath amid the bloodletting. The Battle of Winterfell, directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who won an Emmy for 2016's "Battle of the Bastards," promises to be epic. The series' most spectacular clash took nearly three months to film during night shoots in the freezing, rainy, muddy countryside of Northern Ireland. At times there were up to 750 people on set, not to mention all the stomping, whinnying horses.
The actors say filming the battle is the hardest they've worked all series, with more rehearsals and fight training than ever before. "I wanted to cry," Williams says.
This is an abbreviated version of TV Guide Magazine's latest cover story. For more from our conversation with the cast of Game of Thrones, pick up the issue, on newsstands now.
Game of Thrones, Final Season Premiere, Sunday, April 14, 9/8c, HBO