When you play the Game of Thrones, you play it one hour at a time. With a novelistic sprawl inherited from author George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the popular HBO show often feels less like a premium-cable series and more like a 73-hour movie. But showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have delivered a number of stand-alone knockouts – individual installments that soar high above the rest like Daenerys’ dragons. As the July 16th premiere of Season Seven approaches, sit back in your Iron Throne as we settle the question of which episodes from the first six seasons reign supreme.
Here’s where it all begins. From the opening image of the Wall to the closing shot of Bran Stark’s fall, Game of Thrones‘ premiere episode confidently created the world we’d be inhabiting for six seasons and counting. Getting there wasn’t always pretty: The sprawling cast and complex fantasy setting required a heaping helping of exposition, while an earlier version of the pilot was replaced and reshot with a new director, new costumes, and even new cast members. But strong performances by Sean Bean as noble Eddard “Ned” Stark, Mark Addy as blustery King Robert Baratheon and Emilia Clarke as tormented Daenerys Targaryen proved from the start that this Game would be worth playing.
Melisandre bathing au naturel, Daenerys ordering the sexy sellsword Daario Naharis to strip on command: There’s hot stuff aplenty in this one, if that’s what you’re after. But “Mockingbird” is memorable for what children say rather than what grown-ups show. Arya Stark delivers the series’ most nihilistic line, about the big nothing that awaits us after death: “Nothing isn’t better or worse than anything. Nothing is just nothing.” But her old friend Hot Pie unintentionally utters an optimistic alternative when holding forth about the importance of condiments: “You cannot give up on the gravy.” Hope, the episode argues, goes well with any dish.
From sins of the flesh to wrath of the gods, this Season Five highlight runs the gamut of human experience. In King’s Landing, recent regent Tommen and his older, wiser bride Queen Margaery (repeatedly) consummate their marriage of convenience. Meanwhile, the grandfatherly fanatic for whom the episode is named, brilliantly portrayed by Jonathan Pryce, begins his rise to power. At the Wall, Jon Snow executes Lord Janos Slynt, the man who betrayed Ned Stark and who admits “I’ve always been afraid!” as the sword falls. Elsewhere, the exiled Jorah Mormont kidnaps a Tyrion Lannister haunted by the murder of his ex-girlfriend, while Arya Stark is initiated into the mystic mysteries of the Faceless Men assassins. Whatever you like about Game of Thrones – sex, violence, drama, political skullduggery, beheadings – you’ll assuredly find it here.
Normally, a wedding would be ruined if the groom got murdered at the reception. But there was nothing normal about this matrimonial man of the hour – the sadistic boy-king Joffrey Baratheon. Played by brilliant young actor Jack Gleeson, who retired from showbiz immediately after shooting this episode, Joffrey was a top contender for the most entertainingly loathsome TV villain of the decade. His protracted onscreen poisoning made his “Purple Wedding” – named after the color his slap-worthy face turned as he asphyxiated – nothing less than the social event of the season.
In a word: “Dracarys.” Watching Dany unleash the dragons on the odious slave masters of Meereen was the show’s single most cathartic moment of violence to date. But the rest of this demanding episode showed the dark side of might makes right. From maimed and shellshocked Jaime Lannister to tortured and tormented Theon Greyjoy to the mutineers who kill the commander of the Night’s Watch, the glories of war come at a terrible human cost.
Sandwiched as it is in between the carnage of “Hardhome” and the wall-to-wall climaxes of “The Children,” you might think the penultimate episode of Season Five would be easy to overlook. But between Daenerys’s dramatic dragonback escape from the Meereenese insurgency and Stannis Baratheon’s brutal sacrifice of his own daughter to the fires of the Red God, this installment contains some of the series’ most exhilarating and appalling moments.
This key early episode saw GoT come into its own as a series in love with storytellers. Littlefinger reveals the awful origin of the Clegane brothers to Sansa; Sam regales his protective new friend Jon Snow with tales of how his father abused him; that monologue about the horrors of winter beyond the Wall by Ser Alliser Thorne that’s reminiscent of Quint’s war story in Jaws. The show found its voice by listening to those of its characters, something that’s as much a key to the series’ success as its plot twists and bloody set pieces.
Lord Snow lives! This episode’s final shot depicts the resurrection of Jon Snow, former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and future King in the North. But between Tyrion’s first meeting with Dany’s dragons, Sansa’s touching farewell to Theon, Wun-Wun the giant’s rampage, Bran’s journey back in time to his father’s childhood and a storm-tossed confrontation between mad Euron Greyjoy and his brother Balon, the hour was packed with mythic moments long before Jon rose again.
This week on Game of Thrones: The shit finally hits the fan. Tyrion kills Tywin, Brienne beats the Hound, Stannis saves the Wall, Dany chains her dragons, Arya escapes Westeros, Hodor duels with skeletons and Bran meets the Children of the Forest. Season Four’s finale spectacularly illustrates the show’s storytelling scope, delivering climax after climax like a medieval Dirk Diggler.
Two men enter, one man leaves: That’s the brutal, beautiful simplicity of trial by combat. But the climactic duel didn’t just pit Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell against Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. It took three of Game of Thrones‘ greatest strengths – roguish fan favorites, monstrous sociopaths, and flabbergasting gore – and threw them into the arena as well. The result? Actor Pedro Pascal’s sexually voracious warlord got his skull crushed like a tomato right there on screen. Shock tactic? Yes, and no show does it better.
If you thought that Game of Thrones‘ second Neil Marshall-directed, episode-long battle might suffer from diminishing returns, you thought wrong. The wildling assault on the Wall was a thing of icy, bloody beauty. From giants to mammoths to enormous ice scythes, the jawdropping spectacle brought out that epic-fantasy feeling. Meanwhile, super-tight fight choreography, including a continuous 43-second crane shot that covered the entire battleground in Castle Black, kept the carnage real. Finally, the deaths of Jon Snow’s friends Pyp, Grenn – and especially his savage ex-girlfriend Ygritte – turned triumph into tragedy.
There’s a riot goin’ on. When King Joffrey’s arrogance ignites an angry crowd in the streets, the mighty Hound goes on a killing spree to rescue Sansa from sexual assault, while uncle Tyrion slaps the shit out of his royal nephew for almost singlehandedly ending the Baratheon dynasty. The grounds of Winterfell, meanwhile, get just as bloody when its turncloak conqueror Theon Greyjoy finds himself forced to execute an old friend. Composer Ramin Djawadi’s aching strings, along with Alfie Allen and Isaac Hempstead-Wright’s gut-wrenching performances, combine for a deadly, devastating scene.
This first-season standout showed that GoT was getting very good at painting in shades of gray. Tyrion’s trial in the mountain stronghold called the Eyrie featured both one of the show’s funniest sequences (“I made the bald man cry!”) and one of its most unsparingly savage (Tyrion’s blade-for-hire Bronn dropping his opponent through a trapdoor to his death). Elsewhere, lovable King Robert revealed himself as a wifebeater, while Dany’s preening bully of a brother, Viserys Targaryen, broke down over knowing he’d never be loved by anyone. In the end, that includes his sister, who orders his gruesome execution with molten gold. The metallic “clunk” as his freshly gilded head hits the ground will echo in our heads for a long, long time.
By the gods, a description of this episode alone reads like a highlight reel for the whole season. In one hour [deep breath] we meet fan-fave Brienne of Tarth; watch Queen Margaery get real with her closeted husband King Renly; play the game with Tyrion as he outwits his rivals Varys, Littlefinger and Grand Maester Pycelle; witness Theon Greyjoy’s defining act of betrayal as he burns a warning to his friend Robb Stark; and listen as a grizzled Night’s Watchman tells Arya that hatred can be sacred, right before he dies defending her. Power packed!
Emotionally, the Season One finale was all about fallout, with characters and audience alike – particularly the freshly slain Ned Stark’s children Robb, Sansa and Arya – still reeling from the shocking end of the previous episode. Visually, though, the final sequence was the crowning achievement: Daenerys Targaryen walked into the fire of her husband’s funeral pyre and emerged, naked and unscathed, as the Mother of Dragons. Equal parts surreal, sexy, sinister and symbolic of her strength, it’s the still the series’ single most indelible image.
The Season Four premiere revealed Game of Thrones to be a show transformed. Remember when the Lannisters were the antagonists? Now they’re the main characters, with the surviving Starks pushed to the side. It’s a hugely audacious shift, as if Katniss had died in the second Hunger Games movie and suddenly the series was about President Snow. The Hound-and-cub team-up that closes the episode further illustrates the show’s narrative perversity: Raise your hand if you cheered when a little girl murdered a guy in cold blood!
“Hold the door! Hold the door! Hold the door!” The jaw-dropping, heartbreaking revelation of how Hodor became the duosyllabic gentle giant we knew and love – Bran Stark’s time-travelling consciousness burned this command into his brain as a kid – dominated this horror flick of an episode, directed by Lost veteran Jack Bender. But the episode’s numerous emotional reunions – between Sansa and Littlefinger in the North, between Daenerys and Jorah in the East – were each devastating in their own right.
You got the disgrace, defeat and death of Stannis Baratheon. You saw the escape of Sansa Stark and Theon “Reek” Greyoy. You witnessed the dual murders of Myrcella Baratheon (by the Sand Snakes) and Ser Meryn Trant (by Arya Stark, making good on her kill list). All that, along with Cersei Lannister’s Walk of Shame and Jon Snow’s assassination. As season finales go, this one was tough to top …
… until the following season finale, that is. From its gorgeous opening sequence – a montage of King’s Landing luminaries preparing for the trial of Queens Margaery and Cersei, and we remember how that ended – to its rousing westward-we-sail finale, this was an episode for the ages. In between, Arya Stark took revenge against her mother’s killer; her sister Sansa fed her rapist Ramsay to the dogs; and Jon Snow was crowned King in the North just as we learned he’s actually a secret Targaryen (!) and potential heir to the Iron Throne.
It was all a big bait and switch, and not just the fact that Ned Stark – ostensibly the show’s main character – would die before Season One was over. Even the manner of death was a fake-out. The big question all episode long was whether Ned would sacrifice his honor and take the blame for treason in order to spare his daughters the sight of his execution. He did … and he died anyway. The unfairness of it, reflected in the anguished reactions of Arya and Sansa (played by the fine young actors Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner), was the unkindest cut of all.
To paraphrase an old joke, what do you call a thousand dead slavers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. That’s certainly the approach of this pivotal episode in Game of Thrones’ sixth season, which begins with Daenerys raining fire and blood upon the Masters of Slavers bay – and it only gets more sweeping and disturbing from there. Its true showcase is the titular conflict between Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton at the walls of Winterfell, a cataclysmic conflict that leaves literal mountains of corpses strewn across the battlefield. The horrors of war have rarely been more horrific.
The perfect Game? Without a shocking death or spectacular battle, this Season Three deep cut might get overlooked – which would be a crime against the old gods and the new. Three star-crossed couples provided the high points: Arya begged her older friend/crush Gendry to stay with her, plaintively telling him “You could be my family”; arrogant Jaime Lannister let his guard (and clothes) down while bathing with his frenemy Brienne, revealing the secret of how he killed a king to save a city; and the red-headed, hot-blooded wildling Ygritte seducing Jon Snow with powerfully sexy directness. “I want you to see me,” she says. “All of me.” A jewel in the crown, this one.
It’s the Red Wedding – ’nuff said. One of the most shocking episode of television ever aired, despite its events being common knowledge to Song of Ice and Fire readers – this could have coasted on the mere horror of losing three main characters in a matter of minutes. Instead, the filmmakers worked to create a sense of mounting dread, ratcheting up the “something’s not right” vibe until the knives came out. Then they focused on the grief, starting with King Robb crawling to the body of his pregnant, dying wife and climaxing with Catelyn Stark screaming as she watches her son die. Her body hit the floor along with our hopes, and “The Red Wedding” entered the pop-culture lexicon.
Bran Stark’s plunge, Ned Stark’s death, the Red Viper’s skull-crushing, Jon Snow’s assassination – all of them take a back seat to this episode when it comes to shocking the entire Game of Thrones audience. With no precedent in George R.R. Martin’s novels, which merely allude to a cataclysm at the titular village without giving us a clue what happened, “Hardhome” stunned book-readers and TV-viewers alike. After an ominous buildup, the armies of the dead descended on Night’s Watch and wildling forces alike in a literal avalanche of walking corpses, guided by the demonic Night King. As Jon Snow sailed away from a legion of zombified humans, the true menace of the White Walkers was made unbearably clear.
The best episode of the series features the best battle ever aired on TV, hands down – but it’s much more than just scaffolding for an incredible set piece. Written by the creator himself, George R.R. Martin, and directed by action specialist Neil Marshall, it gave war a human face, and its outcome real stakes. For every massive wildfire explosion, there was a quiet calm-before-the-storm conversation between warriors. For every battering-ram assault, there was a parent fearing for their child. And for every bold heroic charge, there was someone shattering under the strain. No episode was more spectacular, nor truer to the spirit of the series. If Game of Thrones were Led Zeppelin, “Blackwater” would be its “Stairway to Heaven.” Long may it burn.
Rob Sheffield revisits ‘Game of Thrones’ most gamechanging moments – from the Battle of the Bastards to the reddest wedding of them all. Watch here.