Game over! For now, anyway. After Sunday’s explosive season finale, we’re only an estimated 13 episodes away from learning the fate of Westeros and all of its inhabitants — human, dragon, zombie, and otherwise. With the stakes so high and the scope so wide, it’s hard to remember that, once upon a time, this was a comparatively cozy little show about two rival families jockeying for power. “The Sopranos in Middle-earth,” remember? From those beginnings sprouted a pop-culture phenomenon — and the most ambitious, expensive, and popular show in HBO history.
All of this makes ranking the show’s 60 episodes a proposition as tricky as a trial by combat against Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. Is an early episode that establishes the down-to-earth setting superior to a later one that injects high-fantasy magic and mayhem? Does a mid-season effort that serves as a placeholder for a dozen plotlines fare worse than one that moves a few forward but includes a major clunker? Are episode-long battles better than intimate character portraits? Is Shocking Death A more of a mind-blower than Shocking Death B? (Or C, or D, or E?)
Well, my lords and ladies, I’ve strapped on my maester’s chain and done my best to figure it all out. Below you’ll find every single episode from Game of Thrones’ six seasons, ranked in ascending order of quality. The presence of a stinker story line (see: the Sand Snakes, “Where are my dragons?”) can cost an episode dearly. Early season “where are they now” catch-ups and mid-season “we need to fill out an hour before next week’s gigantic massacre” installments also have their work cut out for them. The show really packs a wallop in its season finales, its climactic showstoppers circa each season’s eighth or ninth episodes, and any episode where estranged friends or family are at last reconnected. By the end, the big picture’s clear enough: Whether the individual episodes are cold as ice or hot as fire, Game of Thrones aims higher, hits harder, and takes more visual, emotional, and thematic risks than anything else on television.
60. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” (Season 5, Episode 6)
They’re the words of House Martell, but for the purposes of this episode, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” can add “Unsuccessful.” The crackerjack casting of Pedro Pascal and Indira Varma as vengeful libertine Prince Oberyn Martell and his common-law wife Ellaria Sand aside, Game of Thrones’ grasp on the southern kingdom of Dorne has been shaky, to say the least. Although criticism of Ramsay Bolton’s wedding-night assault on Sansa Stark dominated the discourse, it was the dire duel between Jaime Lannister and Bronn and the one-dimensional Sand Snakes — the worst fight scene of the series to date — that dragged this episode down.
59. “The Prince of Winterfell” (Season 2, Episode 8)
Will Theon Greyjoy keep control of Winterfell? Will Jon Snow and his boring-ass commander Qhorin Halfhand escape the clutches of the wildlings? Will Tyrion Lannister repel the invasion of King’s Landing by Stannis Baratheon? WHERE ARE MY DRAGONS? The answers to these questions and more are … not in this episode, which is a pure placeholder before the Battle of the Blackwater.
58. “Breaker of Chains” (Season 4, Episode 3)
There’s a lot to talk about this one — unfortunately, most of the conversation involves saying “ugh.” While Daenerys gives a speech to the people of Slaver’s Bay that sounds like something out of a George W. Bush Iraq War pep rally, Jaime and Cersei Lannister … well, it’s never been firmly established what happens between them. It sure looked like rape, though cast and crew alike deny that was their intent. Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt, which I’m inclined to do, it’s hard to draw a different conclusion than “Folks, you fucked up.”
57. “The House of Black and White” (Season 5, Episode 2)
Congrats to Jon Snow, newly elected Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch! Everyone else is shit out of luck. The second episode of season five busies itself politicking with Cersei and Dany or setting up Sansa and Arya Stark’s creepy new status quos with Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and Jaqen H’ghar. There’s little more to it than setup.
56. “Oathkeeper” (Season 4, Episode 4)
I’ll give them this: The slave revolt that ends with House Targaryen’s black flag flying over Meereen is pretty tight. But the rest of this episode feels strangely slapdash: the lack of follow-up to the bizarre Jaime-Cersei scene in “Breaker of Chains”; Sansa’s wholehearted trust of Littlefinger, a guy who’d recently murdered a man in front of her; and the gruesome reign of rape and murder by Night’s Watch mutineers at Craster’s Keep, as close to gratuitous as this show’s violence has ever gotten.
55. “Mhysa” (Season 3, Episode 10)
For all of its highs, like the heartbreaking (and arrow-shooting) farewell between Jon Snow and his wildling girlfriend, Ygritte, and lows, like poor Arya’s stomach-turning glimpse of her dead brother Robb’s desecrated corpse, this season finale had some out-and-out belly flops, most notably Daenerys’s awkwardly contextualized white-savior crowdsurfing on a sea of grateful brown-skinned extras.
54. “A Man Without Honor” (Season 2, Episode 7)
The start of a wobbly section in the second season, this installment saw Jaime kill his own cousin in a dubious and doomed escape attempt; the Thirteen (who?) get overthrown as leaders of Qarth (where?); and the introduction of Ygritte, a much better character than the obnoxious dagger-and-dick-joke machine she initially seems to be.
53.”The Broken Man” (Season 6, Episode 7)
Hooray: Sandor “The Hound” Clegane is back, and he’s brought Deadwood’s Ian McShane along for the ride! Boo: McShane’s pacifist character is dead before the end of the hour, and Sandor returns to his old killing ways. Wasted opportunities and religious communities abound.
52. “Book of the Stranger” (Season 6, Episode 4)
Reunions and redundancy are the name of the game here. Although the long-awaited meetings between long-lost siblings Jon and Sansa, Theon and Yara Greyjoy, and Margaery and Loras Tyrell are touching, Ramsay Bolton’s by-the-numbers murder of the once-prominent wildling Osha and Daenerys Targaryen’s burning of yet another group of enemies (and outfit) definitely suffered from diminishing returns.
51. “Valar Dohaeris” (Season 3, Episode 1)
Thanks to the around-the-horn style in most GOT season premieres, this episode races from story line to story line but has little chance to do anything else. For every cool moment, like our first glimpse of a giant or the return of rogue kingsguard Ser Barristan Selmy, there’s a major dropped ball, like a massive battle between the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers’ zombies that happens entirely offscreen between seasons.
50. “Oathbreaker” (Season 6, Episode 3)
Two of the most eagerly anticipated events in series history take place in this episode — Jon Snow returns to the land of living, and Bran Stark has a vision of his father’s fateful duel with the Kingsguard knight Ser Arthur Dayne years ago — but you’d barely know it from watching. Jon storms off after executing his murderers, and Bran’s cut off from finding out what happened after his dad won the fight, which is pretty important.
49. “The Wars to Come” (Season 5, Episode 1)
Another season premiere that exists to remind us who and where everyone is, “The Wars to Come” sees King Beyond the Wall Mance Rayder burned at the stake by Stannis Baratheon, Tyrion begin life on the lam after killing his father, and Daenerys topple the Saddam-like Harpy monument in Meereen. Nothing terrible, but nothing all that thrilling after season four’s big finish.
48. “The Kingsroad” (Season 1, Episode 2)
These days, the Greyjoy fleet is apparently equipped with speedboats and Littlefinger can basically teleport at will, but back when the show stuck closely to author George R.R. Martin’s novels, characters spent a whole lot of time just getting from place to place. Its second episode is dedicated almost entirely to the journey of Ned, his pal King Robert, and their kids from Winterfell to King’s Landing. Granted, we get our first glimpse of Joffrey’s true colors along the way — and our first (sob!) direwolf killing as well — but this episode is mostly concerned with establishing the look and feel of the show and its setting.
47. “The Red Woman” (Season 6, Episode 1)
To paraphrase Chevy Chase, Jon Snow is still dead. That’s the main takeaway from this season premiere, which decidedly did not revive the slain Lord Commander — though it does reveal that red priestess Melisandre is a very, very old woman, and it provides further confirmation that Ellaria and the Sand Snakes kind of suck, even when they topple House Martell in like five seconds.
46. “The Night Lands” (Season 2, Episode 2)
This episode is named after the Dothraki term for the afterlife — appropriate, since by the end of this season, none of Dany’s Dothraki entourage would be heard from again. Notable for being the second episode in a row to end with an infant’s death, this time at the hands of a White Walker, “The Night Lands” also introduces Yara Greyjoy, who would have to wait four years before doing much of anything. It also features Stannis and Melisandre having sex on a table, which is admittedly pretty great.
45. “Lord Snow” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Littlefinger, Barristan, Varys, Grand Maester Pycelle, Lancel Lannister, Syrio Forel, Lord Commander Mormont, Maester Aemon, Ser Alliser Thorne, Yoren, Pyp, Grenn: A full one dozen major(ish) characters are introduced in this jam-packed episode, which takes our protagonists to King’s Landing and the Wall for the very first time. But the show was already getting good at adding emotion to all the place-setting, with Dany’s defiance of her awful brother Viserys and Ned’s PTSD auditory hallucination as he watches his daughter Arya learn to duel taking top billing.
44. “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” (Season 3, Episode 7)
“Good-bye, Ser Jaime.” Sure, Brienne of Tarth’s farewell to Jaime Lannister is short-lived — he comes back to rescue her from being fed to House Bolton’s pet bear by the end of the episode — but her use of his real name instead of the insulting nickname “Kingslayer” is one of the series’ most touching moments. The rest is mostly calm-before-the-storm setup for future developments for Robb, Jon, and Dany.
43. “Dark Wings, Dark Words” (Season 3, Episode 2)
Named after one of the series’ least-convincing catchphrases, this episode establishes more of season two’s status quo: We meet the Brotherhood guerillas and the Queen of Thorns, monarch-to-be Margaery feigns interest in King Joffrey’s gruesome hobbies, and Jaime and Brienne get captured by the Boltons after a knock-down, drag-out duel. That last bit is especially cathartic, though their relationship is not nearly as rich as it will eventually be.
42. “The Gift” (Season 5, Episode 7)
If you’re the kind of Game of Thrones viewer who spent years wondering when it’d all come together, you might rank this one a bit higher. After all, it’s the episode where Tyrion Lannister meets Daenerys Targaryen, an event that has yet to happen in Martin’s books. Elsewhere, Cersei gets arrested by the High Sparrow, while most of the other main characters remain stuck in their respective mid-season ruts.
41. “The Pointy End” (Season 1, Episode 8)
This episode may be the biggest bait and switch in the whole series. With Ned Stark sidelined following his betrayal and arrest, we watch Robb Stark rally the North, Khal Drogo psych up the Dothraki, and zombies menace the Night’s Watch. None of these forces, however, will be able to stop what’s coming for Lord Eddard.
40. “Garden of Bones” (Season 2, Episode 4)
One of the show’s creepiest episodes, this mid-season outing begins Daenerys’s worst story line, her misadventures in Qarth. Nevertheless, it starts strong, with the nobles who rule the city appearing at its gates like weirdos out of a Tarsem Singh movie. Back in Westeros, the horror gets ratcheted up as Joffrey goes full Baratheon Psycho on a pair of unfortunate sex workers, while Melisandre gives birth to a shadow demon.
39. “Sons of the Harpy” (Season 5, Episode 4)
A thematic turning point for the series, “Sons of the Harpy” introduces the titular Meereenese insurgency, its fanaticism matched by that of the reborn Faith Militant back in King’s Landing. Meanwhile at the Wall, Melisandre and Stannis hash out their own religiously rooted issues with Jon Snow and poor Princess Shireen. Fundamentalism has been a primary concern ever since.
38. “Valar Morghulis” (Season 2, Episode 10)
The second-season finale contains three of its most feel-good moments, even if they all wind up being bittersweet: Dany’s mystical reunion with Drogo and the baby she lost, Sansa’s smile upon being released from her engagement to Joffrey, and Theon getting knocked unconscious by his own men. None of it was built to last, but we’ll take it while we can.
37. “You Win or You Die” (Season 1, Episode 7)
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” So says Cersei Lannister, providing both the episode and the series itself with their respective title phrases. She then proves her point by outfoxing Ned following the death of her hated husband, King Robert, whom Lord Stark had figured out she’d cheated on with her own brother. Ned’s long walk into the throne room remains one of the series’ tensest moments.
36. “The Laws of Gods and Men” (Season 4, Episode 6)
Or: The People v. Tyrion Lannister. The trial of the imp is the highlight here, with actor Peter Dinklage finally free to let loose his character’s rage against the society that scorned him and the family that framed him despite everything he’s done for them all.
35. “The North Remembers” (Season 2, Episode 1)
After its first season became a hit, Game of Thrones set the tone for its second year by starting with one of its most uncompromising episodes and introducing one of its most uncompromising characters. In this premiere, as Tyrion settles into his position as the Hand of the King, his awful royal nephew Joffrey orders the slaughter of all of his “father” King Robert’s bastards, including literal babes in arms. Beyond the Wall, Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch encounter Craster, their incestuous informant among the wildlings. And on the island of Dragonstone, we meet Stannis Baratheon, Westeros’s rightful ruler … as he burns men to death at the behest of Melisandre, his sorcerous consigliere.
34. “The Climb” (Season 3, Episode 6)
This episode’s title has a double meaning. It’s partially a quote from a memorable speech by Littlefinger: “Chaos is a ladder … the climb is all there is.” But it also refers to the nail-biting trip up the face of the Wall by Jon Snow and the wildlings, among whom he’s gone undercover. The kiss he shares with Ygritte when they reach the top, with the sunlit vista of the North as their backdrop, is the series’ most romantic moment.
33. “Blood of My Blood” (Season 6, Episode 6)
Arya refuses to assassinate a talented actress. Sam and Gilly visit his awful father, then steal his sword and split. Jaime leads a standoff with the High Sparrow on the steps of the Great Sept. The marvelously mean-spirited Lord Walder Frey makes a long-awaited return, as does Dany’s main dragon Drogon. But the biggest comeback is Benjen Stark, who vanished beyond the Wall way back in season one and returns as an undead guardian for his psychic nephew Bran. Basically, this episode is like a piñata stuffed with cool scenes.
32. “Kill the Boy” (Season 5, Episode 5)
As the TV show began to catch up with Martin’s novels, it also started going more boldly off-book. In this case, that includes Jorah Mormont joining Tyrion Lannister in a trip through the ruins of Valyria, where they’re set upon by the disease-ridden Stone Men, and Sansa Stark having a cathartically angry reunion with Theon Greyjoy, the man who betrayed her older brother Robb and, as far as she knew, killed her little brothers, Bran and Rickon. Some readers blanched at the changes, but it made for exciting viewing for non-purists.
31. “First of His Name” (Season 4, Episode 5)
Decency reigns, however briefly, in this mid-season standout from season four. As kindly young King Tommen is crowned, his normally conspiratorial mother, Cersei, makes peace with various enemies, from Margaery Tyrell to Oberyn Martell. And beyond the Wall, Jon’s raiding party defeats the sadistic Night’s Watch mutineers at Craster’s Keep, which his daughter-wives promptly burn down, erasing its horror from the world for good.
30. “No One” (Season 6, Episode 8)
Paying off the seasons-long story line about Brienne, Jaime, and how they bring out the best in one another, “No One” reunites them only for another bittersweet farewell. Meanwhile, Tommen spikes Cersei’s chances at acquittal for her various sins by banning trial by combat — a surprisingly sad split between mother and child, and one that laid the groundwork for explosive payback in King’s Landing. This emotional hour is rounded out with a dynamite scene between the Kingslayer and his prisoner Edmure Tully, and the unexpected return of Daenerys to Meereen.
29. “The Ghost of Harrenhal” (Season 2, Episode 5)
The title obliquely refers to Arya Stark, who befriends ace assassin Jaqen H’ghar between tense, cutting conversations with Tywin Lannister and puppy-lust ogling of Gendry’s chiseled torso. She employs Jaqen to take out various Lannister goons, but the episode is just as memorable for actual ghosts of sorts: the “shadow baby” that murders Renly Baratheon on Stannis’s behalf, and the warlock Pyat Pree, who creepily introduces himself (himselves?) to Dany over in Qarth. The gorgeously alien icy landscapes north of the Wall are also among the season’s visual high points.
28. “The Wolf and the Lion” (Season 1, Episode 5)
One of the show’s most striking settings: the mountaintop castle known as the Eyrie. One of its most eccentric characters: the mad mother Lady Lysa Arryn. One of its most eagerly anticipated fight scenes: a street-level throwdown between Ned Stark and Jaime Lannister. And one of its most memorable not-in-the-books innovations: a heart-to-heart conversation between Robert and Cersei as they contemplate how their unhappy marriage holds the Seven Kingdoms together. This episode has a little something for everyone.
27. “Walk of Punishment” (Season 3, Episode 3)
One of the funniest episodes in the series. Granted, that’s not saying a lot — things are pretty goddamn grim around here! But Tyrion and Cersei’s game of musical chairs as they jockey for position at the Small Council meeting and young squire Podrick Payne’s unexpected prowess in the sack make for laugh-out-loud moments both petty and bawdy in turn. Still, it’s the unexpected severing of Jaime’s hand as punishment for protecting Brienne (and generally being an arrogant aristocrat) that gives this episode its “holy shit!” moment.
26. “Mockingbird” (Season 4, Episode 7)
Hot-blooded fans may remember this episode for Daenerys’s domme-ish demand that her lover Daario strip for her viewing pleasure, or for Melisandre parading around naked in front of Queen Selyse Baratheon. Those with a more vengeful streak will recall Littlefinger dumping his paranoid wife Lysa Arryn out the “Moon Door” for assaulting Sansa. But, for my money, it’s Arya Stark’s old friend Hot Pie, who makes the episode when he tells a visiting Brienne and Pod, “You cannot give up on the gravy.” He means it as a cooking tip, but it certainly works as a life philosophy in this all-too-depressing world.
25. “Second Sons” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Considering the infamous wedding in the following episode, there’s no real need for this one to be as good as it is. But Sansa and Tyrion’s arranged marriage, Melisandre’s skin-crawling sex ritual against King Robert’s handsome bastard Gendry, Dany’s bare-it-all encounter with her future ally and lover Daario Naharis, and Samwell Tarly’s unlikely defeat of a White Walker make for an incredible cocktail hour before the red reception.
24. “High Sparrow” (Season 5, Episode 3)
Young lust, old grudges, and a wolf in sheep’s clothing dominate this strong offering in season five. As Tommen and Margaery consummate their marriage with serious steam (on Tommen’s part, anyway), Jon Snow executes his insubordinate officer Lord Janos Slynt, the Ned-betraying, baby-killing goon who admits, “I’ve always been afraid!” just before the sword falls. Of course, the episode takes its title from the religious leader played by the marvelous Jonathan Pryce — he’s ISIS with a grandfather’s face.
23. “Winter Is Coming” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Okay, this is not one of the show’s most structurally accomplished episodes. Created after a previous pilot was significantly recast and reshot, it suffers from the need to introduce, like, 30 characters, 20 place names, and an entire world of mythology and jargon. Here’s the thing, though: All of those characters, places, mythology, and jargon are great. By beginning with a White Walker attack and ending with Jaime Lannister pushing Bran Stark out the window, the series premiere established the shocking stakes, both supernatural and personal, that would drive it for the duration.
22. “The Lion and the Rose” (Season 4, Episode 2)
Purple reign, purple reign. The marriage of sneering teen sociopath King Joffrey to his not-so-blushing bride Margaery Tyrell ends at the reception, when the mad monarch is poisoned to death, his face turning the hue that gave the “Purple Wedding” its moniker. Beyond a much-loathed character finally getting his comeuppance, this is an emotionally involving episode from top to bottom, with Tyrion’s humiliation by his nephew, Sansa’s horror at seeing her brother Robb’s death publicly mocked, and even Cersei’s sincere grief over her son’s murder hitting hard.
21. “And Now His Watch Is Ended” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Like one uppercut after another, this mid-season climax (a pacing technique the show has frequently employed) kept the hits coming. Theon’s strange saga of escape from captivity with the help of an anonymous “friend” is revealed for the sadistic prank it really is, as the Bastard of Bolton leads him back to his torture chamber. Both the lovable Lord Commander Mormont and his loathsome ally of convenience Craster meet untimely ends courtesy of a Night’s Watch mutiny. And Daenerys has one of her most impressive moments to date, as she takes down the ruling class of a slave city with a single word: “Dracarys.” Fire and blood, as the saying goes.
20. “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” (Season 1, Episode 4)
In which Game of Thrones truly finds its voice by letting its characters talk to each other. When newly minted Night’s Watch member Samwell Tarly tells Jon Snow the sad story of how his father abused and disowned him, or when Littlefinger reveals to his future protégé how Sandor Clegane got those scars at the hands of his psychotic older brother, the show proves that conversations and storytelling could be among the most riveting parts of the story.
19. “The Dance of Dragons” (Season 5, Episode 9)
The penultimate episode of a GOT season normally serves as its showstopper, but in season five, both the previous installment (“Hardhome”) and the season finale (“The Children”) have a bigger claim on big moments. Still, Daenerys’s last-minute rescue from the Sons of the Harpy by her dragon, which she then rides for the very first time, is as epic an image as this fantasy has ever produced, while Stannis’s human sacrifice of his sweet daughter, Shireen, to the Red God is among its most difficult to endure.
18. “Fire and Blood” (Season 1, Episode 10)
The first-season finale is best remembered for the astonishing, mythic image of Daenerys Targaryen emerging unburned from the ashes of her husband Drogo’s funeral pyre, clad only in three infant dragons. But subtler moments stand out as well, from the nervous apprehension of Northern soldiers as they hear their lords proclaim Robb Stark the King in the North to how Emilia Clarke portrays Dany’s blend of confidence and craziness as she marches to what seems like certain death.
17. “Home” (Season 6, Episode 2)
Like “Fire and Blood,” this episode will go down in history for a single shot, or really just a couple of seconds: Jon Snow gasping back to life after being murdered by his own men the previous season. It’s filled with stunning stuff: Tyrion Lannister’s rendezvous with Dany’s dragons, Ramsay Bolton’s murder of his father and his family, Bran Stark’s psychic journey to his father’s childhood in Winterfell, Wun-Wun the giant’s near-single-handed defeat of Jon’s killers, Theon’s surprisingly touching farewell to Sansa, and Euron Greyjoy’s confrontation with his brother Balon on a storm-tossed bridge. If you focused solely on whether or when Jon should have come back, you missed the forest for the weirwood trees.
16. “The Children” (Season 4, Episode 10)
A huge episode for reasons both large-scale and personal. At the Wall, Stannis Baratheon pulls off his finest moment: a surprise rescue of the Night’s Watch. Far to the North, Bran Stark and his companions make a last-ditch race through an army of skeletons (!) to at last meet up with the sorcerous Three-Eyed Raven and his superhuman allies, the Children of the Forest. In the East, Daenerys chains her dragons. In the South, Tyrion murders his father, Tywin, and his ex-girlfriend, Shae. In the Riverlands, Brienne defeats the Hound, and Arya leaves him for dead. Almost every story line in the season ends with an exclamation point.
15. “The Mountain and the Viper” (Season 4, Episode 8)
Pretty much every Game of Thrones viewer lost their head over the trial-by-combat grudge match that pitted spear-wielding sensation Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell against massive killing machine Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, with the fate of Tyrion Lannister — and the truth about Lannister involvement in war crimes during Robert’s Rebellion — hanging in the balance. But if anything, the duel is even more than it’s cracked up to be. A breathless blend of widely divergent fighting styles and personality types, tied to multiple relationships and rivalries, anchored by breakout guest star Pedro Pascal and ending with the most disgusting act of violence in the show’s history? They really crushed it here.
14. “A Golden Crown” (Season 1, Episode 6)
“The Mountain and the Viper” wouldn’t have been the same without this trial-by-combat first experience way back in season one, when the street-smart sellsword and future fan favorite Bronn defeated Lady Lysa Arryn’s oh-so-honorable armored champion by playing dirty. Even more impressive, however, is the demise of first-season antagonist Viserys Targaryen — not just because the method, an improvised “crown” of red-hot molten gold, was so memorable, but because the show allows the profound loneliness and unhappiness that made him such an asshole shine through until the end.
13. “The Watchers on the Wall” (Season 4, Episode 9)
The climactic conflict between the Night’s Watch and Mance Rayder’s wildling army suffers slightly in comparison with Game of Thrones’ other big battle episodes: It lacks the novelty or evenhanded rooting interest of “Blackwater,” the out-of-nowhere chaos of “Hardhome,” or the overwhelmingly grim intensity of “Battle of the Bastards.” But let’s be clear: It’s still goddamn amazing. Director Neil Marshall pulls out all the CGI stops — giants and mammoths and ice scythes, oh my! — and choreographs the thing to perfection. (That big swirling shot around Castle Black as, like, two dozen individual fights raged!) The Romeo and Juliet–style death of Ygritte in Jon Snow’s arms gives it the emotional gravitas to match the spectacle.
12. “The Old Gods and the New” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Speaking of emotional intensity, this episode features two of the show’s strongest sequences to date: Theon Greyjoy’s conquest of Winterfell, culminating in his botched execution of the man who trained him to fight right in front of the crying Stark boys, and the riot in King’s Landing that nearly costs Sansa her life. When Tyrion slaps Joffrey for triggering the unrest, his hand does the talking for all of us.
11. “Battle of the Bastards” (Season 6, Episode 9)
It’s early yet, but this breathtakingly grim battle episode will likely grow in reputation as time passes. Rife with bad decisions amid the fog of war, the titular Battle of the Bastards pits Jon Snow against Ramsay Bolton for the fate of Winterfell, the North, and quite possibly humanity itself. Rickon, Wun-Wun, and Ramsay himself are just three of the countless casualties, which slowly pile up into literal mountains of corpses. The savagery is anticipated earlier in the episode, in a way, by Daenerys’s use of her dragons to ravage an entire fleet in Meereen. War: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing but an absolutely riveting episode.
10. “What Is Dead May Never Die” (Season 2, Episode 3)
A case study in how Game of Thrones crafts characters’ fights against the limited roles allowed to women in a deeply sexist society, this season-two standout introduces two of the show’s most fascinating players: the fearsomely talented, deeply unhappy warrior Brienne of Tarth, and the smart, sexy natural-born politician Margaery Tyrell. It also introduces Arya Stark to the idea of the “kill list,” which she adopts from Yoren, the Night’s Watch member killed shortly after imparting its dubious wisdom to her. Elsewhere, Theon Greyjoy turns on Robb Stark by taking up his treasonous father’s cause, burning a letter of warning to the Young Wolf in a shot lit like something out of Rembrandt.
9. “Two Swords” (Season 4, Episode 1)
The kickoff to season four is only the second episode to begin with a cold open rather than the familiar clockwork credits, the other being the pilot itself. With the Starks swept from the board at the end of the previous season, starting with Tywin Lannister literally melting down Ned’s blade makes the point that the Lannisters, once the show’s heavies, are now its main characters. Joining them (for now, anyway) is the Red Viper, who makes his debut here. But the standout sequence is the one in which the runaway Hound and his hostage-slash-partner Arya take out an inn full of Lannister goons, instantly becoming one of the most compelling and complex duos in the annals of TV drama.
8. “The Door” (Season 6, Episode 5)
For a show with a reputation for callous brutality, Game of Thrones sure knows how to tear your heart out. Here, that power comes in the form of Sansa confronting her former “guardian” Littlefinger over surrendering her to the clutches of the Boltons, detailing the trauma of rape and abuse with diamond clarity. It comes in Daenerys saying good-bye to Jorah Mormont, a flawed man but as sincere a supporter as she’ll ever have, when he reveals his fatal greyscale infection. And it comes as Bran Stark realizes he broke the brain of his hulking friend Hodor, whose one-word vocabulary is the result of being ordered to “Hold the door” against the onslaught of the White Walkers and their zombie army during Bran’s telepathic journey through time. Listening to the young man compulsively repeat the phrase until it blends into his familiar utterance is enough to make you cover your ears, but good luck ever getting the sound out again.
7. “The Winds of Winter” (Season 6, Episode 10)
Rarely, if ever, have the stakes of “the great game” been as clear as they are in this year’s season finale. In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister eliminates all of her political enemies in one fell swoop and becomes undisputed Queen of the Seven Kingdoms — but loses her son Tommen to suicide in the bargain. In the Riverlands, Walder Frey toasts to victory over his enemies — then gets killed by Arya Stark after she serves him his own sons for dinner. In Winterfell, Jon Snow is crowned King in the North by his grateful lords — and though Sansa Stark bears a more direct claim, they may well be right anyway, since he’s secretly the blood of the Dragon. And in the East, Daenerys sets sail for the Seven Kingdoms at the head of a massive alliance between the Dothraki, the Unsullied, the Ironborn, the Dornish, and the Tyrells — and, of course, her dragons. Rulers rise, rulers fall, and winter is officially here.
6. “Mother’s Mercy” (Season 5, Episode 10)
Stannis Baratheon deserted by his men and his Red Woman, defeated by the Boltons, and decapitated by Brienne of Tarth. Sansa and Theon jumping to freedom from the walls of Winterfell. Poor poisoned Myrcella Baratheon in the arms of Jaime Lannister, the father she acknowledged for the first time seconds earlier. Arya Stark wreaking bloody revenge against Ser Meryn Trant, arguably the worst knight in the Seven Kingdoms who isn’t nicknamed after an animal or a land mass, and who is blinded for his transgressions. Varys reuniting with Tyrion as the show’s premiere platonic power couple. Cersei Lannister forced by religious fanatics to endure a walk of shame that forces us to empathize with one of the show’s most resolutely difficult characters. And Jon Snow murdered as a traitor to the Night’s Watch by his own men. Best season finale ever.
5. “Kissed by Fire” (Season 3, Episode 5)
This season-three highlight sees two couples bare both body and soul for very different reasons. Beyond the Wall, Jon and Ygritte consummate their relationship in a red-hot scene set in a secluded subterranean grotto. At the Bolton-controlled fortress of Harrenhal, Jaime and Brienne bathe together after their long captivity, and the exhausted Kingslayer explains the true story behind his nickname — he murdered the Mad King to save the people of King’s Landing, which he’d planned to level with wildfire — before collapsing in her arms. Throw in the Hound’s surprise trial by combat against the Brotherhood’s magically resurrected leader Beric Dondarrion and the introduction of Stannis’s sad daughter Shireen and you’ve got as close to a perfect episode as it gets, with nary an internet-breaking mega-event in sight.
4. “Baelor” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Not that there’s anything wrong with internet-breaking mega-events, of course. This one, the unexpected death of Ned Stark, is the daddy of them all. Killing off the undisputed main character of the series — played by Sean Bean, the show’s best-known, top-billed actor, seen on every promotional poster HBO produced — was the unmistakable sign that Game of Thrones would play for keeps. It should be noted: The artful way in which the killing is handled, with the sound fading away and the camera cutting to the grieving face of Arya just as the blade falls, is at least as important in establishing the method to GOT’s madness.
3. “The Rains of Castamere” (Season 3, Episode 9)
The most shocking death in the most shocking episode — which is obviously saying a lot — wasn’t that of Robb Stark, nor his pregnant queen Talisa, nor their unborn child, nor House Stark matriarch Catelyn. Orchestrated by ambitious Northern Roose Bolton and vengeful old shitbird Lord Walder Frey, this almost unbearable slaughter killed off the show’s central story line itself. With the White Walkers and Dany’s dragons still constrained to the margins of the action, the Stark-Lannister war was the series’ spine. It is severed here, in the most dramatic and final fashion imaginable.
2. “Hardhome” (Season 5, Episode 8)
The siege of King’s Landing, the assault on the Wall, the Battle of the Bastards: As impressive as each of these conflicts are, they were also telegraphed for weeks. What happened at Hardhome, a remote wildling settlement to which Jon Snow and his newfound ally Tormund Giantsbane led a humanitarian mission to help its people sail south, happened out of nowhere. With only the barking of dogs, the rumble of thunder, and a cloud of mist as a warning, the dead were suddenly upon the living, and the White Walkers followed. The chaos of “Hardhome” marries cinematic combat to raw terror as effectively as television has ever done, culminating in the resurrection of countless fallen humans by the demonic Night’s King in a gesture that feels obscene in its transgressive arrogance. Both Jon Snow and the audience leave the scene behind in stunned silence.
1. “Blackwater” (Season 2, Episode 9)
During the climax of the show’s second season, everything that makes Game of Thrones great explodes in a geyser of green flame. The boat full of “wildfire” that serves as Tyrion Lannister’s secret weapon against the invading forces of Stannis Baratheon detonates with mind-boggling ferocity, dwarfing even what readers of the books might have imagined. Just as important as this sight are the sounds that follow: the screams and cries of burning, drowning, dying men. This is no antiseptic fireworks-display destruction. This is death. This is war.
From top to bottom, “Blackwater” has far more than scale and savagery in its favor. With heroic and villainous figures on both sides, it splits our sympathies right down the middle. Would Stannis have made a more merciful monarch than Cersei? Could you really root for Davos if his victory meant Tyrion’s defeat, and vice versa? Would a triumph by the tyrannical Tywin Lannister be worth it if it meant saving the lives of innocents like Sansa Stark and Tommen Baratheon? “Blackwater” works just as hard to show the human cost of war as it does to convey its spectacle. This isn’t just the show’s best battle episode. It’s the greatest Game of Thrones episode, period.