Seven seasons. 67 episodes. Here are the best. Seven are from season 1, three from season 2, five from season 3, five from season 4, two from season 5, five from season 6, and three from season 7. And then an honorable mention from season 5, and a dishonorable mention from season 7. That’s a total of 30 episodes plus the two special cases.
As far as the seasons on whole, the order is: 1 > 3 > 6 > 4 > 5 > 2. Season 1 remains the strongest by far. The overall pacing, narrative payoff, and rewatch value is pretty much beyond criticism. Season 3 is a close second. It would be premature to rank season 7 (though I rank individual episodes below) since it’s only a half-season, and it’s a rather mixed bag. Some of the long overdue payoffs are grand (episodes 4 and 7 are fantastic), but they come at the expense of a half-baked plot device to get there: the quest for a wight to prove to Cersei that the undead are real. As if that could possibly make her an ally, which of course it doesn’t.
I disagree with the detractors of season 5. Aside from the silly Dorne plot, all of the plot changes were for the better. Yes it’s a weaker season by comparison to the others, but not nearly as bad as people complain about, and in particular the outcries over Ramsay’s rape of Sansa are absurd. It was a necessary move for Sansa’s story arc, and I give that episode an honorable mention at the end. But the Dorne plot is admittedly silly, especially as it deteriorates into the “adventures of Jaime and Bronn”.
Season 2 is weakest, mostly for its lack of focus, but also for involving the worst adaptation of all: the kidnapping of Dany’s dragons and political revolt in Qarth. It was unconvincing, and even a bit silly like the season-5 Dorne plot. What makes it worse is that the book version of events are perfect as they stand. In A Clash of Kings Dany enters the House of the Undying, not on a Dirty-Harry rescue mission for her dragons, but to receive her prophecy from which we learn the identity of her nephew Aegon (“his is the song of ice and fire”), and from which she barely escapes with her life. That drama is strong enough without the artificial supplements of conniving politics and dragon-stealing. And to top it off by having the first “Dracarys” event in the House diminishes Drogon’s seminal moment in Astapor.
1. The Rains of Castamere. Season 3, Episode 9. The defining episode of Game of Thrones is the rare masterpiece that acquires instant legendary status — the equivalent of Breaking Bad’s Ozymandias and Hannibal’s Mizumono, drama that is perfectly calibrated for maximum emotional effect. The Red Wedding makes Ned’s execution seem banal by comparison for the scale and treachery involved. Walder Frey slays his guests under sacred protection, the mass murder includes 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 did complete justice to it.
2. The Kingsroad. Season 1, Episode 2. I’ve watched this episode more than any other. After the introductions of the premiere, it offers even stronger family dynamics as the Stark kids go their separate ways. It’s amazing how so many scenes in this episode resonate in hindsight in the wake of season 7. Ned promises Jon they will talk about his mother when they next meet; Jon gives Arya a sword to practice with. Ned and Robert argue about killing Dany. (Dany, for her part, suffers marital rape until she tames Drogo on her terms.) There’s a lot of wolf action, as Bran is attacked in bed and recused by Summer; on the Kingsroad, Arya stabs Joffrey, Nymeria bites him, and Sansa’s 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 as you look back on it and see how far the characters have come (if they are still alive). I’m surprised more pick lists don’t rank it high.
3. The Spoils of War. Season 7, Episode 4. There are three episodes that represent what the series has been building to from the start: Hardhome in season 5, The Door in season 6, and this one, The Spoils of War, in season 7. Dany, against the advice of Tyrion and Jon, decides she’s not messing around and goes Aegon on the Lannister army. Watching the Dothraki decimate the Lannisters is incredible enough, but seeing Drogon channel Balerion the Black Dread is completely staggering. I get battle fatigue easily, but this is a battle I have watched many times, and there’s great stuff even before that. Jon shows Dany the cave drawings of the Forest Children allied with men against the White Walkers. Arya comes home to Winterfell and sword-practices with Brienne. The surviving Stark kids catch up under the weirwood tree, and it’s simply amazing how far they’ve come since their separation in The Kingsroad.
4. The Door. Season 6, Episode 5. In the number two critical episode, Bran 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 traumatizing Hodor and creating his 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?). The white walker assault on the Weir Tree is quite a sequence, and this where Summer dies defending Bran. The episode also has the best Ironborn scene, with Yara claiming the Salt Throne and Euron winning it, followed by his baptism by drowning.
5. Hardhome. Season 5, Episode 8. The number three critical episode is a drastic departure from the novels, 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. 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. This is the long overdue payback for the Red Wedding, where the good guys actually win for a change. And what a sidebar bonus on Dany’s side of the story, as all three dragons annihilate a battle fleet at Mereen.
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.
8. A Golden Crown. Season 1, Episode 6. This is a densely packed episode with constant dramatic tension. 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. Possibly the most underrated episode and certainly one of the nastiest. 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 have written 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. Garden of Bones is a serious artistic achievement.
11. The Winds of Winter. Season 6, Episode 10. The first 20 minutes are 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 terrorist bomb kills more people than the Freys did at the Red Wedding. Whether or not that makes the entire episode worthy of the #1 slot (as many believe) is another matter. Winds of Winter is a set-up episode above all, moving all pieces into play for the final act: the Bastard King of the North, the Mad Queen in the South, the Dragon Queen sailing on Westeros — while the Night King, as we know, waits for them all. We get the supreme bonus of Faceless Arya assassinating the Freys, and finally get to see Oldtown which is incredibly gorgeous. It’s a fantastic episode and the best season finale of the series, but I don’t think it merits the #1 slot.
12. The Dragon and the Wolf. Season 7, Episode 7. After a weak penultimate episode (see my dishonorable mention at the bottom), the half-season finale delivers as it should, with long character moments that remind us what we love so much about Game of Thrones. The council at King’s Landing is extremely well played, though I had a bad moment when Cersei announced her willingness to fight alongside Jon and Dany against the dead. It turns out she’s lying, of course, but I had my doubts given the absurd plot maneuvers of the previous two episodes; if she had really joined forces with her enemies, the story would have lost all credibility at that point. Littlefinger’s end in Winterfell is very satisfying, and Bran is becoming rather unnerving when he quotes dialogue from people long dead (like his father) with his ability to see and hear into the past. Sansa and Arya share a precious moment afterwards that’s well earned. The cliffhanger is best of all, as we watch poor Viserion used abominably to bring down the Wall — unquestionably the most epic scene of the series to date.
13. And Now His Watch is Ended. Season 3, Episode 4. The title refers to Lord Mormont, who is 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.
14. The Dance of Dragons. Season 5, Episode 9. Drogon’s flame strike in Daznak’s Pit is the main feature, 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 it’s brilliant 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.
15. The Pointy End. Season 1, Episode 8. A lot happens in this episode, and it was written by Martin himself. 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, and is a surprisingly underrated episode; I think it’s even slightly better than the one that follows it…
16. 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.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. 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 an excellent season finale; usually the tenth episodes try doing too much and too superficially, but Fire and Blood is focused and transcendent.
22. 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 feels less like a repeat than coming full circle, since the first time was sort of a false start, taking her 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. There is also the 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.
23. The Queen’s Justice. Season 7, Episode 3. The long-awaited meet between Jon and Dany is perfectly scripted. They hold to their autonomy, hardly realizing how similar they are. And I’m not even talking about Jon’s Targaryen blood. They command the sincere love of their people, and have done the unthinkable — Dany by bringing the Dothraki to Westeros, Jon by making common cause with the Wildlings. Both have suffered for their strength of character. Dany’s crusade in Slaver’s Bay ended up collapsing around her ears, while Jon’s alliance with the Wildlings was treason which got him killed. There’s other good stuff, notably Bran’s return to Winterfell and reunion with Sansa, Cersei giving Euron command of the royal fleet, and the death of Olenna Tyrell who tells Jaime she killed Joffrey — a wonderful parting blow.
24. Blackwater. Season 2, Episode 9. The next two are a bit overrated. They are great battles but don’t deserve top ten slots. 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.
25. The Watchers on the Wall. Season 4, Episode 9. Another bottle episode and battle epic that tends to be overpraised. 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’s even more so.
26. 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. Only half of the season finales make this cut, and this is one of them; it exceeds expectations for an episode 10.
27. 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 Gilly, 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.
28. 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.
29. 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.
30. The Lion and the Rose. Season 4, Episode 2. The Purple Wedding is very overrated in my opinion, though Joffrey’s death is obviously satisfying to watch. He is poisoned by Lady Olenna, who wants Margaery to be queen of Westeros but won’t stand for her granddaughter suffering Joff’s sadism. I also like the midgets’ courtly re-enactment of the War of the Five Kings. But no, The Lion and the Rose does not belong in the top five or top ten as some lists would have it. It’s not that good, for Christ’s sake.
HONORABLE MENTION: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken. Season 5, Episode 6. Many lists rank this episode as the worst of the series, which is absurd. It is both a very good and very bad episode, and the bad part is admittedly why it doesn’t make my cut. The gardens of Dorne scene is the silliest of the series, as Jaime and Bronn appear to rescue Myrcella and are ambushed by the Sand Snakes. The entire rescue operation is a laughable excuse to give Jaime something to do. But the scenes involving Arya and Sansa are excellent. Arya reaches the point in her training where she must learn to lie convincingly, and is whacked repeatedly for her transparencies by the waif and Jaqen. Sansa receives a much more severe whacking by Ramsay, and viewers were so angry about the rape that they threatened to stop watching the series. I wish they had stopped. If they can’t handle things like rapes and Red Weddings, they’re watching the wrong show. There is nothing gratuitous about Sansa’s assault. It is something Ramsay would do, and it’s something we need to see for Sansa’s character arc. Rape is the one thing Joffrey never did to her (I suspect because he was impotent), and it’s because Sansa has been made to suffer so unbearably under the Lannisters and Boltons that her liberation in season 6 pays off so well.
DISHONORABLE MENTION: Beyond the Wall. Season 7, Episode 6. This one should have been the glorious moment we’d been waiting for, but for two problems. The first is the contrived reason for going beyond the Wall. In order to convince Cersei that the army of the dead is real, Jon takes a small suicide expedition north to capture a wight and bring it back to King’s Landing. Somehow Tyrion thinks this will convince his sister to see reason and stop fighting against Dany. But he, like everyone, knows that Cersei is so irrational, vindictive, and narcissistic that she wouldn’t care two shits about the threat of the dead — indeed that if anything she would view the white walkers as a godsend to oppose her northern enemies. The second problem are the cheap rescue operations. Gendry somehow manages to haul his ass all the way back to the Wall and send a raven to Dany at Dragonstone, who then flies her dragons up to lift everyone away from the wight attack just in the nick of time. When Jon gets separated from that rescue mission, Benjen Stark suddenly appears out of nowhere to save him. Beyond the Wall could have been a masterpiece — the Night King slaying Viserion and then resurrecting him as an ice dragon is epic — but it’s so poorly executed it’s impossible to take seriously.