“Sam was always going to be the last person to know what he’s capable of,” John Bradley said of his Game of Thrones character with a quiet conviction. “The thing about Sam was, because he’s been so damaged by his relationship with his father — a figure who told him he’s worth nothing and he’ll always be worth nothing; he’ll never achieve anything — he’s believed it. He’s believed it for a long time … Sam has always thought of himself as being impossible to underestimate because he thinks of himself as so worthless. He thinks he’s un-underestimatable.”
Sitting in a hotel bar in midtown Manhattan, the 25-year-old actor is the furthest thing from Samwell Tarly, a young man who’s widely considered in Westeros to be the most useless steward in the Night’s Watch. Clad in a perfectly tailored suit, with slicked back hair, Bradley is, in real life, a confident gentleman, clearly coming into his own long before Sam did on Game of Thrones’ most recent third season.
Before Bradley even graduated from Manchester Metropolitan School of Theatre in 2010, he landed the role of Sam, the lovable and brilliant character, who was at first solely used for comic relief as the right-hand man of Jon Snow (Kit Harington). “The Night’s Watch thought, If Sam can’t fight, we don’t need him at Castle Black. He’s going to be a liability. Little do they know that using his own intellectual pursuits and his own methods, he finds solutions to problems that they never even dreamed of,” Bradley noted.
Season 3 of Game of Thrones saw Sam help Gilly (Hannah Murray) escape from the clutches of her father and husband (cringe) Lord Craster (Robert Pugh) while pregnant with his child (more cringing), killing a White Walker in the process, despite the members of the Night’s Watch believing him to be a useless coward. “When he did kill the White Walker with the dragonglass dagger, he didn’t know it was going to happen. That’s when we found out that dragonglass killed White Walkers,” explained the actor, who has since read all of the books in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series upon which Game of Thrones is based. “If he had overthought it, he’d have crumbled. So after all the learning that he’s done, and all the quest for knowledge, it was a moment of pure gut instinct that made him do the most important thing he’ll ever do.”
And with that exceptional feat comes some long-needed confidence for Sam, who in the Season 3 finale, was also reunited with brother-in-arms Jon Snow at Castle Black. But it seems their bond will be filled with some sibling-like feuding. “Because they’ve gone off on their own little adventures, Sam changed roles a little bit, changed status. We’d previously seen him as Jon’s sidekick, with Jon being the out-in-out leader. But Sam was the out-in-out leader for a season with Gilly as his sidekick … I think Sam has grasped the leadership reins a little bit more firmly than he ever has before,” Bradley explained. “But also, he’s achieved a lot, not only achieving the unthinkable — which is discovering a way of killing White Walkers, which can change the whole complexion of the struggle of the Night’s Watch from then on — but also just decisive action and trusting his impulse and going with his heart, not overthinking things … Once you’ve started to achieve those things and experienced that role, it wouldn’t be comfortable for Sam to adopt his sidekick role again. He’s grown in stature so him and Jon are on a more level playing field than they’ve ever been before and because of that, they bump heads a lot and there is a lot of conflict between them. Sam’s not willing to accept that his input doesn’t matter anymore.”
It may seem like this new Season 4 Sam, the one who’s butting heads with Jon instead of waiting on him hand and foot, finally has everything he’s ever wanted, but nothing is ever that cut-and-dried with the steward. “You’d expect Sam to start Season 4 in a relatively happy place. (As unpleasant as Castle Black is, it’s much more hospitable than what he’s been used to north of the Wall.) So, he’s back there with the three people he cares about most in the world and you’d expect him to be fairly contented, more content than ever before,” Bradley said ominously. “But I think that Sam’s so unfamiliar with happiness that he’s suspicious of it … If he’s not worried, he can’t function. Certain elements of Sam, the self-doubt and the self-loathing side, manifest themselves in completely new areas this season because he cares about Gilly so much, he’s always hypersensitive of any danger around her and he knows now that she’s now sharing a space with rapists and murderers and thieves, so he’s just worried that he’s taken her out of the frying pan and into the fire. And he just wants everything to be perfect for her.”
That relationship between Sam and Gilly has always been platonic, but many fans have long hopped it could turn into a romance. “Because he saved her when they were escaping Crasters and all the subsequent moments that they’ve shared in that period, I think that it’s been developing very, very slowly and very gradually, but Sam has been so focused on the adrenaline of having to keep going all the time and watching over his shoulder, and just fundamentally caring for her welfare in a very protective way, I don’t think he’s had time to really take stock and really think about romantic relationship,” Bradley explained carefully. “He wants it to happen, but he just wants to make sure that she’s safe first … He knows the damage that can be done by monstrous father figures and he also knows that the only man Gilly’s ever known is Craster … So, because of that, he knows he’s got to play it very, very cautiously. He’s got to give her space and he knows that if for any second, Gilly thinks he’s only saved her for sex, he knows that all the hard work has all been for practically nothing. It’ll all come crumbling into dust, really. So he’s always walking on the thinnest of thin ice around her.”
And that’s a constant state of mind for Sam, which is why Bradley has played him with a stilted gait and a slight stutter. “It’s reflective of him not knowing whether to speak or not, never knowing, Should I say this or should I not say this?” he explained. “He always weighs the pros and cons of absolutely everything he’s done because he’s so scared of making a mistake. And I think that once you start overthinking situations and think about them so forensically that you know them inside out, they always seem to be a lot worse than they are. If he just acts impulsively, on an instinct, that’s when you see the best of someone like Sam. But as soon as he starts wrapping himself up in doubt and suspicion and also that sense of self-loathing that he’s had ever since we first met him, all these things together can lead to him crumbling really.”