vulture lists

Every Game of Thrones Episode, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photos by HBO

Game over! Now that we’ve finally learned the fate of Westeros and all of its surviving inhabitants, it’s kind of funny to recall 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, divisive, and popular show in HBO history.

All of which makes ranking the show’s episodes a proposition as tricky as taming a dragon. 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 placeholder episode fare better than a fast-moving one that includes a real clunker of a scene? Are episode-long battles better than intimate character portraits, and if so, which episode-long battle is best? How do the blockbusters of the shortened last two seasons measure up to the slower pace of what came before? Is Shocking Death A more of a mindblower than Shocking Death B? (Or C, or D, or E?)

So, for one last time, I’ve strapped on my maester’s chain and done my best to figure it all out, once and for all. Below you’ll find a full list of all 73 episodes of Game of Thrones, ranked in ascending order of quality. Open up your third eye and you’ll start to recognize certain patterns: 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 the showstoppers it rolls out in each season’s penultimate episode (give or take a week), any episode where estranged friends or family reconnect, and of course in the season finales.

In the end, the big picture’s clear enough. Whether the individual episodes are cold as ice or hot as dragon fire, Game of Thrones aimed higher, hit harder, and took more visual, emotional, and thematic risks than anything else on television.

73. “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.

72. “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.

71. “Breaker of Chains” (Season 4, Episode 3)

There’s a lot to talk about with this one — unfortunately, most of the conversation involves saying “ugh.” 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; that makes sense in retrospect, but at the time it lacked the context required to properly make the point. And rather infamously, 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 — at no point does either character discuss the scene as an assault again, while Sansa’s experiences are referred to repeatedly and carefully — it’s hard to draw a different conclusion than “Folks, you fucked up.”

70. “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 unendurable as this show’s violence ever got.

69. “Mhysa” (Season 3, Episode 10)

For all of its highs (like the heartbreaking 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 crowd-surfing on a sea of grateful brown-skinned extras. Again, later events in season eight proved this to be a critique rather than an endorsement, but even viewers favorably inclined to the show’s approach found the image too fraught to serve as a kicker for a season finale.

68. “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.

67. “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! But boo, McShane’s pacifist character is dead before the end of the hour, and Sandor returns to his old killing ways. Over time, the Hound displays a hard-bitten humanism that proves you can teach an old dog new tricks. For the moment, though, wasted opportunities and religious communities abound. (Why didn’t this episode include the magnificent antiwar monologue that anchored the section of the books that inspired it?)

66. “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.

65. “Eastwatch” (Season 7, Episode 5)

Like many episodes in this section of the countdown, “Eastwatch” didn’t do anything wrong, per se. In fact, moments like the formation of Jon Snow’s Magnificent Seven task force of badasses, or Sam blowing up about his tedious maester training at precisely the moment his girlfriend, Gilly, accidentally revealed Jon’s true parents, are fun. But even in those cases, let alone the sibling skullduggery between the Starks in Winterfell and the Lannisters in King’s Landing, it’s all moving pieces into place for the action to come.

64. “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.

63. “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.

62. “The Wars to Come” (Season 5, Episode 1)

Another season premiere that exists primarily 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.

61. “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 was always shaky, right down to that unnamed prince in the series finale. True, criticism of Ramsay Bolton’s wedding-night assault on Sansa Stark dominated the discourse. All I’ll say is that many survivors of sexual abuse, myself included, felt more validated by the scene itself than by the backlash and leave it at that. (Actor Sophie Turner’s recent comments on the story line and the writer of the episode, Bryan Cogman, put paid to much of the criticism leveled at both at the time.) But in the end, it was the dire duel between Jaime Lannister and Bronn and the one-dimensional Sand Snakes — the worst fight scene of the series — that dragged this episode down.

60. “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.

59. “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.

58. “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.

57. “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’s most touching moments. The rest is mostly calm-before-the-storm setup for future developments for Robb, Jon, and Dany.

56. “Dark Wings, Dark Words” (Season 3, Episode 2)

Named after one of the series’s 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.

55. “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 — and which presaged season seven’s seemingly never-ending onslaught of dramatic reunions and first-time encounters. Elsewhere, Cersei gets arrested by the High Sparrow, while most of the other main characters remain stuck in their respective mid-season ruts.

54. “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.

53. “The Queen’s Justice” (Season 7, Episode 3)

For an hour as eventful as this one, “The Queen’s Justice” feels curiously flat — though perhaps that’s by design. Bran’s unexpected return to Winterfell as a cold and distant psychic, the less-than-triumphant conquests of Casterly Rock by the Unsullied and Highgarden by Jaime Lannister, the ignominious fates of matriarchs Olenna Tyrell and Ellaria Sand, a first meeting between Jon and Daenerys that’s tense rather than romantic: The episode seems engineered to thwart the characters’ great expectations. Only crazy Euron Greyjoy, who rides into King’s Landing with captives in tow to a hero’s welcome, seems to be having any fun at all.

52. “The Kingsroad” (Season 1, Episode 2)

In its later seasons, both time and characters move so fast on Game of Thrones that some viewers have started complaining about it. But but back when the show stuck closely to author George R.R. Martin’s novels, people spent a whole lot of time just getting from place to place. The series’s 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.

51. “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. But if you thought any of this would save Lord Stark — Maybe Robb will rescue him! Maybe Dany and the horselords will invade! Maybe the Watch will have him join the fight against the dead! — think again: None of these forces will be able to stop what’s coming for Ned.

50. “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 brutality in the name of its cause 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 and fanaticism remained primary concerns for the rest of the series.

49. “Valar Morghulis” (Season 2, Episode 10)

This finale contains three of season two’s 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.

48. “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’s tensest moments.

47. “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.

46. “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.

45. “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.

44. “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.

43. “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.” (Bran “the Three-Eyed Raven” Stark certainly thought it was a good line.) 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, was the series’s most romantic moment. When you watch it with the on-set romance and real-life marriage of actors Rose Leslie and Kit Harington in mind, you’ll think, Yeah, I get it.

42. “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.

41. “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.

40. “Winterfell” (Season 8, Episode 1)

They’re gettin’ the band back together, man! The long-awaited return of the biggest show on television by all the metrics that matter reunites countless characters, some of whom have been estranged since the first or second episodes. Jon and Arya, Arya and the Hound, Arya and Gendry, Jon and Sam, Dany and … pretty much everyone: It’s a festival of fan favorites getting face to face. Key wish-fulfillment moments, like Jon and Dany going for a dragon ride together and Bran finally meeting up with Jaime Lannister, the man who crippled him, give the fan service a much needed injection of high-fantasy spectacle and down-and-dirty suffering, respectively.

39. “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.

38. “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.

37. “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.

36. “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.

35. “Stormborn” (Season 7, Episode 2)

Like “The Wolf and the Lion” and “Second Sons,” this is one of those sampler-plate episodes with a little bit of everything Game of Thrones does well. There’s unexpected, touching reunions between Arya, her old friend Hot Pie, and her long-lost direwolf Nymeria. There’s the first (and, as it turns out, final) gathering of Daenerys’s war council, an all-star team of some of the show’s coolest characters. There’s a truly disgusting surgical procedure performed by Sam on greyscale victim Jorah Mormont. There’s an all-out naval battle between Euron Greyjoy and his rival relatives, Yara and Theon. And there’s a love scene between Missandei and Grey Worm — simultaneously the show’s sweetest, sexiest, and most psychologically complex sex scene.

34. “The Last of the Starks” (Season 8, Episode 4)

Game of Thrones has had transitional episodes before, often several per season in its early years. But between its lengthy running time and the short six-episode season surrounding it, this one feels like the most dramatic shift from point A to point B the show ever made. It opens with a moving funeral for those who fell during the Battle of Winterfell. The rest of the first half is dominated by a rollicking celebration, featuring a love scene between Jaime and Brienne that brings their years-long relationship to a whole new level, though it will soon come crashing back down to earth. Its second half is a bitter horror: Dany losing another dragon, this time to Euron Greyjoy’s scorpion bolts; Tyrion and Varys debating whether their queen is losing her shit; and finally a hideous face-off with Cersei that ends with the execution of Missandei, the show’s conscience along with Davos and Sam. Like all transition episodes, though, it’s incomplete without the events it transitioned into — and man, what events they turned out to be.

33. “Home” (Season 6, Episode 2)

This episode is best remembered 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.

32. “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 — the future king of Westeros — out the window, the series premiere established the shocking stakes, both supernatural and personal, that would drive it for its duration.

31. “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.

30. “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.

29. “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.

28. “And Now His Watch Is Ended” (Season 3, Episode 4)

Like one uppercut after another, this mid-season climax (a pacing technique the show frequently employed) keeps 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 up to that point, as she takes down the ruling class of a slave city with a single word: “Dracarys.” Fire and blood, as the saying goes. Look, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

27. “The Dance of Dragons” (Season 5, Episode 9)

More often than not, the penultimate episode of a GOT season served 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.

26. “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. It’s a theme that the series returns to in a big way in the finale, courtesy of Tyrion’s make-or-break-moment monologue about the power of a good story to shape history.

25. “Dragonstone” (Season 7, Episode 1)

The first episode of GOT’s seventh season ranks among its most accomplished and engaging premieres. Beginning with a cold (as in, revenge is a dish best served) opening in which Arya Stark slaughters House Frey, it’s a compelling collage of emotion and sensation — best illustrated, perhaps, by the later scene in which Arya sits down for a meal with friendly young Lannister soldiers, accepting their fellowship instead of giving in to bloodlust. Before it’s over, there’s a gross-out comedy montage involving Sam Tarly emptying bedpans, a grim reminder of the Hound’s criminal past, a performance from Euron Greyjoy worthy of a pro-wrestling heel, and most important, a lengthy wordless sequence in which Daenerys finally reaches Westeros. “Shall we begin?” Oh, indeed.

24. “Beyond the Wall” (Season 7, Episode 6)

Kvetch about the feigned Arya-Sansa strife, the wisdom of Jon’s “kidnap a zombie and show it to Cersei” plan, the uncertain passage of time, and the airspeed velocity of ravens if you must. All I know is that for seven years we waited for an all-out conflagration between the White Walkers and the dragons — between ice and fire — and this episode delivers. In fantasy art like this, the spectacle speaks for itself, if you’re willing to listen.

23. “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.

22. “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.

21. “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,” the overwhelmingly grim intensity of “Battle of the Bastards,” the phantasmagoria of “The Long Night,” and the fire and blood of “The Spoils of War” and, especially, “The Bells.” But let’s be clear: It’s still goddamned 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.

20. “The Old Gods and the New” (Season 2, Episode 6)

Speaking of emotional intensity, this episode features two of the still-young show’s strongest sequences up to that point: 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.

19. “A Golden Crown” (Season 1, Episode 6)

“The Mountain and the Viper” wouldn’t have been the same without the debut of trial by combat 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.

18. “What Is Dead May Never Die” (Season 2, Episode 3)

A case study in how Game of Thrones depicts its characters’ fights against the limited roles allowed to women in a deeply sexist society, this second-season 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 his 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.

17. “The Dragon and the Wolf” (Season 7, Episode 7)

The giant-size finale of what was at the time both the series’s shortest and most epic season plays like a Game of Thrones superfan’s winning bingo card. Jon and Daenerys finally hook up, even as we learn for certain that they’re related. Jaime and Cersei finally split up, as the Kingslayer realizes his sister is beyond even his concepts of morality. (He gets over it eventually.) The Stark siblings put an end to Littlefinger’s reign of error. Winter comes to King’s Landing as snow falls on the capital. (Just a sprinkle, as it turns out.) And the Night King unleashes his zombie dragon’s blue fire to tear down the Wall, allowing his undead army to pass through. The end is nigh, folks.

16. “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.

15. “Two Swords” (Season 4, Episode 1)

The kickoff to season four was only the second episode to begin with a cold open rather than the familiar clockwork credits, the other being the pilot itself. And for good reason: With the Starks swept from the board at the end of the previous season and the Lannisters now our main characters, it’s basically a whole new show. Joining Tywin and company in King’s Landing (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.

14. “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 (supposedly) 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.

13. “The Spoils of War” (Season 7, Episode 4)

An episode consisting almost entirely of moments years in the making, this mid-season climax shows Jon and Daenerys touching for the first time (something readers of George R.R. Martin’s books have been anticipating for over two decades) and Arya Stark returning to Winterfell at last. But eventually, character beats give way to hoofbeats, as the Dothraki horde and Dany’s dragon absolutely annihilate the Lannister army. The fear on the faces of seasoned warriors Jaime and Bronn is second only to the fear on our own, when we see both men take on the Khaleesi and her largest “child” in one-on-one confrontations where it’s impossible to root for one side or the other. It brings the war home.

12. “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. A killer finale.

11. “The Iron Throne” (Season 8, Episode 6)

Photo: HBO

It starts in death by fire, and ends in life amid the ice. In between, the series finale of the biggest show of the century is a surprisingly thoughtful and contemplative thing, determined to give each of its main characters an ending that suits them — none of them quite happily ever after, but none a perverse Red Wedding either. Then again, consumed by visions of a perfect world only she has the power — and the right — to bring about, Daenerys Targaryen is murdered in the exact same way Robb Stark was by Roose Bolton at that bloody celebration, and Roose was by Ramsay in turn: a blade in the heart, delivered by someone she trusted. That someone is Jon Snow, who escapes his destiny as the Last Dragon and helps bring human life back to the lands beyond the Wall. His sisters Arya and Sansa set sail for undiscovered country and take power as Queen of the North respectively. His “broken” brother Bran is nominated Lord of the Six (!) Kingdoms by Tyrion, whose punishment for his crimes and misjudgments is to help the young psychic rule as his Hand. Stunning, screen-commanding performances by Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Isaac Hempstead Wright, and Peter Dinklage ensure that while the Iron Throne itself may have been melted into nothingness, the show it anchored will stand for years to come.

10. “The Winds of Winter” (Season 6, Episode 10)

In which the playing board of “the great game” takes its final shape. 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.

9. “The Long Night” (Season 8, Episode 3)

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

What to think of this literally years-in-the-making assault on Winterfell, and by extension all life on the planet, by the Night King and his undead minions? One the one hand, you have the surprise cessation of the show’s central conflict and metaphor, namely, the need for all people to unite against an existential threat. You also have the unexpected not-deaths of the vast majority of the main characters, which is the kind of move this show has trained its audience to scream, “PLOT ARMOR!” at the top of its lungs about. On the other hand, you have an astonishing, unholy wedding of Lord of the Rings-style combat and scale to breathtaking horror that tops any zombie show or slasher movie in recent memory. You also have moments of exquisite beauty and overwhelming emotion, from dragons dancing above the clouds to an ancient sorceress walking toward the dawn to meet her death in the snow. The pros don’t just outweigh the cons here. They’re enough to lodge this thing in the Thrones Hall of Fame.

8. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” (Season 8, Episode 2)

Remember “Winterfell,” the season-eight premiere? Remember how it served up a dragon-size helping of crowd-pleasing reunions but lacked the emotional edge Game of Thrones has at its best? Okay, good. Now, remember “Blackwater,” the season-two climax? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in depth just a few spots ahead. But for now, remember how that titanic battle episode opened with a lengthy, somber, occasionally wine-soaked section in which all the combatants got together and just … talked? About who they are, what they’re fighting for, what they’re afraid to encounter, who they’re afraid to lose? This episode — written and directed by Bryan Cogman and David Nutter, respectively, each of whom is a series MVP — combines them both to absolutely beautiful effect. From Arya and Gendry’s love scene, to Sansa and Theon’s heart-rending survivors’ reunion, to Davos and Gilly caring for a child who’s been separated from her family (imagine that!), to Jon and Dany realizing what his parentage really means for them both, to Jaime dubbing Brienne “a knight of the Seven Kingdoms” in a completion of both their character arcs that had me bawling like a baby, this moving, outstanding hour is the best of both worlds.

7. “Baelor” (Season 1, Episode 9)

This is the big one. Game of Thrones is now known for I-can’t-believe-they-just-did-that shocks, and 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.

6. “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.

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. “The Rains of Castamere” (Season 3, Episode 9)

The most shocking death in the most shocking episode — until season eight, anyway — isn’t that of Robb Stark, nor his pregnant queen Talisa, nor their unborn child, nor House Stark matriarch Catelyn. It’s your idea of what this show is even about. 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’s spine. It is severed here, in the most dramatic and final fashion imaginable, and the war between the Wolf and the Lion will never be waged directly again.

3. “Battle of the Bastards” (Season 6, Episode 9)

Impressive as it was when it aired, this breathtakingly grim battle episode has only grown in reputation as time passes: “I still think ‘Battle of the Bastards’ is the greatest battle ever portrayed in television history,” says “Baelor” and “Beyond the Wall” director Alan Taylor, “and I think it will be for a while.” Rife with bad decisions made amid the fog of war, the titular clash pits Jon Snow against Ramsay Bolton for the fate of Winterfell, the North, and quite possibly all of humanity. Rickon Stark, Wun-Wun the giant, 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.

2. “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… or so I thought.

1. “The Bells” (Season 8, Episode 5)

Sansa Stark: How long do I have to look?
Joffrey Baratheon: As long as it pleases me.

Miguel Sapochnik, the man behind “Hardhome,” “Battle of the Bastards,” and “The Long Night,” succeeded Neil Marshall as the show’s master of war. Returning to the director’s chair one last time for the series’s penultimate episode, he turns off the dark that confounded many viewers during the Battle of Winterfell. But does he therefore dial down the carnage that occurs any time large numbers of people decide to murder one another for a cause? Oh, no. Oh, not at all.

“The Bells” ratchets up the queasy terror of the last battle episode set at King’s Landing, “Blackwater,” by making its narrowly averted nightmare come true. This time, instead of stalling at the city walls, the invaders make it inside—with the help of Daenerys Targaryen and the last dragon she has. And before the episode is over, there’s barely a city left to sack. The Breaker of Chains breaks bad at last, unleashing dragon fire on tens of thousands of innocent civilians and reducing King’s Landing to rubble and ash.

This war crime was a long time coming, and the seeds had been planted since the start. No, I’m not talking about the innumerable people whose execution by Dany went excused because they were nominally “bad guys.” I’m talking about Bran falling from the tower. Viserys Targaryen and Robert Baratheon and Khal Drogo failing to survive a single season. Ned Stark losing his head. Jaime Lannister losing his hand. The Red Wedding. The Purple Wedding. The Red Viper. The death of the dragons.

Every single swerve that upended what the story seemed to be about was building to this moment: A self-styled liberator perpetrating a massacre on a previously unimaginable scale, both as an in-story act of violence and an on-screen work of filmmaking. This is the show, and it always has been. Game of Thrones forces you to look. Long may it burn.

Every Game of Thrones Episode, Ranked