Game of Thrones, like all era-defining television shows, had to end eventually. While some series end with cuts to black or text laid out over still images, Game of Thrones could never finish so simply. This much has been obvious ever since the first season. The adaptation of George R. R. Martin‘s bestselling and still unfinished novels play with ideas and places that revel in bombast, no matter how grounded they may seem when compared to other pieces of fantasy fiction. Thus, the final season — Season 8 — had to be big, cathartic, and sweeping.
Was it all of those things? Was it satisfying? The answers to those questions will vary wildly depending on who you ask, but the new making-of documentary Game of Thrones: The Last Watch is not concerned with those fan-focused questions. The HBO-produced documentary, directed by Jeanie Finlay (The Great Hip Hop Hoax) offers an intimate look and unprecedented access into the making of the final season of one of the biggest shows (viewership and budget-wise) to ever grace the small screen.
The Last Watch was shot over the course of the production of the entire final season of Game of Thrones, and we see everything that goes into making such a gigantic television show work, from the enormous sets being built in seemingly nondescript locations to calls with producers and heartfelt table reads. Where Finlay could have focused on the many familiar faces behind Game of Thrones, she instead chooses to highlight the blood, sweat, and tears of the makeup artists, set designers, stunt coordinators, and extras of varying degrees of importance.
Yet, the familiar faces of the cast and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss do show up, and there is one particular moment when the cast is together during a table read for the final episode that is as comedic as it is heartwrenching. Finality is as bittersweet and surprising as it is inevitable. Seeing the making of this series from the perspectives of various unknown faces lends the work an almost workmanlike charm, but Finlay never looks down at her subjects. These folks may be doing a job, but their job just so happens to be working on the biggest television show of all time, and Finlay highlights each and every contributor’s importance as if the whole show will live or die off their contribution.
Storylines come and go as the whirlwind of television production seems to get to Finlay, and she is a brilliant enough filmmaker to know that sometimes storylines aren’t important. To shoot a film is to show something, anything. And Finlay shows us many, many different aspects of the highs and lows of shooting Game of Thrones‘ final season, from interesting moments with the face behind The Night King, Vladimir Furdik, to densely informative segments about the various sets used in the final season, and what inspired the set designers to portray certain areas in certain ways.
No matter how bombastic the sets or scripted material may get, Finlay always pulls The Last Watch back down into the realm of reality. Making television is hard, satisfying rabid fans is even harder, and this burden hangs over the entire set like a sticky, cloying fog. The entire crew knows that no matter how much care and effort they put into making the final season, fans will probably not be satisfied. Hell, some actors on the show won’t be satisfied, either. For example, Conleth Hill‘s reaction when he realizes the fate of his character, Varys, is an all too telling moment that no one can be satisfied with a story’s conclusion, no matter the quality of said conclusion.
Speaking of named actors on Game of Thrones, most of the cast takes a back seat to Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke in The Last Watch. For some reason — perhaps it is their inherent charm — Finlay focuses on them for decent chunks of time. Harrington’s goodbye to the cast and crew is specifically heartbreaking, and Clarke and Harrington’s back-and-forth during the final table read feels akin to one’s final night out with friends right before college ends and everyone is scattered about, rarely to be seen again. A specific feeling of sadness is felt in almost every scene of The Last Watch, as this crew that has been together since 2011 will soon likely never work together again in such an intimate and longlasting capacity.
Endings happen, no matter the artistic medium. Paintings are finished, books are closed, and movies and television eventually fade to black as credits start to roll. Yet, sometimes the ending is just, well, an inevitability. To get hung up on it is to miss the point. The Last Watch is as much a human look at endings as it is a celebration of the journey that leads to the end. Game of Thrones first aired in 2011, and after eight seasons, it is finally over. Finlay’s documentary is a testament to the colossal effort and toll that crafting such an impressive show can take on every part of the cast and crew, and it is also a love letter to the best parts of a story that come before the ending. To remember the journey is to cherish key moments and to witness an ending is to come to terms with how journeys, no matter how grand and sweeping, must always come to an end. For Game of Thrones, the story is over, but for the cast and crew, the road goes ever on.