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40 Best ‘Game of Thrones’ Characters – Ranked and Updated

From Arya to Yara, the Night King to the Mother of Dragons, we count down the ‘Game’s best and worst players

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?

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28

Robert Baratheon

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.

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27

Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane

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.

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26

Missandei

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.

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25

The High Sparrow

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?

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24

Hodor

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.”

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23

Khal Drogo

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?

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22

Viserys Targaryen

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.

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21

Bran Stark

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.

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20

Oberyn ‘The Red Viper’ Martell

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.

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19

Stannis Baratheon

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.

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18

Theon Greyjoy

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.

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17

Melisandre

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.

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16

Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane

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.

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15

Varys

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.

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14

Samwell Tarly

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.

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13

Margaery Tyrell

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.

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12

Jaime Lannister

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..

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11

Tywin Lannister

Combining the malevolent mastermind vibe of the Emperor with the Oedipal menace of Darth Vader, Tywin was the dark father of the Lannister clan. And if his merciless treatment of his children had any redeeming quality whatsoever, it’s that he was even more Machiavellian toward their enemies. Do the ends justify the means? Perhaps they do if they help create a character this coldly compelling. But his son Tyrion didn’t see it that way, and paid him back for a lifetime of abuse with a crossbow to the gut.

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10

Ramsay Bolton

Like an experiment in creating a character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, the psychopathic son of backstabbing Lord Roose Bolton was sick enough to make Joffrey Baratheon look like Eddard Stark. But actor Iwan Rheon’s gleeful, almost giddy style turned him into the closest thing Westeros had to a bona fide supervillain. Eventually, his victim Sansa Stark gave him a taste of his own medicine by giving his dogs a taste of him. His crimes were hard to watch, but the character himself never was.

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9

Brienne of Tarth

Even in a series full of outcasts, this woman warrior stands out from the crowd, and not just because she’s a solid twelve inches taller. Trapped in a body built to do things people of her gender aren’t supposed to do in this society, she seems to seek escape by pairing up with other misfits – a closeted king, a widow stuck in a war, a knight who’s lost both his honor and his hand, a kidnapped young woman who’s been through too much, a bastard King in the North. Despite a lifetime of indignities, she’s open enough to connect with all of them – which is how she connects with us, too.