The structure of Game of Thrones makes a best episodes list feel beside the point, even if there are a few clear standouts like “Blackwater.” It’s a show where the nostalgically inclined may be better served skimming highlights on YouTube than rewatching whole hours on HBOGO. These 10 sequences capture the many different things Thrones has done so well over the years.
1. Cersei Bombs the Sept (“The Winds of Winter,” Season Six)
Narratively, this is the show killing off a bunch of cannon-fodder characters like the High Sparrow and most of the Tyrell family. But in terms of technique, it’s the best GoT has ever been between the editing, Miguel Sapochik’s direction and the unnerving inclusion of a piano (an instrument never employed on the show before) in Ramin Djawadi’s score. It’s The Godfather’s famous baptism/murder sequence by way of Hitchcock, illustrating just how cold and vengeful Cersei has become after years of loss and humiliation. Perfect in every way, down to the locked framing of Tommen’s suicide after he realizes what his mother is capable of doing.
3. Hodor Holds the Door (“The Door,” Season Six)
For years, the Starks’ sweet servant had been a figure of gentle comic relief, spun around his singleminded use of the nonsense word, “hodor,” which became the name everyone called him. But Bran Stark’s mental powers reach back to reveal that Hodor’s entire life had been a cruel, cosmic joke: Here was the once talkative stable boy named Wylis, sacrificing himself to prevent an army of monsters from getting to Bran, impressing the command “Hold the door!” so deeply and painfully that he became incapable of saying anything but a condensed version of that phrase. Wylis became Hodor because he was always going to hold the door, and in the process became a devastating symbol for all the lowly characters who become collateral damage in this war among nobility.
4. Jon Snow Meets the Night King (“Hardhome,” Season Five)
The assault of the Night King’s undead forces on the wildling enclave at Hardhome notified every other show on television that it was competing for a distant second place in spectacle. A relentless mix of action and horror (again directed by Sapochnik), the sequence builds gradually until the forces opposing Jon Snow, Tormund and the other wildlings are so overwhelming, the viewer couldn’t be blamed for forgetting to breathe after a while. The Night King’s raised-arm taunt of Jon may have launched more memes than any other moment in the series’ run, but it’s also a chilling demonstration of how impossible humanity’s task against the White Walkers will be in the final season.
5. The Red Wedding (“The Rains of Castamere,” Season Three)
The even bloodier sequel to Ned’s execution, and a confirmation that the series would not be following a comfortable narrative tradition where the heroic characters suffer but inevitably prevail.
6. The Kingslayer Takes a Bath (“Kissed By Fire,” Season Three)
Of the series’ many sets of unlikely traveling companions, the most complex and appealing duo may be Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, who develop a startlingly deep bond as she endeavors to fulfill a promise to return him to his sister. Though Jaime was often presented as the show’s smuggest character in the early seasons, his pained recounting to Brienne of how he got the nickname “The Kingslayer,” and what it cost him emotionally, revealed him to be much more than a preening villain — a lonely man who begs to be called by his first name after he collapses in his statuesque protector’s arms.
7. The Mother of Dragons Speaks Her Mother Tongue (“And Now His Watch Is Ended,” Season Three)
Daenerys’ travels through the continent of Essos often moved at a maddeningly slow pace, the better to delay her arrival in Westeros and the obvious military superiority of her dragons to anything the Lannisters could offer. But every time it seemed that her tale was meandering in circles, the series would go back to its most successful formula: Daenerys screaming plus villains burning equals awesomeness. In this sequence, she flaunts not only the might of her young dragons, but her deceptive cleverness (she turns out to speak the language that her opponents have been using to mock her) and her devotion to fairness (moments after buying the services of the Unsullied slave army, she sets her charges free, believing, correctly, that they will fight for her anyway). Tremendous visuals and characterization all at once.
8. Tyrion Confesses (“The Laws of Gods and Men,” Season Four)
Though Ned was the closest thing the show had to a main character in Season One, Peter Dinklage’s work as the clever, bitter imp Tyrion Lannister was the clear breakout performance from the beginning. The writers and Dinklage have tended to walk a knife-edge between Tyrion’s quick wit and the lifetime of pain his jokes disguise. Every now and then, though, the full anger comes out, never more forcefully than during the trial where he’s wrongfully accused of murdering his heinous nephew. “I did not kill Joffrey, but I wish I had!” he thunders at his father, sister and everyone else who has judged him for the way he looks rather than the man he has tried to be. “I wish I was the monster you think I am!”
9. An Eye-Popping Defeat (“The Mountain and the Viper,” Season Four)
The series has introduced so many characters who have a claim to being the greatest fighter in all of Westeros that it’s a wonder an entire season wasn’t devoted to a round-robin tournament. Still, we’ve been given plenty of sensational championship bouts over the years, whether Brienne punching the Hound off a cliff or this trial-by-combat between the aptly-nicknamed Mountain and the wily Oberyn Martell. Martell’s flashy style makes surprisingly quick work of his massive opponent, but he’s so focused on getting the Mountain to confess to the murder of Oberyn’s sister that he waits too long to deliver the killing blow. The Mountain’s close-quarters victory is so swift, brutal and memorable that it became the centerpiece of this year’s best Super Bowl commercial.
10. An Oath to Fight a Giant (“The Watchers on the Wall,” Season Four)
Like Hodor’s demise, this is a noble sacrifice of a minor character (Jon Snow’s buddy Grenn, who at best was his third-closest friend in the Night’s Watch), and another instance where the death matters much less than the lead-up to it. As a half-dozen rangers brace themselves to repel a literal giant from breaching the inner wall of Castle Black, they know they’re already dead, and some want to run. Instead, Grenn rallies the troops by reciting the Night’s Watch oath, which had become such a familiar ritual on the series by that point that many in the audience probably said it aloud too. The episode smartly cuts away as the charging giant approaches, only returning to the spot much later for a bittersweet coda where Jon discovers the corpses not only of Grenn and the others, but of the giant they found just enough courage and guile to stop. We don’t need to see the fight itself; the oath is what makes it special.