The strongest story arcs. The best one-liners. The most shocking demises. Whether they win or die, whether they’re hero or villain – or like most people on this show, somewhere in between – each character on Game of Thrones can employ an entire arsenal of factors to win the game that matters most: the battle for being crowned the series’ best character. As David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ smash-hit fantasy saga returns to HBO for its seventh season this weekend, we’re counting down the 40 most memorable characters from worst to best – updated since we last did this around the start of Season Four. In a cast so sprawling that some heavy hitters didn’t even make the cut (also: sorry, Podrick Payne, we still love you!), who is the one true king or queen?
We begin our countdown of Game of Thrones coolest characters with its coldest character. Transformed into a demonic killing machine a millennia ago by the magical Children of the Forest in order to stop their slaughter by humankind, the Night King turned against his makers. Now he and his fellow White Walkers – along with the army of zombies whose numbers grow every time he raises his slain enemies from the dead – are ready to unleash eternal winter on Westeros. Only the Wall stands against the regent’s dark reign. And once he drops one of his signature cocky “come at me bro” gestures … oh, it’s on.
Plenty of Game of Thrones villains are great players, and are recognized as such. But gods damn it, Walder Frey was the architect of the Red Wedding, the most shocking event in the series! Inviting people to celebrate your daughter’s nuptials and then murdering them at the reception made Lord Walder one of Westeros’s worst men … at least until Arya forced him to eat his own kids before slitting his throat. No more wedding plans for him.
Her father Balon was a crusty old buzzard. Her uncle Euron usurped her claim to rule the Iron Islands and is now out to kill her. Her brother Theon was pushed to the brink of insanity by their enemies. But somehow, this sea-faring warrior woman has maintained her devil-may-care attitude and a drive to do better than the mediocre men surrounding her. Who better to serve as admiral for the war fleet of Daenerys Targaryen, who’s been through the exact same thing (only she had dragons)?
He was a giant among men. Literally. Wun-Wun was the only member of his ancient, towering race to survive the wildlings’ battles against White Walkers, Night’s Watchmen and Stannis Baratheon alike – as well as the only one to cross south to supposed safety beyond the Wall. He wound up battling fiercely for the cause of his one-time enemy Jon Snow, giving his life to defeat Ramsay Bolton and defend the North against its many enemies. He may not have been human, but he was one hell of a guy.
Don’t let the last name fool you: This tall, red, and fearsome wildling warlord joined Wun-Wun and Jon Snow in their assault on enemy-occupied Winterfell and lived to tell the tale. Now he sits high in the King in the North’s council – when he’s not making goo-goo eyes at the equally formidable Brienne of Tarth, that is. He’s come a long way from the crotchety killer he was when we first met him.
If you’ve ever said the word “Khaleesi,” you’ve got the dulcet tones of Ser Jorah to thank. (We’re launching a Kickstarter to get actor Iain Glen to re-record the opening paragraph of Nabokov’s Lolita with the K-word instead.) Dany’s advisor-in-exile is doomed to pine for a May-December romance that will most never happen – not while there are younger, flashier swordsmen around, nor while he’s dealing with a bad case of greyscale plague. He’s a strange, sad stand-out of a character.
Technically, “a man has no name” – but for the purposes of this list “Jaqen H’ghar” will have to do. As a member of the mystical order of assassins known as the Faceless Men, he may well be the single deadliest person we’ve encountered on the show, which is really saying something. He helped Arya Stark escape captivity and trained her in his lethal ways – then let her go free when he saw she could learn no more from him because her love for her family was still too strong. Faceless? Yes. Heartless? Definitely not.
Killing, climbing, flirting, skinny-dipping, making out on the edge of the world, murdering innocent bystanders, getting shot full of arrows: This foul-mouthed, flame-haired wildling taught Jon Snow everything she knows before dying in his arms at the end of their star-crossed romance – and yet he still knows nothing. Love, Westeros-style.
Alas, poor Tommen, we hardly knew ye. Ascending to the Iron Throne after the death of his evil elder brother Joffrey, the second Baratheon boy king was a far kinder, gentler ruler – and an extremely, uh, enthusiastic husband to Margaery Tyrell, the queen he inherited along with the crown. But the dueling machinations of his mother Cersei and the religious fundamentalist called the High Sparrow divided his inner circle and reduced him to watching helplessly as the woman he loved went up in flames. His subsequent suicide was a body blow to all that is still decent in Westeros.
The Onion Knight’s such a stand-up guy that he made his continued allegiance to Stannis Baratheon, the man who killed his own brother with a shadow demon – and cost Davos’ son his life – feel like what any decent person would do. Following his boss’s death, this former smuggler has stood by the side of Jon Snow, the new King in the North, ever since. And he’s encouraged both his commanders to put the needs of the realm first the entire time.
In the books, he’s basically just the blackhearted sellsword Tyrion hires as his bodyguard, who winds up displaying a knack for both killing and surviving. On the show, the writers and actor Jerome Flynn have teamed up to make him a serial scene-stealer, with a roguish Errol-Flynn-gone-feral charm. Whether he’s partnering with Tyrion or sparring with the Imp’s big brother Jaime, everybody loves Bronn!
There’s something very American Psycho about King’s Landing’s stealthiest schemer, and it’s not just his penchant for delivering monologues while naked women perform for his enjoyment. Littlefinger’s mask of sanity is convincing enough to put him in charge of both the bank accounts and boudoirs of Westeros’ most powerful people. Beneath it? A void of vengeance and boundless ambition. Keep your eye on this guy, if you can stomach it – especially now that he’s wormed his way back into Sansa Stark’s good graces.
A brash, blustery aristocrat who rises to the top on a wave of popularity but finds out he’s much better at winning power than knowing what to do with it? Where have we heard that story before? Such was the life of the late king of Westeros, a Falstaffian figure who clung to his former glory like a high-school football player gone to seed. Eventually, his kingdoms fell apart and even his closest advisors schemed to help speed up his removal from the throne. His victory was his tragedy.
Head-crusher, horse-decapitator, brother-burner, blue-faced zombified killing machine – with a resume like that, only a family as screwed up as the Lannisters would hire this guy to be their head of security. (To be fair, Westeros has no House Trump.) After nearly dying during his duel against the Red Viper of Dorne, whose noggin he pulped like a grapefruit, the Mountain rose again thanks to the dark arts of Cersei’s minion Qyburn. Now he stands by her side as she sits the Iron Throne, ready to dispense the Queen’s injustice. He may or may not ever get another showdown with his baby brother the Hound, but his awful awesomeness is, as they say, confirmed.
Meet the Mother of Dragons’ right-hand woman. Missandei was an enslaved translator who helped Daenerys overthrow not just her “masters,” but those of the entire Slaver’s Bay region. Now she’s one of the Targaryen queen’s most valued advisors – and a potential love interest to the quiet eunuch general Grey Worm. Here’s hoping they survive the winter and live on to dream of spring together.
Jonathan Pryce was one of the series’ biggest casting coups, so it’s fitting his fundamentalist character pulled off a coup of his own. Empowered in an ill-advised move by Queen Cersei as a bulwark against her rivals in House Tyrell, he and his fanatical followers brought the system to its knees and ruled King’s Landing in the monarchy’s place – at least until Cersei blew them all to seven hells. All the while, Pryce’s chilling holy man smiled and spoke softly. If the gods are on your side, who needs to yell?
Bran Stark’s enormous guardian was a man of few words – and we found out how he became that way in one of the show’s saddest sequences. So we’ll honor his legacy by keeping this brief. We’ve got three words for you: “Hold the door.”
A Genghis Khan in guyliner, Drogo began as a brutal barbarian and ended at the hands of an infected wound and black-magic medicine. But in between, he developed into one half of the show’s most rapturous romance (not to mention its most unlikely and, perhaps, disturbing, considering the manner in which it began). Given Jason Momoa’s magnetic, sumptuously shirtless performance, who wouldn’t eat their hearts out for that?
The John the Baptist to Joffrey Baratheon's Jesus Christ, Daenerys' big blonde brother was the first royal douchecanoe Game of Thrones rowed downstream. But unlike his larger-than-life successor, Viserys got a moment or two to seem human: first breaking down about his loveless, hunted life, then begging for said life before his brother-in-law boiled his brain with molten gold. He was no dragon, but he was a heck of a character.
In any other series, this adventurous little boy turned paraplegic psychic would unequivocally be the main character – half Luke Skywalker, half Professor X, all Joseph Campbell hero’s-journey archetype. Instead, he gets pushed out a window, and then pushed to the margins of the story as bigger, bolder characters fight and die for the throne. His growing powers of telepathy and time travel are part of a much longer game, against a far deadlier enemy – and he’s only just begun to play.
He’s sexy (and serpentine) – and he knows it. He’s Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne, the bisexual brother of the southern region’s timid ruler, and his lust for life and skill for killing alike made him a breakout star during Season Four. Actor Pedro Pascal invested him with an intelligence and warmth that kept him from getting cartoonish, making his skull-shattering death at the hands of the Mountain one of the show’s most shocking moments.
What if you were the rightful king of Westeros, but nobody cared? That was the predicament of the late King Robert’s unsmiling sibling. His brother Renly, his rival Robb Stark, both of Jaime and Cersei’s sons (yes, even Joffrey) – all of them are more appealing than this so-called Lord of Light. Actor Stephen Dillane made every ounce of Stannis’s resentment visible onscreen, whether he was fighting to save the realm from the wildlings or sacrificing his own daughter to his cause. Only in death, at the hands of Brienne of Tarth, did he seem to find peace.
Prince of all families, master of none. Raised as a foster-son-slash-hostage by Ned Stark, the once-swaggering heir to the Iron Islands built up a lifetime of resentment. He betrayed his foster brother Robb and seized Winterfell for his own – until all sides abandoned him and he wound up at the tender mercies of the Bastard of Bolton. His transformation into the traumatized “Reek,” and his redemption by helping Sansa Stark escape from their tormenter Ramsay, made for one of the show’s most unexpected and satisfying storylines. Now he rides with the Mother of Dragons.
Blood, fire, sex, magic: The Red Woman’s not just a powerful sorceress, she’s a human Voltron formed from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ back catalogue. Sometimes it seemed like her constant trou-dropping was intended to distract from how obviously wrong she was about Stannis Baratheon being the messiah – a fact she learned to her horror when the sacrifice of his daughter failed to produce a victory. But the shocking revelation that her youthful glamor is an illusion – and her show-stopping resurrection of Jon Snow from the dead – prove she still has a part to play in the war against the darkness.
He’s not the most terrifying killing machine in the Lannisters’ employ, or even in his own family; that would be his truly insane and gigantic older brother the Mountain, a.k.a. the guy who burned half his face off. But he’s got a penchant for protecting children like Sansa and Arya (when he’s not killing children, that is), and he slices through the system’s hypocrisy like a sword through a would-be rapist’s midsection. He’s both as fierce and as vulnerable as his namesake – and now, after getting left for dead by Brienne and Arya and returning to the fight as a member of the do-gooding Brotherhood, we’ll see which side of his personality wins out.
He’s the spider at the center of a web of spies, the nest to which countless little birds flock to sing their secret songs, the mixed metaphor at the dark heart of Westerosi politics. But Game of Thrones‘ most potent eunuch is also witty, wise, and the closest thing to a friend that Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister had in King’s Landing; he’s now providing that same kind of support to Daenerys. And thanks to actor Conleth Hill’s distinctive delivery, all of his on-screen appearances are freaking delightful.
Because every epic fantasy saga worth its salt needs a portly, adorable sidekick named Sam. Please note, however, that long before Jon Snow discovered his destiny, it was his timid, bookish brother in the Night’s Watch who was rescuing women and children, killing White Walkers, and generally learning the true nature of the secret threat to the Seven Kingdoms. Now he’s got a girlfriend, a baby, his father’s stolen sword, and a ticket to join the Seven Kingdoms’ braintrust, the maesters. This guy’s going places.
She doesn’t want to be a queen – she wants to be the queen. Between that ice-cold declaration and her red-hot sex appeal, you’d be forgiven for thinking Lady Margaery is a junior-varsity Cersei. But her care for the peasants, her brother Loras, her grandmother Olenna and her fellow fiancée-to-Joffrey Sansa Stark all appear legitimate. They just also happened to be great politics, which is part of what made Margaery one of the game’s most powerful players – and made her imprisonment by the High Sparrow and death at the Lannister Queen’s hands so tragic.
If these rankings were based on who had the most metal nickname, the Kinglsayer would win in a walk. But as it stands, going from sisterfucking and the attempted murder of a child in the pilot episode to saving the life of his former enemy Brienne (not to mention the population of King’s Landing) by the end of Season Three is a transformation that takes him right to the top twelve. His attempts to balance his newfound morality with his desire to protect his crumbling family have been fascinating and heartbreaking to watch..