Spoilers ahead for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.
When Littlefinger delivered the news to Sansa that her great-uncle Brynden “the Blackfish” Tully had gathered what remained of the Tully forces and retaken Riverrun, it seemed like a ray of hope for Team Stark. Long-lost relatives resurfacing! Family reunions beckoning! An army at the ready! But, alas, this was not meant to be. Although all of the long-lost Stark uncles (the Blackfish, Edmure, Benjen) made their return this season, not all of them are in a position to help their nieces and nephews as much as they might like. Actor Clive Russell, who plays Blackfish, chatted with Vulture about where he’s been all these years, survivor’s guilt, and Brienne shipping.
Before your character’s return this season, the last time we saw him he was excusing himself from the Red Wedding to go to the bathroom. Good timing …
Yes, but I think he did feel survivor’s guilt, because he didn’t go back in there and try to save anybody.
What else could he have done?
Yeah, but that’s being rational and 21st century, and not being somebody who probably in his life had been faced with 35 men coming at him and didn’t run. If you go through the histories and descriptions of battles through the ages, they write about triumphing against great odds — for instance, the guys who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. That image, it’s a recurring theme. And in a way, I suppose, it’s one of the lies told about war, to get young men to go to war: You can be a hero. Stand there against impossible odds, and fight until you die. In a massacre, the sensible thing to do would be to run. However, soldiers don’t necessarily do sensible things. They expect of themselves something different. I guess he would have told himself that if he survived, there’s a possibility of the family rising again. And that’s a perfectly acceptable argument. But, in the end, he ran.
What do you think he’s done in the years since to get Riverrun back?
He couldn’t have been the only person to get away from the Red Wedding! I imagine there were some guys who slipped away, and they would be allies of the Tullys and the Starks around whom he could draw himself. He may have even been an outlaw, out in the lands, living rough, and building up some kind of support over time. I imagine it would be a grim story of survival, being a wanted man — if they found him, they would cut his head off and parade him around the streets as a symbol. So I imagine becoming a guerrilla fighter, doing something like that, would have been possible. To go from being part of a family that was massacred to having a castle fully replenished, clearly something had happened, and they must have been pretty strong to do it.
For a long time now, the Starks have been scattered all over Westeros (and Essos), and some people were hoping that the Blackfish might be a good guiding force for them. He’s an actual adult in this family!
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. I know what you mean. The fact that he’s an adult is very evident. An older man, clearly an old warrior, clearly a wise person, with every reason to protect his home. It all has a wonderful resonance, for somebody with the sense of family that he has, the way that most older people have, and the way young people don’t. It gives them some solidity and a sense of history, and he certainly expresses that in the scene with the Kingslayer. He’s pretty determined, and it’s not difficult to believe the case he puts forward, that the Kingslayer is in an impossible position. At that point, I don’t think they would have been able to breach the walls, and they wouldn’t have starved them out. Tomorrow I’m recording one of those spinoff animated lore things for the DVD, in which I give the history of the castle, and how it never, ever had been breached. So it’s the Kingslayer’s last throw of the dice, quite honestly, to use Edmure, to have him trick his way into the castle. That’s the Kingslayer’s slimy plan. It’s so appallingly slimy. It’s of a piece with the realpolitik of Game of Thrones.
Edmure has no choice, it seems, but it’s also a betrayal.
Yes. He comes and calls up to the castle, to the guy who is in charge of the drawbridge, “I am Lord Edmure. Let me in.” And I have an argument with this guy, “It’s not him who’s speaking. It’s the Kingslayer. We’re being tricked. Don’t be a fucking idiot.” And the guy stands his ground and says, “It’s my duty. I have to listen to Lord Edmure. He’s my guy. I have to do what he tells me.” And that’s how they get in. Had I confronted him, I would have had to get through lots of enemy soldiers. So everything falls down. There’s a moment where we catch each other’s eye. My soldiers lay down their arms, and there’s a phalanx of guys coming across the drawbridge, and he’s on horseback. I’m basically looking at him saying, “Well, fuck you.”
There was almost a moment where it seemed like the Blackfish might have said yes to Sansa.
He reads the letter and he goes, “She’s exactly like her mother.” That really gets him. And that’s the point where you think he’ll ride to the rescue. But he says he can’t because he has to protect Riverrun. Brienne tries to appeal to his sense of honor, his sense of family, because vulnerable members of his family need help. But even at that, he feels he can’t do it. He really has to defend his home, where he was born. He’s very conflicted, I have to say. It’s quite touching.
At least he’s able to help Brienne get out of this situation …
When Brienne is standing in front of him, clearly, he at first sees her as a double agent, which in some senses she is. But he recognizes in her a bit of himself, his younger self. There’s a touch of subtext in their farewell where he more or less says, “You’re better off without me. You can do it.” He has the chance to run with her, and he chooses not to. The assumption is that I’m trying to stop the soldiers coming through the corridor, stop them discovering her making her escape in the little boat. My concern is to get Brienne out. By the time I do, the soldiers are upon me. But I’m also refusing to run. It’s very much him dying honorably, fighting an enemy, which is what part of him felt he should have done at the Red Wedding.
How do you feel about your character’s death being off-screen?
It’s like the blinding scene in King Lear. I did a production where that scene was done offstage, and I thought it was more effective than normal efforts to have his eyes taken out. You can have so much horror, and the violence in Game of Thrones is pretty near the edge, but I think in that case, it was absolutely right. What has been set up as an impregnable castle just suddenly dissolves by treachery, and that the Blackfish should die offstage is absolutely right. Plus, I didn’t have to do four weeks of rehearsal and get badly injured to look like a swordsman! I’m perfectly happy with that, to be honest. [Laughs.] I think there’s something chilling with a simple line like “The Blackfish is dead, my lord.”
A lot of fans had theories about your character, that he was actually gay. That could explain why he never married.
I think with the Blackfish, they changed the character quite a lot. I made the mistake of looking at the blogs, because there were plenty of them, and they felt he’d been too soldierly, too aggressive. They’d been looking forward to a more avuncular sort of character. But his gayness is not flamboyant, if he is gay. That’s a perfectly valid thing to say. Who knows, though? It’s a nice possibility.
Well, if he weren’t, he and Brienne could have made a good match. You’re a little taller than her, at least. Unless you’re a Brienne-Tormund shipper?
No! [Laughs.] Actually, it was really weird, the entire time I was working with Gwendoline Christie, I felt she was taller than me. It didn’t look like it on film, though. I’m six-six, and I think she said she was six-two, six-three? A terrifically tall woman, with just a charismatic presence. I’d like to come back as a younger man, and Brienne could have a relationship with me! [Laughs.] We could redo the whole series!