WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR ALL 5 ASOIAF BOOKS AND 6 SEASONS OF GAME OF THRONES (AND SOME THEORIES) SO READ AT OWN RISK.
I started watching HBO’s Game of Thrones almost immediately after season 3 aired – I’d heard so much about the show I had to give in to the temptation and see what all the fuss was about, so I snagged the season 1 and 2 blu-rays from Amazon. I actually binged books 1-3 before watching, as that was the only material covered by the show at the time and I knew I’d never read the books if I went for the show first. After reading, I watched episodes 1-10 in one sitting, and was hooked. I bought HBO Now for the start of Season 5, went to the Game of Thrones Live concert back in March, and I’ve been a loyal fan since I cracked open the first novel. And, as it is with most fans, the wait for a new season and new episodes is AGONIZING.
Show-wise, for reference, my favorite character is Jaqen H’ghar/Faceless Man (followed by Jon, Sandor, Beric Dondarrion, and Meera), my favorite house is the Starks (followed by the Mormonts and Baratheons) my least favorite character (besides the obvious) is Theon, my favorite controversial character is Melisandre, and I am 100% on the Cleganebowl hype train. I also half-supported Stannis the Mannis up until 5.9, and I don’t really know who will sit on the throne at the end of the series, but I don’t think it will be Jon or Dany. I also think Jaime and Cersei are more likely to be secret Targaryens than Tyrion, but I’m hoping that none of them are, I think Jorah is a massive creepazoid in the books but I really like him on the show, and while I generally like (and occasionally prefer) the changes the show has made to the source material (Sansa replacing Jeyne Pool, Mance getting axed, Arya in Harrenhal with Tywin, all the characters getting aged up, the omission of Lady Stoneheart,) the character assassination of Loras Tyrell is a grave books-to-show injustice that is only made tolerable by the performance of Finn Jones, and I hate the way Barristan Selmy’s death was handled; he (and Ian Mcelhinney) deserved way more and I would have loved to see him make it through S6 at least.
So, with the premiere of season 7 only two days away, I thought I’d list my top fifteen episodes. Bear in mind, this list is MY OPINION so please set down the torches and pitchforks.
Honorable mentions: Winter is Coming (1.1), A Golden Crown (1.6), Valar Morghulis (2.10), And Now His Watch Is Ended (3.4), The Bear and the Maiden Fair (3.7), Two Swords (4.1), Mockingbird (4.7), The Dance of Dragons (5.9), Mother’s Mercy (5.10), Home (6.2), The Broken Man (6.7).
15.) Kissed by Fire – Season 3 Episode 5
Not only do Jon Snow and Ygritte get their “cave” moment in this episode, a pivotal point in their relationship, but Jaime and Brienne also achieve a breakthrough. I credit this episode as the moment where I began to actually appreciate Jaime as a character, as he bares his soul to Brienne and ponders “by what right does the wolf judge the lion?” This episode also gives me hope that Jaime will turn his back on Cersei for good in the upcoming season; it is the first bright spark of Jaime’s redemption arc, the first sign that there is more to him than his bond with his sister, the glimpse of his turmoil over his “sullied” reputation and how he feels about being called “Kinglsayer.” Robb also grapples with dissent among his camp and tries to assert his power by beheading Rickard Karstark, a move that will ultimately contribute to his undoing as he loses the support of the Karstarks and allows unrest to fester among the Northern forces. My favorite moment from this episode, however, is the blazing battle between Beric and the Hound, which culminates in the first on-screen “Lord of Light” powered revival in the series, but I also love Arya’s plea to Gendry that she could be his family, only for him to tell her that could never happen, as she would be “m’lady.” GOD, THE HEARTBREAK.
14.) Fire and Blood – Season 1 Episode 10
Whenever I think of definitive images and moments from Game of Thrones as a whole, one of the first scenes that comes to mind is the closing shot of this episode – Daenerys, the Unburnt, with her trio of freshly-hatched dragon babies and a bowing Khalasar around her. It is, effectively, the “rebirth” of Dany after she loses her husband and unborn son and becomes the “Mother of Dragons,” among about a thousand other titles. This episode also features the fallout from Ned’s death, with Robb and Cat mourning his loss and Cat declaring they will kill the Lannister’s for what they’ve done, Sansa very nearly ending Joffrey before his reign of terror can pick up any traction, and Yoren rescuing Arya by disguising her as a boy and taking her on the road north with some other Night’s Watch recruits, including Gendry, and Jon’s escape from Castle Black foiled by his new friends, who encourage him to stay true to his vows. Plus, we’ve got the “DAKINGINDANORF” speech vol.1, which still gives me chills upon subsequent re-watches.
13.) Mhysa – Season 3 Episode 10
The Season 3 finale is a standout episode all on it’s own, despite following perhaps the most shocking and heartbreaking episode in the series up to that point. I guess some folks consider this one of the “weaker” finales, and I understand where that viewpoint comes from, but I think that’s mostly because it gets overshadowed by The Rains of Castamere. This episode features the first signs of Arya’s changing character after witnessing her dead brother being paraded around with his wolf’s head sewn onto his body, Bran’s foreshadowing tale of the “Rat Cook” and their encounter with Gilly and Sam, Tywin’s amazing ownage of his sadistic grandson followed by his cool demeanor when explaining his motivations for the Red Wedding and continuing cruelty toward Tyrion, our last view of Gendry (for now), Jon confessing his love for Ygritte post-betrayal to which she promptly shoots him with three arrows, and Dany being hailed as “mhysa” by the freed slaves of Yunkai. All in all, it’s a great episode that suffers from placement; it follows one of the most horrific and powerful episodes in the series, but still stands tall on its own. On a recent rewatch, I did notice one interesting bit of dialogue… when Davos is arguing for Gendry’s life, Stannis muses, “What’s the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?” and Davos replies “Everything.” He was referring to Gendry in the moment, but could it also imply… Jon? (I’m sure I’m not the first to notice this; I’m not that clever.)
12.) The Laws of Gods and Men – Season 4 Episode 6
There is one major reason for the inclusion of this episode over it’s successor, Mockingbird; Tyrion’s trial. It’s such a defining moment for Tyrion’s character and his relationships and it plays out with such conviction and tension that it’s easily one of the highlights of the series overall, and perhaps Dinklage’s best performance on the show so far. His speech at the end, where, after suffering Shae’s betrayal, he demands a trial by combat and eschews the safety of being sent to the Wall after a basically guaranteed guilty verdict, is pure genius. The rest of the episode is great as well, with Yara’s failed attempt to rescue “Reek,” Davos’s appeal to the Iron Bank on behalf of Stannis, and Dany’s realization that ruling is not all about conquest and honor, but the main draw is the trial, and it remains one of the most pivotal and dramatic moments in the show’s run, even though it hasn’t got any bloodshed/murder or physical altercations.
11.) The Lion and the Rose – Season 4 Episode 2
I think there’s one major reason why fans love this episode… and that is the long overdue (and satisfying) demise of everyone’s least favorite sadistic boy king, Joffrey Baratheon. Written by GRRM himself, this episode delivers on multiple levels; it’s visually gorgeous, the music is sublime, the acting is stellar (per usual) and it’s almost sad to say goodbye to Jack Gleeson, who, despite playing one of the most hated and vile characters in television history, did so with such amazing skill and talent that it’s hard not to love him a bit. This episode is vindicating, has great music, costumes, and dialogue, and the entire wedding segment is a testament to effective narrative structure. It’s great to watch over again so you can try to pinpoint the moment where the plan to murder Joffrey is put in motion.
10.) The Mountain and the Viper – Season 4 Episode 8
For the record, I mostly consider Mockingbird (the previous episode) to be of comparable standing, partly due to Lysa’s plunge through the Moon Door, but mostly because of Oberyn’s speech and his offer to become Tyrion’s champion at his trial by combat, which I consider one of the best monologues/moments in the entire show. BUT, The Mountain and the Viper contains the epic showdown between Oberyn and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, which propels it above its predecessor. The entire trial by combat is an edge-of-your-seat spectacle, with a very Thrones-style conclusion, as victory and vengeance seemed to be in Oberyn’s grasp…only for his head to end up smushed like an egg between The Mountain’s fists. Though that’s the major event in the episode (and a gruesome highlight of the season) this episode’s also got the Darth Sansa reveal, the banishment of Jorah from Dany’s squad, and Reek’s “performance” as Theon Greyjoy. R.I.P, Oberyn – but major kudos to Pedro Pascal for a memorable performance with a shocking and soul-crushing conclusion. I didn’t love Oberyn in the books, but Pascal just about stole season 4 with his portrayal as the suave Dornish prince.
9.) Hardhome – Season 5 Episode 8
Though this episode as a whole is great, the main draw is the White Walker and Wight invasion of the wildling camp at Hardhome. The moment where Jon’s Valyrian steel sword clashes with the White Walker’s spear is my favorite moment of season 5 overall – I know season 5 gets a lot of flak, but it’s hard to argue against the greatness of this episode (and the two that follow it). I was on the edge of my seat for the entire second half, watching as the wights savaged the camp and tumbled over a cliff in a zombie avalanche, closing with the shot of the Night King staring at Jon and lifting his arms, raising his massive Army of the Dead, now enhanced with hundreds of new wildling recruits. This episode has some other great moments, like Dany’s “break the wheel” speech and her allowing Tyrion to serve as her adviser, but the battle at Hardhome is a standout scene for the season (and the series), rivaled only by Dany’s fleeing Meereen on Drogon and Cersei’s walk of atonement in the following two episodes.
8.) Baelor – Season 1 Episode 9
Season 1’s penultimate episode is the first major gut-punch in the series, and the first solid realization for (non-reader) viewers that life in Westeros is not about the good guys getting their happily ever after and honor winning over underhanded, scheming politics. Our stern, stalwart northern hero Ned Stark’s head gets lopped off at the command of a vicious boy king, and the “game of thrones” officially begins. I read the books beforehand, so I knew what was going to happen (plus, he’s played by the amazing Sean Bean, so clearly he wasn’t long for the world) but it didn’t make the blow any less painful. And while that moment is easily the defining point in the episode, there are some other great moments as well; Tyrion’s game with Shae and Bronn, Robb’s victorious return from the Battle of the Whispering Wood, Jon and Aemon’s conversation about love and duty, and Daenery’s fateful decision to turn to magic to try and save Drogo’s life. This episode marks the true launch of the series; after Ned falls, the pieces are in place for the War of the Five Kings to start and set off even more mayhem.
7.) The Rains of Castamere – Season 3 Episode 9
I’m not ranking this episode highly because I like what happens in it, because I don’t. Robb was one of my favorite characters in the books up until the fateful wedding of Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey. I mean… watching it back, Robb totally had it coming, but it doesn’t make the event any less devastating. As soon as the cello churned out the first notes of the ominous song, I knew the Red Wedding was upon us, and still found myself getting emotional watching it all play out onscreen – largely because the acting in this episode is on point. Massive credit to Michelle Fairley (Catelyn) and Richard Madden (Robb) for making me sob and bringing such a horrific scene to life, and also to David Bradley (Walder Frey) for making me want to rip his head off and chuck it in the Trident, and Maisie Williams (Arya) for her portrayal of such anguish at getting so close to her family, only to have her hopes slashed savagely out from beneath her. It’s a slow burn to a massive bomb, and the entire framework of the episode functions as the set-up to the dramatic, heartbreaking close, and the final wail of a mother as she watches her son breathe his last. This episode is one of the most definitive episodes of Game of Thrones, and one of the most shocking moments in television history, and it doesn’t get any easier to watch upon multiple viewings.
6.) The Door – Season 6 Episode 5
This episode was the “Red Wedding” and “Ned Beheading” for the book readers, since Season 6 was the show’s first major foray into material that has been speculated about, but is not yet released in book form. The “Hold the Door” moment was the first major instance on the show (there have been some smaller “OH SHIT” moments and surprises) where my jaw dropped and I said, “Oh my god” and then eventually wept like an infant. As soon as I realized what was happening I very nearly screamed “OH MY GOD BRAN YOU LITTLE SHIT”, but, for the sake of my neighbors, I refrained. After all, the “past is already written, the ink is dry” and clearly, Bran had to do what he did because it had…already… been done, I guess? This episode marks a turning point for Bran, as he realizes his actions have had an effect on his life (and the lives of those he cares about) for far longer than he anticipated, and he is the reason for “Hodor.” Bran now must become the Three-Eyed Raven, much like Jojen predicted way back in season 3. But mad props to Kristian Nairn for his performance; he only ever had one line, but he never said “Hodor” the same way twice and was easily the most lovable character in the series, which made his last stand all the more crushing. Other than that, we have Sansa’s angry confrontation of Littlefinger, another tearful goodbye for Dany and Jorah, the first instance of Varys being rattled as he and Tyrion meet with the priestess Kinvara, the crowning (and near drowning) of Euron, and Sansa gifting Jon with a new “Ned-esque” cloak. But really, this episode’s strongest point is the “Hold the Door” moment, and it, like many other moments on this show, is not any easier to watch the second or third time.
5.) Battle of the Bastards – Season 6 Episode 9
This episode tops a lot of folk’s lists, and for good reason. I consider this episode’s major strengths to be the directing, cinematography, special effects, battle choreography, music, and the fitting curtain call for Westeros’s most sadistic bastard, Ramsay Bolton – not even his supporters from House Twentygoodmen could save him. Weirdly enough, I was almost more hyped up by Dany’s epic conquest of the Masters of Slaver’s Bay in the opening of the episode, with the amazing track “Reign” playing over it. This episode is stunning in a multitude of ways, particularly the visual, but I actually found the writing to be a bit weaker, with some dubious character actions that, upon rewatching the episode, appeared to be concocted to create a sense of tension or drama that could have easily been avoided or shouldn’t have happened at all. Like… run in a freaking serpentine pattern, Rickon, my god. But regardless of nitpicks, there are some incredible moments in this episode, such as Jon standing his ground and drawing his sword as the mounted soldiers barrel toward him, Jon nearly being smothered in a pile of bodies and scrambling soldiers, the Knights of the Vale charging in to save the day, and Sansa striding away with a smile as Ramsay screams behind her. It’s an amazing episode and worthy of “GoT Episode 9” infamy, but I do think it’s a tad overblown.
4.) The Children – Season 4 Episode 10
There’s a lot of season 4 on this list… mainly because it’s my favorite season, but I also believe it is the most well-rounded season thus far, with multiple standout episodes that are the epitome of what Game of Thrones is about, and The Children is a big example of that. Stannis swoops in with reinforcements to intersect with Jon’s storyline and saves the Wall from the wildling invaders, and Melisandre stares with keen interest at Jon Snow through the flicker of a mass pyre. Though we lose Jojen, Bran and co. (I call them Bran and the Flakes, but it never caught on) finally get to the tree where the Three-Eyed Raven resides, and Bran is told he will never walk again, “but you will fly.” Dany chooses to lock two her dragons away, symbolic of a mother parting from her “children” in the attempt at some greater good. Tyrion realizes the true extent of Shae’s betrayal, and we discover that Lord Tywin doesn’t “shit gold” after all. We see the Hound vs Brienne fight, and, as the Hound lays dying at the base of the cliff, pleading with Arya to have mercy on him, I actually cried – which I never would have expected, but Rory McCann’s performance is utterly moving, even in its crass gruffness. The final shot of Arya on the boat heading toward Braavos as “The Children” plays in the background is a phenomenal end to the season, even though it’s the first season-close not to feature a valiant Dany and her dragons. For me, this is one of the strongest episodes in the series and the dramatic finale to what I still consider to be the show’s best season in terms of plot development and character evolution.
3.) Watchers on the Wall – Season 4 Episode 9
More or less the “Helm’s Deep” of Westeros, Watchers on the Wall is a full-scale battle with drama and action that could rival any fantasy film, despite being just a single television episode. The cinematography and choreography in this episode is mind-blowing, but for me, the greatest moment in this episode is when Grenn and a few of his other Night’s Watch brothers face down a charging Giant whilst reciting the Night’s Watch pledge, holding the gate though it costs them their life. I also sobbed when Jon sees Ygritte again and smiles at her, only to watch as she’s pierced by an arrow by Olly, vengeance for the death of his father. The battle fades away around them as they say goodbye and Ygritte delivers her final, heartbreaking “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” The brothers of the Watch put their lives on the line to defend a realm that shows them significantly less regard than they deserve, and they do so with valiance and courage. There’s also great character development in this episode, with Jon and Alliser Thorne striking a note of truce in the face of pending battle, Sam swearing for the first time as he defends Gilly, Grenn’s last stand, and Ygritte’s faltering thirst for revenge in the face of the man she loves.
2.) Blackwater – Season 2 Episode 9
I very, very nearly put this episode at #1, as it honestly is my favorite in the series (tied with Watchers on the Wall.) I think the pacing in the episode is phenomenal, the effects are astounding, the writing is incredible, the music (the Lannister themes fused with Stannis’s)… everything comes together to weave an amazing battle and a story as powerful as a burst of green fire. Tyrion’s epic speech, the Hound’s offer to save Sansa, Bronn’s single arrow, Sansa’s calming efforts toward the other ladies and her sick burn of “just as I pray for the king’s” at Tyrion, the tavern sing-a-long before the battle, the freshly-combined Tyrell and Lannister forces riding to the rescue, and Loras donning Renly’s armor, all combine to make a stellar and engrossing episode, even though it only takes place in one location. Each character shines in this episode, be it for their moments of valor or cowardice or both. My favorite moment in this episode is… well, it’s hard to pick, because there are far too many great ones to pare down.
1.) The Winds of Winter – Season 6 Episode 10
This episode isn’t my favorite, but I still consider it to be the best episode in the series. The “Light of the Seven” opening sequence, with the music from Ramin Djawadi, the performance of the actors, and the stellar direction of Miguel Sapochnik, is sheer brilliance, from the first plink of the piano to the bombastic demise of the Tyrell family, the High Sparrow and his little sparrowlings, and a bunch of innocent folks who just wanted to spend their morning seeing a trial and got blown up instead, while Cersei watches from afar with a smug, silent smile. Obviously, it’s difficult to follow such an explosive moment, but the rest of the episode is no slouch. The pivotal “tower” reveal – with Bran weirwood visioning the truth of Jon’s parentage – was handled so effectively and beautifully that I’ve teared up every time I’ve seen it since. From the renewed “DAKINGINDANORF” rallying, the reveal of the Citadel’s library, Cersei’s coronation and Jaime’s conflicted face as he watches her sit the Iron Throne, Arya’s vengeance on the smarmy Walder Frey for the role he played in the deaths of her family, and Dany finally setting sail for Westeros, this episode has no slow moments, has a ton of big events all one after the other, and is framed in such a way to make the wait for season 7 all the more unbearable. This episode flows like a poem; smooth and beautiful with flawless rhythm. It is the declaration that Winter is Here, and it does so in marvelous, jaw-dropping, and visually-engrossing fashion.
Luckily, we don’t have long to wait now… on Sunday, season 7 begins, and hopefully there will be some titles swapped around on this list come episode 7.7!