Now their watch has ended, too.
Warning: Full spoilers for the documentary “The Last Watch” and the series finale of Game of Thrones below.
Regardless of your feelings on the final season of Game of Thrones, we all have to get used to the prospect of a world where our Sunday nights and Monday morning water cooler sessions are no longer dominated by the latest happenings in Westeros. It’s a strange prospect. Fortunately, HBO has one last parting gift before the long wait for the various prequel series begins. The two-hour documentary “The Last Watch” serves as both a glimpse inside the making of the final season and a crucial reminder that thousands of people poured their hearts and souls into bringing this decade-long saga to life.
“The Last Watch” plays like the Game of Thrones equivalent to Star Wars documentaries like “The Beginning” and “The Director and the Jedi.” Director Jeanie Finlay cuts through the mystique of the series to show the many challenges involved in creating this fantasy world and bringing those massive battle sequences to life. And rather than present this story from the perspective of familiar faces like showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, we see what it’s like for the various makeup artists, stunt people, set designers, production assistants and background extras.
That focus on the sort of blue collar underbelly of Game of Thrones is responsible for much of the documentary’s charm. We know by now exactly what Weiss and Benioff think of their work. They’ve been there to recap every single installment in the “Inside the Episode” segments. There’s a real novelty in seeing the day-to-day struggles of the people who remain mostly invisible even as their work is invaluable to the end product. And while there are no “Hearts of Darkness”-style on-set meltdowns or moments of intense interpersonal drama to be found, the documentary does avoid the overproduced, relentlessly positive nature of many behind-the-scenes features. It acknowledges the fact that work on a project this epic can still be a very tedious, sometimes frustrating experience. If you love seeing candid shots of actors in full zombie makeup or battle armor lounging about and eating snacks, “The Last Watch” won’t disappoint.
Finlay never fixates on any one element or “storyline” for very long. That’s pretty much a necessary move in order to hit as many beats as it does without the documentary ballooning into a full-blown series in its own right. Fortunately, she does anchor the film with a handful of recurring faces. The real highlight of the documentary in that regard is extra Andrew McClay. His enthusiastic energy is never dulled despite sitting through many long days and nights. His story even wraps up with a happy ending of sorts, as he gets to savor filming a more significant scene alongside series star Kit Harington.
It’s also fun seeing actor Vladimir Furdik take the spotlight after spending three seasons playing the silent, malevolent Night King. The documentary includes some engaging scenes where Furdik tries to understand his character’s motivations, muses on his own troubled past and realizes that he has his own legion of hardcore fans.
For whatever reason, the only two main cast members the documentary spends much time with are Harington and Emilia Clarke (though there is one memorable scene showing Sophie Turner getting in character for the post-Battle of Winterfell funeral scene). Whether Finlay and her crew only had the resources to shadow these two actors or the rest of the cast declined to participate more heavily, it is a shame we don’t get a better sense of how the show’s ensemble cast felt about saying farewell to their characters.
That said, what we do get from the Harington and Clarke scenes works very well. The footage of the cast’s first table read for the series finale is fascinating. It’s obvious Harington hadn’t read the script beforehand, so strong is his reaction to the discovery that Jon kills Dany. We also see Harington and Clarke’s respective final shoots and the outpouring of emotion that follows when the cameras stop rolling. Again, it’s a shame we couldn’t see similar scenes featuring the likes of Lena Headey or Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, but there’s only so much you can really squeeze into a documentary ostensibly about the unseen hundreds toiling away on this massive undertaking.
In addition to highlighting the emotional roller coaster that so many cast and crew members faced working on Game of Thrones for the final time, “The Last Watch” is also genuinely informative at times. It’s really a treat to see the King’s Landing set take shape after so many months of construction and witness how much rough weather and extreme security precautions slowed down the whole endeavor. The documentary draws stunning contrast between a set like King’s Landing, where the crew basically assembled a giant chunk of a castle out of nothing, to sets where actors are battling against enormous, football-field-sized green screens. It helps put into perspective just how massive an undertaking Season 8 truly was. As one interviewee says, the series pretty much had to end now, because there was no way it could keep getting bigger and more ambitious.
One of the neatest moments in the documentary involves the reveal that Benioff and Weiss went through the trouble of flying actors like Furdik, Faye Marsay and Tom Wlaschiha to Spain solely to throw the paparazzi and rumor peddlers off the trail. That, more than anything else, illustrates the massive wall of secrecy built up around the final season. If anything, it would have been nice to see more emphasis on this aspect of production. How worried were cast and crew members about leaks? How did Marsay and Wlaschiha feel about putting on those costumes but not truly being able to participate in the final season.
There are many areas where the documentary could have gone into greater detail. It certainly would have been nice to catch a glimpse of the writing phase and see the writers room grapple with the immense challenge of wrapping up the series in six measly episodes. But at some point, that material seems better served in a documentary all to itself. In terms of giving fans a better idea of the countless moving parts involved in a project like Game of Thrones, and in terms of spotlighting a few of the many people who labor behind the scenes, “The Last Watch” is a very satisfying coda to the series.