It’s been a fun ride, Game of Thrones. I’ll miss you. Of the 73 episodes, here are 20 favorites I single out for special praise.
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 in season 1 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 Bran’s best scene before he becomes the One-Eyed Raven in season 6: holed up in the lake tower, warging his brains out, when Jon saves him from the wildling attack; it’s 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 Door. Season 6, Episode 5. When Bran finally emerges as the greenseer-warg who can manipulate time, the shit hits the fan. This is the Night King’s seminal moment, not the season-8 battle at Winterfell, which left much to be desired and did nothing with Bran at all. Here Bran 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; it’s quintessential Game of Thrones tragedy. The white walker assault on the Weir Tree is quite a sequence, and the episode also has the best Ironborn scene of the series, with Yara claiming the Salt Throne and Euron winning it, followed by his baptism by drowning.
3. The Bells. Season 8, Episode 5. It’s the worst reviewed and most despised episode in the series, which is crazy. But don’t worry, give it time; it will age well and fans will look back and wonder at their stupidity. One reason I think people have been so misled about Dany is that her character has been developed as Jon’s parallel: she does for the Dothraki what he does for the Wildlings. They empower “inferior” tribal groups and bring them beyond their homelands in the service of righteous causes — whether to liberate slaves or fight against the dead. But for all Dany’s rhetoric about freedom and breaking the wheel, she’s at heart the opposite of Jon, innately cruel, and given to homicidal fits of rage when the wind blows wrong. The slaughter she delivers in The Bells is in fact what she has promised to do all along. It’s the colossal tragedy the series had been building to, and as true to the series as the Red Wedding is.
4. Garden of Bones. Season 2, Episode 4. For my money, this is the most underrated episode of the series 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. She has a gift for squeezing out dramatic tension even in the most subdued moments. Garden of Bones is a serious artistic achievement in an otherwise mediocre season 2.
5. The Climb. Season 3, Episode 6. A visual masterpiece. 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 hundreds of feet to their 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.
6. 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. The episode also moves all the pieces into play for the final act: the Bastard King of the North, the Vicious Queen in the South, the Dragon Queen sailing on Westeros — while the Night King 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. The Winds of Winter has been called “The Godfather” episode of the series, and for good reason.
7. A Golden Crown. Season 1, Episode 6. Like a lot of episodes in season 1, this one packs loads of 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 incredibly disturbing — though not much to Dany, who just watches calmly, providing the earliest hints of her unforgiving cruelty.
8. The Spoils of War. Season 7, Episode 4. This episode represents what the series has been building to from the start, as 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 battle is a constant adrenaline rush, 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.
9. The Mountain and the Viper. Season 4, Episode 8. The duel between Oberyn and Clegane is so well done that even if you read the books, it manages to make you think Oberyn might win and free Tyrion. Despite being utterly dwarfed by the Mountain, he looks 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; though unfortunately, having escaped Joffrey she has a full season of Ramsay to look forward to before she can transcend herself in the way she needs to.
10. 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.
11. The Kingsroad. Season 1, Episode 2. I think 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 seasons 7 and 8. 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.
12. The Iron Throne. Season 8, Episode 6. Despite the rushed feeling of Bran’s ascendance in the second half, I was deeply moved by the season finale and pleased by the fate of all characters save one: Tyrion’s. He should have been killed by Grey Worm; there was no reason for the Unsullied to keep him alive, unlike Jon. Everyone else went as they should. Dany was killed by Jon, and Jon sent to the Wall a criminal; our two Targaryen heroes fated to unhappy endings. Those who did get happy endings earned them (again, save Tyrion), and we’re left with Sansa as Queen of the North, and Bran the King of Westeros. The original title for Martin’s projected seventh book was not A Dream of Spring, but rather A Time for Wolves. The surviving Starks have gotten their due; the new era is in good hands. Though I wonder for how long. If power corrupts everyone, perhaps even a demigod like Bran is subject to it. (And if he really wants to warg into Drogon…) The first half is the ash-aftermath in King’s Landing, and Dany’s fascist speech; an extremely chilling piece of theater, Jon’s killing Dany is heartbreaking, as is Drogon’s trauma.
13. The 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. As much as 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.
14. 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. One of the many gems in the amazing season 3.
15. Hardhome. Season 5, Episode 8. This episode is a drastic departure from the novels, because it gets to the point in a way that Martin stalled on for too long in the books: the undead threat beyond the Wall. While everyone contends for the Iron Throne, believing that political rule of Westeros is the most important question, they are oblivious to the threat against life itself. 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.
16. The Old Gods and the New. Season 2, Episode 6. Here is 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. A stand-out episode in every way.
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 one of Tyrion’s best moments, and certainly his most memorable.
18. 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.
19. The Queen’s Justice. Season 7, Episode 3. The long-awaited meet between Jon and Dany is perfectly scripted, and I’ve watched the scene many times. They hold to their autonomy hardly realizing how similar they are. The Targaryen heroes command the 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 immensely for their causes. 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.
20. The Pointy End. Season 1, Episode 8. If Baelor (Ned Stark’s execution) is the fan favorite, The Pointy End right before it is actually even better. A lot happens in the episode, and it was scripted 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 seriously gets your blood up, and is a surprisingly underrated episode.