Over the years, we've seen an uncountable amount of heroes and villains leave "Game of Thrones," if not through the Moon Door, then through some other gruesome passageway. But Ser Ilyn Payne's exit was different. The King's Landing executioner slipped away from "Thrones" without any on-screen notice. He remains alive on the show, and his actor remains alive in real life — although that almost wasn't the case.
Wilko Johnson, who plays the mute Payne on "Thrones" but is best known as a singer and guitarist, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012, and told he had only a few more months left to live. He retired from "Thrones," embarked on a farewell tour, recorded one last album… and then, he lived. Johnson survived extreme surgery, and now he's cancer free.
"I'm still trying to grasp the idea that I'm not terminally ill now," he tells the Gloucester Citizen about his incredible story of survival. "When people talk about making plans and things and talk about what we're going to be doing in the summer, I still can't quite grasp that."
It's no surprise, then, that future "Game of Thrones" appearances aren't the first thing on Johnson's mind. But it is on his mind, somewhere on the list of things to marvel at. He says of the experience playing Ilyn Payne, "I'd never done any acting before, I just got involved. Unfortunately my cancer came and interrupted, but I do know that my character hasn't actually been killed off and I may well be in the next series. I enjoyed it so much I really would like to, it was really great fun doing it – it really was a good experience."
Knowing that he's up for it, and knowing that he's, thankfully, alive, can we expect to see Ilyn Payne on "Game of Thrones" again? He certainly remains at the heart of some bad business. He's the man who cleaved Eddard Stark's head clean off his shoulders, for one thing...
For a while, Arya would utter Ilyn Payne's name every night before she went to sleep, along with the names of the other people she planned to seek vengeance against. In season five's "The House of Black and White," however, Payne was no longer on the list, signaling that the show had moved on.
But how hard would it be for "Thrones" to incorporate Ilyn Payne back into the mix? Not hard at all. King's Landing always needs an executioner — and if for some reason it doesn't, well, killing's always a good business in Westeros. But as far as getting Ilyn Payne back on track with where he's supposed to be on the show? That's another, more complicated question.
In the books, Ilyn Payne is the man who teaches Jaime Lannister how to use a sword again, following the departure of the Kingslayer's kingslaying hand. He's the one who travels with Jaime on a mission away from King's Landing, once he's all settled back into Lannister business. The sellsword Bronn has taken up this role on the show, however, training Jaime and accompanying him on his trip to Dorne. Actually, Jaime and Ilyn are in the Riverlands in the books, not Dorne, but that's a whole other conversation. Point is, Ilyn's a long way away from Sunspear. He's a long way from Jaime Lannister. If he returns to "Thrones," it'll be in a different capacity than book readers are used to.
And honestly, who cares? The current season of "Thrones" has shifted away from the source material in so many other major ways; are we really going to gripe about changes to Ilyn Payne's story line? It's miraculous that Wilko Johnson beat cancer, and if he's up for returning to "Thrones," there's no good reason why it can't happen — just as long as he's up for meeting Mercy at the hands of Arya Stark.