Seasons in Game of Thrones arrive with a magical unpredictability, but seasons *of* Game of Thrones usually follow the same general structure. The premiere jumps around, checking in on everyone; episodes two and three introduce the main challenges and themes; the end-of-act-one turning point happens in episode four or five; six and seven are transitional episodes; eight serves up a mini-climax in preparation for nine, which is where the holy shit! moments happen; and the finale is devoted to surveying the wreckage. HBO has not been shy about hyping up Sunday night’s episode, “The Battle of the Bastards” as the biggest thing Thrones has ever done, so now seems the perfect time to try and figure out where each part of the typical GOT season falls in the hierarchy of quality. The one at the top might not surprise you, but maybe the other nine will!
10. Episode Three (Notable installment: “Oathbreaker”)
We don’t want to shit-talk episode threes. Someone had to be the last. But still: In six seasons, can you remember a great one? This season’s “Oathbreaker,” which dealt with the repercussions of Jon Snow’s resurrection, was probably the best. Others, like season four’s “Breaker of Chains,” have been okay. But usually, episode three is the point in a Thrones season where the excitement of new episodes has worn off, but it’s still too early for the really interesting things to happen.
9. Episode Two (Notable installment: “The Lion and the Rose”)
Episode twos usually don’t score highly either, as they’re often table-setting episodes without much in the way of payoffs. The sole exception is season four’s “The Lion and the Rose,” which drifted among the various attendees at Joffrey’s wedding like a medieval Robert Altman film. That wedding, of course, ended with Joffrey’s brutal murder — a rare instance of Thrones throwing away the template and delivering an early-season shocker. (The show tried to do the same this year, bringing back Jon Snow at the end of “Home,” but the effect was diminished slightly by the fact that practically no one thought he was really dead.)
8. Episode Seven (Notable installments: “The Bear and Maiden Fair,” “Mockingbird”)
Episode sevens are usually solid episodes: They do the yeoman’s work of the season, solidly advancing the plotlines where they need to go, but they’re never going to be anyone’s favorite. Also, the producers are usually saving their CGI budgets for the finale, so any big episode-seven events — Jaime and Brienne fighting a bear, Littlefinger pushing Lysa out the Moor Door — can sometimes have slightly wonky effects.
7. Episode One (Notable installments: “Winter Is Coming,” “The North Remembers,” “The Red Woman”)
I’ve said before, Game of Thrones premieres can never be good, they can only be competent. A typical episode one has to check in on so many characters in so many locations that it often seems less like an episode of television than a lengthy browse through Facebook. (“Margaery is engaged!”) Still, though, the first-ever episode of GOT remains one of the decade’s great pilots, skillfully laying out exactly what the show would be. And subsequent premieres have had their moments, from the murder-montage of Robert’s bastards in season two, to Melisandre revealing her true form this year.
6. Episode Six (Notable installments: “The Climb,” “The Laws of Gods and Men,” “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”)
Episode six gets docked somewhat for having what’s almost unanimously named Thrones’ worst episode ever: last year’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” which had that terrible fight in Dorne as well as Sansa’s wedding-night rape. But while episode six is usually a set-up episode, there are times when that set up is divine: Season one’s “A Golden Crown” found Khal Drogo exploring loopholes in the Vaes Dothrak legal code, season three’s “The Climb” closed with that wonderful shot of Jon and Ygritte on top of the Wall, and season four’s “The Laws of Gods and Men” saw Tyrion go full Pacino in his big courtroom scene.
5. Episode Ten (Notable installments: “Fire and Blood,” “Mysa”)
In the golden age of television, it became a cliché to point out that the good dramas put all their fireworks in the penultimate episode of a season, and made their finales quieter, more contemplative affairs. Thrones has largely followed this tradition, and the extended run time the finales often get makes for an enjoyably relaxed pace, at least until the dragons show up.
4. Episode Four (Notable installment: “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” “Garden of Bones,” “And Now His Watch Is Ended”)
Back when HBO still sent GOT screeners to critics in advance, the set of DVDs often contained the first four episodes. Fittingly, these episodes would often end with a major “moment”: Catelyn arresting Tyrion, Melisandre birthing a smoke monster, Dany gaining an army of Unsullied. Season six, which wasn’t sent to critics, continued that trend with that great scene of Daenerys burning down the temple of the dosh khaleen — proving, once again, that we had been drastically overestimating our importance in the grand scheme of things.
3. Episode Five (Notable installments: “Kissed By Fire,” “The Door”)
I’ll confess to a special weakness for episode fives thanks to my fondness for season three’s “Kissed by Fire,” the absolute best of Thrones’ non-“event” episodes. There’s were no real OMG moments here, just a collection of scenes — Brienne and Jaime in Harrenhall; Jon and Ygritte in the cave; Arya, the Hound, and the Brotherhood in another cave — filled with intimacy, humor, and (fitting, considering the title) warmth. Then, three years later, season six gave us another mid-season highlight in the heartbreaking Hodor origin story of “The Door.” And the other four episode fives were pretty good, too!
2. Episode Eight (Notable installments: “Second Sons,” “The Mountain and the Viper,” “Hardhome”)
The best episode eights have seen GOT slow down and invest its time in one location, with classic results. Season four’s “The Mountain and the Viper” and season five’s “Hardhome” both climaxed with explosions of violence, but neither would have been as effective without the air of mounting dread that preceded them. And season three’s “Second Sons” was a rarity, confining itself to only three major plotlines — the closest thing Thrones has had to a traditional episode of television.
1. Episode Nine (Notable installments: “Baelor,” “Blackwater,” “The Rains of Castamere”)
We wanted to put something different at No. 1. We really did. No one likes it when, say, someone puts peanuts and apple pie at the top of his lists of the best nuts and pies, respectively. But you can’t deny that the penultimate episode is where Thrones really brings its A-game. By almost any accounting, the show’s initial trio of episode nines are three of the best five GOT installments ever, and while the past two seasons’ versions didn’t quite live up to the lofty standard set by their predecessors, they still contained enough moments of wonder and dread to rank among the high points of their respective seasons. Let’s hope Sunday night’s can match it.