It’s hard to believe, now that it’s the biggest show on television — and we mean physically huge — but it took Game of Thrones nearly two years to build to its first major onscreen battle. When the smoke cleared from “Blackwater,” season two’s landmark episode-long conflict, television’s depiction of mass violence would never be the same.
The brutal clash of queens between Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister is just the latest in a long series of big Game of Thrones battles. Each has its own unique style and strengths, yet for all the excitement, the underlying message that war is hell burns like dragonfire. From Blackwater to the Battle of Winterfell and beyond, we’ve ranked the top battles in Game of Thrones history. Cry havoc and let slip the dragons of war.
12. The Battle of the Whispering Wood, “Baelor” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Ah, who could forget the decisive battle at the start of the War of the Five Kings, when Robb Stark’s forces ambushed and destroyed the army led by Jaime Lannister, taking the Kingslayer captive? Well, most people could forget it, honestly. Back in season one, budgetary and logistical issues prevented the series from actually depicting massive battles, leading to some … interesting workarounds. (Remember Tyrion preparing to lead a charge of hill-tribe barbarians against the Northmen, only to get knocked out cold and miss the fight entirely?) That said, the offscreen depiction of the Battle of the Whispering Wood tracked closely with how author George R.R. Martin wrote it in his book: A nervous Catelyn Stark stands on a hillside above the forest where the fighting takes place, waiting and wondering if her beloved son will survive his first brush with war.
11. The Greyjoys’ naval battle, “Stormborn” (Season 7, Episode 2)
Among the many challenges faced by Game of Thrones’ short seventh season is the Euron situation. A character we’ve barely seen or heard of, who’s part of a family that’s been pushed to the margins of the narrative for years, is suddenly a major villain and a contender for Queen Cersei’s hand? How do you sell that? By turning the newly crowned King of the Iron Islands into the cockiest, craziest Greyjoy of the bunch, which is saying something. Actor Pilou Asbæk can smile and swagger like the Red Viper, then run headlong into the heat of battle like a mad pirate — in this case, by boarding the lead ship in his niece Yara Greyjoy’s fleet after his forces set it on fire. The swiftness and devastation of his navy’s attack on its rivals, plus his ruthless dispatch in single-handedly capturing, killing, and scattering Daenerys Targaryen’s allies in two of the Seven Kingdoms — Yara and Theon of the Iron Islands, Ellaria and the Sand Snakes of Dorne — make his prowess manifest. This is the best of the short and not-so-sweet battles GOT has pulled off, from the fights with the Night’s Watch mutineers at Craster’s Keep to the rebellions and insurgencies between slaves and masters in Meereen.
10. Daenerys and the dragons versus the slavers, “Battle of the Bastards” (Season 6, Episode 9)
A few thousand dead Lannister infantrymen and incinerated zombies later, the damage inflicted by the dragons on the fleet amassed by an alliance of slave states against Daenerys Targaryen’s free city of Meereen may not seem as impressive as it once did. What’s more, the assault itself was overshadowed by the all-out carnage of the titular Battle of the Bastards later in the same episode. But the surprise attack by Daenerys and her three children against the Slavers’ ships (complemented as always by her Dothraki and Unsullied soldiers) was so devastating that it changed the geopolitical configuration of the region, breaking the power of the slave trade over Meereen once and for all. Hearing hundreds of sailors scream as they burn to death will do that.
9. Dany’s guards versus the Sons of the Harpy, “The Dance of Dragons” (Season 5, Episode 9)
Another surprise dragon attack — notice a pattern? — dominates the rumble between soldiers loyal to Daenerys and the pro-slavery Sons of the Harpy in this season-five highlight. Sort of Meereen’s answer to the KKK, the Sons of the Harpy had Dany and friends surrounded until Drogon, the black dragon who’d fled previous attempts to contain him, suddenly returned to roast his mother’s assailants. This first glimpse of a dragon in serious action was shocking, conveyed amid the carnage through the eyes of our audience-identification character, Tyrion Lannister. When Dany hopped aboard her flying weapon to escape the fray, the game had clearly changed.
8. Daenerys and the dragons versus the White Walkers, “Beyond the Wall” (Season 7, Episode 6)
Unlike the other battles on this list, this one was more like a brawl, at least in numerical terms. The Night King and his White Walkers had untold thousands of zombies on their side; the only enemies they faced were Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane, Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, Jorah Mormont, Gendry, and Sandor “the Hound” Clegane (plus a bunch of redshirts, killable at your convenience). It wasn’t until Dany and her children swooped in to save the day — and the Night King hurled his magic spear to take one of them down — that this became an illustration of what all-out, dragon-on-demon combat might look like in the Great War to come. The battle had its wonky logistical issues, for sure, but it made up for them in sheer epic spectacle.
7. The Wildlings versus the Night’s Watch, “The Watchers on the Wall” (Season 4, Episode 9)
As meticulously choreographed a battle as television has ever seen, the fight for the Wall that ended season four — in which the badly outmanned Night’s Watch, led by rival brothers in black Jon Snow and Ser Alliser Thorne, held off Wildling forces attacking from both North and South — played like one long highlight reel. Giants riding mammoths and wielding battering rams! Gigantic ice scythes released from the Wall to splatter attackers right off its surface! An unbroken 360-degree shot within Castle Black as duels between all the major characters raged! The death of Ygritte, Jon Snow’s star-crossed Wildling lover, in his arms! Even if it took Stannis Baratheon’s sneak attack to defeat the Wildlings for good in the following episode — a fate he’d suffer in turn when Ramsay and Roose Bolton overran his demoralized forces outside Winterfell the following season — this was a fight worth remembering.
6. The Loot Train Attack, “The Spoils of War” (Season 7, Episode 4)
No one saw this battle coming. Instead, they heard it. Following the Lannisters’ victory over House Tyrell at Highgarden — a battle they’d cleverly abandoned their own stronghold of Casterly Rock to conduct, leaving Dany’s conquering Unsullied forces confused and stranded inside — the army, led by Jaime Lannister, his comrade Bronn, and their new allies Randyll and Dickon Tarly, caravanned its way up the Goldroad to King’s Landing, delivering the cash and crops it had looted during the campaign. That’s when a Dothraki cavalry charge so massive that its hoofbeats shook the ground descended upon them, with Daenerys and her black dragon Drogon providing air support. The result was all-out slaughter — and that’s without the death from above delivered by Drogon, who now boasts the size and power of a B-52 bomber. Individual face-offs between Bronn and Drogon and Jaime and Dany, not to mention the Lannister commanders’ terrified faces, kept the action rooted in the personal.
5. The Battle of Winterfell, “The Long Night” (Season 8, Episode 3)
It may have had a happy ending, since, in spite of the destruction of Winterfell and the deaths of thousands and thousands of people, at least Jaime and Brienne didn’t get murked. But for the bulk of its 82-minute run time, this astonishing feat of action filmmaking seemed drawn from a nightmare. Director Miguel Sapochnik, who has two more entries still to come on this list, alternated quiet stretches of tension, dread, and cat-and-mouse games right out of a horror movie with a war between the living and the dead so apocalyptic that watching it felt like observing the implacable progress of a tsunami. But he didn’t skimp on the poetry either. Some of that was purely visual: dragons dueling in the moonlight, the fiery charge of the Dothraki, those gorgeous gouts of ice-blue flame. Some was interpersonal: Sansa and Tyrion preparing to die together, Jaime and Brienne fighting side by side, Bran granting Theon the forgiveness he’d always sought. The final shot — of Melisandre ending her mysterious and often vicious life by walking toward the sunrise and lying down in the snow — was unforgettable.
4. The Battle of the Blackwater, “Blackwater” (Season 2, Episode 9)
The show’s first major battle, and the centerpiece of what remains its best episode to date, set the standard for pretty much everything to come. The amphibious assault on King’s Landing by the forces of would-be King Stannis Baratheon divided our sympathies: Are Stannis and Melisandre worse than Joffrey and Cersei? Is Davos better than Tyrion? You’d better choose in a hurry! The battle also featured a linchpin spectacle, a dazzling green explosion of wildfire that sank a large part of the Baratheon fleet before it could make land. The cost of war was emphasized in the screams of the burning soldiers and the terror faced by noncombatants like Cersei and Sansa — to say nothing of the way that PTSD-afflicted Sandor “The Hound” Clegane simply quit fighting and stormed off. The Battle of the Blackwater even featured the now-standard last-minute surprise attack that turns the tide, this time led by Tywin Lannister and Loras Tyrell as the first act in the two great families’ alliance. Textbook work from start to finish.
3. The Wildlings and the Night’s Watch versus the White Walkers, “Hardhome” (Season 5, Episode 8)
This horror show of a battle departed from George R.R. Martin’s source material so completely that even the most devoted fans were left as shocked as the characters themselves. In an assault filmed as chaotically as possible, the Night King and his army of the dead descended upon a remote fishing village, where Jon Snow and Tormund Giantsbane had come to broker a truce with the Wildlings in order to move everyone to safety south of the Wall. The Night King had other plans, however, unleashing his undead hordes with seismic fury. Like the earthquake tremors of a Dothraki charge, you could hear them coming before you saw them. And speaking of unnatural disasters: The literal avalanche of corpses as the wights plunged over a cliff to enter the fray is one of the most searing images in the show’s history. But it’s topped by the terrifying mute eloquence of the Night King, bringing everyone he’d just slain back to life merely by raising his hands.
2. The Battle of the Bastards, “Battle of the Bastards” (Season 6, Episode 9)
Ramsay Bolton got his comeuppance, Rickon Stark’s short life came to an end, Wun Wun the giant went out in a blaze of glory, Sansa Stark pulled Jon’s ass from the fire, House Stark recaptured Winterfell after years in the wilderness: You know the plot beats of season six’s climactic confrontation. But it’s the visual component of the Battle of the Bastards that makes it unmatched in the Game of Thrones canon. At one point, the fighting between Jon and Ramsay’s forces is so horrific that the dead bodies literally pile up — a physical obstacle the fighters must climb over or drown beneath. Every speech Jon or Davos ever made about the folly of fighting each other is made real in this moment, which turns the mass murder of warfare into an actual geographical feature of the battle. Its macabre beauty, power, and tragedy make it the show’s single strongest statement on the horrors of war. Until…
1. The Fall of King’s Landing, “The Bells” (Season 8, Episode 5)
“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” A sick humorist like Ramsay Bolton would probably appreciate the poetry of losing his place atop the list of Game of Thrones’ best battles to a conflagration that adhered to one of his own maxims. When the battle of “The Bells” begins, it first appears to be an absolute onslaught of wish-fulfillment fantasy violence. First, Daenerys and her last dragon effortlessly torch a fleet, an army, the walls of King’s Landing, and every last dragon-killing scorpion on land and sea. (Unlike the Night King and Euron Greyjoy’s sneak attacks, Dany and Drogon were coming prepared this time.) Then Jon Snow and Grey Worm lead thousands of screaming Northmen, Dothraki, and Unsullied into the city, making good on promises Khal Drogo and King Robb made way back in season one.
Then it all goes to shit. Snapping under a lifetime of paranoia, pressure, and rage, Daenerys burns the city to the ground. The soldiers run amok. The Hound and Jaime Lannister earn nothing but pyrrhic “victories” over the Mountain and Euron. Arya, who saved all of humanity a couple weeks ago, can’t even save one mother and her child. Cersei Lannister dies in the arms of her brother beneath the Red Keep, literally buried by the trappings of power.
Eight seasons of build-up result in a horrorshow that, in terms of both amassing bodies and punching the audience in the face, makes the Red Wedding look like flag football. Director Miguel Saphochnik (yes, him again) shoots it all in broad daylight, a gobsmackingly bold act of filmmaking that forces you to bear witness to every awful detail of the carnage. If you thought this had a happy ending, if you thought mass violence could be harnessed and tamed and aimed only at those who deserve it—well, you’re paying attention now, aren’t you?