The best Game of Thrones episode of the year featured no dragons, battles, or pivotal monologues. In their places were production designers, location scouts, and, of course, extras. Lots and lots of extras.
HBO aired the behind-the-scenes documentary “The Last Watch” over the weekend (May 26), exactly a week after the hit drama’s finale elicited a disheartened reaction from fans and TV critics alike. The entire final season, in fact, took a historic critical nosedive, ruining some of the goodwill the series built up in the seven seasons prior. But the finale was ultimately not the last word on Game of Thrones.
“The Last Watch” is more compelling—and far more poignant—than the ending of the show itself. It turns out that following the real lives of crafts service people, wig specialists, and someone called “the head of snow” can be as fascinating as any dragon-induced carnage or dagger-assisted betrayal the show’s writers had to offer.
It’s easy to be cynical about Game of Thrones, especially given the way it ended. But the critical reaction to its finale doesn’t change the fact that the HBO show was a hulking, once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. That a fantasy drama worked at all, for any amount of time, is a minor miracle. That it became the most popular TV show in the world is utterly mystifying—that is, until you get a peek at the work of the unsung heroes who made that happen.
The documentary emphasizes the astounding scale of Game of Thrones, along with its equally impressive attention to detail. It brings attention to the often unheralded work of producers, who take what the writers put on the page and make it real. When a writer writes that the direwolf runs, the producer has to figure out how fast, what it’d look like, and then consult with the appropriate departments to bring the direwolf to life and make it run.
We see production designers, carpenters, and construction workers build a full-scale replica of a section of King’s Landing in seven months in a Belfast parking lot just so that they can destroy it. (The residents of Dubrovnik, Croatia, where most King’s Landing scenes were previously filmed, probably would have had an issue with a dragon destroying their city.) We follow the “head of snow,” whose sole job is to sprinkle the set with fake snow, and soon believe what he does is a form of art. He grows irritated when it actually snows, thus jeopardizing his intricately staged fake snow. But he, like everyone else who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make Game of Thrones, finds a way.
Watching the actors react to the script during their final table read was more emotional than the actual end product of the scenes they were reading. I realized, in that moment, that while I may not have been as invested in the show’s narrative, I still cared about the people who brought it to our homes every week. Disillusioned with the actual story as I may be, I found myself still incredibly sad this show, as a very large part of my life for nearly a decade, was gone. Jon Snow may have fallen out of favor for some toward the end of the series, but it’s hard not to be moved seeing Kit Harington thank the crew and tell them that Game of Thrones is the best thing he’ll ever do in his life.
The true star of “The Last Watch,” however, is Andrew McClay, an extra whose many appearances in the background of important scenes over the course of six years have become a popular meme. He is more enthusiastic about his tiny role in Game of Thrones than anyone is about anything. His Thrones fever is infectious, and it makes you want to watch the series over again, watching for him. You would think that being on set, and seeing how the sausage is made, would take the magic away for Mr. McClay. But it does the opposite. He’s in awe of how this show really created a fantasy world. It’s more magical than magic.
The final moment of “The Last Watch” shows McClay hanging up his sword and hilt one last time, taking a deep breath, and walking out the door, leaving Westeros for good. His watch, and ours, is finally ended.