Plenty of characters faced difficult decisions in Sunday’s Game of Thrones season premiere, but it’s safe to say that no one had it shittier than Samwell Tarly. Sent south from the Wall by Jon Snow to dig up intel on the White Walkers in the vast libraries of the Citadel, Sam discovers that maester training mostly consists of lugging around books, ladling out soup, and emptying poop from chamber pots. But is Sam the Slayer, the guy who killed a White Walker, gonna let some crusty academics and even crustier medieval toilets stand in his way? Vulture spoke with actor John Bradley to find out.
Before we tackle the big issues, I’ve got to ask: What was in those bedpans?
Well, if you want to re-create human feces onscreen, the best thing to do is to use soaking-wet fruitcake and mold it into the shape of turds. The thing about wet fruitcake is, when you see it for the first time at 6:30 in the morning, it’s fresh. But when you get to 5 in the afternoon and you’ve been shooting all day, and the wet fruitcake has been in the water and under the hot lights all day, it starts to become only slightly less unpleasant than the real thing.
I recently found out, because our producer Bryan Cogman reminded me on Twitter, that while I was shooting that sequence on my own over five days, the rest of the cast were at the Emmys! They were on the red carpet in L.A. while I was on my own in Belfast, dry-heaving and pretending to scrape shit out of the bedpan. The balance is a little bit off here.
You’re like Sam, sacrificing for the greater good.
Yeah, though I was even less happy about it than Sam seemed to be. I totally forgot they were even there! I think they tried to make me forget, and not notice this kind of injustice writ large. [Laughs.]
But no, I needed to be able to shoot that sequence. It was so fragmented in those little five-second shots, so I didn’t get a sense of the overall shape until I saw it all edited together, but I knew it was going to be something special. It’s something that was never quite done on Game of Thrones. We’d never done an edited montage like that. It’s a comic set piece with such a different kind of flavor that it took people by surprise. I love the fact that we are able to take risks, because we do abandon the formula and introduce new elements and styles to it.
I think that’s why people keep coming back. Even after six seasons and 60 hours of TV, you never know quite what to expect. That could be a character dying or a pivotal plot development, or just a funny little montage they weren’t expecting. There’s so much scope to surprise people, and it’s something that Game of Thrones mines very thoroughly, and always has.
I get the sense that between shooting and press, your schedule is only marginally less busy than Sam’s.
Yeah, but it’s actually great we get to spend time talking about this, because we’re all so proud of the episode.
Why do you say that?
I think it’s the strongest premiere we’ve ever done, in that it was a very functional episode that did all those plot-based, functional things that a first episode should do — it reestablished where everybody was, everybody’s psychology, gave everybody a great geographical point on the map as to where they are in the story, and where they’ve been and where they’re heading — but it didn’t feel like exposition for the sake of exposition. You’re being fed information, but in a way that’s seamless and organic. It did its job in a very effortless, stylish, and entertaining way.
When I think about [the bedpan] sequence, it comes from what I’m saying about how it’s functional. The first time we see Sam, he’s being put through abject misery compared to how elated he was when he first arrived at the Citadel at the end of season six. He’s so disenchanted with it all, realizing that after all the time he’s invested in the Wall all these years, he’s now away from everybody, and he’s not going to be able to do his bit and help Jon Snow in the Great War. He thought he was going to go there and be around people who, like him, love knowledge and how it can be applied for the common good. But you just find people looking for an easy life, who aren’t as concerned about changing the course or standing tall and helping people who fighting for the cause. For them, it’s knowledge for knowledge’s sake. So Sam is restless and angry and feels he’s letting Jon down. The scene makes you believe all that. It’s a very functional scene at establishing his psychology and his motives going into this season, but it does it in a very entertaining and, hopefully, very funny way.
I do want to point out that Sam doesn’t let any of this stop him. When he’s denied access to the books about the White Walkers, he steals them. It reminded me of how he took his father’s sword, or how he helped Gilly escape Craster’s Keep, or how he killed the White Walker. When his back is to the wall, he’ll do what it takes.
He’s one of those people whose heart is strong, and sometimes his head will get in the way. In those moments where he wants to act but he has time to think, it’s, “Remember, your father told you from day one you’re a coward. Who do you think you are, trying to do these great things? You won’t be able to do them because you’re worthless and you’ll never have any impact on anything.” When he’s allowed to think, he can’t act. But when he acts on impulse, like when he kills the White Walker or when he takes Gilly with him, he does it because he has an enormous heart and he doesn’t have time to remember all the psychological baggage. He forgets, momentarily, how brave he is.
Sam breaks the rules for the right reasons. He has contempt for rules and regulations when they get in the way of good being done. We saw that in the Night’s Watch, when he comes back from killing the White Walker and they don’t believe him, and then they try to sexually assault Gilly and beat him half to death for sticking up for her. He feels that in the Citadel as well. The books in the restricted area could help Jon Snow in the fight against the army of the dead, so it’s a race against time. “Why can’t I have access to them? Is it just because someone wrote down one day that I can’t have access to them?” That’s when you see that he’s willing to bend the rules to do what’s right, not necessarily in terms of legality, but in terms what’s right morally. I’ve really come to admire that.
I’m glad we’re talking about this particular issue, because I just ranked the show’s major characters from most good to most evil. Sam was at the top, so now I feel vindicated!
Well, there is darkness in Sam, as there is in every character. Sam has had a life of abuse and neglect, and he’s carried these emotional scars within him the whole time. It’s so beautiful that after the childhood he had and the way the world kicked him around, he still has it in his heart to do good things for other people. Many people who had his childhood and the abuse he suffered would feel that they don’t owe anything to the world. The fact that he comes out to help, that he wants to fight this battle alongside Jon Snow in his own unique way with books and academia as a part of the army that nobody else can fulfill, it’s so much to his credit that he’s not completely selfish. The fact that he wants to do so much good really puts him head and shoulders above everybody else.
I’m on the record as agreeing.
Thank you, man!