There was a blessed moment spanning from season three into season four when the Seven bestowed on us an embarrassment of character-development riches. Halfway through the GOT journey, our best loved and most loathed characters were scattered to the wind, making their way up and down Westeros, across the Narrow Sea, and through the winding alleys of King’s Landing. Some unlikely companions had paired up, and the repartee was reaching new heights. Arya and the Hound were on their version of a European backpacking adventure, which included a lot of savagery and television’s best-ever monologue about chicken. Davos and Shireen were striking up an unconventional mentor-mentee relationship. Ramsay was ripping the skin off Theon on the reg and gleefully laughing through it all.
If this era of Game of Thrones had a Martin-esque title, it might be called A Sundry of Sets, or A Multitude of Matches, or A Drove of Duos. The very best moments of the episodes were check-ins with our favorite pairings, little glimpses into the intimate, witty, resonant relationships they’d struck up. Sure, there were sword fights and threesomes and Joffrey’s delightfully purple dead face to ogle, but these matchups gave GOT its soul. And while there were many close calls that almost made this list — Tyrion and Varys! Jaime and Bronn! — not everyone could make the final cut. Here are our absolute favorites; debate among yourselves.
Most Brutally Honest: Tyrion and Bronn
Bronn and Tyrion started their little adventure alllll the way back in season one as companions on the road, when “the imp” was Catelyn Stark’s captive and Bronn his eventual surrogate and victor in trial by combat. They were equally bawdy and quippy from the get-go. (Tyrion, about the Eyrie: “They say she’s impregnable.” Bronn: “Give me ten good men and some climbing spikes and I’ll impregnate the bitch.”) Tyrion, we were led to believe, had no competition in the drinking and whoring department, other than Bronn, that is, whose sword and thirst for gold kept Tyrion alive for years (for which we offer you our thanks, Ser Bronn of the Blackwater). For the two men — who were virtually an employer and his cutthroat, dragger-wielding, sack-of-walking-testicles employee — there was an undercurrent of sweet filial love. Blessedly, they never let things get too emotional, as was evidenced in their parting in the cells under the Red Keep. “I like you, pampered little shit that you are,” Bronn said matter-of-factly. “I just like me better.” Ah, honesty.
Best Buddy Cop Movie: Brienne and Pod
Poor Pod has been stuck squiring for almost a decade. First offscreen for a gent named Ser Lorimer, then to Tyrion. But then he lucked out, and for the last few years he’s been in a beautiful little duet with Brienne. Not to get too weepy over it, but this tale of perpetual irritation turned mutual admiration is one of the best bits of Game of Thrones, emblematic of what good things come when the writers slow down and let relationships evolve over seasons. Pod couldn’t even ride a horse when they started! Or skin a rabbit. But now he’s Brienne’s closest comrade: Pod’s companionship taught Brienne to finally open up emotionally. As Tyrion once put it, “there has never been a more loyal squire.”
Least Inspiring Paternal Pairing: Tywin and Tyrion
“You’re no son of mine” aren’t exactly inspiring last words from one’s dear old dad. Then again, most of us don’t shoot our dads in the belly with a crossbow while he’s on the shitter in the middle of the night. But there was really no other way for this matchup of two brilliant actors — Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage, who ought to teach master classes together — to end (and not just because George R.R. Martin wrote it that way). Underneath his sardonic quips, Tyrion was always struggling for just an ounce of fatherly approval. And Tywin exerted more force on Tyrion’s self-esteem with one sentence (“You are an ill-made, spiteful little creature full of envy, lust, and low cunning”) than a crowd spewing jeers and taunts might. In killing his father, Tyrion turned into the Greek tragic hero we always knew he would be.
Hands-Down Grossest: Lysa and Robin Arryn
Breastfeeding is as natural as rainstorms. Encouraging your tween to suckle at your pendulous breasts in public and teaching him to rely on it for comfort is … a mental-health hazard for all of us. Game of Thrones had already demonstrated its devotion to the unseemly (incest!) and the uncouth (everything else, pretty much), but when we met Lysa Arryn for the first time and her 8-year-old Robin was glued to her breast, even Tyrion — who has seen some bizarre shit — could only stand by befuddled. What a glorious codependent bundle of paranoia and wanton cruelty those two made. Robin inherited his mother’s obvious vitamin and nutritional deficiency (holy heck those dark circles), along with her fondness for making bad men fly. Makes you wonder if in the final season he’ll follow her lead and head through the moon door himself.
Most Flesh-Filled: Ramsay and Theon/Reek
If you’re queasy even thinking about Ramsay and Theon, then they did something right. All that skin peeling and genital severing brought GOT’s grotesquerie level to a new high (or perhaps low). A penis in a box! A faux escape turned hunt for Theon! Those dripping, snarling dogs! Ramsay was his worst self with Theon (okay, well, he may have been slightly more inhumane when he fed his newborn brother to said dogs), and every pathetic twitch of Alfie Allen’s head fed Iwan Rheon’s ever-curling Grinch-y smile. No matter how bloody or scream-filled the scenes, it was hard to look away when the two were onscreen together.
OMG the Sweetest: Davos and Shireen
Is there an act more loving in all of human history than Shireen Baratheon’s dedication to teaching Davos Seaworth to read? I think not. Davos always had more heart than the rest of Westeros combined — he’s undoubtedly the show’s moral compass — and Shireen, with her smiley, scaly countenance, was the sunny child that Stannis and Selyse didn’t deserve. Remember how sweetly she corrected Davos when he pronounced knight as ca-nig-it? And the little stag he whittled out of wood for her? All of Davos’s own sons are dead, but his rage and despair at Shireen’s cruel, pointless sacrifice to the Lord of Light stands as the most loving paternal moment since Ned Stark died.
Best (Faux) Friends: Cersei and Margaery
“If you ever call me sister again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep,” Cersei says quietly to Margaery in the middle of the bustling Great Sept, wiping the duplicitous little smile off the lesser queen’s face. For a pompous little upstart, Margaery sure wiggles her way deep under Cersei’s skin, offering up that beatific face at every chance, plaguing “the queen mother” with her ability to inspire rabid devotion in the commoners. The two practically pistol-whip each other with compliments in public and then smile through every private degradation, unwilling to let the other get the better of her. Until, that is, Cersei plays a card only available to her — wanton disregard for what anyone thinks — and blows Margaery up in that same Sept.
Least Likely to Win Motherboy: Olenna and Mace Tyrell
They’re dark-horse candidates, but tell me you didn’t giggle to yourself every time the Queen of Thorns glanced at her halfwit son with clear derision — and even a little revulsion — in her eyes. Mace Tyrell was the panting little puppy so delighted to have Lannisters pay attention to him that he pretty much sold himself down the river. His self-puffery made him silly, but Olenna’s hilarious, belittling zingers (“Not now, Mace. Lord Tywin and I are speaking”) and utter lack of faith in Mace only served to pump up her particular brand of vicious cunning and wit.
Most Redemptive: The Hound and Arya
There were always hints of the Hound’s deeply buried humanity. The way he saved Loras Tyrell from his brother Gregor at the tournament in season one, for instance, or his interventions in Joffrey’s cruelty to Sansa. But he scraped up against Arya like a bad rash, and the two — mismatched in size, perfectly complementary in tenacity — snarled and bickered on their season-long hostage road trip. (Arya: “Lots of people name their swords.” The Hound: “Lots of cunts.”) But the Hound also embraced Arya’s thirst for violence and vengeance the way no one — especially her own father — had ever done. So when the duo eventually teamed up, sorting through their wavering moral codes together while they distributed justice (to Polliver) and injustice (stealing silver from the farmer who takes them in), their bizarro father-daughter pairing became the glaring example of how fascinated Game of Thrones is with redemption. Who deserves it? What does it earn them? And is it even worth it?
Just the Absolute Goddamned Best: Jaime and Brienne
Can you cuddle a TV relationship? Can you put it in your pocket and reach in to stroke it when you’re feeling glum? Because Brienne and Jaime’s road-trip adventure and subsequent fuzzy-bordered platonic love is everything I’ve ever wanted in a pet. Remember what a (beautiful, beautiful) assface Jaime was before Brienne? Cocky and overly sure of himself, pushing small boys out windows (“The things I do for love!”), and then sunk into a pit of self-pity after his hand was chopped off and sickeningly strung around his neck. Brienne, on the other hand, was all honor and duty — a bit too much at times, to the detriment of her three-dimensionality. But when they became unlikely road companions, Jaime put a shiv in Brienne’s notions of unwavering honor, and Brienne converted a swaggering narcissist into the most acutely evolved man in all the Seven Kingdoms and beyond.
Plus, that (literally) steamy bathtub scene. Can’t forget that.