The Rainbow Dissent

b1_rainbow_gavel_ah_s877x500The 5-4 majority opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges was grounded in the idea of liberty through due process of law.

What surprises me is how the dissent turned out. I thought that Chief Justice Roberts would swing; that Scalia would have the most reasonable dissent; that Alito would be a tool; and that Thomas would display his usual know-nothing jurisprudence. Only Alito was true to form. Thomas actually had a reasonable (though flawed) opinion, while Roberts not only didn’t swing but made a fool and hypocrite of himself. Let’s look at the dissenters in turn, from best to worst.

thomasClarence Thomas. Thomas argued that the majority is misapplying the 14th Amendment’s Due-Process Clause — which safeguards life, liberty, and property — because, he says, liberty only includes the protection of individual rights against government interference, not the conferral of government benefits:

“Even assuming that the ‘liberty’ in the Due Process Clause encompasses something more than freedom from physical restraint, it would not include the types of rights claimed by the majority. In the American legal tradition, liberty has long been understood as individual freedom from governmental action, not as a right to a particular governmental entitlement.”

He cites evidence indicating that the liberty protected by the clause has been understood in this very limited way, and he is largely correct. But legal critics have noted his two glaring oversights. First, he ignores the 14th Amendment’s even more important Equal Protection Clause, which says that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws”. The issue is simple: state laws that recognize only opposite-sex marriage unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of gender and/or sexual orientation, and whenever state laws do discriminate like this (on the basis of of race, gender, and/or sexual orientation) that is usually held to be unconstitutional, irrespective of whether the laws in question grant positive benefits or not. State governments can choose whether or not to provide public education, but it’s unconstitutional for them to be selective in their decision; they can’t provide education only to whites, or only to men.

Second, Thomas isn’t even entirely right on the Due Process Clause, because he ignores the contractual nature of marriage, which is key. The right to freedom of contract has long been understood as a liberty protected by the constitution. Freedom includes the right to voluntarily enter into an agreement that restricts one’s future options in exchange for benefits. Employment contracts and marriage contracts are all forms of liberty. Obviously — and when I say “obviously”, I do mean from a constitutional perspective — a person who is barred from entering into a contractual agreement is less free than the one who can. Marriage is not, as Thomas implies, “just” a matter of getting benefits per se; it’s a matter of entering into a private-party contract.

In my mind, both the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment make same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. On top of this, there is judicial precedent for striking down marriage bans on the basis of liberty and equity. Loving vs. Virginia invalidated bans on interracial unions in 1967, and Turner vs. Safley did the same for prisoners in 1987. The majority opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges followed this stream of jurisprudence. It was constitutionally sound.

scaliaAntonin Scalia. That leaves us with the three others, who had little to show for themselves. I had thought Scalia would make the best case for the dissent based on his preliminary remarks last month. His concern had been for the right of religious pastors to conduct marriage according to their creed. Gay marriage should be decided by states, he said, because that allows states to make exceptions — for example, that gays can be married, but ministers who don’t believe in gay marriage cannot be forced to marry them. If, on the other hand, the supreme court ruled gay marriage as a constitutional right, ministers wouldn’t be able to opt out.

That was a reasonable argument, but quickly shot down by his colleagues. Unwilling pastors, rabbis, priests, etc. are protected by the First Amendment. They cannot be forced to officiate at marriages they object to. There are rabbis who refuse to conduct marriages between Jews and non-Jews — even though we have a constitutional prohibition against religious discrimination — and those rabbis get all the powers and privileges of the state. Scalia’s objection amounted to a phantom menace, and it’s no surprise he didn’t revisit the issue in his dissent.

So he was left with the lame objection that the majority is using the 14th Amendment in a way that was never intended by its writers:

“When the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, every state limited marriage to one man and one woman, and no one doubted the constitutionality of doing so. The majority have discovered in the Fourteenth Amendment a ‘fundamental right’ overlooked by every person alive at the time of ratification, and almost everyone else in the time since.”

All that does is beg the question and fail to acknowledge the majority’s points of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.

alitoSamuel Alito. Alito opined that gay marriage isn’t protected by the Due Process Clause because the concept of liberty applies only to those principles that are rooted in U.S. tradition. The concept of gay marriage is too new:

“For today’s majority, it does not matter that the right to same-sex marriage lacks deep roots or even that it is contrary to long-established tradition. The justices in the majority claim the authority to confer constitutional protection upon that right simply because they believe that it is fundamental.”

But the majority gives good reasons why that right is fundamental, as we saw above.

Alito also decried a conception of marriage that isn’t focused on procreation. States, he says, have formalized and promoted marriage in order to encourage potentially procreative conduct to take place within a lasting unit that has long been thought to provide the best atmosphere for raising children. But classic family values are irrelevant here.

John G. Roberts portraitJohn Roberts. Roberts showed signs of swinging in the preliminaries but ultimately copped out:

“Understand well what this dissent is about: It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law.”

Or in other words, as he later quipped, “This is a court, not a legislature.” That statement is laughable given the decision he penned only one day before. In King vs. Burwell he saved Obamacare by rewriting one of its statutes — a clear overreach of judiciary prerogative if there ever was one. Obergefell vs. Hodges doesn’t require the overreach. It requires an engagement with the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, and the precedents set by previous supreme court decisions. Roberts’ sidestepping of these issues made him a callow hypocrite.

The Chief Justice Got His Cases Backwards

john-robertsOur chief justice has been interesting to watch. His swing-vote with the liberals in National Federation of Independent Business vs. Sebelius (2012) earned him my respect, and not simply because I support Obamacare. The Supreme Court doesn’t exist to rule in favor of what we like, or against what we dislike, only to determine the constitutionality of laws under fire.

Roberts correctly recognized that Obamacare was a constitutional exercise of Congress’ taxing power. And we should be clear about this, since many people continue to dispute the issue: Obamacare is certainly a tax: it’s an amendment to the Internal Revenue Code; it’s calculated based on a percentage of adjusted gross income or a fixed amount, whichever is larger; it raises revenue; it serves the general welfare, and is not a criminal penalty in disguise. To object that the health care mandate was not written as a tax but as a penalty, and that the bill’s authors and administration denied that Obamacare was a tax, doesn’t settle the issue in advance. The authors were wrong in their denial.

Intentions disproven by results are empty. If I intend to write a sonnet, but I write a limerick, the end result is a limerick, and my intentions bloody failed. The end result of Obamacare was the absolute functional equivalent of a tax. If Roberts read something into the text of the law that wasn’t originally meant, he saw what was clearly there irrespective of that, and that’s why the 2012 case to uphold Obamacare was constitutionally solid.

What made that decision even more impressive is that Roberts is conservative-leaning and not wild about Obamacare. He went against his personal biases in upholding the mandate, thereby showing the kind of integrity that I believe should be emulated more often on the supreme court.

That was then. Flash-forward to the supreme court decision issued last Thursday, King vs. Burwell, in which Obamacare was saved a second time, in the 36 states that don’t participate in insurance exchanges that provide eligibility for tax credits. The language of the statute provides eligibility for such credits only to people with state-operated exchanges (14 states provide this), but Roberts claimed that the disputed clause is ambiguous and so should be interpreted in a more lenient manner — and by himself.

The Wall Street Journal criticizes Roberts as follows:

“The black-letter language of ObamaCare limits insurance subsidies to ‘an exchange established by the State.’ But the Democrats who wrote the bill in 2010 never imagined that 36 states would refuse to participate. So the White House through the IRS wrote a regulation that also opened the subsidy spigots to exchanges established by the federal government.

Chief Justice Roberts has now become a co-conspirator in this executive law-making. With the verve of a legislator, he has effectively amended the statute to read ‘established by the State — or by the way the Federal Government.’ His opinion — joined by the four liberal Justices and Anthony Kennedy — is all the more startling because it goes beyond normal deference to regulators.

Chief Justice Roberts concedes that the challengers’ arguments ‘about the plain meaning’ of the law ‘are strong.’ But then he writes that Congress in its 2010 haste bypassed ‘the traditional legislative process’ and thus ‘the Act does not reflect the type of care and deliberation that one might expect of such significant legislation.’ So because ObamaCare is a bad law, the Court must interpret it differently from other laws.”

I don’t like having to agree with this, but I do. Roberts assumed executive and legislative roles in order to deal with a tension between a statutory text and the statute’s structure and purpose. But in such cases, the rule of law is clear: the government takes priority. According to the Chevron doctrine, when a statute is ambiguous, courts should defer to the interpretation of the implementing agency. Roberts didn’t do that; he arrogated the role to himself.

I can sympathize with the reason for his judiciary arrogance. He and the liberal justices were obviously trying to save Obamacare in a quick and dirty way so that we wouldn’t be left with a mess in 36 states. Millions of people could have lost their health insurance subsidies. I’m personally happy that they have been rescued, but I’m not impressed with how it was done.

What makes the chief justice look twice as bad is his dissent only one day later in Obergefell vs. Hodges. On Friday he sided with the three conservative justices against gay marriage precisely on grounds that “the supreme court is not a legislature”. That’s Pot Roberts calling out Kettle Liberals — and the kettle isn’t as black as he thinks. The question of gay marriage involves the logical extension of constitutional rights, liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, and basic discrimination issues related to the Equal Protection Clause. The supreme court has long held that the right to marry is protected by the constitution — as in Loving vs. Virginia (which invalidated bans on interracial unions) and Turner vs. Safley (which held that prisoners could not be denied the right to marry).

Roberts got his cases backwards. By rights, he should have dissented in Thursday’s Obamacare decision, and said yes on Friday to the constitutionality of gay marriage. I don’t really like complaining about Thursday’s decision when I’m pleased by the end result, but the interpretive role of the supreme court is a critical one, and unlike his earlier decision in 2012, Roberts now seems to have well exceeded his judiciary role. It sets a bad precedent.

TV’s Golden Age: The Best Shows Ranked

Much has been debated about today’s golden age of TV and its relation to cinema. In my view, cable television of the past decade (c. 2005+) has been the rough equivalent to cinema of the ’70s, where dark themes, risky plotting, and patient character development are usual fare. It’s no surprise that cable has been pulling more actors and directors away from their cinematic roots. TV is the new home for artistic freedom. Said the LA Times six years ago:

“Studios have cut back their number of upscale dramatic projects, while many cable networks have shown an increased appetite for darker material. Cable networks such as HBO function more like studios used to, where certain shows deliver a certain amount of profitability and then they can make choices that take risks. Even personalities who can still write their own tickets in the feature world — Winslet (Mildred Pierce) and Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), for instance — have gravitated to cable’s freedom.”

Last year William Friedkin weighed in with the opinion that while “films used to be rooted in gravity, about real people doing real things”, that focus has been increasingly lost since the advent of the blockbuster (Star Wars, Jaws) in the late ’70s. “Many of the fine filmmakers of today are going to long-form TV,” he says. “It is the most welcoming place to work for a director today.” I think Friedkin is slightly overstating the case. Hollywood has certainly lost its artistic focus since the ’70s, but there are enough exceptions to justify its existence. Barely.

Here are my favorite TV shows of the 21st century, ranked in descending order. They’re personal favorites, though I think my selections characterize the golden age rather well. A more objective list would have to include other shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead.


1. Breaking Bad. 5 seasons. 2008-2013. I’m confident in calling this the best TV show of all time, and it represents the peak of the golden age. It starts out strong and gets stronger, never flags on its promises, and interrogates human evil in remarkable ways. “Breaking bad” is the metaphor for Walt’s journey from hero to moral monster, and basically means “raising hell”. It’s a revenge tragedy for a man who feels that he’s been emasculated by the fate of cancer, on top of being screwed out of a business partnership that could have made him millions. He’s a chemistry genius but an under-achiever, and puts up with endless teasing by his family, especially his DEA brother-in-law. By season five he’s a killer and a drug-lord, and people have learned to respect him — or else. The suspense levels are insane. Even the worst episode is superior, though I did rank the best.


2. Hannibal. 3 seasons. 2013-2015. I consider Hannibal the poster child of TV’s golden age. The aesthetic is overwhelming. Think how David Lynch might reinvent Hannibal Lecter, and then throw in some of Cronenberg’s body horror and Argento’s insane imagery. The result is the impossible: Silence of the Lambs has been shown up, and Anthony Hopkins superseded by Mads Mikkelsen. Mutilations and gore are given transcendence. The first two seasons consist of original material taking place before the events of the novels. The third is really two mini-seasons, the first half covering Hannibal (reversing the chronology of the books with Lecter’s exile in Italy and Mason Verger conflict; these are set in the time of Will Graham instead of Clarice Starling), the second half Red Dragon. There were supposed to be six seasons altogether, and it’s criminal the show was cancelled. If you had told me back in ’91 that something of this astonishing scope and quality would ever make cable network, I wouldn’t have believed it.


3. Game of Thrones. 6 seasons (so far). 2011-2016. This has been a serious game-changer in the fantasy genre. There is unpredictable plotting, understated magic, and heroes indistinguishable from villains, all set in a world with history and geography as detailed as Middle-Earth. But this is a Middle-Earth with the seedy reality of sex, constant backbiting, and protagonists who die unfairly. It’s about court intrigue and politics, with a supernatural threat in the background that no one takes seriously. The story is essentially about power, and what happens when nobles pursue ruthless ambitions, and what it takes to make people see beyond their local interests if they can. The sixth season that finished last week was the best since the first. See how the episodes rank.

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4. Stranger Things. 1 season. 2016. The overnight success that is called Stranger Things was surely scripted by an alternate version of myself from a parallel universe. It’s a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and by far the best homage to 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons to be found in any film or TV series. Aside from perhaps The Americans, no show allows us to relive the early ‘80s with such ease and precision. It reminds me of how lucky I was to grow up in this era, when kids were more independent and didn’t have to suffer helicopter-parents hovering about, and there were no digital techno-gadgets which make today make it impossible to be alone. The kids in this story encounter a monster from a nasty alternate dimension. The monster abducts one of them, and the quest is to learn that he’s really not dead, where he’s imprisoned in the shadow realm, and how to get him back. These kids are simply fantastic, and their acting skills are amazing for their age.


5. The Fall. 3 seasons. 2013-2016. Don’t be put off by the controversy. In its unflinching look at violence against women, The Fall never glamorizes the the issue. I can see why some people think it does. As in Hannibal the aesthetic is intoxicating while the serial killer is less distant. Lecter sees his victims as mere pigs for food; Spector has grievances about justice. He’s protective of vulnerable people, especially children. He hates particular women, wants to “transform” them, and the intimate way he goes about his obscene killings makes us feel somehow complicit. Things get even creepier in season two when Spector bonds with a young teenager who craves sadomasochistic thrills. The performances from this girl are as brilliant as the lead actors. The atmosphere is brilliant too.


6. Doctor Who. 9 seasons (so far). 2005-2015. Let me make clear that I’m as much a fan of the reboot as I am of the classic years. But here’s what you should understand about the new series: the highs are high and the lows really low. Classic Who had its lemons, to be sure, but at least it was its own thing. The new series has been in thrall to Joss Whedon-style storytelling, which means that it plumbs kitchen-sink soap opera at its worst. At its best, it’s downright epic. It can be dark for a family show, and profoundly tragic. The latest incarnation of the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is the darkest and best yet. After the season-seven disaster, I thought the series had finally run out of steam, but season eight was a raging comeback and the ninth, while somewhat lackluster, at least went out on a jaw-dropping double-bill.


7. The Man in the High Castle. 2 seasons (so far). 2015-2016. This is an incredibly bleak look at an alternate America that lost World War II. The Germans rule the eastern United States, the Japanese the West Coast, and the Rockies in-between serve as a kind of no-man’s land. The show has the balls to make Hitler the guy you root for against his upstarts who think he’s gone soft. John Smith is the oddly likable Nazi officer, ruthless in his career but a caring father and husband. The show’s genius is to portray Nazi America as a creepy “Leave it to Beaver” world where rock n roll was never born, girls don’t wear pants, and boys graduate straight from high school to the military. But my favorite character is on the Japan side: Tagomi the Trade Minister, and the final scene which sees him waking up to something unexpected is one of the greatest epiphanies I’ve seen in a TV series.

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8. Regenesis. 4 seasons. 2004-2008. Forget Orphan Black. The next two are the gems of Canadian sci-fic. Few Americans have even heard of Regenesis, about a group of Toronto-based scientists who work against bio-terrorism, disease, and environmental dangers. Some of the threats are deliberate and man-made; others come from the cold chaos of Mother Nature. Unlike most sci-fic thrillers, Regenesis isn’t so much about saving the day as learning to live with irreversible damage, and there’s a high body count among the main cast. It’s probably the most realistic ever seen in the genre, thanks to the scientific advisor who insisted on it. The first season features Ellen Page who plays the daughter of the lead scientist, and her story-arc practically steals the show: she befriends a dying boy who thinks he’s a clone. I love her scenes with Peter Outerbridge. See, for example, her ice cream scene (they talk about ebola) and her grief scene (when Mick dies).

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9. Dark Matter. 2 seasons (so far). 2015-2016. I liked the first season so much that I watched it again right away. I’ve never done that with any TV show except Stranger Things. There’s something uniquely compulsive about Dark Matter. Objectively it may not be the most outstanding show, but it works for me in all the right ways. Six people with no memory of who they are wake up on a starship. They travel to planets and space stations and get involved in nefarious plots, and slowly learn who they are (or were). As characters, they are simply terrific. Two is a matriarchal badass, with an incredible secret. One and Three distrust each other constantly, and their bickering sessions are hilarious. Four is the lone samurai. But the tender moments between Five and Six are my favorite – she the underage geek who wants to be part of the team, he the man who hates what he’s done. Here’s how the episodes rank. Season two is almost as good, and has some real fun with alternate versions of these characters in parallel universes.


10. Dexter. 8 seasons. 2006-2013. Dexter is somewhat like Doctor Who: the highs are really high and the lows abysmally low. Seasons two, four, and seven contain some of the best TV drama I’ve ever watched, and seasons one and five are really good too. But seasons three, six, and eight are bad — even atrocious at times. Another reason Dexter is at the bottom of my serial-killer trio (Lecter, Spector, Dexter, in that order) is because he’s too good to be true. This is a hero-vigilante who channels his urges against the worst scumbags so as to make us cheer. Once you accept the premise it works well, and the characters are compelling. Dexter’s inner voice has become legendary, our means of seeing the world through a disturbing perspective we wouldn’t get otherwise. Here’s how the seasons rank.

The Wickedness of Christian Farming

Someday Pastor Steve is going to break his hand when he hits the podium. Assuming he doesn’t give himself a brain aneurysm from screaming about sin.

The “sin” under fire today is that of Christian farming. Our pastor believes that true Christians shouldn’t dwell in remote countryside areas, especially on farms. Farming activities — tending livestock, growing produce, etc. — should be carried out by the wicked and the unsaved. “In the flesh,” he says, “we’d all love to go out and live in the middle of nowhere. But I’d rather be a SPIRITUAL farmer! I’d rather work in GOD’S vineyard! I’d rather sow SEED in the HEARTS of people who are dying and going to hell!”

Ergo, true Christians live in cities. Hilarious.

The Best Game of Thrones Episodes

Six seasons. 60 episodes. Here are the 30 best, ranked in descending order. Eight of them are from season 1, three from season 2, five from season 3, five from season 4, three from season 5, and six from season 6.

As far as ranking the seasons on whole, the order is: 1 > 6 > 3 & 4 > 5 > 2. I can’t choose between 3 and 4, which are really two halves of an extended season representing the third monster novel A Storm of Swords. That’s the best book of the novels. In the TV series, however, season 1 remains the strongest, and season 6, which overtook the books, a close second.

Season 5 is the inverse to seasons 3 and 4. It condenses two novels, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, both of which needed serious editing, with rather good results. I disagree with the detractors of season 5. Aside from the silly Dorne plot, all of the plot changes (especially Sansa’s) were for the better.

Season 2 is the only one I would call less than excellent. It was still very good, but something about it lacked impact, and it also involved the worst adaptation from the novels. The kidnapping of Dany’s dragons and political revolt in Qarth was unconvincing, and even a bit silly like the season-5 Dorne plot.

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1. The Rains of Castamere. Season 3, Episode 9. The series’ most unforgettable chapter, and the rare episode that acquires instant legendary status — like Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias and The Sopranos’ College. The Red Wedding makes Ned’s execution seem almost banal by comparison for the scale and treachery involved. Walder Frey slays his guests under sacred protection, the mass murder includes truly innocent victims like Robb’s pregnant wife, and the backstabbing comes from even allies as the Boltons turn on their liege lord. The episode also has the best Bran scene before season 6: holed up in the lake tower, warging his brains out, when Jon saves him from the Wildling attack; great wolf action from both Ghost and Summer. The Red Wedding is the reason Benioff and Weiss wanted to make the TV series, and they surpassed even the nihilism of the book.

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2. Battle of the Bastards. Season 6, Episode 9. It’s no exaggeration to say that the battle for Winterfell is one of the most incredibly choreographed battles ever done, and certainly the most impressive done for a TV series. It was only strengthened by the need to go off-script and cheat due to budget and time constraints; for example, the claustrophobic terror of Jon being trampled ended up being one of the most effective scenes. Even more than the Pelennor Fields in Jackson’s Return of the King, it immerses the viewer in the chaos and random carnage as seen from the ground. If the Red Wedding is quintessential Game of Thrones, the Bastard Battle is the rare payback for characters we love, though at hideous cost (Rickon, Wun-Wun). And what a sidebar bonus on Dany’s side of the story, as all three dragons annihilate a battle fleet, and then later Dany finds common cause with Yara Greyjoy.

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3. The Kingsroad. Season 1, Episode 2. I’ve watched this episode more than any other. After the introductions of the premiere, we get stronger family dynamics as the Stark kids go their separate ways. Ned promises Jon they will talk about his mother when they next meet; Jon gives Arya Needle. Ned and Robert argue about killing Dany. (Dany, for her part, suffers marital rape until she tames Drogo on her terms.) There’s major wolf action, as Bran is attacked in bed and recused by Summer; on the Kingsroad, Arya stabs Joffrey, Nymeria bites him, and Sansa’s poor wolf ends up paying the price for it. In Lord of the Rings, the breaking of the fellowship comes long after the hobbits leave the Shire. In Game of Thrones, the breaking of the Stark family is the initial departure from home, and many of these terrific characters will die and never see each other again. It’s a precious episode that gets better each year, and I’m surprised more pick lists don’t rank it high.

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4. The Door. Season 6, Episode 5. This is the episode Game of Thrones has been building to from the first frame. You could make a case for Hardhome, but that was a contest of muscle. As important as Jon is, I’ve always viewed Bran as the most critical character, and here he emerges as the greenseer-warg who can manipulate time. He wargs into Hodor to escape the white walkers, but he does so while he’s observing Winterfell in the past, which creates a psychic link between the two Hodors: past-Hodor becomes warged too and hears Meera yelling “hold the door” from the future, which he starts repeating until his mind snaps. So Bran is responsible for creating Hodor’s mentally challenged state, which leaves open all sorts of possibilities (will Bran “become” his ancestor Bran the Builder and raise the Wall himself 8000 years ago?). In any case, the white walker assault on the Weir Tree is mind-blowing. This episode also has the best Ironborn scene, with Yara claiming the Salt Throne and Euron winning it, followed by his baptism by drowning.

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5. Hardhome. Season 5, Episode 8. The most drastic departure from the novels results in one of the best episodes, because it gets to the point in a way that Martin stalled on for too long. The undead threat beyond the Wall is what Game of Thrones is about. While everyone contends for the Iron Throne, believing that political rule of Westeros is the most important question, they are oblivious to the real threat. That the walkers have made few appearances has been a strength, to be sure; this is a patient series not given to cheap thrills. But by the fifth book, a dramatic outing was overdue, and the show writers rectified this deficiency. The battle is incredible enough as it is, but when the Night King at the end slowly raises his arms, and every fallen member of both sides of the battle rises as a wight, the look on Jon’s face as the screen fades to black is one of the most powerful in the series. Also overdue was the hookup of Tyrion and Dany, and their disputing where and how Dany should rule; it’s a great interaction.


6. The Dance of Dragons. Season 5, Episode 9. If Hardhome is the ice we’d been waiting for by season five, this episode is the fire. Drogon’s dance in Daznak’s Pit is everything I hoped for and more, but before that comes another and more outrageous fire, and possibly the most upsetting scene of the series: Stannis sacrificing his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light. Back to back we witness the burning-at-the-stake of a completely innocent child, and then the glory of a queen reclaiming her destiny, as her untamed baby, now of monstrous size, roasts her attackers in the arena. I’m hard pressed to say which scene is more powerful, and I love how the “Dance of Dragons” theme weaves through both; Stannis and Shireen’s discussion of the ancient dragons is so tenderly played, and a heartbreaking prelude to a father’s despicable decision.

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7. The Climb. Season 3, Episode 6. A visual masterpiece, which for whatever reason isn’t a big favorite among fans. Ramsay’s prolonged torture of Theon is too much for some people, but that doesn’t subtract from The Climb being one of the best directed episodes of the series. I was sweating when the Wall defended itself and sent the wildlings falling to their screaming demise. Jon and Ygritte’s precious moment at the top is well earned. Tyrion and Cersei have their best moment (finding common cause in grief over the marriages they’ve been shafted with), as do Tywin and Olenna (who sling mud at each other over the homosexual/incestuous inclinations of the other’s children). The best part, however, is Littlefinger’s monologue about his own “climb” of the ladder of life. He glorifies the ruthless who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, which plays over the ugly death of Ros. It’s the coldest speech of the series and steals the show.

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8. A Golden Crown. Season 1, Episode 6. A densely packed episode with nail-biting drama. War is foreshadowed when Robert (after punching Cersei in the face) refuses to allow Ned to step down as the Hand. He gets more than he bargained for when Ned sits the Iron Throne and summons Tywin Lannister to court on pain of treason, precipitating awful events. Meanwhile, over in the Vale, Tyrion is championed by Bronn, and the duel is a ripper. Still further east, Dany gets carnivorous with the horse heart — without question the best cross-cultural scene of the series — and Viserys is “rewarded” by Drogo with a molten gold crown. His death is so disturbing that it almost plays like fantasy snuff. The Kingsroad will always be my favorite of season 1, but this one is a close second.


9. The Mountain and the Viper. Season 4, Episode 8. The duel between Oberyn and Clegane is the best one-on-one fight sequence to date. It’s so well done that even if you read the books, it manages to make you think Oberyn might win and free Tyrion. Despite his relatively small size (compared to the Mountain), he looks entirely believable as the most lethal warrior of Dorne; his acrobatics with the spear are hypnotic. This episode also features a stellar performance from Sansa, as she tearfully recounts Lysa’s “suicide” to the nobles of the Vale — both exposing and concealing Petyr’s deceptions, and finally taking control of her miserable life. Here she shows the potential for becoming dangerous like Petyr and shrewd like her mother.


10. Garden of Bones. Season 2, Episode 4. By far the nastiest episode to date and an underrated gem. Joffrey has Sansa beaten in front of spectators in the throne room. Joffrey forces Ros to beat another whore bloody. The Mountain and his men torture young prisoners at Harrenhal. Most spectacularly, after Stannis and Renly trade public insults, Melisandre gives hideous birth to a shadow creature. It’s one demented act after another, and was scripted by Vanessa Taylor, whose other season-2 episode places on this list (The Old Gods and the New). She should be writing a lot more for the series. If not for her, I wonder if anything from season 2 other than Blackwater would appear on my list. She has a gift for squeezing out dramatic tension even in the most subdued moments.


11. The Winds of Winter. Season 6, Episode 10. The first 20 minutes is a crowning directorial achievement, ending in the mass murder of just about everyone at King’s Landing — the High Sparrow, Margaery, Loras, Lancel, Mace Tyrell, Kevan Lannister included. In terms of sheer numbers, Cersie’s wildfire bomb kills more people than the Freys did at the Red Wedding. As she becomes the First of her Name, Jon is hailed King of the North, and Faceless Arya assassinates the Freys. We finally see Oldtown, which is incredibly gorgeous, and the final frame shows Dany sailing against Westeros with a huge fleet. This is by far the best season finale of the series. And finally, Winter is here.


12. And Now His Watch is Ended. Season 3, Episode 4. The title heralds the death of Lord Mormont, killed by his own men at Craster’s Keep. That’s explosive enough. But the real explosion comes overseas in Slaver’s Bay, where Dany comes into her own and roasts the city of Astapor. The “dracarys” moment is almost as powerful as in the book — I say almost because of the liberties taken back in the House of the Undying, where the dragons made their first “dracarys” kill with Pyat Pree. (The Qarth thread of season 2 has been the weakest adaptation to date.) But it doesn’t end up mattering much: this is a truly glorious episode.

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13. Baelor. Season 1, Episode 9. The death of Ned Stark showed that no one is safe in Westeros, that the more you grow attached to Martin’s characters, the more likely they will be unexpectedly and unfairly slain. It’s an instant classic for good reason, though a bit overrated by those who rank it up with The Rains of Castamere. The episode on whole isn’t that strong, though certainly excellent, for in the east Dany faces the impending deaths of Drogo and Rhaego: the horse ritual that kills her husband and baby is hideous. Walder Frey makes an appropriate first appearance, negotiating with Catelyn for terms that Robb will fail to keep, precipitating his own treacherous downfall.


14. The Pointy End. Season 1, Episode 8. A pure bad-ass episode. Drogo is challenged by one of his men when Dany refuses to allow war captives to be raped, and Drogo rewards him by ripping his tongue out of his throat. At Kings’ Landing, Arya kills a stable boy in the chaos following Ned’s imprisonment — and after watching Syrio Forell clobber the shit out of four Lannister knights with a wooden training sword before dying under Ser Meryn’s blade. In the north, the Greatjon challenges Robb’s right to lead the clans, and Grey Wind leaps over the dinner table and bites his finger off. At the Wall, Jon kills a reanimated wight. This one gets your blood up like no other.

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15. The Laws of Gods and Men. Season 4, Episode 6. Tyrion’s mummer trial, his “confession” before the court, and demand for a trial by combat harks back to his imprisonment in the Eyrie, but this time the drama is more stirring. When even Shae testifies against him with lies, his reaction to the crowd’s laughter is spot on: “I saved you all — all your worthless lives.” He confesses to the crime of simply being a dwarf, for which he’s been on trial all his bloody life. “I didn’t kill Joffrey, but I wish I had. I wish I had enough poison for you all. I wish I was the monster you think I am.” This pivotal scene is true to the book, and without question my favorite Tyrion scene to date.

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16. The Old Gods and the New. Season 2, Episode 6. Theon’s notorious capture of Winterfell. When he executes Rodrik in front of Bran, it’s a brutal hack job that takes four goddamn swings (a far cry from the single clean strokes of the Starks). In a way it’s as upsetting as Ned Stark’s beheading, because the fall of Winterfell represents the evaporation of Ned’s entire house. Things also get rough at Kings Landing, as Joffrey and his retinue are attacked by a starving mob, and Sansa nearly raped until rescued by the Hound. Meanwhile, Arya has become Tywin’s cupbearer at Harrenhal, and they have some of the best character moments in the series. Up north Ygritte makes her debut: Jon is unable to kill her, and she begins tormenting him with lewd come-ons.

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17. The Watchers on the Wall. Season 4, Episode 9. The next two battles are slightly overrated. They are excellent but don’t belong in the top 10 where many fans place them. I will say the battle for the Wall is more impressive than Helm’s Deep in Peter Jackson’s Two Towers. It’s faithful to the book’s imagery, some of it exactly how I imagined. There are giants, a mammoth, and exploding barrels of oil; wall-scaling; the breaching of the gate. Alliser Thorne is in fine, vulgar form; the deaths of Pyp and Grenn are moving, and of course Ygritte even more so.

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18. Blackwater. Season 2, Episode 9. Another bottle episode and battle epic that’s slightly overpraised. The claustrophobic focus at King’s Landing is effective. Like the characters we feel caged inside the Red Keep, with no hint as to what’s going on elsewhere, and just because they’re Lannisters doesn’t mean we don’t feel for them. Tyrion owns the spotlight, as his cunning plans to save the city explode with an emerald vengeance. The wildfire on the river is quite a spectacle, and you don’t know whether to cheer or cringe as Stannis’ men burn like auto-de-fés. Tyrion’s reward is a sliced face, and his come-late father who will take all the credit.

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19. Winter is Coming. Season 1, Episode 1. The premiere hooks you on the series whether fantasy is your thing or not. The prologue establishes the threat beyond the Wall, and the bulk of the episode showcases the Stark and Lannister characters we’ll come to love and hate. The Stark kids claiming their wolf pups is the best part. Bran climbing the tower walls and getting pushed off by Jaime is a close second, and promises that Game of Thrones won’t be generic fantasy: George Martin plays hardball.

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20. Fire and Blood. Season 1, Episode 10. The first season finale is an aftermath that sees everyone coping with Ned’s death. Joffrey forcing Sansa to look at her father’s head displayed on the castle walls, and Ser Meryn beating her face bloody, is especially heartbreaking, and Sansa’s true gateway to a hell that will last until the end of season 5. But Dany’s side of the story upstages this as she copes with Drogo’s death, the question of her fate among the Dothraki, and finally of course, the amazing birth of her dragons. It’s by far the best season finale; usually the tenth episodes try doing too much and too superficially, but Fire and Blood is focused and transcendent.


21. Book of the Stranger. Season 6, Episode 4. In a replay of Fire and Blood, Dany emerges from an inferno to stand naked before a horde of Dothraki. It doesn’t exactly feel like a repeat, because the first time was sort of a false start, taking Dany east instead of west and then to her crusade in Slaver’s Bay. Now she has the political gumption (and a much huger horde) to make her move. Her insulting speech is great: she calls the khals small men, and says she would make a better leader of the Dothraki than any of them; they laugh of course and threaten to rape her to death, and she looses the fire on them. Over in Mereen, Tyrion in tense negotiations with slavers from Astapor and serving Dany’s cause well. And a most precious reunion of Jon and Sansa at the Wall. After five seasons of hell Sansa deserves this relief, and I started tearing up when she begged Jon to forgive her for treating him so awfully when they were kids.


22. Kissed by Fire. Season 3, Episode 5. Jon and Ygritte’s love-play in the cave pool is the heart of the episode, resonating with foreordained tragedy. Ygritte means it when she says she wishes they could stay there forever, though certainly not because she fears war. On an unacknowledged level, they both know their romance can’t last. Then there is the Karstark fiasco that cements Robb’s own doom. If breaking his marriage-oath to Walder Frey was the unforgivable offense, executing Karstark and alienating his men is what will make the Red Wedding possible. Last but not least is the duel between the Hound and Beric Dondarrion.

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23. The Wolf and the Lion. Season 1, Episode 5. Here we get the catalyst for the War of the Five Kings: Catelyn’s rash abduction of Tyrion. The Eyrie is spectacular, the sky cells terrifying, and young Prince Robin a piece of work. True to the book, he suckles his mother’s breast at the age of eight, and is sadistic like Joffrey. At Kings Landing there’s some intense drama: the Mountain gets thrown from his horse and chops its head off; Ned resigns as Hand when Robert condones Dany’s assassination; then he’s ambushed by Jaime, who has his men slaughtered. From here on out Westeros won’t be the same.


24. The Lion and the Rose. Season 4, Episode 2. Joffrey’s death is a scene you can replay over again, just like the scenes of Tyrion slapping his face in episode 2 of the first season and episode 6 of the second. Except Tyrion isn’t the offender this time, much as he will pay dearly for it. The culprit is sharp-tongued Lady Olenna, who obviously wants Margaery to be queen of Westeros, but won’t stand for her granddaughter suffering Joffrey’s sadism. (She’s undoubtedly in league with Littlefinger, who has in hand in every nefarious plot.) I also love the midgets’ courtly re-enactment of the War of the Five Kings.


25. The Children. Season 4, Episode 10. The pivotal scene in this finale is Bran’s arrival at the weir-tree of the Three-Eyed Raven, and it’s prefaced by an undead attack sequence that sees the death of Jojen Reed and Bran warging. Then there is Dany’s dragon horror, as she finds out that Drogon roasted some poor Merenese child. Tyrion shooting his father with a crossbow is another priceless climax: Tywin is on the toilet when it happens. Shae gets her due as well. Like Tyrion, Arya sails for the east — after watching Brienne beat the Hound within an inch of his life. Not many episode-10s make this cut, but the season four finale exceeds expectations with a vengeance.

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26. Second Sons. Season 3, Episode 8. The theme of protective second sons plays everywhere. Mercenaries by that name rally to support Dany. Tyrion weds Sansa, and defends her against Joffrey’s bullying. Sam protects Ghilly, and in a major heroic moment kills a White Walker. But the best part is at Dragonstone, where Stannis (the realm’s “protector”) leeches the deaths of the “usurper” kings. It’s creepy as hell, and implies that he and Melisandre are the true assassins of Robb and Joffrey, working their regicides through supernatural forces; Walder Frey and Lady Olenna would appear to be mere proxy killers in the grander scheme of things.

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27. Oathbreaker. Season 6, Episode 3. The episode is defined by Jon’s leaving the Night’s Watch (though of course his resurrection means that technically he did give his life to the Watch) after executing his brothers who broke their own oaths by killing him. But the best scenes are owned by Bran and Arya. Bran’s vision of the Tower of Joy is a special treat: Arthur Dayne is outnumbered by Ned Stark and his men, smashes most of them to smithereens anyway, and is finally killed not by Ned (as Bran had been taught) but rather Howland Reed who stabs him from behind. Meanwhile, Arya finishes her blind training, drinks the Kool-aid, and becomes an assassin. Tommen has a particularly good scene with the High Sparrow.


28. High Sparrow. Season 5, Episode 3. The first seven episodes of the fifth season aren’t quite as weak as people complain about, and this one is especially good. There is Jon’s beheading of Janos Slynt, which is fantastic, but it’s really about the Stark girls and the hardest decisions they’ve yet faced. Sansa enters into a marriage pact with Ramsay Bolton, and this radical departure from the novels is an excellent move, as it promises Sansa a pro-active role in payback for the Starks. Meanwhile over in Essos, Arya is initiated into the Faceless Assassins — the first of her ongoing sessions with the waif who beats down her ass every time — and she makes the painful choice of putting her old life completely behind her. And of course the titular theme involves Cersei promoting the Faith Militant, replacing the High Septon with the High Sparrow, a decision she will most sorely regret.

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29. You Win or You Die. Season 1, Episode 7. Two scenes sell this episode with a vengeance. The first is Drogo’s vow to avenge the assassination attempt on Danerys: “I will take my khalasar west to where the world ends, and ride wooden horses across the black salt sea as no khal has done before! I will kill the men in iron suits and tear down their stone houses! I will rape their women, take their children as slaves, and bring their broken gods back to Vaes Dothrak! I swear before the Mother of Mountains as the stars look down in witness! As the stars look down in witness! As the stars look down in witness!” (Dany’s renewal of that pledge on the back of Drogon in season 6 is pretty damn good too, but it doesn’t top Drogo’s original.) The other, of course, is Littlefinger’s betrayal of Ned Stark in the throne room.


30. No One. Season 6, Episode 8. The major event signaled by the title is actually a let-down. I loved Arya’s scenes with the Faceless Ones throughout seasons five and six, but her final showdown with the waif is banal. It’s an otherwise strong episode and contains my favorite scene between Jaime and Brienne. Jaime at his most caring (with Brienne) and most contemptuous (with Edmure). Then there is the Hound, who kills the outlaws who massacred the pacifist community before joining Beric’s group. The Mountain meanwhile kills one of the Faith Militant — his first kill since being worked over with sorcery. And finally, Tommen outlaws trial by combat, to a horrified Cersei who feels the walls closing in.