WARNING! Spoilers abound below for “Game of Thrones” Season 7!
Arya and Sansa Stark’s warm family reunion is already fading from memory. Earlier this season on “Game of Thrones,” the sisters finally embraced after a yearslong separation that was miserable, at different times, in different ways, for each of them, and it seemed like they might’ve grown to accept the differences that caused them so much conflict as children.
But Sunday’s episode, titled “Beyond the Wall,” seemed to erase all hope.
After Arya (Maisie Williams) finds the letter Sansa (Sophie Turner) wrote to her brother and mother ― under pressure from Cersei (Lena Headey) back in Season 1 ― asking them to swear fealty to Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the younger sister is outraged. She confronts Sansa, who herself seems incredulous upon witnessing Arya’s lack of empathy, and the sisters’ time on screen culminates with a tense interaction over the stash of faces Arya uses to disguise her appearance. If Sansa had any doubt that her sister had become a weapon of mass destruction in the years since they bickered at King’s Landing, Arya peeled it away.
To make matters worse, Alan Taylor, director of “Beyond the Wall,” hinted at an even darker fate for the sisters. Taylor has been with the HBO hit from the start, directing a series of episodes in Seasons 1 and 2.
“I love the fact that these two come back, they’re both lethal, and I just wanted to give the impression, as much as possible, that one of them is going to die,” Taylor told HuffPost. “But you’re not sure which one.”
Pause for: Wait, what?! The director went on to say that “something is coming very soon between them, and it will be violent but surprising.”
We certainly hope he’s exaggerating. Read on for Taylor’s account on how the whole series has been leading up to Jon Snow (Kit Harington) joining forces with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), what it was like filming on a giant mock lake, and how the Stark sisters’ time together might be running out.
Was it fun for you to get to be the one who brings all these characters together on-screen after all this time?
Yeah, that’s the dynamic of the show now, and will increase over the next episode and into the next season. So many stories that we’re so used to telling separately are now being braided tighter and tighter together, and becoming one big story. So, it was fun to put people together who we’ve known for a long time, who have done such a good job of establishing those characters. The interaction between Tormund and The Hound was really fun because you can’t wait to see how the chemistry’s going to play between some of these people. Jorah and Jon Snow now have a conversation for the first time, of substance ― it’s beautiful. It feels like you’re sort of enjoying the capital of what’s been established in building up your characters for so long. And, for me, having been with the series from the beginning, being on Seasons 1 and 2 and then going away for a while, and coming back, it felt great to see how these characters had grown ― even seeing Maisie and Sophie coming back together as sisters, and seeing how the dynamic has matured between them. And then one of the big ones was: giving birth to a dragon and then being able to kill one. [That] was a great circle to travel.
I imagine Maisie and Sophie were pretty excited about being back together, too.
Their scenes are beautiful. When I first read those scenes, I was thinking, “Oh, my god, these are so long. We’re standing here talking for eight pages ― is that going to work?” But there’s so much electricity between them, there’s so much tension and sisterly power dynamics between them, those two scenes between them are some of my favorites in the episode now.
Let’s talk about that for a second. What did you hope viewers took away from those scenes, especially the second one where Arya is threatening her sister?
I think both characters have been through absolute hell since the death of their father in very different ways, and have turned into absolute lethal individuals. We’re very aware of how lethal Arya is, because she’s displayed it over and over again. But I love the fact that the tables do turn back and forth between them; it really is a shifting back and forth of power between them in those scenes we had. And when Sophie says she won the Battle of the Bastards, she’s right. I love the fact that these two come back, they’re both lethal, and I just wanted to give the impression, as much as possible, that one of them is going to die. But you’re not sure which one.
[Laughs] Arya is certainly lethal and sort of threatening, but when Sansa sends Brienne away, who is Arya’s natural protector, something is coming very soon between them, and it will be violent but surprising.
Now I’m scared for them. OK, well, going back to the big scene in the North, we saw in an “Anatomy of a Scene” video how that giant lake set was built in a quarry leveled off with concrete and painted. How long did that whole process take?
It’s a crazy investment in time. When I first signed up to do the episode, I had just gotten the script, and was reading about a frozen lake. I was still finishing something in the States and they flew me over to Belfast and pointed to this quarry, and said, “Here’s what we’re thinking.” There was no water, there was no lake, there was no anything. And so my mind was sort of reeling on how we were going to do it. Then what you see in the making-of is a lot of thought going into where the island was going to be, what shape it was going to be. Then once we carved and leveled the surface of the lake, and could do these treatments to make it look like ice — of course, anytime someone falls through that ice, it’s not there. It’s separate shots and separate locations all to create those moments, so it’s a quick lesson in scale on what the show has evolved to. It took us ― I don’t know the exact number of days and weeks for the frozen lake. But I know the insane thing, for me, was that I did one episode and it took me over five months to do it from top to bottom, from that first location scout to finishing visual effects. It was insane by any normal scale of TV.
Would you say this is the episode where we really see Jon and Dany fall for each other?
It’s been a long, slow burn. The revelation for me ― and I’ve said this before ― is that when we were doing Season 1, and no one really knew what we were dealing with, and no one knew where it was going, George R.R. [Martin] came to visit us on set in Malta, and he let slip that really, the story was about Dany and Jon Snow. And I was surprised by that because we all thought, well, who knows. Ned Stark’s [warden] now, and maybe Robb will be [warden] after him, and we didn’t know where the story was going. So, in his mind, it was always coming down to this partnership. And so, I was glad that I got to take them a big step forward in terms of Dany saving Jon’s life and Jon bending the knee. But that’s just the beginning, obviously. There’s more to come, politically, between them, and also romantically. We see it certainly just under the surface in my episode. There’s a wonderful moment when Dany gets to Jon while he’s lying in bed where you can see she’s sort of falling for him. She’s drawn aback. There’s a shot where she sees him unconscious, and he looks really great with his scars and his abs. [Laughs] It’s not just political. Then Tyrion is making fun of her because he sees it coming, too, but I think it’s been coming for a while. It’s not just my episode. It has places to go, obviously.
We definitely see Dany’s vulnerability in this episode. She loses one of her children, and you see him just disappear. What directions did you give Emilia Clarke in that scene? Because she’s obviously just sitting on a green piece of styrofoam in real life.
She had a very strange job. Because she was with us on location on a frozen “lake,” on top of a huge lump of green styrofoam for many of the shots that required scale around her, or landscape around her. But some of the crucial reactions to the moment of death and the aftermath took place a month later on a green-screen stage, where she had to go back to that same state of mind. And at no time was she able to see anything except for a tennis ball off in the distance. She had to conjure everything up around it. We had a very evolved storyboard so we could share that with the cast and let them know what we had in mind, know what they were witnessing, but it really comes down to complete pretend. And ever since Season 1, Emilia’s done amazing, she knows how to turn it on and turn it off. She will be halfway through telling a joke, and suddenly you say “action” and she bursts into tears, is absolutely compelling and riveting, and you say “cut” and she finishes the joke. She’s always been very in control of her skill that way, her talent.
This interview has been edited and condensed. The “Game of Thrones” season finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.