TV Review: ‘Game of Thrones’ Documentary ‘The Last Watch’
****WARNING!!! SPOILERS BELOW FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T SEEN SEASON 8 OF GAME OF THRONES!!!!****
Plot: An in-depth look at the final season of Game of Thrones.
Review: When something you’re passionate about ends, whether it’s a romantic relationship, a beloved novel, or an exciting college class, it’s natural to feel a little bit of a void. Game of Thrones was the most watched television show in the history of television (as director Jeanie Finlay points out). More than 180 countries around the world watched the show for eight seasons. It was the epitome of the “water cooler” television show. Everyone was talking about what happened to their favorite characters Monday morning at work. The amount of enthusiasm and passion this show generated was unprecedented. When the final episode of season eight aired just over a week ago, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of that aforementioned void myself.
Luckily, HBO in their infinite wisdom saw fit to release a two hour documentary which chronicles the final season of the beloved television series. While in no way groundbreaking or revolutionary, Finlay’s documentary nevertheless offers an insightful look into the various people behind the iconic television show and how a stalwart group of talent landed one of the best television shows of all time. The Last Watch in no way feels like a gooey peanut butter and fudge dessert after a delicious steak dinner, but rather more like the after dinner Andie’s Candies mint you might receive. Not wholly satisfying but enjoyable nonetheless.
What I appreciated about this documentary was how it shies away from some of the bigger names like show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and focuses instead on the people who are the backbone of the show. This includes people like production designer Deborah Riley who spent seven months constructing a King’s Landing set in Belfast, Ireland. Another case in point involves husband and wife prosthetics/special effects team team Sarah and Barrie Gower. The two pitched the idea of how to portray the wights, the Night King, and the other various White Walkers years ago never thinking they’d actually get the job. When they did it was a “holy shit!” moment for the pair as they literally had nothing: no crew, no workshop, nothing. And yet their talent and passion wills out. It was a delight to see their reaction to D and D (David and Dan’s) approval of the crypt wights from “The Long Night” episode. You could see the joyful glee on their faces. Indeed the running theme of much of this documentary is just how happy many of the people associated with the production are just to be involved.
Yet The Last Watch also doesn’t hesitate to examine how the long shoot of season eight (55 nights for one episode alone) impacts individuals on a personal level. Due to the intensity of season eight, both Barrie and Sarah are forced to be away from their daughter Lottie for weeks at a time and you can see how that takes a toll on them, especially Sarah. (In a heartfelt moment Lottie shows up towards the end of the shoot to film a cameo on the final episode.) Working on something as epic as Game of Thrones comes at a cost whether it’s time with your kids, physical pain such as director David Nutter being forced to abandon Game of Thrones during seasons six and seven due to back injuries, or personal privacy, like when actor Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) hilarious describes getting out of the shower buck naked just as a drone flies by his window.
Some of the people behind Game of Thrones make for interesting characters worthy of George R. R. Martin himself. The personalities range the gamut of the human condition whether it’s Del Reid, the man in charge of many set elements on the show specifically the snow. His bright personality undermines what sometimes could be difficult circumstances. Much of the show is shot in Belfast, Ireland which Reid admits never gets snow so they have to manufacture it with water and paper. In the height of irony, Belfast during season eight experiences horrific snow and cold which in turn causes massive problems for Reid. Yet for an orphan who was on the streets of London at the age of sixteen, it’s just another task to overcome. Then there’s of course Naomi Liston, the foul mouthed and abrasively hilarious location manager. The stress that comes with her job cannot be overstated and yet she tackles it with a passion and hilarity that’s part hardened Night’s Watch knight and part Winnebago Man.
Perhaps the most interesting of the “small folk” involved in Game of Thrones involves stuntman, stunt supervisor, actor, and fight choreographer Vladimir Furdik. While the roles of stuntman and supervisor are jobs Furdik’s been involved with for thirty-three years, and since season five of Game of Thrones, it’s what happened to him in season six that really changed his life. That year Furdik took on the role of the Night King, the White Walker King that Arya Stark eventually kills. It was fascinating to watch him transform in the makeup chair and to reflect on how he even came to be in the position he’s in. A Czechoslovakian who grew up during their civil war, the forty-eight year old Furdik reflects how he easily could have become a gangster and criminal but show business proved to be a way out. Yet despite a harrowing childhood, Furdik is truly happy to be part of the production as a whole. It was endearing to watch him approach fans in Spain who, despite the fact that Furdik is typically under layers of makeup, knew exactly who he was.
While the rarely seen people behind Game of Thrones remain the focus throughout The Last Watch, that’s not to say that some of the bigger names don’t receive attention. Unfortunately, the only two who get any significant screen time are Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) and Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen). So if you’re a fan of say Arya (Maisie Williams) or Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) you’re sadly out of luck. Thankfully, what we do get from Clarke and Harrington is substantial. Despite their rise to stardom, both seem appreciative and humble even eight seasons in. Indeed Clarke especially values how much the show has meant to her and wrestles with what she will be without Game of Thrones and her character Daenerys. Two of the best moments of the documentary involve Harrington. The first involves the initial table read for season eight. Harrington preferred to go into the reading cold unlike his counterpoint Clarke so when he finds out his character Jon Snow kills Dany in the throne room, it was for the first time. The outpouring of emotion was genuine and watching Clarke’s reaction to Harrington was heartwarming. The second involved Harrington’s last day filming. Again he gets emotional talking about how much the role and the show has meant to him. Authenticity and passion are themes that reoccur again and again in The Last Watch.
Yet no one embodies the themes of authenticity and passion more than Andrew McClay, an extra on Game of Thrones since season four. McClay serves as an anchor point throughout The Last Watch. A fan of the novels since he was thirteen, how McClay even got on the show is astounding. A self-proclaimed “terrible student” McClay began drama at age seventeen. The day he was scheduled to do a makeup test for his part, his house burnt down. Nevertheless he shows up and lands the extra role of a Stark guard. From there we see him go on long grueling shoots and yet he never loses his enthusiasm or passion. “Game of Thrones changed my life” McClay remarks on more than one occasion. It’s something that holds true for many fans of the show I expect. It’s a reminder that art can sometimes alter the destiny of our very lives. So when McClay turns in his sword and costume for the final time and we see the tears of passion on his face, it’s as if in that moment we the audience are McClay. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” as The Bard once wrote. Has that ever been more true for any television show than Game of Thrones?
While The Last Watch offers nothing revolutionary in terms of technique or behind the scenes intrigue ala Hearts of Darkness or Empire of Dreams, it nonetheless stands as a stalwart examination of a beloved television show and the passion that went into making it. It’s an absolute refutation of the Internet trolls saying people involved with the show “just didn’t care about the last season.” Nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re a diehard Game of Thrones fan like myself, The Last Watch is essential viewing.
Game of Thrones “The Last Watch” rates: 7/10 Severed Ned Heads