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As winter arrives and as the plot thickens and intertwines, each of Game of Thrones’ surviving stars is just thankful to have made it to a seventh season.

Given the brilliantly bloodthirsty and nefarious nature of the previous six chapters of this greatly gripping televisual odyssey, there seems to be an unquenchable unity between those who have not (yet) lost their heads.

While the audience stands with baited breath on the precipice of the penultimate hurrah (Season 8 will mark the show’s finale), you sense there can be no corner given, no holds barred and no thoughts of surrender, with only death or glory standing in the characters’ paths.

“There’s more at stake in this season,” says Sophie Turner, who plays the steadfast Sansa Stark. “The threat of the White Walkers is growing and I think that’s going to unite a lot of people you wouldn’t expect. There are a lot of alliances being made. Season 7 is less about the quarrels between the families – there’s a bigger picture.”

Turner, like so many others in the show, has both grown into and grown with the character. From the unwillingly subservient Sansa we saw through her enforced marriages to both Joffrey and Tyrion Lannister, there’s been an underlying feeling that she would eventually pipe up, stand her ground and avenge the countless losses her own family has suffered.

“It’s interesting because at the end of the last season you saw her having her first kill. And her reaction to that when she walks away is kind of this smile on her face and you wonder whether it’s just the relief of having Ramsay [Bolton] out of her life completely or whether it’s her getting a taste for the killing,” she says.

“And you wonder which way she’s going to swing – whether she’s going to become somewhat ruthless. In my opinion, she still has those Stark morals that were instilled in her from a very young age. But for the people who have wronged her, the people who have killed her family, people like Cersei, I think she would be willing to kill again. And there’s a certain power that comes with that as well, one that she really enjoys because she wants that power.”

And as the fight for the Iron Throne continues, Sansa knows she has to choose her allies wisely. But through his seemingly undying devotion to her mother, Catelyn, the repeatedly besmirched but unwaveringly ambitious Littlefinger could hold the key, as much as Jon Snow, to her future claims as ruler of the Seven Kingdoms – or, indeed, his own. “As he himself said, the climb is all there is and the climb is not over yet,” says Aidan Gillen, whose portrayal of Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish is as compelling as any other you would likely see on the show.

“I certainly feel that the relationship with Sansa and the road he has chosen to enable his own ascent is coming to fruition in the way he has planned. It leaves him in an interesting position, where the person he has mentored and tutored is capable of outdoing him if she wanted to. But the thing is, that pair have got to like each other, but at the same time they’re playing each other.

“When you last saw this guy at the end of Season 6, he was in the shadows, watching how the dynamic was unfolding between her and Jon, which is something that he had been sowing since the previous season – sowing some seeds of doubt in her about his validity as a ruler, as a brother, as a leader. He’s a player, that’s what he does, and the ascent is gradual, slow and still happening.”

While Jon and Sansa appear convinced of their right to ascend the throne, albeit with a little concession needed here or there, one character who has apparently taken less of a front-line position as the ceaseless war rages on is Samwell Tarly, brought to life by the hugely affable John Bradley.
“This season, I’ve never felt more cast into the wilderness really, in terms of the geographical distance from what you consider to be Sam’s home, which is Castle Black. The group of actors I work with has shrunk dramatically,” he says.

“For the first years, Sam was drifting in between commanding his own narrative arc and then being back as part of the Jon Snow storyline. And this time, you feel that this has been a real breakaway for him.”

At first a pitiful figure, his cowardice and sense of self-worthlessness being at the fore, Sam has continued to surprise the audience with his wit and audacity, striking the perfect balance between buffoonery and bravery.

“A lot of Sam’s humour is quite deliberate, it’s a way that he can disarm people and bring them closer to him,” says Bradley. “He has this almost crippling self-awareness. He thinks he’s a coward but you do find that, when he’s placed in a situation completely out of his control, he is brave because he doesn’t have time to think about it. The moment with Gilly and killing the White Walker was pure instinct, it was a reaction of gut and not of head. He’s a constant surprise to the people around him, the audience, and himself.”

One of the bigger surprises to have struck the audience was the revelation that the apparently all-powerful Red Woman, Melisandre, was in fact the shadow of her own self. Following her constant propulsion of Stannis Baratheon towards ruling the roost, she later reveals herself as a ragged, decrepit old lady before being reinvigorated as Jon Snow’s saviour, bringing him back from the dead.

Carice van Houten, who so charismatically brings the character to life, rejoices in this transition from omnipotence to fallibility.

“The most fun for me was when it started to turn for her character,” she says. “As an actor you also want to play with fear and doubt and your own issues. So I was really happy when she was more humanised because she made mistakes and she was aware of it, but had no idea how to deal with her faith being so questioned. The moment she brings Jon Snow back is an uplifting moment for her because at that point she was thinking she has no power whatsoever. [In this season] you will not see her as stern as she was in the beginning any more, but you will see a little bit more of the vulnerability, although she feels a little stronger because of the miracle with Jon Snow.”

Another of the characters to have repeatedly shown strength through adversity is The Hound, played majestically by Rory McCann. His is a tale of woe from day one, and despite a lot of the viewers having reviled him, once he is left for dead by Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), you can’t help but feel at least a tinge of empathy for the big man.

“I think people are realising over the seasons that he isn’t that bad, really,” McCann says. “You know, he’s been looking after these Stark girls. You can see why he’s damaged goods just by looking at him physically. He’s got this underlying humour but he’s a machine. Over time, The Hound’s presented himself as not a bad guy.”

So will he and Arya ever cross paths again? “The fans loved that relationship. There’s a chance, if she’s alive. That would be a funny meeting. ‘Thanks for leaving me. Why didn’t you kill me?’,” McCann laughs.

“In the last series you got the impression that The Hound understood why she did that and I think he was becoming more at peace with it. I think it would be cool if they met up. I think he’d give her a ‘friendly’ back slap.”

Despite being both critically acclaimed and wildly popular in equal measures, accusations have been levied at the show by some parties that Game of Thrones ingloriously glorifies violence. Liam Cunningham, the charismatic star who plays ex-smuggler Ser Davos Seaworth, believes the show purely reflects the time in which it was set (circa 1485, without the dragons), also harking back to the days of Rome when women held sway, without ever wearing that much-sought-after garland.

“If we left [the violence] out because we didn’t want to upset anybody, we’d be doing such a disservice to an audience who have come with us and put their trust in us right through,” says Cunningham.

“The show is for grown-ups, it’s made by grown-ups. [The violence] isn’t gratuitously disgusting, it’s disgusting because violence is disgusting. It’s important, even the controversial stuff. It causes people to talk about it. If we start making it easy for ourselves, it becomes boring. If we get
through Season 7 and there’s nobody complaining about it, we’ve done something really wrong. I’m not saying it should polarise people, but it should cause people at the water cooler to go, ‘Are you out of your mind? Did you see what he did?’. ‘Yeah, but there’s a reason for it’. It’s what I love when I read the scripts.

It should be edgy, we should sail close to the wind.”

Keeping with the maritime theme, it would be remiss of us to ignore the clout the marine marauders The Greyjoys will have over the final two seasons. Having sworn allegiance to Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons and sure-fire favourite to take the Seven Kingdoms once and for all, it’s Yara Greyjoy (played by the immensely engaging stand-up-comic-turned-warrior-princess Gemma Whelan), her kin and her hugely loyal Ironborn who could prove invaluable to the ultimate victory.

A superb recent addition to the show, Yara’s uncle, Euron, promises to be the most contemptible character Game of Thrones has ever seen. And as his player, Pilou Asbæk, forewarns: “Ramsay Bolton’s going to look like a little kitten after this season.”
Thrones fans, hold on to your seats…

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By Luke Wilson
Time Out Bahrain,

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