At this year’s Con of Thrones, I had the opportunity to speak with Miltos Yerolemou, who is an absolute delight, not to mention a self-professed “big fan” of our own Night’s Cast podcast! We discussed Syrio’s impact on Arya Stark as well as Syrio’s enduring popularity within the fandom, owing, in part to the many fan theories surrounding the beloved dancing master.
Ever since Syrio’s ambiguous exit from Game of Thrones in season 1, fans have debated his fate: is he dead? Is he alive? Is he a faceless man of Braavos? Is he Jaqen H’ghar? The way Yerolemou sees it, these questions kind of miss the point. What matters is that Arya never learned what happened to Syrio and thus could never find closure.
“The point is that in Arya’s mind, Syrio is very much alive,” Yerolemou says, “In the same way that Jaqen and Sandor are … and of course her father: the four people who had a very profound influence on her.”
At the same time, Yerolemou concedes that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did sort of troll fan theorists (“I’m joking, I’m joking. Not trolling,” he adds) when they gave Syrio his now famous and deliciously meme-able line: “What do we say to the god of death? Not today.”
“Syrio never mentions the god of death at all in the books,” Yerolemou points out. “As far as we’re concerned with the book character he is simply a bodyguard to the king or queen of Braavos. But then [Benioff and Weiss] put this scene in where he directly references this religious cult and, of course, it feels like, ‘Everyone who thinks that he might be Jaqen H’ghar, we’ve just given you a really big hint that maybe he is.’ I mean, that’s what it felt like.”
However we choose to interpret Syrio’s fate and identity, the First Sword of Braavos indisputably had a huge impact on Arya and shaped who she became.
“I love the bit [in season 8, episode 3, “The Long Night”] where the Hound is so scared he’s literally going ‘You can’t fight death’ during the battle and Beric goes, ‘try telling her.’ That’s so brilliant!” Yerolemou says. “This person who … finds a way through the fear and just stoically goes ‘I’m going to confront it’ … that’s all part of her story, the people who have influenced her.”
Swordplay was a pivotal part of Syrio and, consequently, Arya’s stories and Yerolemou speaks highly of Game of Thrones’ approach to fight choreography.
“The thing that I think I like the most and the thing that connects with me the most is ‘how do you create something that feels authentic?’” he says. “What I really like about how we approach sword fighting now when we create shows in this day and age … is [that it reflects] what really does happen in a duel.”
Miltos, waterdancing at Con of Thrones 2018
Moreover, figuring out how cultural background informs combat style i.e. “what does the Water Dance look like?” was a collaborative experience, as Yerolemou found when he and Maisie Williams showed Benioff and Weiss the choreography that they had worked out with fight choreographer, William Hobbs.
“They loved what we created and the only comment they made was just to make it a bit more dance-y,” Yerolemou says. “So we put a couple of spins in it because, while “dancing master” is a code, the Water Dance is still a dance.”
Lastly, I got to ask a Yerolemou a question that I had been harboring ever since my first viewing of season 1: how did he develop Syrio’s Braavosi accent?
“That was me doing an impersonation of my father who is Greek Cypriot,” Yerolemou answers. “And then me trying to change it enough so that you can’t tell if it’s a Greek accent or an Italian accent or a Spanish accent. Because I wanted it to sound like it was from a made-up land so I didn’t want it to be too specific. So I overly rolled my r’s. Sometimes when I watch it back and I go, ‘Oh God, what was I thinking?’”