Game of Thrones returned to our screens last weekend, in an opening episode to the final series that harked back to the very first episode. Once again, the major players were manoeuvring around one another, some of them meeting after years apart and others encountering each other for the first time. The Starks and Lannisters, together with Daenerys Targaryen, face the existential threat of the White Walkers and the Night King, while all around them everyone else just tries to survive.
Except that’s not really true, is it? One of the joys of Game of Thrones, both in televisual and novel form, is that its rich cast of minor characters don’t just exist to survive and support the actions of the major players. They have their own lives, their own lusts and drives, and they’re often just as entertaining as, if not more so than, the tragic Starks or the debauched Lannisters.
(There’ll be some spoilers below, but not too many. This is all about celebrating the characters who have enlivened and enriched the tapestry of Westeros for viewers and readers.)
Game of Thrones‘ famously high body count means that surviving throughout the seven series to date is no small feat. While plenty of the major characters (with some notable and obvious exceptions) have made it through, many others have fallen by the wayside. Some, such as Syrio Forel, the “dancing master” hired to train Arya Stark/start a little girl off on the road to becoming a lethal killer, are loved as much for the charm they brought to an often grim series as they are for the manner of their leaving it. Sometimes it makes sense for a life to be sacrificed in service of plot and character, and Syrio went out like a boss.
Other characters are less well loved and little missed. Ros, the Winterfell strumpet who went to seek her fortune in King’s Landing and became an emblem of the show’s early-seasons habit of “sexposition,” got entangled in the games of those who had actual power and paid the ultimate price at the hands of perhaps the show’s least human villain (and yes, I’m including the Night King in that). The fan judgement levied against Ros was more than a little lopsided—she was an original character created for the show and played a key role in leading the audience into the King’s Landing intrigues—and she may not be much missed, but her supporting role in one of the series’ finest moments was in its own way just as impressive an exit as Syrio had.
Then there are the survivors. Those characters who, for good or ill, manage to keep themselves on the side of the living. Perhaps none is more prominent than Sandor Clegane, the Hound, the vicious but broken cynic whose skill at arms is the only thing he has to rely on as his original loyalties shatter and he’s left adrift in a world even less welcoming than he’d imagined it to be. Despite his brutality, the Hound’s clear-eyed view of exactly what those in power were capable of endeared him to many viewers, as did his unwillingness to suffer fools. Especially fools who got between him and a chicken dinner. (Very NSFW language at that link.)
Equal and opposite (in many ways) to the Hound is Brienne of Tarth, the awkward but awesomely skilled swordswoman who has a bad habit of pledging her loyalty to people who die. A lot. Her clash with the Hound was another highlight of the series, as both of them had been well beaten down by life at that point and she revealed that she was more than happy to match him in brutality. Where the Hound has perhaps caught a glimpse of redemption, Brienne has had her rose-tinted view of the world darkened by a few home truths and a lot of spilled blood. Which one of them will fare better in the long run remains to be seen.
A lot of the reason for the success of Game of Thrones‘ supporting cast comes from the superlative work that casting director Nina Gold has done in filling almost every role. Even if some (such as the Hound’s brother, Gregor) had to be re-cast not just once but twice. For example, Natalie Dormer was excellent as Margaery Tyrell, demonstrating a not entirely trustworthy beauty that hid an intelligence as formidable as anyone’s in the show. Likewise Diana Rigg as her great-aunt Oleanna Tyrell, the Queen of Thorns. A grand dame in every sense of the expression, Oleanna was as able player of the Game of Thrones as we’ve seen, and every scene she was in crackled with wit, authority and thinly-veiled disdain. Of more recent vintage, her exit from the show was just as good as anyone’s.
That I’ve reached this point without even talking about some of the major secondary players, such as Varys, Littlefinger, Sam Tarly, and Jorah Mormont just goes to show how strong and deep Game of Thrones‘ cast is. Except it’s not just the cast. It’s the array of characters that the cast inhabit so well. I love The Lord of the Rings, but I have to admit that its secondary characters pale in comparison to those in its successor fantasy series. It’s not an entirely fair comparison, as the two stories as told in completely different modes, but The Lord of the Rings has a more limited cast, who are largely there to aid or hinder the main players. There’s a richer, breathing world at work in Game of Thrones, one that was born from George R.R. Martin’s books and ably brought to life, in inevitably limited fashion (massive tomes are not easy to condense into seventy or so hours of television) by the series.
Amid this array of supporting characters, everyone is going to have their favourites, and I’m no different. Oddly enough, it’s a character I didn’t spend much time thinking about in the books, and who was recast after a brief first appearance. The young knight Beric Dondarrion, briefly glimpsed in the first series, later returned in a more grizzled form. As portrayed by Northern Ireland’s Richard Dormer, he was a warmer, less cynical take on the Hound’s view of life. Throwing aside the game of thrones for the task of helping the little people survive as the great lords clash. It helped that Dormer is possessed of an amazing voice, one that would be used in every audiobook going if I had my way. He’s not likely to survive to the bitter end of the tale that’s being told, but the fact that he’s survived this long is a minor miracle (even if it has cheated some fans of another character’s appearance). I’ll take that addition of his story thread to the greater tapestry as a reminder that those minor players help to enrich the tale that’s told and provide a far finer field on which the stories of the great and good can play out.