Warning: This story contains major spoilers for the final episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Emilia Clarke read a paragraph in the final script for Game of Thrones.
She read it again and again. Seven times, she says, she read the words that revealed the devastating fate of Daenerys Targaryen, a character she’s portrayed on the HBO global phenomenon for nearly a decade.
“What, what, what, WHAT!?” the actress recalls thinking. “Because it comes out of f—king nowhere. I’m flabbergasted. Absolutely never saw that coming.”
It was October 2017. The actress had recently completed filming Solo: A Star Wars Story and had just returned to London following a brief vacation. She electronically received the scripts the moment she landed at Heathrow and recalls that she “completely flipped out,” turned to her traveling companion and said, “‘Oh my god! I gotta go! I gotta go!’ And they’re like, ‘You gotta get your bags!’”
Once at home, the actress prepared herself. “I got myself situated,” she says. “I got my cup of tea. I had to physically prepare the space and then begin reading them.”
Clarke swiped through pages: Daenerys arrives at Winterfell and Sansa doesn’t like her. She discovers Jon Snow is the true heir to the Iron Throne and isn’t thrilled. She fights in the battle against the Night King and survives, but loses longtime friend and protector Ser Jorah Mormont. Then her other close friend and advisor Missandei dies too. Varys betrays her. Jon Snow pulls away. Having lost half her army, two dragons, and nearly everybody she cares about, Daenerys goes full Tagaryen to win: She attacks King’s Landing and kills … thousands of civilians? Daenerys’ longtime conquest achieved, she meets with Jon Snow in the Red Keep throne room and … and then … then he …
“I cried,” Clarke says. “And I went for a walk. I walked out of the house and took my keys and phone and walked back with blisters on my feet. I didn’t come back for five hours. I’m like, ‘How am I going to do this?’”
Two days later, Clarke was on a plane to Belfast for the final season table read.
Sitting next to Clarke on the flight, as it so happens, was Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow. Harington deliberately hadn’t yet read the scripts so he could experience the story for the first time with all his castmates. Clarke, positively bursting with wanting to talk about her storyline, found the flight maddening. “This literally sums up Kit and I’s friendship,” she says, and sputtered: “Boy! Would you? Seriously? You’re just not?…”
At the table read, Clarke sat across from Harington so she could “watch him compute all of this.” When they got to their final scene together, recalls Harington, “I looked at Emilia and there was a moment of me realizing, ‘No, no…’”
And Clarke nodded back, sadly, ‘Yes…’
“He was crying,” Clarke says. “And then it was kind of great him not having read it.”
The main story driver of Game of Thrones’ final season is the evolution of Daenerys Targaryen from one of the show’s most-loved heroes into a destroyer of cities and would-be dictator. Author George R.R. Martin calls his saga “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Jon Snow is the stable, immovable ice of Winterfell; Daenerys the conquering, unpredictable fire of Dragonstone. After years apart, they came together in season 7. The duo fell in love, help saved the realm from a world-annihilating supernatural threat and, in the series finale, their coupling is destroyed — Daenerys perishes, while a devastated Jon Snow is banished to rejoin the Night’s Watch.
Was this ending Martin’s original plan? The author told showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss the intended conclusion to his unfinished novels years ago but, since then, the HBO version has made several narrative detours. The showrunners are not giving interviews about episode 6 (and told EW they plan to spend the finale offline — “drunk and far away from the Internet” as Benioff put it).
Regardless of the final season’s narrative’s origin, the Thrones writers have planned Dany’s fate for years and have foreshadowed the dark turn in the storyline. In previous seasons, producers would sometimes ask Clarke to play a scene a bit different than what she expected for a seemingly heroic character. “There’s a number of times I’ve been like: ‘Why are you giving me that note?’” Clarke says. “So yes, this has made me look back at all the notes I’ve ever had.”
After Episode 5, “The Bells,” the reaction to Dany’s “Mad Queen” turn has been explosive and frequently negative. Some critics insist Daenerys doesn’t have the capacity for such monumental evil and the twist is an example of female characters being mishandled on the series. Others say Dany’s unstable sociopathic tendencies were indeed established, but the final season moved too fast and flubbed its execution.
For Clarke, the final season arc required mapping out a series of turning points. Dany’s attack on King’s Landing might have seemed abrupt, but from the beginning of the season Daenerys has reacted with increasing anger, desperation and coldness to one setback after another, shifting the Mother of Dragons into new emotional territory that would ultimately lead to her destruction.
Sitting in her dressing room on the set of Thrones last spring, Clarke broke down Daenerys’ entire season 8 internal journey leading up to the apocalyptic King’s Landing firebombing in a single breathless monologue.
“She genuinely starts with the best intentions and truly hopes there isn’t going to be something scuttling her greatest plans,” she says. “The problem is [the Starks] don’t like her and she sees it. She goes, ‘Okay, one chance.’ She gives them that chance and it doesn’t work and she’s too far to turn around. She’s made her bed, she’s laying in it. It’s done. And that’s the thing. I don’t think she realizes until it happens — the real effect of their reactions on her is: ‘I don’t give a s—t.’ This is my whole existence. Since birth! She literally was brought into this world going, ‘Run!’ These f—kers have f—ked everything up, and now it’s, ‘You’re our only hope.’ There’s so much she’s taken on in her duty in life to rectify, so much she’s seen and witnessed and been through and lost and suffered and hurt. Suddenly these people are turning around and saying, ‘We don’t accept you.’ But she’s too far down the line. She’s killed so many people already. I can’t turn this ship around. It’s too much. One by one, you see all these strings being cut. And there’s just this last thread she’s holding onto: There’s this boy. And she thinks, ‘He loves me, and I think that’s enough.’ But is it enough? Is it? And it’s just that hope and wishing that finally there is someone who accepts her for everything she is and … he f—king doesn’t.”
And losing Missandei? “There’s a number of turning points you see for Daenerys in the season, but that’s the biggest break. There’s nothing I will not do after losing Missandai and seeing the sacrifice she was prepared to make for her. That breaks her completely. There’s nothing left to making a tough choice.”
Executing Varys for treason? “She f—king warned him last season. We love Varys. I love [actor Conleth Hill]. But he changes his colors as many times as he wants. She needs to know the people who are supporting her regardless. That was my only option, essentially, is what I mean.”
Burying Cersei Lannister under the collapse of the Red Keep? “With Cersei, it’s a complete no-brainer. Lady’s a crazy motherf—ker. She’s going down.”
Yet Clarke also had another, more personal reaction to Dany’s meltdown. “I have my own feelings [about the storyline] and it’s peppered with my feelings about myself,” she admits. “It’s gotten to that point now where you read [comments about] the character you [have to remind yourself], ‘They’re not talking about you, Emilia, they’re talking about the character.”
Like many actors who have played the same role for a long time, Clarke identifies with her character and has put much of herself into the role. She believes in Daenerys’ confidence, idealism and past acts of compassion. As the actress wrote in a New Yorker essay in March, she played the Breaker of Chains through some life-threatening personal hardships, secretly enduring two brain aneurysms during her early years on the show. “You go on set and play a badass and you walk through fire and that became the thing that saved me from considering my own mortality,” she wrote. Clarke has drawn strength from Daenerys and infused Daenerys with her strength.
“I genuinely did this, and it’s embarrassing and I’m going to admit it to you,” Clarke says. “I called my mom and—“ Clarke shifts into a tearful voice to perform the conversation as she reenacts the call: “I read the scripts and I don’t want to tell you what happens but can you just talk me off this ledge? It really messed me up.’ And then I asked my mom and brother really weird questions. They were like: ‘What are you asking us this for? What do you mean do I think Daenerys is a good person? Why are you asking us that question? Why do you care what people think of Daenerys? Are you okay?’”
“And I’m all: ‘I’m fine! … But is there anything Daenerys could do that would make you hate her?’”
During EW’s visit to Northern Ireland last March, I took a walk with co-executive producer Bryan Cogman into the dark woods near the production camp. It was around midnight and bitterly cold. Our boots scrunched on the muddy gravel and the bustling sounds of crew activity from the set slowly receded into the distance.
“Emilia has been threading that needle beautifully this season,” Cogman says. “It’s the hardest job anybody has on this show.”
As we pass crew members our voices cautiously go silent. While Dany’s Mad Queen arc was known by all, her death in the finale was a secret even among many who work on the show. Killing Daenerys was a massive and difficult move. On a show that’s introduced dozens of distinctive breakout characters, Daenerys is arguably the most easily identifiable and iconic. She is T-shirts and coffee mugs and posters and bobbleheads and memes and the name of hundreds of kids around the world with GoT fan parents; a fearless figure of female empowerment.
“I still don’t know how I feel about a lot of what happens this season and I helped write it,” Cogman says. “It’s emotionally very challenging. It’s designed to not feel good. That said, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The best drama is the type you have to think about. There’s a dangerous tendency right now to make art and popular culture to feel safe for everybody and make everybody feel okay when watching and I don’t believe in that. The show is messy and grey and that’s where it’s always lived — from Jaime pushing a little boy out the window to Ned Stark’s death to the Red Wedding. This is the kind of story that’s meant to unsettle you and challenge you and make you think and question. I think that was George’s intent and what David and Dan wanted to do. However you feel about the final episodes of this show I don’t think anybody will ever accuse us of taking the easy way out.”
I point out Daenerys’ final season arc shifts the entire series, or at least her role in it. Upon rewatch, every Daenerys scene will now be viewed differently; the story of the rise of a villain more than a hero.
“Yes, although I don’t know if she’s a villain,” Cogman says. “This is a tragedy. She’s a tragic figure in a very Shakespearean and Greek sense. When Jon asks Tyrion [in the finale] if they were wrong and Tyrion says, ‘Ask me again in 10 years,’ I think that’s valid.”
Tyrion actor Peter Dinklage says the showrunners on set compared Dany’s dragon-bombing of King’s Landing to the U.S. dropping nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki to decisively end World War II in 1945. “That’s what war is,” Dinklage says. “Did we make the right choices in war? How much longer would [WWII] have gone on if we didn’t make horrible decisions? We love Daenerys. All the fans love Daenerys, and she’s doing these things for the greater good. ‘The greater good’ has been in the headlines lately… when freeing everyone for the greater good you’re going to hurt some innocents along the way, unfortunately.”
Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth, adds there’s another political lesson to be learned in the final season as well. “The signs have actually always been there,” Christie says of Daenerys. “And they’ve been there in ways we felt at the time were just mistakes or controversial. At this time, it’s important to question true motives. This show has always been about power and, more than ever, it’s an interesting illustration that people in pursuit of power can come in many different forms and we need to question everything.”
Killing Daenerys also forever changes Jon Snow, leading to his circular fate: returning to serve the rest of his life at The Wall. Harington spoke about the show’s finale in a production tent on the season 8 set, his voice so cautiously low a recorder could barely pick him up. Harington explained he avoids talking about the death scene on the set, and he and Clarke came up with a secret hand signal to refer to it — touching a fist to their heart.
“I think it’s going to divide,” Harington says of the finale’s fan reaction. “But if you track her story all the way back, she does some terrible things. She crucifies people. She burns people alive. This has been building. So, we have to say to the audience: ‘You’re in denial about this woman as well. You knew something was wrong. You’re culpable, you cheered her on.’”
Harington adds he worries the final two episodes will be accused of being sexist, an ongoing criticism of GoT that has recently resurfaced perhaps more pointedly than ever before. “One of my worries with this is we have Cersei and Dany, two leading women, who fall,” he says. “The justification is: Just because they’re women, why should they be the goodies? They’re the most interesting characters in the show. And that’s what Thrones has always done. You can’t just say the strong women are going to end up the good people. Dany is not a good person. It’s going to open up discussion but there’s nothing done in this show that isn’t truthful to the characters. And when have you ever seen a woman play a dictator?”
There’s plenty of tragedy for Jon as well, he points out. “This is the second woman he’s fallen in love with who dies in his arms and he cradles her in the same way,” Harington notes. “That’s an awful thing. In some ways, Jon did the same thing to [his Wildling lover] Ygritte by training the boy who kills her. This destroys Jon to do this.”
Back in Clarke’s dressing room, the actress is preparing to film one of her final scenes on the series. Understandably, she can’t quite bring herself to feel sorry for Jon Snow.
“Um, he just doesn’t like women does he?” Clarke quips. “He keeps f—king killing them. No. If I were to put myself in his shoes I’m not sure what else he could have done aside from … oh, I dunno, maybe having a discussion with me about it? Ask my opinion? Warn me? It’s like being in the middle of a phone call with your boyfriend and they just hang up and never call you again. ‘Oh, this great thing happened to me at work today — hello?’ And that was 9 years ago…”
Clarke’s phone call metaphor is characteristically witty, and the actress has given some fascinating insight about the season as a whole. But nothing yet quite feels like the bottom, the blunt truth of how she feels about Daenerys’ fate.
“You’re about to ask if me — as Emilia — disagreed with her at any point,” Clarke intuits. “It was a f—king struggle reading the scripts. What I was taught at drama school — and if you print this there will be drama school teachers going ‘that’s bulls—t,’ but here we go: I was told that your character is right. Your character makes a choice and you need to be right with that. An actor should never be afraid to look ugly. We have uglier sides to ourselves. And after 10 years of working on this show, it’s logical. Where else can she go? I tried to think what the ending will be. It’s not like she’s suddenly going to go, ‘Okay, I’m gonna put a kettle on and put cookies in the oven and we’ll just sit down and have a lovely time and pop a few kids out.’ That was never going to happen. She’s a Targaryen.”
“I thought she was going to die,” she continues. “I feel very taken care of as a character in that sense. It’s a very beautiful and touching ending. Hopefully, what you’ll see in that last moment as she’s dying is: There’s the vulnerability — there’s the little girl you met in season 1. See? She’s right there. And now, she’s not there anymore…”
A crew member comes for Clarke and she stands up. It’s time for her to go. Clarke begins to walk away, turns around, breaks away from the staffer, and comes back.
There’s one last thing she wants you to know.
“But having said all of the things I’ve just said…” Clarke says. “I stand by Daenerys. I stand by her! I can’t not.”
More coverage of the Game of Thrones series finale:
— Game of Thrones final episode recap: This is the end
— Bran Stark speaks: Isaac Hempstead-Wright discusses the finale: “I’m king motherf–kers!”
— ‘Game of Thrones’: Sophie Turner answers whether Sansa wanted Iron Throne