Game of Thrones episodes ranked (2022 edition)
Every episode of Game of Thrones, ranked after yet another re-watch.
Here we go again…
73. ‘Eastwatch’ (season 7, episode 5)
In a seventh season which had already significantly increased the pace that Game of Thrones moved at, ‘Eastwatch’ arrives as its fifth episode and is by far the fastest and, unfortunately, most unsatisfying outing — not just of the season but of the entire series. The endless list of climactic incidents piles up and loses control as each minute flies by — moments that would have been the centre-piece of previous episodes are afforded so little breathing room that the emotional impact simply fails to land. Daenerys executes the Tarlys, Jon touches a dragon, Cersei finds out that Olenna poisoned Joffrey, we find out Cersei’s pregnant, Gendry returns, Jon is told that Arya and Bran are alive after all, Jorah and Daenerys reunite (as do Davos and Gendry, Jaime and Tyrion, Jorah and Tyrion, Gendry and the Brotherhood, and more besides), Sam gives up his lifelong dream by leaving the Citadel behind, a truce between Cersei and Daenerys is achieved, Sansa and Arya get tense thanks to Littlefinger’s meddling… it’s all too much. This is still an enjoyable, well-assembled episode of the greatest story ever to be told, but it is the weakest and most negatively overwhelming episode of the lot. Uncomfortable sensory overload is the theme of the day.
72. ‘No One’ (season 6, episode 8)
If you’re going to make 73 versions of something, one of them will always stand apart from the rest for the wrong reasons. It’s no secret that Game of Thrones’ sixth season employs a lighter tone than the first five seasons, and up until now it had been a welcome change. Until now. “More jokes!” exclaims Missandei, halfway through a glass of wine, in a scene that stands amongst the very worst in the show. Tonally, this episode lurches around the place and in many uncomfortable ways. “But he’s my lord, my lord!” a Tully soldier says as he addresses the Blackfish regarding Lord Edmure, sounding as though he’s walked off a Monty Python sketch. Arya is apparently “No one” simply because Jaqen H’ghar likes her more than the Waif? Whatever. Daenerys’ return to Meereen colliding with the slave masters’ invasion— the whole thing plays out like a bad dress rehearsal. King’s Landing provides the goods this week, though, when a spanner is thrown in Cersei’s plan by the outlawing of trial-by-combat; Jaime and Brienne’s brief reunion at Riverrun is tinged with a special kind of sadness as two old friends are forced to become temporary foes; Sandor’s reunion with Beric and Thoros (after three years) is a reflective and quiet moment amid the chaos elsewhere. But all I can think about is Grey Worm’s “I make joke”.
71. ‘Beyond the Wall’ (season 7, episode 6)
Dragons and White Walkers clash in what is maybe Game of Thrones’ most conventional high-fantasy episode, not just in terms of subject matter but in terms of delivery and construction as well. Beyond the Wall, the ragtag band of misfits we’ve come to know and love over the years ventures out into danger and encounters many a foe: a zombie polar bear that deals the fatal wound to Thoros of Myr, White Walkers and wights, and, inevitably, the Night King himself. Sure, it might telegraph a few last-minute arrivals, and it might suspend disbelief throughout, but it provides a chance for the broken men of this story to bond and reflect, and then subverts Daenerys’ rescue by providing a tragically beautiful shot of one of this series’ most iconic beasts being shot out of the sky, as Viserion is ripped from the living world and transformed into the Night King’s pet. At Dragonstone, Tyrion returns to his diplomatic best, but he’s up against a bullish and eager Daenerys who is beginning to sound a little like characters we’ve come to hate in the past. It’s at Winterfell where this episode creaks almost to breaking point and winds up this low in my ranking. The “mystery” and “tension” between Sansa & Arya has barely warranted this much anguish, this much confusion, and feels incredibly unnatural every time the sisters appear on screen. It’s a huge dent in the season’s batting average and is a storyline I’d very much like to forget.
70. ‘Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things’ (season 1, episode 4)
In Bryan Cogman’s first episode, Game of Thrones struggles against the weight of its own plot and winds up feeling like a show from a different genre for one week. Ned Stark follows the trail of deceased Hand of the King Jon Arryn, while Catelyn follows the trail of the person who sent the cutthroat to make the attempt on Bran’s life. It all leaves the episode feeling more like a syndicated detective drama than it does a political fantasy. This episode is not without its moments that are more than worthy of the entry fee (the King’s tourney provides some gnarly bloodshed as Ser Hugh of the Vale is brutally killed in action, and Daenerys Targaryen finally stands up to her brother Viserys by striking him down physically) but there is a constant feeling throughout that something needs refining — which is hardly a surprise at this early stage. This is an early but incredibly rare example of Game of Thrones still trying, but not quite managing, to find its true identity.
69. ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’ (season 3, episode 7)
George R. R. Martin takes over the writing duties for the third time in this mid-season episode that has love and sex squarely at the centre of its focus. All over the map, couples are having sex, declarations of love and affection are being made, and the characters are prioritising those closest to them as they prepare for the wars to come. There’s so much skin on show that the raw human urges displayed in the action really begin to reflect the prose from the books upon which the series is based. Sadly, a moment of emotional catharsis that’s been a few episodes in the making — as Jaime Lannister decides to put Brienne first and heads back to Harrenhal to rescue her from the bear pit — is undercut by how tonally clumsy the scene feels. The presence of an actual bear in Game of Thrones is tough to swallow and takes me right out of its usually airtight immersion, as tense as the sequence is. Still, this is Game of Thrones, so even its slower episodes, that insert tonally inconsistent scenes right at their end, are still worth a lot.
68. ‘Breaker of Chains’ (season 4, episode 3)
Ah, yes, the one with the unfortunate scene in the Sept of Baelor that, to this day, nobody really knows how to interpret. Jaime forces himself on Cersei next to Joffrey’s dead body — what happens after that is, apparently, anyone’s guess. The rape scene that wasn’t supposed to be a rape scene, I guess? Elsewhere, the wildlings raid Northern villages as they get closer to Castle Black (introducing us to Olly), Daenerys once again turns up outside a city in Slaver’s Bay and makes light work of conquering it (which is honestly getting a little repetitive after Astapor and Yunkai), and Sansa discovers that Littlefinger might have had a hand in Joffrey’s poisoning. The best moment of the episode, though, is saved for The Hound and Arya’s brief stopover with a farmer and his daughter in the Riverlands — before The Hound robs the farmer of his silver, we get a glimpse into the war-torn countryside that the War of Five Kings has left behind. It’s the kind of sociological storytelling that made Game of Thrones so special, and made Westeros feel like a real place. It’s a little underwhelming after the chaos of the first two episodes of the season, though, and the scene between Jaime and Cersei lives on in Game of Thrones infamy as one of its very lowest points.
67. ‘The Red Woman’ (season 6, episode 1)
Season six begins with a brisk, action-packed, but occasionally clunky and tonally inconsistent episode that has its eyes fixed firmly on the endgame. It’s perhaps the first time in the series that current events feel as though they’re being engineered to shrink plotlines and streamline the story. Chief among them is the chaos in Dorne, where Ellaria Sand is revealed to have been preparing a coup this whole time (erm, okay?) while the brutal murder of Prince Trystane is presented as a joke. Two characters and an entire storyline closed off, just like that. We also seem to jump around to so many places on the map that it’s hard to emotionally connect with some scenes (Arya), while the developments that do occur (Jorah and Daario finding Daenerys’ ring) happen so instantly that they don’t feel particularly earned. And honestly, as much as a lighter tone is welcome after the bleak misery of season 5, I could live without most of the humour in this episode. Where this episode really shines in its more tender moments, as Jon Snow’s lifeless body is protected and guarded by Davos and Edd, Jaime and Cersei grieve alone for Myrcella, and Brienne of Tarth is sworn into Sansa Stark’s service. It’s a solid premiere that contains more good than bad, but it’s preoccupied with tying up loose ends and setting the table as quickly as possible so the slate can be wiped clean — the end of Act Two of this giant story is drawing ever closer, and boy can we feel it.
66. ‘Winterfell’ (season 8, episode 1)
The eighth and final season of the world’s biggest TV show begins with a low-stakes, exposition-heavy affair. With so many characters reuniting and meeting each other for the very first time, there’s a lot of catching up and recounting of experiences to be done. In fact, that’s almost all that happens. There’s a sense that the characters inside the walls of Winterfell are simply happy and relieved to still be alive after all they’ve endured, but it’s a theme that’s obscured by dialogue that’s functional and economical rather than poetic and organic. And when the big moment comes, as Sam tells Jon the truth about his parentage, the episodes hits its biggest obstacle: it’s hard to make it feel satisfying when a character is told something that the audience already know. There are Aladdin-style dragon rides to entertain us, and there’s some good comic relief at Last Hearth as Edd, Tormund, and Beric bump into each other; and Lena Headey’s superbly silent anguish illuminates a dark, panic-ridden King’s Landing — but as much as this was never going to be an explosive beginning of the end, ‘Winterfell’, remains a below par episode of a legendary series. Varys’ warning, however, that “Nothing lasts”, rings a little louder in the ears with the full series complete.
65. ‘Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken’ (season 5, episode 6)
My opinion of what happens at Winterfell in this episode has changed considerably over the years. When it comes to the Sansa and Ramsay scene, which overshadows everything else, I sit on the fence and observe that both sides of the argument (about whether it succeeds or fails) have strong, coherent viewpoints. I generally like the scene and think it has a lot of value but I understand the personal reactions people have to it. And that’s all I have to say about that. Elsewhere, the episode is livened up considerably by the return of Lady Olenna to King’s Landing, who spars wonderfully with Cersei and provides the episode’s best scenes, and there’s some great levity with Tyrion and Jorah, who are kidnapped by slavers. But with Arya still waiting for answers in Braavos midway through the season, and with Jaime and Bronn embarking on a daytime princess rescue mission in Dorne, this episode stumbles. At this point, the story is at its widest, with crucial fan-favourite characters too far out of the main action. As season 5 grinds its massive gears to realign and re-focus the story, this sixth consecutive set-up episode starts to expose just how much work the show is doing to pull itself back together after the explosive climax to season 4.
64. ‘The Night Lands’ (season 2, episode 2)
Magic has only just been introduced to the show, so it’s understandable that Stannis’ plot with Lady Melisandre would take a few strange left turns and hit a few bum notes — which it does. We do get to watch Tyrion dance rings around Janos Slynt; Theon arrives home to the Iron Islands but faces a hostile reception upon reaching Pyke; and Yoren defends Gendry and Arya from the men of the City Watch who’ve come to finish the job of murdering all of Robert’s bastard children — although for how long awaits to be seen. ‘The Night Lands’ is typical of something that largely becomes known as “table-setting early-season Game of Thrones”, where the writers prioritise the power of the pen over the sword in the first two or three episodes of each season, as they organise the pieces on the chess board and make sure the pins are lined up nicely to be knocked down later. Forgive the mixed metaphor.
63. ‘Sons of the Harpy’ (season 5, episode 4)
Controversial for dramatically veering away from the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series by depicting the death of Ser Barristan Selmy, ‘Sons of the Harpy’ sees writer Dave Hill pen his first episode for the show. He spends its short runtime (in comparison with the rest of the show) settling into his role. He’s given the task of introducing the Sand Snakes, which has mixed results. Castle Black’s scenes are also overshadowed by Melisandre’s murky motives for attempting to seduce Jon Snow before reminding him of his dead girlfriend’s catchphrase, while events in King’s Landing see the arrest of Loras Tyrell take place but offer very little else to chew on. Ser Barristan’s death is a noble one, and the decision is one that I personally have no qualms with, but its surrounding work from Game of Thrones’ newest backroom face is bumpy.
62. ‘The Prince of Winterfell’ (season 2, episode 8)
Just before the final leg of its second season, Game of Thrones takes “the deep breath before the plunge”, as Gandalf might have said were he a part of this fantasy series instead of another one. With Stannis approaching King’s Landing but yet to arrive, and with Daenerys making plans to visit the House of the Undying, the true drama is another couple of episodes away. It’s a feeling that spreads across the Seven Kingdoms & Essos, as we await further developments instead of witnessing them. We do see the end of one of the season’s best storylines, as Tywin Lannister departs Harrenhal, leaving Arya Stark behind. Still, this is Game of Thrones — a week spent spinning the wheels slightly is still an immersive and rich experience. And when Arya Stark’s comedy routine with Jaqen H’ghar results in her simply walking out of the miserable prison of Harrenhal (along with Hot Pie & Gendry), you realise the patience has been worth it.
61. ‘The Last of the Starks’ (season 8, episode 4)
The very best and very worst of Game of Thrones, all wrapped up in a single episode that’s about 20 minutes too long. Rhaegal being shot out of the sky by a scorpion bolt is shocking in the moment, for example, but from the second that Euron’s stealthy fleet are revealed to be sailing around the cliffs of Dragonstone — apparently entirely unnoticed — the shock starts to feel incredibly hollow. Almost everything else reminds me of why I fell for this show in the first place. All the meaty conversations, from the great hall at Winterfell right down to the walls of King’s Landing, that reveal the episode’s thesis: humanity was given a second chance by Arya Stark, who rescued them from icy oblivion, and all they’ve done with it is return to their warring, scheming, and power hungry ways. An episode where everyone chooses the wrong path, ‘The Last of the Starks’ focuses on the fault lines that have always existed between the various characters and then rips them apart. Tyrion tries his best to hold things together but even he is unaware of the part he has played in pushing the inevitable towards its conclusion. By the time Missandei is executed, it’s already too late for everybody on screen. This is a tense, dark, and lengthy episode — a controversial one in the fandom but perhaps for the wrong reasons.
60. ‘The Climb’ (season 3, episode 6)
The majority of ‘The Climb’, the first step into the latter stages of Game of Thrones’ third season, is spent with the characters sitting around campfires. Sam and Gilly hunch around one that Sam has haphazardly built; Jon and Ygritte prepare their climbing gear with burning logs between them; Thoros of Myr, Beric Dondarrion and Lady Melisandre’s conversation concerning the Lord of Light is accompanied by the sight of a calmly glowing fires in the background; even as Ramsay continues to torture Theon, a burning candle sits between them on the table. On the one hand, the presence of flames is a neat visual motif that indicates towards the emerging influence of religion and magic in the show. But on the other hand, it’s a sign that we’re sitting and waiting and anticipating the next major developments. Famous, of course, for Jon and Ygritte’s kiss atop the Wall and Littlefinger’s show-defining monologue.
59. ‘Garden of Bones’ (season 2, episode 4)
Half a dozen culture clashes occur across the map in this somewhat meta episode that sees the show begin to develop its first series of semi-original storylines. It’s a sign that the show is beginning to gain confidence as it looks ahead to the future — but the emergence of show-original storylines within an adaptation ordinarily so faithful to massive source material is still a process that needs a little refining. Robb Stark meets Talisa, and the pair scrutinise Robb’s own role in perpetuating the misery that plagues the Riverlands countryside, while Daenerys encounters the Thirteen of Qarth in moments that mirror the ongoing clashes between the storylines the writers plan to adapt and the paths they wish to carve for themselves. It means things get a little bumpy in places, and Stannis’ exploits with Melisandre still feel like they’re struggling with teething problems, but this episode’s defining image (as Melisandre gives birth to a shadow demon) is unforgettable television.
58. ‘Oathbreaker’ (season 4, episode 4)
Named after the sword presented to Brienne of Tarth by Jaime Lannister, this episode starts to break free from the A Song of Ice and Fire source material and sets things in motion for the show to go on its own path. Penned by Bryan Cogman, this episode introduces plotlines of completely show original material, including Jon’s revenge mission to kill the mutineers at Craster’s Keep and said mutineers’ capture of Brandon Stark and company, as well as the first ever appearance of the Night King. We also get confirmation from Littlefinger that he did play a crucial role in the death of King Joffrey, and that he plans to escort Sansa to the Eyrie and away from anyone in King’s Landing who might want to harm her. The show itself feels like it’s in a holding pattern as the season’s dominant storylines are just beginning to click into gear, but the promise of exciting new turns keeps things fresh enough.
57. ‘Kill the Boy’(season 5, episode 5)
Season 5 completes its patient first half with an episode that sees the show’s younger characters grappling with making tough decisions, even if they know they won’t like the consequences. Daenerys relents to pressure from Hizdahr (and Ser Barristan’s death), deciding to reopen the fighting pits of Meereen, admittedly to freed men only. Jon Snow seeks the advice of Maester Aemon who tells him that, while the decision to allow the wildlings to come south of the Wall will alienate the Night’s Watch, he must press on with his choice and learn to find joy in his command while he can. In the North, Sansa is given a cold, uncertain reunion with Theon, who is still Ramsay’s tortured, broken plaything. In the old Valyrian peninsula, Tyrion and Jorah share the episode’s best moment — they recite a beautiful verse describing the Doom of Valyria, while Drogon flies overhead, signalling to Tyrion that he is yet to see everything that this wide, wide world has to offer.
56. ‘Dark Wings, Dark Words’ (season 3, episode 2)
It’s bad news and new characters all around the map in ‘Dark Wings, Dark Words’ — which, if nothing else, is something of a “Part 2” of the season premiere. With so many separate strands of the story now being juggled, we’re checking in with the characters that we didn’t have time for in the first episode. Arya encounters the Brotherhood and their eccentric leader Thoros of Myr for the first time; Sansa is introduced to the sharp-tongued Lady Olenna (in her first appearance as well); and we check in with Bran, who meets Jojen and Meera Reed for the very first time. This episode is perhaps best remembered as the beginning of Theon’s infamous torture sessions at the hands of Bolton men, and for Jaime’s attempts to fight his way out of Brienne’s captivity, leading to them both being arrested by Locke — the Bolton banners are beginning to appear in all corners of Westeros now.
55. ‘Winter is Coming’ (season 1, episode 1)
Bringing the first of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series to live action life proved to be a logistical nightmare for HBO. A failed pilot that was 90% re-shot, had principal cast members removed and replaced, and had the friends of creators David Benioff & Dan Weiss asking questions that exposed the details they had forgotten to include, it’s fair to say that many rightly feared Game of Thrones would never see the light of day. Thankfully, that’s all a part of the show’s story of success. This rich, immersive, fully-realised world comes to life in a pilot that’s loaded (perhaps occasionally overloaded) with deep history and real relationships that were clearly established long before the cameras started rolling, even if first-time viewers will be left a little bemused by just how much information they have digest.
54. ‘Valar Dohaeris’ (season 3, episode 1)
Game of Thrones’ third season begins by nudging the audience one step further along the road of its rich, immersive journey. Things are tense in the Stark camp upon the army’s arrival at Harrenhal, with Catelyn confined to one of the prison cells and Roose Bolton promising Lord Karstark that he will one day have revenge for the death of his son. In King’s Landing, Tyrion is reeling from the attempt on his life during the battle on Blackwater Bay, as Margaery Tyrell begins to expertly work her way between Cersei and Joffrey. And Davos returns to Dragonstone, only to be sent to the dungeons for attempting to take Melisandre’s life. The best material belongs beyond the Wall in this episode, as Jon Snow is introduced to Mance Rayder — the king beyond the Wall and, by this stage in the show, a near mythical figure who had been mentioned many times without being seen on screen. This is hardly Game of Thrones’ most exciting, unforgettable hour, but it’s a sign that the show is confident enough in itself not to push the plot where it’s not necessary to do so at this point.
53. ‘Walk of Punishment’ (season 3, episode 3)
In many ways, this is the last episode of its kind. From here on out, storylines either begin to come to their end, or start to merge. The speed at which this episode hops around virtually every storyline in the show is evidence for just how many characters are now on the roster. David Benioff himself is in the director’s chair for this episode, and he uses his time in said chair to check in, even for fleeting moments, with almost everybody we know. But the scenes that bookend this outing — Hoster Tully’s wordless funeral, and the moment Jaime Lannister had his sword hand chopped off — are something truly special, and make this an early-season episode to remember. At Riverrun, we meet the Blackfish and Edmure, and Missandei is welcomed into Daenerys’ service in Astapor. We also say goodbye to Hot Pie (at least for a little while) in a tender and emotional scene that shows the bond he developed with Arya in season 2. This is the calm before the storm.
52. ‘The Queen’s Justice’(season 7, episode 3)
If you hadn’t noticed by now that the seventh season of Game of Thrones would be quicker than the previous six, ‘The Queen’s Justice’s trolley dash around Westeros should leave you with zero doubt. Jorah is quickly cured of greyscale, Bran returns to Winterfell and reunites with Sansa, and Ellaria Sand and Tyene are prisoners in the path of Cersei’s wrath, left to rot far beneath the Red Keep. An entire conflict then passes within minutes as the Unsullied seize Casterly Rock only to find it abandoned (their ships burned to a crisp by Euron’s surprise navy) and that the Lannisters abandoned their home to seize Highgarden. You’d be forgiven for feeling a little whiplashed. Bookending the episode, however, are two of the season’s, and series’, finest conversations. First, a frosty, tense atmosphere descends over the fated first encounter between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, while Lady Olenna Tyrell goes out swinging, grasping whatever little victories she can from Jaime Lannister, who has seized her home, wiped her army from the map, and delivered the dose of poison that will kill her. She does leave him with the truth that she murdered Joffrey at his own wedding, but it does nothing to save her as she sits silently as the episode cuts to black, waiting for death to take her.
51. ‘Dragonstone’ (season 7, episode 1)
Anticipated by more people and for a longer period of time than any season that preceded it, Game of Thrones’ shortened seventh season begins with a quiet, calm, almost eerie, first episode. Characters all over Westeros (and it is just Westeros now, with Essos out of the story for good) still haven’t recovered from the War of the Five Kings, and neither have the country’s barren landscapes of dead farmland, but the approaching White Walkers and arrival of Daenerys’ dragons bookend the episode with the sobering reminder that another war is (like always) on the horizon. So, for now, we’re with Sandor Clegane, Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister, and various others, as they enter desolate surroundings (Sandor returns to the scene of his crime in season 4), leave entire castles emptied out (Arya wipes out the Freys with poison), or survey the land from the highest room of the tallest castle, entirely alone (Cersei walks about her newly painted map of Westeros with only its designer and Jaime for company). Where this episode might struggle slightly against the weight of exposition required to line everything up to reach the finale, this “beginning of the end” episode carries a sharp sting of caution that, for some people, no matter how much they lose to conflict, the fight is never over.
50. ‘Oathbreaker’ (season 6, episode 3)
An almost exclusively linear episode of Game of Thrones sees season 6 take a brief pause to gradually moves pieces around the board. Castle Black is the only location we return to, as Jon Snow wakes up from death in the manner of waking up from a nightmare that he can all-too-vividly recall. Elsewhere, each block of the story (and boy are there a lot of them in this episode) gets its own 6–7 minute segment: Daenerys arrives at the temple of the Dosh Khaleen, Cersei instructs Qyburn to send spies to every corner of Westeros, Arya gets her eyes back after a satisfying training montage. And in yet another rich, dense flashback that teases towards an exciting future, Bran Stark witnesses some of the show’s finest combat choreography to date as Ned Stark and Ser Arthur Deyne square off beneath the Tower of Joy. What’s in the tower? We’ll just have to wait for another time.
49. ‘The Wars to Come’ (season 5, episode 1)
Game of Thrones’ fifth season, and the show’s new era, gets off to an efficient start with this pleasing premiere. A huge reset button was pressed in the aftermath of season 4 finale ‘The Children’, and most of this episode is spent grounding the audience in what feels like a new world. Tyrion is out of King’s Landing and has arrived in Pentos, where he and Varys exchange witty one-liners with each other; Cersei readies herself to take the lead in King’s Landing, but not before chastising Jaime for setting Tyrion free and tripping up over her past in the form of Lancel Lannister’s shocking return to the show; Jon Snow is also re-positioned as the undisputed central focus of the plot at Castle Black, as he welcomes Stannis Baratheon — with the would-be king taking up residence there. Things feel bigger, the colour palettes are muted now, and the production feels like it’s trying to bridge a gap between the big and small screens. The start of one of the show’s most controversial seasons is a patient but pleasurable affair.
48. ‘The Iron Throne’ (season 8, episode 6)
And so it all came to an end. The first half of this episode is chilling, frightening, and intensely bleak, as the surviving characters wade through the rubble of King’s Landing to either find their siblings are dead, or that their old friends are slaughtering prisoners of war. Then, two extended conversations build up to, and take care of, the biggest task at hand: the death of Daenerys Targaryen. Tyrion and Jon share a wonderful, difficult conversation with one another before Jon makes the hardest choice of all: to kill the woman he loves in order to protect his family. Once Daenerys is gone, all drama and tension goes with her. After that, all that’s left is an emotionally satisfying, if slightly corny and clean, process of ticking various plot boxes to guide the show towards the end. The conclusions make enough sense to work on paper, Arya, Sansa, and Jon’s final shots in particular are riddled with a melancholic sadness that only becomes clear after the fact, and there’s even the sense that, once the cameras stop rolling, the same old problems might well resurface anyway. Bringing this grand, epic series to a close must have felt like an impossible task, but Benioff & Weiss managed it.
47. ‘The North Remembers’ (season 2, episode 1)
To start a new season, the world of Westeros expands. Brand new locations, brand new characters, and a red comet in the sky — a comet that has never been seen before and will never be seen again. Though the introduction of Stannis Baratheon and the Lady Melisandre displays the show’s uneasiness with depicting magic on screen at this early stage, the rest of the action flies by in an instant. Tyrion returns to King’s Landing, which allows Peter Dinklage to really flex his comedic muscles; Robb and Jaime have a tense war of words in the Riverlands; and the episode ends with King Joffrey ordering the slaughter of Robert Baratheon’s bastard children. It might be brand new Game of Thrones on the surface, but underneath it’s still the same old violent nightmare underneath, informing us all that it all ends in the same place: the ground.
46. ‘Lord Snow’ (season 1, episode 3)
Things slow down somewhat as Ned Stark reaches King’s Landing and gets to know members of the Small Council. With both Ned and his bastard son Jon reaching opposite ends of Westeros, to discover that the great stories they’ve been told have been generously embellished and turned into myth, ‘Lord Snow’ is an episode that patiently peels back the curtain on the history of this country. “One day you’ll sit on the throne, and the truth will be what you make it”, Cersei says to Joffrey in an episode that reveals said truth to be nothing more than a victor’s lie. Robert, Jaime Lannister, and Ser Barristan recount their war stories, while Ned relents to Arya’s pleas and hires Syrio Forel to give her lessons in sword-fighting and water-dancing. He knows he’s come to a dangerous place.
45. ‘The House of Black and White’ (season 5, episode 2)
Season 5 continues its task of building almost from scratch as it begins to nudge its storylines forwards. Daenerys makes a difficult decision in Meereen during some muddled scenes that result in Mossador’s execution; Jon rejects legitimacy before being named Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, with Sam Tarly’s beautiful tribute to him leading the list of highlights from this episode; Arya gets off to a slow start on Braavos; Brienne suffers an excruciating encounter with Sansa, who rejects her services and inadvertently causes Brienne to realise that quite a lot of her time on Game of Thrones has been defined by a failure to get the job done properly. The momentum at this stage of the season is a little patient but, regardless of the story’s pace, it’s always ready to give us a handful of great, memorable moments with characters we know well and continue to be deeply invested in.
44. ‘Blood of My Blood’ (season 6, episode 6)
After the climactic and emotional final stretch of previous episode ‘’The Door’, the sixth episode of Game of Thrones’ sixth season slows down ever so slightly to watch the characters use what little they have to try and get ahead. It’s a tight and thematically-focused episode built around significant character returns (Benjen, Walder Frey), huge set-pieces that unexpectedly fizzle out before they have the chance to explode (as the High Sparrow pours water on the Lannister and Tyrells’ plans to rescue Margaery), and yet more brilliance from the stage production in Braavos. Defined by characters deciding to choose their next step on their long journeys, ‘Blood of My Blood’ is a necessary pause point for a season that, up to this stage, hasn’t stopped to take a breath.
43. ‘The Pointy End’ (season 1, episode 8)
With Ned Stark being held prisoner several floors below the Red Keep, Game of Thrones calls in the father of its source material to hand the baton over to the next stark in line: Robb. On the fringes for the first handful of episodes, Robb is positioned at centre stage in ‘The Pointy End’ as the war between the Stark and Lannister forces truly begins. A political vacuum opens up and sees Arya forced to flee onto the streets while Sansa is taken captive by the Lannisters. Even Daenerys’ budding romance with Khal Drogo can’t save us from the misery and uncertainty in Westeros this week. This episode is almost exclusively about children being forced to confront horrid situations and uncomfortable truths to the point where they grow up before our eyes and ahead of time.
42. ‘What is Dead May Never Die’ (season 2, episode 3)
Bryan Cogman’s second episode on the show sees him settle into his surroundings and deliver one of the strongest episodes of season two. After the world-changing events of the end of season one, and the developments in the aftermath depicted in the opening stretch of season two, alliances are forming, and bonds are breaking, all over the Seven Kingdoms. A thematically rich episode that analyses the status of various alliances and partnerships sees Theon Greyjoy make the worst decision of his life so far (to betray Robb); Arya and Gendry narrowly escape murder, though poor Yoren and Lommy aren’t so lucky; Jon makes a startling discovery beyond the Wall when he finds out that Lord Commander Mormont is fully aware of Craster’s deal to trade his infant sons to the White Walkers. Characters’ faiths and relationships are shattered and strengthened in this emotionally resonant episode by Cogman.
41. ‘The Ghost of Harrenhal’ (season 2, episode 5)
After patiently wading through the early-season waters, Game of Thrones’ second season turns its eyes towards the future in this propulsive and decisive episode that focuses almost exclusively on revenge. Renly Baratheon’s clumsy death scene aside, there’s true momentum behind the action here as characters are divided, forced into situations that require them to bond with new friends, and the building blocks for the rest of the story are put into place. The Tyrells are now without a king to follow; Arya is given the chance to name three of her enemies to Jaqen H’ghar; Tyrion makes himself aware of Cersei’s plan to defend King’s Landing from Stannis with wildfire. We’re also introduced to Qhorin Halfhand for the first time, as the rest of Jon’s story is suddenly laid out in front of him. This episode passes many points of no return, not just for the characters at the centre of the story but for the show itself.
40. ‘Valar Morghulis’ (season 2, episode 10)
After spending the whole of episode 9, ‘Blackwater’, in just one location, the Game of Thrones season two finale rushes around every other point on the map to wrap up every single loose thread left dangling. It makes for a rushed finale, but one that’s still full of key moments in the story. Several characters go beyond the point of no return (Sansa, Robb, and Jon especially), and it’s hard to ignore just how many scenes are directly referenced in later episodes — and even as late as the series finale. Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying feel particularly prophetic, and the spectre of the Red Wedding hangs over every scene that Robb Stark features in during this episode’s 63 minute runtime. This is perhaps the season finale that the majority of fans wouldn’t choose as their favourite, but a wide range of decisive incidents — and the first appearance of the dreaded ‘three blasts’ — still make this a great outing that’s worthy of remembrance.
39. ‘The Broken Man’ (season 6, episode 7)
Okay, fine, I admit that The Waif’s attack on Arya is by far the weakest branch on this particular tree, but everything surrounding it is mid-season Game of Thrones at its very best. Stunningly unveiled in a beautiful, elegant, and ultimately earth-shattering cold open, Sandor Clegane is revealed to have survived the wounds from his bloody, brutal fight with Brienne. He’s been living in the Riverlands with Brother Ray (Ian McShane), a soldier-turned-septon, through which the episode’s heart beats: some characters broke during the War of Five Kings and have never quite come back to their former selves. Whether that’s Sandor himself, or Theon Greyjoy, or a tired and desperate Jon Snow, or a jaded and undermined Sansa Stark, or a grizzled and ageing Blackfish who looks out on the thousands of soldiers attempting to invade his home (Riverrun) and can only sigh with a battered weariness. The other MVP of this episode is perhaps the 10-year-old Lyanna Mormont, somehow at the head of a great house despite her ridiculously young age. Her appearance this week is brief but one unlikely to ever be forgotten by fans of the show.
38. ‘Mockingbird’ (season 4, episode 7)
The last transitional episode of season 4, ‘Mockingbird’ nudges the various pieces on the board one step further. In its moments of reflection, of which there are a handful, the male characters of the story reveal their truest feelings — to each other and to those they wish to become closer to. Jaime and Bronn confess to Tyrion that, much as they care for him, they cannot risk their lives to save him; Sandor Clegane lets Arya into her fears about fire, before literally telling her “where the heart is” on a dying farmer they encounter; and Littlefinger kisses Sansa before pushing her Aunt Lysa through the Moon Door in one funniest, most cartoonish scenes from either show or source material. The episode’s defining moment, though, comes courtesy of Prince Oberyn, who pledges himself to be Tyrion champion in his trial by combat. It might all end in tears and screams, but Oberyn’s declaration of “I will be your champion” sends shivers down the spine.
37. ‘Mhysa’ (season 3, episode 10)
Yep, this is the episode that closes on the unfortunate shot of Daenerys the White Saviour. Elsewhere, we’re living with the ripple effects of the Red Wedding. You’d never know that the Lannisters had just ended the War of Five Kings by slaughtering their biggest challengers, but the Small Council meeting descends into a terrific shouting match between Tywin and King Joffrey. Arya’s descent into revenge has been quickened by the sight of her brother Robb’s head being replaced with that of his direwolf. And we finally learn that Ramsay Bolton has been holding Theon hostage for the entire season, just as Theon begins to call himself “Reek”. Jon returns to Castle Black having been injured by Ygritte’s arrows, while Sam and Bran encounter one another at the Nightfort, with the latter insisting he must carry on to reach the Three-Eyed Raven. At Dragonstone and at Castle Black, the focus is shifting North and towards the coming threat from the White Walkers. It’s a map-hopping season finale, as usual, but a sense of old storylines being wrapped up in order to start new ones keeps things feeling fresh and focused.
36. ‘Stormborn’(season 7, episode 2)
Bryan Cogman’s penultimate episode for Game of Thrones sees the eerie, snow-filled quiet of previous episode ‘Dragonstone’ step aside, replaced by a series of character collisions (both literal and figurative) that expertly tee up the first flash point of the War of Two Queens and re-open dozens of old wounds. In the Narrow Sea, Euron ambushes Yara, Theon, and Ellaria’s fleet and takes Yara prisoner after dispatching two Sand Snakes. Alfie Allen’s legendary leap into the water, as Theon’s PTSD resurfaces, lives on as the episode’s enduring image. Before that, however, Sam cures Jorah of greyscale in a scene that (while a little convenient) unites two characters from disparate edges of this gigantic story and reminds everyone watching that their proximity is a sign that the end is very much around the corner. Arya bumps into Hot Pie and is once again pulled back from oblivion by the genuine good nature of another human being, before seeing her darkest self in her monstrous former pet Nymeria, who now roams the forests of Westeros as an overgrown beast, afflicted with feelings of abandonment that Arya knows all too well. The promise of the first meeting between Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen that hangs over proceedings, as the potential of more fated unions and reunions drive the momentum of the action into the show’s final act.
35. ‘The Gift’ (season 5, episode 7)
The episode where season 5 finally starts to click into a fantastic gear. Remembered for being the first appearance of Miguel Sapochnik’s name in the directing credits, the episode is also defined by an increased sense of tempo and for being the first time that Tyrion and Daenerys ever shared a scene together. Maester Aemon peacefully passes away to bring true sadness to Castle Black, meanwhile Bronn is teased, poisoned, and cured by the Sand Snakes in a jail cell beneath Sunspear. Things have started to turn south for Stannis outside of Winterfell, with the presence of snow disrupting his plans to seize the castle from the Boltons, while inside the fortress Sansa’s desperate attempts to escape are thwarted by Reek’s warped loyalty to his abuser Ramsay. The episode’s crowning moment, though, is Cersei’s arrest at the hands of the Faith Militant she gave power to. Her finery is stripped away, but this is the start of Benioff and Weiss taking complete control of Cersei’s character and redefining her in their image, allowing Lena Headey’s already brilliant portrayal of such a brilliant character to develop. Season 5 finally gets going!
34. ‘Kissed By Fire’ (season 3, episode 5)
Most famous for Jaime Lannister’s monologue in the Harrenhal baths, as he finally reveals the true reason for why he rejected his vows as a member of the Mad King’s service and stabbed him in the back, ‘Kissed By Fire’ slows the action right down after ‘And Now His Watch is Ended’ to provide a wealth of satisfying character beats. The aforementioned monologue steals the show and sees Nikloaj Coster-Waldau produce his finest display yet as the ‘Kingslayer’, but elsewhere this episode still contains several moments that Game of Thrones fans love returning to. Jon and Ygritte sneak off to their cave together and finally declare their love for one another, with Jon breaking his Night’s Watch vows in the process; we discover that Stannis Baratheon has been hiding a wife and daughter from us all this time; and Robb Stark makes the (ultimately fateful) decision to behead Lord Karstark for treason, causing the Karstark forces to finally abandon his cause. Much like every episode during this era of the show, many characters make decisions that change their fortunes forever and maybe change the way we thought about them initially.
33. ‘The Wolf and the Lion’ (season 1, episode 5)
An episode that cuts to black on another early flashpoint in the prelude to the War of the Five Kings, as Ned Stark’s leg is impaled on a spear after Jaime Lannister’s men assault him in the street, strips away the two fantastical strands of the plot to focus entirely on the powder keg that’s about to blow in King’s Landing. No icy landscapes of Castle Black, no barren desert lands of Essos, just good old-fashioned politicking. The episode’s true treasure is the work of Mark Addy as Robert Baratheon who, as a king on borrowed time, stares down the barrel of his miserable life and laments the falsehoods and lost opportunities that gave him everything the material world could offer but none of the emotional fulfilment he required. This episode is a bitter lesson in the dangers of power and, after Lord Varys’ night-time chats with Ilyrio Mopatis, a teaser for the wars still to come.
32. ‘A Man Without Honor’ (season 2, episode 7)
With its eyes firmly set on the end of the second season, ‘A Man Without Honor’ is an example of what Game of Thrones’ early episodes did so brilliantly. This episode blends true horror, humour, and seriously morbid drama and reaches fantastic heights. In Qarth, the Thirteen are murdered as Pyat Pree attempts to take Daenerys to the House of the Undying; at Winterfell, Theon’s brief rule is starting to show cracks, with the final scene revealing that he burned two farm boys alive just to stay in power; Cersei and Tyrion are on the brink of actually behaving like siblings in King’s Landing; and Jaime Lannister kills his younger cousin to briefly escape his prison pen and set in motion arguments that will soon lead to Robb Stark’s demise. Arya & Tywin have their best conversation to date at Harrenhal, as they meditate on the matter of legacy, and the fun continues between Jon & Ygritte, as the latter speaks aloud her iconic catchphrase for the very first time: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”
31. ‘First of His Name’ (season 4, episode 5)
In an episode that recognises the sheer farce of hurriedly crowning a new king before anyone has even figured out who killed the previous one, Game of Thrones takes one last chance to look back before heading into the future. Ghosts (both of the paranormal and direwolf varieties) are all over this brilliant episode that gives the floor to the children of the story who want to remember their dead friends, even if the adults in the room are hardened by years of loss and have no time for it. All around the map there are references to names and faces long gone: Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Robert Baratheon, Syrio Forel, and even Jon Arryn, whose poisoning in season one is finally revealed to be the work of Littlefinger and Lysa Arryn. The episode then finishes on the attack by Jon Snow’s Night’s Watch brothers on Craster’s Keep, which features some intense action moves and the grisly deaths of Locke and Karl Tanner. The final note of the episode, though, is where the episode really shines: Craster’s wives, after years of torture and abuse, decide to find their own path, away from a world of dangerous men.
30. ‘Second Sons’ (season 3, episode 8)
As it heads towards the end of its third season, Game of Thrones stages the most miserable wedding King’s Landing ever sees. Tyrion and Sansa are married in the Sept of Baelor, and then treated to the absolute worst of Joffrey’s behaviour in the aftermath. The result is a tense confrontation between the King and his Master of Coin, and the realisation that the married couple are forever trapped in an arrangement that suits neither of them. Elsewhere, after Daenerys sets her sights on Yunkai and after Melisandre drops leeches on Gendry, it’s time for Sam the Slayer to take the floor. Under attack from a White Walker who has come to claim Gilly’s baby, the last of Craster’s sons, Sam drives a dragonglass dagger into its back and shatters it to dust. After almost thirty episodes of wondering how on earth humanity would ever survive an invasion by the Army of the Dead, the answer is provided in one of the most high-tension scenes of the whole season.
29. ‘Book of the Stranger’ (season 6, episode 4)
The end of season 5 of Game of Thrones saw its main characters served up some mightily bleak and depressing odds. Sansa and Theon were running for their lives, Jon Snow was deader than dead, and Daenerys was a prisoner of the Dothraki. All of these incidents appeared to be irreversible, but by the end of ‘Book of the Stranger’, one of the season’s most emotionally heartening episodes, each of them is reunited with friends or family and on a mission to take what’s theirs. Theon is home and reunited with Yara, Sansa and Jon share the most emotional reunion in the show’s entire run, and Daenerys now leads the Dothraki after burning the cartoonishly misogynist khals alive. It’s an episode to make your heart feel full and fix your eyes firmly on an exciting future. With Littlefinger apparently ready to come to Sansa’s aid, and with Cersei and Lady Olenna’s forming a surprising alliance in King’s Landing to take down the High Sparrow, you wonder whether things might be alright after all. Of coure, they won’t be, but at least this episode allows you to hope.
28. ‘The Old Gods and the New’ (season 2, episode 6)
In one of the best episodes of the second season, the momentum provided by ‘The Ghost of Harrenhal’ carries over into this mid-season show-stopper. Theon’s seizure of Winterfell results in some of the finest scenes the castle ever plays host to, as Ser Rodrik’s execution proves to be a prophetic turning point in Theon’s own storyline; a riot in King’s Landing results in Tyrion standing up to Joffrey (not for the first time) and sees The Hound reveal his tender side (also not for the first time); and Daenerys’ dragons are stolen from her in a tense finale in Qarth. Arya & Tywin trade brilliantly tense words at Harrenhal, and we’re also introduced to the electric, unforgettable Ygritte, who challenges Jon and pushes his buttons in ways that no other character has done or ever will again. With the previous episode doing such an effective job of focusing our eyes forward to the end of the season, ‘The Old Gods and the New’ begins to take us there.
27. ‘High Sparrow’ (season 5, episode 3)
The first half of Game of Thrones’ fifth season isn’t exactly famous for high tension or high drama, but episodes like ‘High Sparrow’ prove that this period of the show was at its best when it basked in the slight lull after the explosive finale to season 4 and gave itself breathing room to expand and develop the characters, setting them up for future events. Jon Snow makes his first big decision as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, beheading Janos Slynt for disobedience (and years of being an annoying little shit); Cersei starts her plan to arm the Faith Militant; Tyrion and Varys arrive in Volantis, where Ser Jorah has been waiting for an opportunity to get back to Daenerys; Brienne delivers her emotional backstory to Podrick and explains her almost unconditional love for Renly Baratheon; and Littlefinger tells Sansa that she will be marrying Ramsay Bolton and returning home to a very different Winterfell. It’s an episode that announces, loudly, that the TV show will be taking a different path to the A Song of Ice and Fire novel series. It’s a confident, fluid, gorgeous episode of this show that solidifies its quieter episodes as being just as valuable as its most active and most famous.
26. ‘The Dragon and the Wolf’ (season 7, episode 7)
Glorious, glorious fanfiction. Some time during season 5, when Game of Thrones began to move past the wonderful source material written by George R. R. Martin, a narrative began to develop that David Benioff and Dan Weiss were simply “making fanfiction”. Fanfiction was often loaded with insulting implications about their ability (or lack thereof) to write this grand story. But fanfiction should not be used as a pejorative term, and episodes like ‘The Dragon and the Wolf’ are proof that pure fanfiction can be absolutely wonderful. A decisive summit meeting that provides almost every main character on the show with a chance to square off, reunite, and open up old wounds; some of the most glorious “talking in rooms” scenes we’ve had for quite a while; a surreal clash between the show’s political and fantastical strands; old scores being settled as the Starks get revenge on Littlefinger; Theon overcoming the emotional hurdles that have stood in his way for so long. And to finish up, a ginormous set-piece, as dragons and White Walkers combine to create the viewers’ worst nightmare: the Night King riding an undead Viserion into the Seven Kingdoms, having reduced Eastwatch and the Wall to rubble. Glorious, glorious fanfiction.
25. ‘Two Swords’ (season 4, episode 1)
In the series’ best season premiere, Prince Oberyn shakes up the established environment in King’s Landing, like the beautiful wildcard he is. From the moment he arrives in the capital, he breathes new life and hope into a show becoming devoid of much to root for in the aftermath of the Red Wedding. He arrives to chew gum and kick ass, and he’s all out of gum. Jon gets a few verbal jabs in at Janos Slynt and Ser Alliser during his questioning about his whereabouts during seasons 2 & 3, and Daenerys is finding that her dragons are becoming increasingly hard to control. The episode closes on another pair of characters who’ve come to chew gum (or eat chickens) and kick ass and find themselves with no gum left: Arya and The Hound rock up at a roadside inn that’s been taken over by Polliver and his men. Sensing an opportunity for revenge, and to get her sword back, Arya and The Hound launch into a thrilling fight and slaughter Polliver and his men. It’s one of the few occasions where the show allows you to feel good about Arya’s quest for vengeance, and it really sings.
24. ‘You Win or You Die’ (season 1, episode 7)
King Robert Baratheon is dead. Long live King Joffrey. In this early-series gamechanger, a new monarch is crowned after Robert perishes while hunting. Before events in King’s Landing kick off, though, we are introduced to the full force of Tywin Lannister, as Charles Dance’s impeccable performance announces the arrival of the Lannister family patriarch. Jon takes his Night’s Watch vows, Daenerys escapes with her life after an attempted poisoning, and Renly tries to force a coup against the Lannisters. Events close on the sight of Ned Stark being held at knifepoint by Petyr Baelish, as the Stark soldiers in the capital are slaughtered and the Seven Kingdoms are forever changed. The fifth, sixth, and seventh episodes of season one are all a warning — about King’s Landing, about corruption, about complacency. Ned walks into a trap that’s almost of his own making, and he will never again see daylight.
23. ‘Home’ (season 6, episode 2)
Packed to the gills with dramatic incidents and decisive points of no return, ‘Home’ sees Game of Thrones blast into its post-books era with a sharp script, fluid screenplay, and confirmation that it will be making its own rules from this point on. Balon Greyjoy and Roose Bolton are assassinated by two of their own respective family members (who are both cartoonishly evil in this episode) before Jon Snow is dramatically resurrected by the Lady Melisandre to close the episode out, confirming the worst kept secret in all of showbusiness at the time. But even away from all the death and rebirth, Jaime and the High Sparrow’s tense confrontation in the Sept of Baelor at Myrcella’s funeral comes so close to boiling point that it’s almost too much to bear, while beyond the Wall Bran Stark returns after a season away to give us access to some rich flashbacks that run deep with exciting theory-baiting and a window into a simpler past that, as we’ve seen in the 51 episodes before this one, has since been destroyed. With ‘Home’, Game of Thrones’ sixth season really clicks into gear. It’s a propulsive, decisive, determined piece of television.
22. ‘The Dance of Dragons’ (season 5, episode 9)
Oh, Stannis, what have you done? Faced with a starving army, dying horses, and a snowstorm that will trap them in the freezing North countryside, the rightful king relents to Lady Melisandre and allows his daughter Shireen to be sacrificed to the Lord of Light. The bleakest death in the series? Harder to stomach than the infamous Red Wedding? Either way, Kerry Ingram’s agonising screams pierce through the misery like a knife and kickstart Stannis Baratheon’s downfall. In Meereen, a long, big-budget sequence is full of tiny emotional notes that bring a sense of genuine gravity and real a tear to the eye: Jorah being welcomed back into Daenerys’ service, Dany and Missandei holding hands as they embrace their end, only for Drogon to emerge from the sky and rescue his mother from the Sons of the Harpy’s attack. Dany’s first scene riding a dragon is well worth the wait. Arya identifies Meryn Trant in Braavos and sets up her plan to kill him, while Jon manages to escort the wildlings through the Wall, and a temporary peace is restored in Dorne. Still, it’s hard for the events in this episode to be remembered in isolation, given the fiery murder of innocence at the centre of it all.
21. ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ (season 4, episode 9)
After four seasons of build-up, the Night’s Watch and the wildlings finally face off in a blood battle for Castle Black. In the pre-battle discussions, love and sex are on the brains of every single character who is facing imminent death. “Love is the death of duty”, Maester Aemon reminds us, and then the swords start swinging. When the battle begins, it’s an exciting, high-tension, big-budget clash that, in full retrospect, feels like a major turning point for the series. The set-pieces are bigger, the action feels more dangerous, the choreography and photography hit heights never seen before in the series, and Jon Snow takes a position of command — it’s easy to see the show’s distant future inside these pulsating 50 minutes. We bid emotional farewells to Grenn, Pyp, and finally Ygritte, whose death goes down as one of the corniest in the series but still brings a lump to the throat. And when the battle is over, the feeling is one of satisfaction: Game of Thrones had been promising a battle between the Night’s Watch and the wildlings for a long time and, when the time finally came, it delivered serious big spectacle goods.
20. ‘A Golden Crown’ (season 1, episode 6)
Ah, the first notable death of the entire series, and one of the most memorable. Viserys Targaryen spends his time on the show running his mouth a little too often and, in this episode that sorts the wheat from the chaff, he gets what’s been coming to him: molten gold poured into his brain. It’s an incredibly satisfying resolution to a short but effective storyline. This is a tremendous episode that shows us the rules of the game with one hand while stabs us in the back with the other. Elsewhere, Ned assumes command of the Seven Kingdoms in Robert’s absence while the king is away hunting (a hunting trip that we’re certain is completely safe and won’t result in the king becoming too drunk to evade a boar’s tusks); Bronn frees Tyrion Lannister from the Eyrie by emerging victorious in a trial-by-combat that’s equally thrilling and hilarious; and a group of wildlings descend on the woods outside of Winterfell, introducing us to Osha. This is an early great.
19. ‘The Laws of Gods and Men’ (season 4, episode 6)
The episode opens with Davos’ brilliant speech at the Iron Bank of Braavos and goes up from there. Yara tries to rescue Theon from the Dreadfort in a bloody night raid but is unsuccessful, as Theon has completed his transformation into “Reek” at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. Daenerys is greeted by Hizdahr zo Loraq, whose father she crucified a few episodes earlier. Then, the main event: Tyrion Lannister’s trial for the murder of King Joffrey. A list of witnesses, including Lord Varys, testify against Tyrion. And when Shae returns, having been manipulated by Cersei into falsifying her testimony to frame Tyrion, it’s all too much. Tyrion launches into a verbal assault on everyone and anyone around him, in a moment of desperate catharsis and in a bid to save his own life, rather than be executed for a crime he didn’t commit. The result is him demanding a trial-by-combat — a suggestion that gets Prince Oberyn up and out of his chair as a lightbulb turns on above his head.
18. ‘The Long Night’ (season 8, episode 3)
An absolutely tremendous accomplishment for television, an episode so far ahead of its time that the TV sets of 2019 were ill-equipped to show it in all its glory. Not only is the ‘The Long Night’ a wonderful companion to previous episode ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’, but it is a hard-earned, unbearably tense, and hugely cathartic spectacle built on the search for intimacy, hope, and profound beauty within the black smog of an unforgiving battle. It works slowly, but boy does it get there. Shot across fifty-five consecutive winter nights and painstakingly constructed over several months, this is the ultimate example of blockbuster TV. It trudges at near-glacial pace through its various stages to first raise the tension and then stretch it until it’s almost threadbare. Then Arya Stark lunges through the air, wipes out the Night King, and it clicks: ‘The Long Night’ is about the desperate search for light in an endless, all-consuming darkness. Sure, the death count is lower than they teased, and the endless fake-outs grow a little predictable, but sitting back and appreciating how much was put into the creation of this episode for even a second can be an overwhelming experience on its own. Watching the episode, even more so.
17. ‘Mother’s Mercy’ (season 5, episode 10)
In the beginning, Game of Thrones was known for heaping all the pressure on the penultimate episodes of its first three seasons so the finale could focus on setting up future events. But after season 4’s ‘The Children’, that changed forever. ‘Mother’s Mercy’ is a jam-packed finale full of huge twists, defining sequences for the series, and a dark, almost hopeless atmosphere. Stealing the show is Cersei’s understated but brutal naked walk of atonement, as years of neglect of the common people of King’s Landing come back to bite her in the form of hideous harassment and abuse. Stannis Baratheon’s claim to the Iron Throne dies a miserable, withered death in the snow outside of Winterfell, with Brienne avenging her lost king Renly. Arya Stark carries out her revenge on Meryn Trant, but the murder itself is a bloody, gruesome struggle that represents the final death of Arya’s childhood innocence. Even the “happy” moments are laced with misery — when we discover that Myrcella is glad to know Jaime is her father, the moment is stolen from us when she drops dead from the Sand Snakes’ poison. And to top it all off, Jon Snow, the man to lead us through The Long Night, is betrayed and stabbed in a mutiny that leaves him bleeding out onto the frozen Castle Black floor. Winter is creeping ever closer, and this finale confirms that a lot more death will occur before the snowstorms clear.
16. ‘The Mountain and the Viper’ (season 4, episode 8)
Known best for the absolutely horrifying finale that sees Prince Oberyn’s cockiness result in his gruesome death at the hands of Ser Gregor Clegane, The Mountain, this episode really sings in its quieter moments. Tyrion recalls the time he spent watching his cousin Orson Lannister crushing beetles, revealing once and for all that Tyrion doesn’t fit in this world of merciless violence. Beautiful scenes in Meereen establish the blossoming romance between Grey Worm and Missandei, just as Ser Jorah is banished from Daenerys’ service for his previous years as a spy. In the North, Alfie Allen delivers a show-best display as “Reek”, pretending to be Theon once more, convincing his former fellow Ironborn to vacate Moat Cailin, allowing the Boltons to move into Winterfell. But then we come to King’s Landing, and the frightening conclusion to the episode. Prince Obyern, seeking revenge for the murders of his sister and her children, seems to have defeated Gregor Clegane, only for Cersei’s champion to trip him, punch out his entire set of front teeth, and crush his head like a watermelon.
15. ‘Fire and Blood’ (season 1, episode 10)
If ‘Baelor’ displayed the brutality of Game of Thrones’ political elements, then ‘Fire and Blood’ displays the magic and wonder of its fantasy elements. After teasing their reveal for most of the season, the show finally shows us what we’ve all been waiting for: Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons. Following the death of her husband and unborn child, blood magic and fire combine to birth the winged lizards and change this show’s course completely. The moment Drogon screams for the first time is earth-shattering. In Westeros, the kingdoms are forced to reckon with the fallout from Ned Stark’s death: Jon tries to leave Castle Black but is denied in a sweet scene with his new brothers, Robb and Catelyn mourn in anguish, and Arya’s chaotic season ends with her heading north with Yoren and Gendry.
14. ‘The Kingsroad’ (season 1, episode 2)
In just its second episode, Game of Thrones blasts out of the blocks and produces one of its earliest and most significant flashpoints, as arguments between the children of the Stark family and the royal family boil over — starting a conflict that goes on to define events that take up the bulk of the series. It’s already thrilling to see Arya and Nymeria put a brief dent in Joffrey’s nascent tyranny; it’s already heart-breaking to see the two Stark daughters already being forced to part with their direwolves; and it’s especially difficult to watch King Robert reluctantly order Ned Stark to execute an innocent animal on the orders of Joffrey and Cersei’s blatant lies. Throw in the fact that Catelyn Stark defends Bran from a cutthroat sent to kill him — in one of the bloodiest scenes of the season — and you’ve got a season’s worth of incident packed into one brilliantly paced second episode.
13. ‘The Door’ (season 6, episode 5)
The middle point of Game of Thrones’ sixth season sees the series hit a real high. An emotional, momentous episode that is packed with so many excellent moments that the reveal of the White Walkers’ creators is a minor footnote amongst the overwhelming content that surrounds it. In Meereen, Dany and Jorah reunite before bidding a fraught farewell to each other, this time on good terms. Theon and Yara escape the Iron Islands after their uncle Euron is chosen as king. Up near The Wall, Sansa begins to heal from her ordeal with Ramsay at Winterfell when Littlefinger comes to apologise — Sophie Turner gives a scene-stealing performance that redefines Sansa’s character from here on out. In Braavos, Arya is confronted by the trauma of her father’s death during the hilarious and wonderfully performed The Bloody Hand, featuring Richard E. Grant, Kevin Eldon and Essie Davis as three of the thespians on stage. And beyond the Wall, a foolish mistake by Bran Stark leaves his troupe exposed to the Night King’s army. As wights descend on the cave, and as the Night King kills the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran — overwhelmed by the chaos — splits his consciousness between a vision of the past and the real-world present. The split reconnects inside the mind of a young Hodor, who hears Meera’s cries of “Hold the door!” from the future until he repeats the words himself, eventually slurring together to form “Hodor”. The scene turns a light-relief character into a hero as he sacrifices himself to ensure Bran and Meera can escape, then into a tragic victim of horrific circumstance — a boy whose happiness and freedom was taken from him by instructions shouted to him at the moment of his death.
12. ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ (season 8, episode 2)
Perhaps the only episode of Game of Thrones that could ever be described as “beautiful”, ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ takes full advantage of the opportunity afforded to it — to be the last episode of this grand series to look back and reflect — to spin a gorgeous, self-contained story that argues for the value of memory, experience, and forgiveness to the human experience. And, in the process, in Bryan Cogman’s final episode, it doubles as a glorious, affectionate tribute to the wonderful characters who made the series what it was. “That’s what death is, isn’t it? Forgetting, being forgotten”, Samwell Tarly says, bringing the episode’s themes to light in a graceful, concise summation of this episode’s central thesis. Essentially given a deadline of 24 hours before the end of their lives, as the Army of the Dead approaches Winterfell at speed, the characters we’ve come to love spend their apparent final day doing whatever takes their fancy, eager to experience it to the full: reminiscing with old friends (and new ones), singing songs, drinking the night away, fucking your best friend, protecting the ones you love most, and even planning for the eventuality that you survive through to see the next day. Game of Thrones often shows us the absolute worst of humanity, which means the moments where it shows us the best are worth savouring ten times over.
11. ‘Baelor’ (season 1, episode 9)
This might be the ninth episode of the series, but this is the true introduction to Game of Thrones. In a move that changed the show’s fortunes and started its journey to becoming a cultural phenomenon (and changed television writing for the 21st century), Ned Stark — the honourable hero and indisputable protagonist — is beheaded on the orders of King Joffrey. Save for the infamous ‘Red Wedding’, this is the show’s defining moment — a brutal display of its true character that echoes throughout the rest of its story. Elsewhere, not a second is wasted as ‘Baelor’ takes on the form of a dramatic season finale, with decisive choices (Robb’s vow to marry a Frey), crucial turning points (Jaime captured by the Starks), and unbearable cliffhangers (Daenerys going into labour) spread out across the Seven Kingdoms and Essos. The question that hangs over the final shot is, “Where does Game of Thrones, and the rest of television, go from here?”
10. ‘The Rains of Castamere’ (season 3, episode 9)
Such is the size of the Red Wedding’s cultural impact, almost everything about the rest of the episode is nearly forgotten. To remind you: Jon Snow’s loyalties receive their toughest test yet as he escapes the wildlings, leaves Ygritte behind, and returns to Castle Black, almost encountering his brothers Bran and Rickon in the process. We also say a tearful (temporary) goodbye to Rickon and Osha. Daenerys takes Yunkai, and Sam and Gilly get closer to the Wall. But it’s the events at The Twins that write this episode, and Game of Thrones, into TV history. Having walked back on his oath to marry Walder Frey’s daughter, Robb Stark — along with his mother Catelyn and wife Talisa and her unborn child — is betrayed and slaughtered by Frey and his other bannermen in one of television’s most genuinely harrowing twists. It may not have spawned the genre of YouTube reaction videos on its own, but videos of new viewers screaming and wailing (either at the sight of Talisa’s stabbing or Catelyn’s throat being slit) definitely popularised it. Its last two lines of dialogue — “The Lannisters send their regards”, and Catelyn Stark’s blood-curdling, grief-stricken scream — are burned into the memories of everybody who has ever seen it.
9. ‘The Spoils of War’ (season 7, episode 4)
Even before Daenerys Targaryen releases her full fury on the Lannister forces in this episode’s shocking, terrifying climax, ‘The Spoils of War’ puts itself in contention for being the strongest entry from season 7. At Dragonstone, the careful, subtle development of Jon and Daenerys’ relationship, deep in the dragonglass caves, is a beautiful sight to behold. The soft gazes they share, the light touches they exchange, the lust and affection that they have to resist for the sake of their continuing war negotiations — it’s all a sign of budding young love. At Winterfell, the three surviving full-Stark children might all be home at last, but their journeys have left them changed, broken, and mutated. It’s a tragic change that Meera recognises in Bran as she leaves the show for good with a tearful farewell in the face of Bran’s apparent indifference as the Three-Eyed Raven. And then, on the Roseroad, all hell breaks loose. Dragon warfare has begun, and the results are as frightening as you’d expect. Having had enough of Tyrion’s “clever plan” to avoid mass bloodshed with siege tactics, Daenerys takes matters into her own hands. Drogon incinerates the Lannister army as Jaime (and then Tyrion) lays witness to the carnage. Grounding the battle in Jaime’s perspective allows us to see, first-hand, bodies turn to ash, skin boil and melt, men scream for their lives as fire engulfs them. Pitting sympathetic characters against each other is something early battles in Game of Thrones thrived off, and the constant collisions and clashes of season 7 provide a ripe chance for Benioff & Weiss to delve back into that box of tricks. This a horrific nightmare and one of the show’s finest assembled set-pieces.
8. ‘Battle of the Bastards’ (season 6, episode 9)
Game of Thrones giveth catharsis, Game of Thrones taketh away. In a stunning penultimate episode of the season (for which the show had become more than famous for by this point in its run), decisive victories are landed for several fan-favourite characters. Daenerys finally brings her Meereenese sojourn to a close in a dramatic fiery showdown that sees her unleash all of her dragon-led might on the slave masters; Jon Snow’s wildling/Northern army finally defeats the evil Ramsay Bolton’s forces in a massive, era-defining, medium-defining battle sequence that shakes and shocks me to my very core on several occasions; and Sansa Stark gets revenge on her abuser, reclaiming her family home in the process. Rewarding, cathartic, satisfying. And yet, pause for a second, and you’ll see the darkness lying underneath all of the major victories. Daenerys might have defeated the slave masters once and for all, but she once again relied on authoritarian methods of fire and blood to do so; Jon may have won the battle, but he lost a baby brother and several parts of himself to achieve victory; Sansa may have exacted vengeance upon her abuser, but she relied on another of her abusers (Littlefinger) to reclaim her home, and even inside the safe, secure walls of Winterfell, the scars of her history linger on her face as she watches hounds tear Ramsay limb from limb without so much as a blink. That’s Game of Thrones to me: the scars and flaws lingering under all of us, driving us towards our fates even when we believe we’re in control.
7. ‘The Lion and the Rose’ (season 4, episode 2)
Ah, King Joffrey’s final lap. It’s another wedding for the population of King’s Landing and Joffrey is out to cause trouble. After showing initial signs of being genuinely sincere and kingly when presented with his wedding gifts, he stages several stunts that humiliate his uncle Tyrion and slowly turn several wedding guests against him. Then, he chokes to death on poison. The episode, written by George R. R. Martin, so expertly sets up the possibility that literally any of a dozen suspects could have carried out the deed that the mystery of “Whodunit?” lingers long after his violent, bloody death. Elsewhere, Bran has exciting, revealing visions beyond the Wall, Ramsay has turned “Reek” into his own slave, and Melisandre tries to convince Shireen in the ways of the Lord of Light. This was Martin’s final episode for Game of Thrones, and he went out in style — a truly brilliant showpiece of everything that made Joffrey so terrible, right before Lady Olenna’s poison takes him from us forever.
6. ‘And Now His Watch is Ended’ (season 3, episode 4)
With this episode, Game of Thrones’ third season bursts into life. A glorious, fiery examination of revenge, ‘And Now His Watch is Ended’ burns as bright as this show ever did. Every single scene resonates deep in the heart: the chaos during the surprise mutiny at Craster’s Keep; the emotional desperation of Theon’s revelation that Ned Stark was his “real father”; right through to the end, as Daenerys takes the Unsullied army from Astapor’s slave masters. Everything clicks, and everything comes back to the nature of waiting your turn in order to strike out of nowhere and get the revenge you want. That final sequence in particular, that closes the episodes on the sound of a dragon screaming, really has its cake and eats it with regards to providing pure popcorn spectacle that’s backed up by high levels of emotional catharsis. Sometimes it feels good to watch the world burn when Daenerys is in charge. This is a vital landmark in the show’s detailed exploration of the value and cost of vengeance.
5. ‘Hardhome’ (season 5, episode 8)
Game of Thrones produced many 21st century TV masterpieces. ‘Hardhome’ is one of them. Even before the massacre at its titular fishing village, this episode breathes fresh life into every storyline it features. In King’s Landing, we see Cersei at her lowest, sipping water from the dirty floor of her Faith Militant dungeon cell — her actions revealing the broken girl who has always existed beneath her finery. At Winterfell, there’s a stunning emotional revelation between Sansa and Theon, as the latter finally confesses to having not killed Bran & Rickon in season 2. Tyrion & Daenerys share some wonderful first scenes together in Meereen, with Daenerys giving her famous “break the wheel” monologue before the episode is through. Even in Braavos, a lively montage and voiceover combination gives pace and intrigue to scenes of Arya scouting her first target for the Faceless Men. And as if that wasn’t enough, the last 30 minutes are dedicated to one of the most horrific, arresting, and exhausting sequences in the show’s entire run, as the Army of the Dead unleashes a surprise assault on Jon Snow, Tormund, and a few thousands wildlings. Intense and gigantic from the word go, the massacre escalates, against the audience’s wishes, to the point where even Jon’s successful kill of a White Walker can only briefly puncture a scene of abject misery. Death is coming for everyone and everything in Westeros, and this is the strongest warning yet of what faces the Seven Kingdoms if they can’t band together.
4. The Children (season 4, episode 10)
The end of the season, the end of the show’s first half, and the end of an era. This climactic, game-changing finale delivers one of the most powerful hours in Game of Thrones history. This is a barrage of emotional climaxes, stunning revelations, and shocking twists that’s almost too much to bear. In Meereen, Drogon incinerates an innocent child, forcing Daenerys to lock up her two other dragons in the catacombs. Stannis Baratheon arrives at Castle Black to all but end the wildlings’ attempts to get south for the winter, while a grieving Jon cremates Ygritte. In the Vale, one of the all-time great on-screen depictions of one-on-one combat between Brienne and The Hound results in a slog of punches, kicks, and a broken femur for Sandor, after which a tortured, emotionally deadened Arya Stark leaves him for “dead” and heads to Braavos. Bran, despite losing Jojen to wights along the way, finally reaches the Three-Eyed Raven’s cave. And in King’s Landing, Tyrion Lannister is freed by Jaime on the eve of his execution. Before leaving King’s Landing, however, he finds that Tywin Lannister has procured the services of Shae, betraying him as a consequence, and he kills them both in revenge. Years of mistreatment of his children finally comes back to bite Tywin Lannister in this episode, as the first half of Game of Thrones slams shut in decisive fashion.
3. ‘The Bells’ (season 8, episode 5)
I mean, where do you start talking about an episode like this? There’s almost too much to say. Were it not for the extreme sentimental attachment I have for 1st and 2nd place in this list, ‘The Bells’ may have topped them both. This is a violent and exhausting endurance test unlike anything seen before or since on television; a team of TV creators maximising their show’s potential to deliver full scale blockbuster combat horror. The panicked, bleak atmosphere that dominates ‘The Bells’ early stages is punctured severely and completely by a terrifying, drawn-out combat sequence in which the warmongering, greed, and vengeance that always threatened to tear away at Game of Thrones’ principal characters’ best interests absolutely devastate everything in their path. This was always, always coming. The fire burns, the buildings collapse, the body count only goes upwards. A brutal condemnation of divine rightism and humanity’s addiction to militarised conquest, all channelled through the emotional deterioration of the series’ one messianic icon. The events depicted in this episode are not a shock. As an audience, we asked for this, begged for it, and waited for it. ‘The Bells’ will never let us forget our own bloodlust.
2. ‘Blackwater’ (season 2, episode 9)
The best episode of the second season, and inches away from being the best episode across the entire series. This is definitely one of my favourite episodes of television of all time. ‘Blackwater’ perfectly utilises the way battles lend themselves organically to cinematic interpretation in order to display the true emotional impact of war. The actors of this battle, especially inside the walls of King’s Landing, are shown to be both victims and perpetrators of violence in one fell swoop. You have good people carrying out what are clear acts of tyranny; you have people we’ve been conditioned to dislike living in fear of being raped and murdered; and, in the sight of blood and fire, even some of the hardest men in the show suddenly break. The Hound’s desperate unravelling across the course of the episode is one that sets him on course to be one of the show’s most beloved and sympathetic characters. The explosion on the Blackwater alone is one of the most instantly memorable and iconic moments in the series’ history and, for the first time, is an example of Game of Thrones providing an image that no other TV show in history could ever claim to match. PS: Lena Headey is a god damn star.
1. ‘The Winds of Winter’ (season 6, episode 10)
To me, this is still the greatest of them all — a television experience so emotionally overwhelming that it takes several hours for me to calm down afterwards. The sort of episode that makes me grateful not just for Game of Thrones, but for television. This is everything Game of Thrones was in the beginning, everything it had become by season 6, and everything it went on to be by the end. Of all its incredible and notorious achievements up to this point — Ned Stark’s death, the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding, Tyrion’s last stand in King’s Landing, the Hardhome massacre, the Battle of the Bastards — ‘The Winds of Winter’ outshines them all. Beginning with an actual terrorist incident, the deaths of several main characters and hundreds of others, and a king’s suicide, it only accelerates from there. The revenge exacted by Arya Stark upon Walder Frey feels sweet for a second, but the deathly smile on the face of Westeros’ youngest assassin sends a frosty chill down the spine. Davos’ devastating confrontation of Melisandre over Shireen’s death sees Liam Cunningham produce his finest moment as the Onion Knight. Jon Snow’s true parentage is finally revealed via some of the series’ best soundtracking and editing. Lady Olenna and Varys arrive in Dorne to give that whole storyline its best ever scene. Even something as small as Samwell Tarly entering the Citadel’s library fills my chest up to the brim, as a boy’s dream of “being a wizard” is realised with bounds of beauty and elegance. Before we cut to black, Cersei steals ultimate power for herself, while a reluctant Jon is chosen to lead the North. And then, in the epilogue, a triumphant Daenerys finally sails for Westeros in a sequence that, despite the excitement at finally seeing Dany headed west, provides a sobering gut punch: the magnitude and importance of everything we’ve just witnessed won’t stand a chance when the dragons come to town.