Game Of Thrones’ fifth season was one of molting. Throughout those 10 episodes, HBO’s fantasy epic shed itself of the last layers of George R.R. Martin’s existing narrative, emerging as a new creature independent of the story the author was struggling to finish. Nobody stared down the thousands of pages that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss planned to adapt into a television series and thought they’d outpace the author, but that’s exactly what happened. They finished Martin’s story before he could, and, for now, the ending they created is the ending we have. For some, that’s fine; for others, it’s torture.
One might expect James Hibberd’s Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon, a comprehensive oral history of HBO’s Game Of Thrones, to devote a gallon of ink to the show’s controversial ending, heavy as it hangs above the show’s legacy. But this isn’t that kind of book. It’s a great read, informative and insightful, but no one’s all that interested in unpacking the show’s controversies in any meaningful way. The creators cite “reactive” critics when discussing the furor surrounding the handling of Sansa’s rape by Ramsey, and there’s no mention at all of Jaime’s rape of Cersei in season four, another scene that many—including us—felt was indicative of a larger issue with the show’s repeated use of sexual assault as a plot device (with one exception, discussed in more detail below).
Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon is best in its early pages, when Martin, Benioff, Weiss, and the crew discuss the show’s creation and early seasons with the kind of reflection that can only arise after a decade. Hibberd’s impressive reach also helps; he speaks to just about every major player in the show’s orbit, from actors like Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, and Kit Harington to directors like Neil Marshall and Miguel Sapochnik, the people responsible for some of the show’s most ambitious episodes. All that’s missing is original pilot director Tom McCarthy, the late Diana Rigg, and Stannis himself, Stephen Dillane, who doesn’t have the rosiest view of his time on set.
A number of the book’s big takeaways—Martin’s least-favorite scene, the failed original pilot, Clarke’s on-set struggles post-brain surgery—have already been teased ahead of the book’s release. But we culled a few other tidbits from the over 400-page oral history that we thought worthy of knighthood.
As befitting someone of her noble stature, Dame Diana Rigg, a series standout as ornery Lady Olenna Tyrell, was not to be coddled and/or fucked with. Producer and writer Dave Hill, for example, has a hilarious story about Olenna’s first visit to the brothel owned by Aiden Gillen’s Littlefinger. “We were preparing for a scene where Olenna meets Littlefinger at the brothel,” Hill says. “And Dame Diana Rigg looked around and went, ‘Shouldn’t there be more sex toys? Shouldn’t there be sheepskin condoms scattered about?’ I’m all, ‘You’re absolutely correct, Dame Diana!’ We appreciated her knowledge of ancient sexual devices.”
Director Mark Mylod, meanwhile, says he was “terrified” of Rigg, who he says dismissed him with a curt, “Thank you! Go away!” after rejecting his direction. “I became a 5-year-old boy,” he continues. “I could feel myself blushing and creeping back to my monitor, stripped of any kind of dignity or authority. So I enjoyed killing her later on.”
Jessica Henwick, the actor behind Sand Snake Nymeria, has another story of Rigg “storming” off set after doing two takes she found sufficient. “Now, she can’t walk fast. She has to be helped,” says Henwick. “So basically we just sat there and watched as Diana Rigg effectively did her own version of storming off the set, but it was at 0.1 miles per hour. She cracked me up. I loved her.”
If this makes her sound like a monster, rest assured that she was, in the words of actor Natalie Dormer, “aware of the parody of herself… Sometimes I think she was mischievous to see what she could get away with.” After all, she sounds like a joy compared to Ian McShane, who apparently made such a ruckus about a burger he didn’t like that HBO hired new caterers. We love the guy, but what an asshole.
Every production’s got prank stories, but few are as cruel as the ones Benioff and Weiss played on the cast. In what Benioff calls a “minor prank,” he and Weiss told Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner (Arya and Sansa, respectively) that they weren’t allowed to come to the pilot episode’s wrap party but that there was a “special underage wrap party at McDonald’s” they could attend instead. Yes, that is objectively very funny, but it still made them cry.
Another prank involves It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia creator Rob McElhenney, a friend of Benioff’s (who had a cameo in the final season). After hiring Matt Shakman, a director McElhenney had recommended, they “thought it would be funny if we told Rob that it was not working out with Matt and that he was a total disaster.” This apparently stretched over several emails, concluding with the creators saying they were going to have to “step in and take over the episode because it’s turned into such a mess.”
“I forgot about that!” Shakman says. “That was the darkest practical joke. Rob was legitimately tortured about it. He was so concerned for me and was like, ‘What can I do? Who can I talk to?’ It went on for way too long.” Again, very funny. And very mean.
As many people know, Game Of Thrones’ original, unaired pilot was something of a mess. When HBO gave Benioff and Weiss another crack at it, they ended up recasting their original Daenerys, Tamzin Merchant, with Emilia Clarke. That, however, wasn’t the only major change to Daenerys’ story in the new version of the pilot.
In Martin’s telling, Daenerys and Khal Drogo, the Dothraki warrior she’s forced to marry, have consensual sex on their wedding night. And that’s also how the original pilot with Merchant was shot. In the reshot pilot, the scene is changed significantly, with Jason Momoa’s Drogo raping Clarke’s Daenerys. Martin, who mostly has praise for Benioff and Weiss throughout Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon, still sounds pissed about this.
“Why did the wedding scene change from the consensual seduction scene that excited even a horse to the brutal rape of Emilia Clarke?” he asks. “We never discussed it. It made it worse, not better.”
Benioff and Weiss acknowledge that the scene works in the books, but that it wasn’t “gelling” for them or the actors. “[W]e just didn’t have that amount of time and access to the character’s mind,” says Weiss. “It turns too quickly. It was something the actors themselves felt wasn’t gelling. They weren’t able to find an emotional handhold.” To this day, it remains one of the show’s most controversial scenes.
This is cute. As Hodor, Kristian Nairn only spoke a single word throughout the entirety of his arc: “Hodor.” The fun of a role like that, of course, is in infusing each and every “Hodor” with some kind of identifiable emotion or meaning, and Nairn took this so much to heart that he can pick out two specific utterances of “Hodor” that are his favorites.
“There was a ‘Hodor’ I really like where Meera [Reed] and I are talking about sausages. This guy loves his sausages, clearly, and bacon. His face lit up, and he started talking about food,” he says. “I also enjoyed the ‘Hodor’ in season three with Osha. She’s complaining about having to build the camp, and he did this ‘Why are you telling me?’-type ‘Hodor.’ That was a fun one.”
According to Hibberd, the fourth season battle between Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson’s The Mountain was shot in a Croatian amphitheater that overlooked a stable of yachts. A deal was made that each of the yachts would back off a quarter mile so they wouldn’t be in the shoot during filming. “Everybody agreed to do it—except one person,” says director Alex Graves. That person, according to “multiple people working on Thrones,” was Bruce Willis.
“[The yacht] circled trying to say, ‘Fuck you, I’m in your shot,’ a couple times and we were all laughing because we were aimed away from the water at that time anyway.” Crew members called the attempted sabotage an act of “yacht rage.”
Executive producer Bernadette Caulfield downplays the incident, saying they “never actually saw Bruce.” Harington, however, made a comment in a 2019 interview with Variety that could point to some lingering animosity for the actor. Speaking of the career he hopes to build for himself, he praised actors like Ben Whishaw and Benedict Cumberbatch for mixing personal work in with franchise fare. He then added, “I don’t want to be Bruce Willis and be an action hero.”
Revisit the A.V. Club’s Month Of Thrones, wherein we distilled the fantasy epic to 30 essential moments.