endings

So, Uh, What Happened on Game of Thrones?

Reliving seven seasons of beheadings, recastings, and internet controversy.

Illustration: Martin Ansin
Illustration: Martin Ansin
Illustration: Martin Ansin

There will never be another show like Game of Thrones. As our pop-culture consumption is increasingly determined by individual, algorithm-driven home screens, the HBO fantasy drama is one final vestige of the monoculture — the last thing in America, besides maybe Thanksgiving, that can bring woke millennials and their conservative uncles together. Coming at both the tail end of the Golden Age of TV, and the advent of the social media age, it also holds the distinction of being the most covered show on television. Now that TV was great art, spending hours on Tumblr reading fan theories about secret Targaryens wasn’t a waste of time, it was serious artistic analysis.

As Thrones prepares to make like Elissa Farman and fade away into the sunset, it’s time to take a look back. Maybe you’re a new viewer who is currently binge-watching the entire run, maybe you’re an old hand who just needs a refresher. Either way, enjoy this re-creation of what it was like to follow along with Game of Thrones as it aired, think piece by think piece, surprise death by surprise death.

Season One: Winter Is Coming.

Photo: HBO

When Game of Thrones premiered back in the spring of 2011, Donald Trump was still hosting Celebrity Apprentice. HBO’s biggest show was True Blood. And mild-mannered fantasy author George R.R. Martin could still walk down the street like a normal person. In other words, it was a different time. The show’s pilot, “Winter Is Coming,” brought to life the world Martin had created, a world of noble Starks, scheming Lannisters, and dispossessed Targaryens — and immediately, viewers had trouble telling everyone apart. Astoundingly, in retrospect, the show’s early ratings were not that great, possibly because it was gaining a reputation for being dark, grim, and difficult to follow. This was a show that ended its first episode by throwing a little boy out of a window, and then ended its second episode with a father murdering his daughter’s pet dog.

You learned to love it.

After the excitement of the premiere wore off, we settled into the first season’s long sexposition-y middle. In “Lord Snow,” Daenerys Targaryen got pregnant the same week as the real-life royal wedding. “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” introduced sad-sack Samwell Tarly, who made everyone cry. “The Wolf and the Lion” treated us to an unexpected nipple-shaving scene. Remember the nipple-shaving scene? That was the same episode we saw a mother breastfeeding her preteen son. It was by far the nippliest Game of Thrones episode ever.

Along the way, Viserys Targaryen’s murder-by-molten-gold in “A Golden Crown” proved that, in Game of Thrones, “crowning” meant the opposite of what it does in an OB/GYN ward, and in “You Win or You Die,” Littlefinger delivered one of TV’s great finger-banging monologues. Also, Daenerys ate a horse heart. It was gross, but also awesome.

There was a whole lot of buildup around the Lannisters and Starks going to war, and around episode eight, those who hadn’t read the books wondered if all that dramatic tension would eventually pay off. (Those who had, if they were nice, kept quiet and tried not to spoil anything.)

I think it’s safe to say they pulled it off because the ninth episode, “Baelor,” is the one where they killed off Ned Stark! (Sean Bean was okay with it.) And then in the season finale “Fire and Blood” the dragons were born! More than anything, this is the moment when Game of Thrones went from moderately popular HBO drama to genuine watercooler phenomenon. Ned’s death remains the most widely mourned on Slate’s digital graveyard, and the countless reaction videos to his beheading on YouTube will undoubtedly be a valuable primary source for future historians of early 21st-century interior design.

Then, just like that, it was the first of many long off-seasons. Jason Momoa spent his Conan press tour lobbying for a return to the show, while HBO vowed it would continue airing the series until it reached the end of the story, though few at the time could have predicted that the show would complete its entire run before Martin finished The Winds of Winter.

More From Season One
Game of Thrones for Newbies
Sean Bean on Losing His Head
HBO Will Air Thrones As Long As Martin Writes It

Season Two: Where Is the God of Tits and Wine?

Photo: HBO

With the exception of some noticeably older Starklings, the beginning of season two felt very similar to season one, though critics noted that the season premiere “The North Remembers” had even more child murders. In “The Night Lands” the war between the Lannisters and Starks had expanded to include the warring brothers Renly and Stannis Baratheon, which meant that we were treated to a host of new characters, chief among them the warrior woman Brienne of Tarth and the mysterious sorceress Melisandre. But our old favorites kept doing their thing: Joffrey was still terrible, Robb Stark was still winning battles, and Jon Snow was still a virgin.

Arya underwent a series of violent ordeals, but the real violent ordeal was the friends she made along the way. Tyrion, newly installed Hand of the King, used his wits to figure out who was leaking info to Cersei in episode three. And just when you thought it had been a while since the last WTF moment, “Garden of Bones” saw Melisandre give birth to a smoke baby. Then in “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” that smoke baby killed Renly. Good-bye, Renly. I’ll always remember your fantastic crown and well-groomed nipples.

What was Daenerys doing? Oh, yes, by episode six she was in Qarth, where her dragons got stolen and all her Dothraki friends got murdered. Theon Greyjoy made a bunch of bad decisions, and got to second base with his own sister, but by “A Man Without Honor” he was so obviously in over his head that you couldn’t help but feel bad for him. His old frenemies Jon Snow and Robb Stark both found love in the eighth episode, and while those relationships both ended incredibly tragically, even by Game of Thrones standards, at least they were cute at the time.

Then, as was becoming tradition, episode nine blew everyone’s socks off.

“Blackwater” was the biggest thing Game of Thrones had ever done, at once a bottle episode and a Lord of the Rings–style epic. It’s commonly ranked as the best Game of Thrones episode ever made. Afterward, Sophie Turner revealed that, despite playing the worst character on television, Jack Gleeson was actually really nice, and we finally discovered why the show had so much nudity. After an episode like that, “Valar Morghulis” couldn’t help but be a slight letdown, but the drama wasn’t done yet: A week after the finale aired, someone discovered that a decapitated head in season one was actually George W. Bush, and it turned into a whole thing.

More From Season Two
This Is Why Game of Thrones Has So Much Nudity
Alfie Allen on Theon’s Daddy Issues
Game of Thrones Recap: “Blackwater”

Season Three: If You Think This Has a Happy Ending, You Haven’t Been Paying Attention.

Photo: HBO

The opening episodes of season three weren’t exactly rollicking, but they did a lot of crucial setup: In “Valar Dohaeris” and “Dark Wings, Dark Words,” we got our first glimpse of conflict between Cersei and Margaery, Westeros’s own version of Princess Di, and said hello to Mance Rayder, Jojen and Meera Reed, Missandei, and the Unsullied. In “Walk of Punishment” we also said good-bye to Jaime’s hand, the first of many appendages to be severed this season.

With a single word in episode fourDracarys!Daenerys unleashed her dragons, getting one crispy slaver and a legion of Unsullied to go. By now you could tell that the show’s budget was growing — there were legions of extras, and scenes chock-full of CGI. Thrones followed this up with its sexiest episode ever, “Kissed by Fire,” as we were treated to a pair of intimate scenes in which Jaime, Brienne, Jon Snow, and Ygritte stripped down to reveal their deepest vulnerabilities, and also their butts. Kit Harington called it “a lovely scene,” and considering that he and Rose Leslie would later get married, I think he was telling the truth. In “The Climb,” Jon and Ygritte summited the Wall together, and then, in the appropriately named “Bear and Maiden Fair,” Jaime rescued Brienne from an ursine attacker.

Things were getting very sweet, so the show had to even things out by cutting off Theon Greyjoy’s dick. In all things, balance.

Speaking of marriage, this season was marked by another famous wedding: that of Sansa and Tyrion! I’m kidding of course, but the season’s eighth episode was remarkable for being the rare GOT episode to confine itself to only four locations, rather than the usual ten or so.

But you don’t really care about that because “The Rains of Castamere” gave us the big event of the entire series — the Red Wedding, in which Catelyn, Robb, Talisa, and hundreds of Stark soldiers were stabbed in the back (sometimes literally) by the Boltons and Freys. Show-only viewers were shocked — well, the few who hadn’t been spoiled were — while book readers found a strange sort of catharsis in getting past the defining bloodbath of George R.R. Martin’s saga. And we got even more classic reaction videos out of it:

“Mhysa” wrapped up the third season with two arresting images: Grey Wind’s head affixed to Robb Stark’s body, and Daenerys crowd-surfing on a wave of slaves she’d freed from Yunkai, with the latter spurring a controversy about the white-savior subtext of the Essos plotline. Oopsy-daisy.

More From Season Three
Game of Thrones Mnemonics for Those Who Can’t Remember the Character Names
Kit Harington on Jon Snow’s Long-Awaited Sex Scene
The Two Reactions to the Red Wedding

Season Four: What Good Is Power If You Cannot Protect the Ones You Love?

Photo: HBO

What would the post–Red Wedding landscape of Game of Thrones look like? The season-four premiere gave a few characters a reset: Jon Snow was back with the Night’s Watch, and Jaime was back in King’s Landing. We got more new characters, and they leaned butch; there was the swaggering Oberyn Martell, a new beardier Daario, [extremely Coors Light voice] and Thenns.

The comforting rhythms of the earlier seasons — a mini-climax in episode four, then a big one in episode nine — were interrupted this year when the show killed off Joffrey in the season’s second episode, and at his own wedding, no less! Afterward, Jack Gleeson decided to abandon screen acting in favor of smaller theater work, and his co-star Sophie Turner had “very mixed feelings” about his departure.

The episode that followed Joffrey’s death would prove controversial for its own reasons. Though cast and crew maintained that the sex scene between Jaime and Cersei was supposed to be rough and unsettling but ultimately consensual, as it was in the books, what actually made it onscreen seemed obviously rape, with critics calling it “a new low for the deeply violent series.”

The next week, “Oathkeeper” basically pretended like the scene hadn’t happened, and quickly moved on to other things. We found out who killed Joffrey (the Tyrells), who arranged Sansa’s escape (Littlefinger), and where he was taking her (the Eyrie). “First of His Name” saw Jon and Bran cross paths when the former saved the latter from some Night’s Watch deserters, and Margaery seduced Tommen with an assist from Ser Pounce, who quickly became a fan favorite. “The Laws of Gods and Men” put Tyrion on trial for Joffrey’s murder, which not only gave Peter Dinklage some great material for his Emmys reel but also gave us a glimpse of the strange Westerosi legal system. Speaking of Westerosi injustice, episode seven had Littlefinger push Lysa out the Moon Door, but not before she revealed that he was the one who started this whole game-of-thrones mess in the first place.

A memorable trial by combat between “The Mountain and the Viper” — featuring our third incarnation of the Mountain — wound up being pretty mind-blowing, though one cast member had apparently spoiled it months before. Another fun surprise: Dark Sansa, who rocked one of the show’s most iconic looks. In the ever-pivotal ninth episode, the show gave us another gigantic battle, the extremely metal face-off between the Night’s Watch and the Wildling army, which required a four-week shoot and hundreds of extras. Ygritte died, and a week later in “The Children,” so did the Wildlings’ chances of victory: After two years of sitting around and grumbling, Stannis showed up and saved the day for the Watch. That wasn’t the only big move: After spending a season bickering with the Hound, Arya went across the Narrow Sea.

And in the last of the season’s big deaths, Tyrion took out years of emotional abuse on his father by shooting him with a crossbow, while he was on the toilet. But no one wanted to talk about any of that! Instead, fans were mostly upset that that show had written out Lady Stoneheart, the first sign that Game of Thrones would soon be charting its own course away from the path laid out in the books.

More From Season Four
It’s Only Wine
Yes, Of Course That Was Rape on Last Night’s Game of Thrones
Rose Leslie on Dying in Jon Snow’s Arms

Season Five: I’m Not Going to Stop the Wheel. I’m Going to Break the Wheel.

Photo: HBO

The show’s first four seasons largely matched the plots of Martin’s first three novels. But A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons presented a challenge of adaptation — they both took place at the same time, with each only following half of the characters (and introducing plenty of new ones to boot). So season five sped through the highlights of the fourth and fifth books, making some large, controversial edits.

With the death of Tywin, “The Wars to Come” saw Cersei Lannister begin the season as the established power in King’s Landing, which gave her plenty of opportunities to make bad decisions, while Daenerys decided to settle down and rule Meereen in her finest selection of going-out tops. Each queen got a new antagonist: Cersei the High Septon, who was either Pope Francis or Bernie Sanders, depending on whom you asked; Daenerys the masked Sons of the Harpy, whom no one really cared about.

Over in Braavos, Arya trained to be a Faceless Man at “The House of Black and White.” At the Wall, Jon Snow was elected Lord Commander in episode three. Tyrion crossed the Narrow Sea and in episode four got captured by Jorah Mormont, who took him to Volantis, and after a chilling sequence in “Kill the Boy,” caught greyscale for his trouble. Barristan Selmy got killed, which the actor didn’t love, but he’s now on Derry Girls, so it’s probably okay. We also got a whole new Dorne story line, which started promisingly, but by the events of “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” it had become terrible.

Sansa’s plot proved to be the most infamous. In the books, the eldest Stark daughter remains in the Vale, but the show spirited her North to marry Ramsay. The move didn’t make much sense on a character level, and any benefit of the doubt disappeared when Ramsay raped Sansa on their wedding night. This was far from the first Game of Thrones rape controversy, but it may have been the most severe, as fans and news outlets threatened to quit the show in protest.

Around “The Gift,” season five seemed like it was shaping up to be kind of a slog. But then Jon Snow went to “Hardhome” to rescue some Wildlings, and the result was one of the best GOT episodes ever, as we were introduced to the big baddie of the show’s final stretch, the Night King. That fevered pace kept up in the season’s final two episodes, “The Dance of Dragons” and “Mother’s Mercy.” Stannis burned his daughter — the most wrenching child death on a series full of them — then Brienne killed him. Daenerys left Meereen on the back of a dragon. Arya got revenge on Meryn Trant in an extremely bloody scene, which upset the Faceless Men so much that they turned her blind.

Cersei was imprisoned, and forced to walk naked through King’s Landing, which Lena Headey had foreshadowed two years before, a scene that would birth the best TV catchphrase of 2015 — “Shame. Shame. Shame.” — and countless parodies.

In the season’s closing image, Jon Snow was stabbed to death by his own men, though nobody believed he was really dead for good. Still, Kit Harington had to spend nearly a year lying to everyone, an experience he later admitted drove him to seek therapy.

More From Season Five
What’s Wrong with Game of Thrones’ Dorne Plot?
Lena Headey on Cersei’s Long, Humiliating Walk
The Saddest Child Deaths on Game of Thrones… Ranked!
Is Jon Snow Dead?

Season Six: Hold the Door.

Photo: HBO

With its sixth season, Game of Thrones finally passed the events of the series, a sad day not just for smug readers but also George R.R. Martin, who had to accept that he would not be the one who got to tell the world how this story ended. To prove just what kind of brave new world we were in, the series ended the season premiere with the revelation that Melisandre was actually an elderly woman in magical disguise, a surprise only the most eagle-eyed readers had guessed.

But that was just a setup for what everyone knew was coming: In episode two, Jon Snow did indeed return from the dead. Once returned to life, he promptly left the Night’s Watch in “Oathbreaker,” because loopholes. Speaking of magic, Bran Stark returned after a season-long absence, which raised the question of just how much time had passed since the beginning of the show.

Having been captured by the Dothraki at the end of season five, Daenerys traveled to Vaes Dothrak, the horsemen’s capital, which she then burned to the ground in episode four, alongside most of the Dothraki, in one of the show’s most iconic nude scenes. Euron Greyjoy made a similarly grand entrance by killing off his brother Balon, and the triumph of this boorish misogynist at the kingsmoot offered an unwitting preview of what would happen in our own world a few months later. It was kind of a depressing season, so people started shipping Brienne and Tormund to keep their spirits up.

“The Door” wound up giving us one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the entire run, as the heroic stable boy Hodor perished while holding a door, and we learned that Bran’s time-wimey bullshit was the reason for his mental handicap. Arya was still in Braavos, only this time she was hanging out with some actors putting on a play about the events of the show. By “Blood of My Blood” we’d met Sam’s dad and little Lyanna Mormont, too; learned that Yara Greyjoy was a lesbian; and had to remember who Rickon was. King Tommen seemed marked for death, and we tried to figure out who would come after him when he died.

The Hound, meanwhile, had not died, but was instead chilling with Ian McShane in “The Broken Man,” a story line that reinterpreted one of the most beloved passages of the book series. Jaime and Brienne had one last reunion. Ramsay Bolton kept being terrible (though he was worse in the books). And after a two-year training montage, Arya finally became “No One” and went back home a Jedi assassin.

Then it was time for Westeros’s biggest royal rumble, “The Battle of the Bastards,” which aired the same night as Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, and ended with a similar underdog triumph. One of the most thrilling medieval battles ever put to film ended with Ramsay as dog foodgood riddance — and Sansa and Jon slightly at odds. Some fans interpreted Ramsay’s parting words to Sansa (“I’m part of you now”) as a hint that she was pregnant, but they seem to have been barking up the wrong tree.

Back in the real world, Brexit happened, and everyone wondered how it would affect Game of Thrones.

The season-six finale was the last Thrones we would get for a while, and it didn’t disappoint. Cersei avoided her trial by using the savvy legal strategy of “blow up the courtroom and all your enemies.” Tommen did indeed die, by jumping out a window, which left Cersei free to claim the throne herself. A flashback confirmed the long-standing fan theory about Jon Snow’s true parentage, which will surely come into play in the show’s final season. Finally, we closed on an image we thought we’d never see — Daenerys on a boat, finally heading to Westeros. Incidentally, that shot got viewers very confused about the timeline, which made it the perfect preview for the following season.

More From Season Six
Which House Has the Coolest Armor on Game of Thrones?
➼ This Is the Absurdly Long Time It Takes to Create a Single Dragon on Game of Thrones
Confused About Game of Thrones’ Prophecies? Here’s a Refresher

Season Seven: You’re a Dragon. Be a Dragon.

Photo: HBO

Game of Thrones had always been beset by leaks, but the penultimate season was the most spoiled of all, as a synopsis of the entire seven-episode run hit Reddit months before the premiere. To build a little bit of suspense back, production decided to announce the premiere date in a block of ice, and talk about how Euron got hot. And he did! When the season premiere finally arrived, Arya killed the Freys, and Daenerys returned home to Dragonstone. Good times.

In “Stormborn” Sam cured greyscale and Grey Worm and Missandei boned, because even eunuchs get love scenes on Game of Thrones. Jon and Dany finally met in episode three, and people wondered if it was gross to ship them, considering she was his aunt and all. We waved farewell to the Sand Snakes, as well as Olenna Tyrell, who died as she lived, verbally skewering people who were dumber than her. This was also when viewers started to notice that the show had a new quicker pace, and actual jokes.

“The Spoils of War” reunited a bunch of long-lost siblings, but none of the family moments were quite as heartwarming as viewers may have hoped. (It didn’t help that Bran was super weird.) We also got a fiery dragon battle that was an instant season highlight. “Eastwatch” was kind of blah — Littlefinger almost succeeded in turning Sansa and Arya against each other, which was sorta weird, and Cersei got pregnant, which was also sorta weird — but at least Gendry came back, and everyone made the exact same joke about rowing.

[Takes a deep breath. We’re almost done.]

The penultimate episode was another turning point, as Jon Snow and a handpicked squad trekked beyond the Wall to capture a wight, a plan that played out as ludicrously as you might imagine, especially once the show decided to throw away every rule of time and space whatsoever. Daenerys lost one of her dragons, but at least she wore an amazing coat. The White Walkers turned the fallen Viserion into their very own ice-dragon, and fans wondered what kind of flame he would spew.

We didn’t have to wait long, as the ice-dragon made its grand debut the following episode, taking down the Wall in dramatic fashion. That finale was the show’s longest episode ever, with much of the run time taken up by a diplomatic summit that brought almost the entire cast into the same room for the first time since season one. Littlefinger finally got his comeuppance, and Jon and Daenerys shared a tender love scene. And that was it — the last GOT we got for nearly two years. It was an eventful season for sure, but many viewers came away with the impression that the show, like Viserion, was not quite the same as it used to be. We’ll find out soon if season eight gets things back on track.

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Every Major Game of Thrones Character, Ranked From Least to Most Evil
In Defense of Cersei Lannister

The premiere of Game of Thrones aired six months after Instagram hit the App Store. Yes, Westeros has sunsets. Country singer John Rich would win. The original pilot was ordered back in 2009; Vulture covered it beneath the news that Mindy Kaling was getting her own TV show. The whole thing was reshot, apparently because the first version was very bad. We will probably never see it. Except for Jon Snow. Everyone remembers Jon Snow, possibly because he’s always called “Jon Snow.” The pilot saw roughly 2 million U.S. viewers; the season-seven finale had 12 million. Characters said “there’s a war coming” approximately 4,000 times. The ratings would steadily rise over the first four seasons, plateau slightly in seasons five and six, then jump up for season seven. He got his wish, as Khal Drogo came back for a dream sequence in season two. It was Pycelle, with the beard, in King’s Landing. Although the ratings weren’t great, since the episode aired over Memorial Day weekend. In seasons three and four HBO decided not to air new episodes over the holiday, but by 2015 the show was such a massive hit that I guess HBO stopped caring about the Memorial Day ratings dip. Blame one very perv-y executive producer. This scene was soundtracked by the Hold Steady, in what was by far the weirdest musical choice Game of Thrones ever made. They weren’t all together! Something the books only implied. Recappers spent years telling the show to do this, so they did it precisely once and then never again. See here. For a deeper dive on the whole mess, read this. Sadly, he would not be seen again. Before the season aired, Lena Headey posted an Instagram with Pedro Pascal the previewed his character’s death. Ask a book-reading friend about Arianne Martell, Victarion Greyjoy, and Young Griff. In the books, Ramsay’s bride was a minor character who had been forced to impersonate Arya. Possibly as a consequence, the show would feature fewer rapes in subsequent seasons. “For this character, it’s been better for her regality and her feistiness to not bare her flesh until she has to. When it’s out of her control,” Headey told Vulture in 2013. “And if that ever happens, it won’t be Cersei being seductive or sexy. She’ll be stripped. That kind of a scene will have more power if it’s not an everyday occurrence.” Just figure one year per season, and forget about Gilly’s baby. McShane had earlier gotten in trouble for spoiling his character’s fate. His immortal response: “Get a f—ing life. It’s only tits and dragons.” It didn’t, but I suppose there’s still time. Ed Sheeran was also there. This is where people point out that Targaryens have a long family tradition of incest, which is somehow supposed to make it more okay? The blacksmith bastard son of King Robert was last seen in season three. It was 80 minutes long, a length the last two episodes of season eight will reportedly match.
So, Uh, What Happened on Game of Thrones?