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Every Episode Of “Game Of Thrones” Ranked From Worst To Best

Dragons and death are a plus; torture and tedium are not. UPDATED with Season 5 episodes. SPOILERS ahead!

50. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”

HBO

Season 5, Episode 6
Directed by: Jeremy Podeswa
Written by: Bryan Cogman

When this ranking began at the end of Game of Thrones’ third season, I started it by saying that the show is like drinking wine — even when it’s not that good, it still does the trick.

Well, consider this episode to be a spoiled bottle — the wine’s turned rancid, and it’s unfit to drink under any circumstances. It would be bad enough that the episode ends with Ramsay Bolton raping Sansa Stark on their wedding night, while forcing his simpering minion Reek (né Theon Greyjoy) to watch. Regardless of how you may feel about GOT’s use of rape as a storytelling trope, this scene — a major change from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books — is also shockingly lazy. We already know Ramsay is a monster, that Sansa is a victim, and that Reek is a beaten dog — as others have noted, this scene does nothing to change or expand that understanding. Instead, like so many of the sequences involving Ramsay and Reek, the show seems to get a disquieting, dark kick out of the degradation Roose Bolton’s bastard can inflict on others.

What makes “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” the worst Game of Thrones episode of the series, however, is also just about everything else about it. The trial of Ser Loras Tyrell for “buggery” is such an obvious trap — of course the High Sparrow is going to scrounge up at least one of Loras’ louche tricks — that it makes the Tyrells seem willfully stupid, when Margaery and especially the Queen of Thorns have heretofore proven to be anything but. And the fight between Jaime, Bronn, and the Sand Snakes comes off like a second-rate battle at a local Ren Faire, laughably unworthy of everyone involved.

Arya and Tyrion’s storylines provide some tiny, fleeting glimmers of pleasure — the Hall of Faces! Tyrion pleading for his penis! — but they do nothing to save GOT’s most aggressively unpleasant episode to date from itself. Thank the gods the season got so much better.

49. “Dark Wings, Dark Words”

HBO

Season 3, Episode 2
Directed by: Daniel Minahan
Written by: Vanessa Taylor

The previous episode on this ranking aside, the “bad” GOT episodes are usually the ones that are preoccupied with checking in with all the disparate characters scattered across Westeros and beyond the Narrow Sea, advancing each story barely an inch in the process. When the the show’s critics call it a sprawling tangle of too many characters spread far too thin, these are episodes they’re talking about.

The worst offender of this lot is the second episode of what was otherwise a sterling season. Over the course of an hour, we keep hopping from Sansa to Joffrey to Cersei to Margaery to Tyrion to Jon to Samwell to Bran to Theon to Robb to Catelyn to Arya to Brienne and Jaime, and there are exactly two mildly compelling scenes between them: Sansa’s introduction to the Queen of Thorns (the perfectly cast Diana Rigg), and Catelyn’s confession about her feelings toward Jon Snow. (Until they got caught, I found Brienne and Jaime’s bantering to be mostly just annoying.)

But neither scene can make up for the grind of tiny setups, especially of my two least favorite GOT story lines ever. The first: the endless mystery of Bran’s three-eyed crow and introduction of the obnoxiously cryptic Jojen. The second: the seemingly senseless captivity and torture of Theon. And so it plops with a thud at nearly the bottom of this list.

48. “Oathkeeper”

 

Season 4, Episode 4
Directed by: Michelle MacLaren
Written by: Bryan Cogman

Ooof. There really is not much more going on here other than sending Brienne off to find Sansa, sending Sansa off with Littlefinger to the Eyrie, sending Jon Snow off to the horrific rape den that’s become of Craster’s Keep, and sending Bran Stark off to be captured in Craster’s Keep.

And then there’s the White Walker baby-making altar. I’ll give points to the show for taking a big swing at explicitly resolving part of the mystery of the White Walkers — namely, what the hell are they doing with those babies? — especially since George R.R. Martin never has in his books. (At least, not yet.) But I will take those points right back for the downright wacky way it is executed — it feels as if it is from a different show entirely. Michelle MacLaren has directed some fine hours of television, including two more on this list. This is not one of them.

47. “The Ghost of Harrenhal”

HBO

Season 2, Episode 5
Directed by: David Petrarca
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Again, soooo much tedious setup of so many story lines, including Jon Snow’s endless trudging through Iceland/I mean the land beyond the Wall; Daenerys’ wild and wacky adventures in Qarth; and, yup, more of Bran’s blasted three-eyed crow. On the other hand: Jaqen H’ghar makes his first kill!

46. “The Prince of Winterfell”

HBO

Season 2, Episode 8
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

When I initially created this ranking, I considered placing this episode in the worst-ever slot, mainly because the only thing I could remember about it was the pointless scene of Dany complaining that she wanted to find her missing dragons — the perfect example of GOT’s bad habit of needlessly checking in with every single character.

But then I rewatched it, and I realized that amid Theon whining about honor, Jon continuing to trudge through the snow, and Robb courting certain doom by boinking Talisa after she tells the story of a slave saving her brother’s life, there were some fun Tyrion scenes with Bronn, Cersei, and Varys. So: It’s just fifth worst!

45. “Lord Snow”

HBO

Season 1, Episode 3
Directed by: Brian Kirk
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

This episode had the unenviable job of introducing a gaggle of new and important characters — including Renly, Varys, Pycelle, and Littlefinger — with little time to dwell on any of them. It’s the ultimate “setup” episode, really… and for that, it must be punished!

44. “Breaker of Chains”

HBO

Season 4, Episode 3
Directed by: Alex Graves
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

This would be a perfectly decent mid-season episode — with some shrewd psychological warfare by Dany against the slavers of Meereen, and another pointed lesson in the Hound’s education of Arya in the ways of cynicism and self-preservation — if it wasn’t for Jaime’s rape of Cersei next to the cold body of their first-born son. First of all, yes, it is rape, despite the wrongheaded assertion by the episode’s director that “it becomes consensual by the end.” Second of all, it’s just bad storytelling, way out of character for how Jaime’s behaved up to this point — and, for that matter, how he behaves in the subsequent episodes. It just hangs there, ugly and unaddressed, for the rest of the season. Everyone involved should have known better.

43. “The Night Lands”

HBO

Season 2, Episode 2
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

So many new characters, like the loyal low-born smuggler Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and his boring son Matthos (Kerr Logan), whose only real qualities are that he worships the Lord of Light and he’s, you know, boring. Meanwhile, Dany and Arya spin their wheels, and Theon unknowingly diddles his grown sister. Well, I mean, he knows he’s diddling her — on horseback, no less — but he doesn’t know she’s his sister until later. As twists go, it’s somehow both hilarious and appalling.

42. “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”

HBO

Season 1, Episode 4
Directed by: Brian Kirk
Written by: Bryan Cogman

The main story of the season sllllllllowly begins to kick into gear, as Ned Stark starts investigating the death of Jon Arryn, and Catelyn arrests Tyrion for attempting to murder Bran. (Bad move, guys.) We also meet poor Samwell, whose fast friendship with Jon Snow gives us our first real peek into just how truly decent a man Ned’s bastard really is.

But we also have to endure Viserys Targaryen’s umpteenth demand for his Dothraki army. Shaddup already.

41. “The North Remembers”

HBO

Season 2, Episode 1
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

The second season premiere hits the ground running — lawd help you if this was the first time you’d tuned in. The secret about Joffrey’s parentage that took Ned Stark’s head is finally out, courtesy of Stephen Dillane’s flinty Stannis Baratheon, and Carice van Houten makes a terrific first impression as the Red Priestess. And it’s also pretty great watching Tyrion march into King’s Landing and take command like a boss as the Hand of the King. But like so many early-season GOT episodes, this one suffers from too many characters all scurrying to their starting marks — and the final shot of Arya heading off to Castle Black isn’t as powerful a launch into the new season as the episode seems to think it is.

40. “The House of Black and White”

HBO

Season 5, Episode 2
Directed by: Michael Slovis
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

More early setup for Season 5: first and foremost Arya’s introduction to the House of Black and White, which unfolds with a kind of mysterious-if-masochistic tedium that typifies so much of Arya’s time with the Faceless Men. And we get our first glimpse of Dorne, which starts with a lot of uninspired scowling (and never gets much better). Watching Jon Snow get elected Lord Commander is a classic GOT moment of don’t-celebrate-just-yet triumph, and Brienne’s discovery of Sansa gives us our first real understanding of how far afield Season 5 is going to stray from Martin’s books. The best moment in the episode, however, is the final scene: a despondent Dany discovers Drogon camping atop Meereen’s Great Pyramid, only to rebuff her and fly away. Don’t worry, Dany. He won’t be gone forever.

39. “Walk of Punishment”

HBO

Season 3, Episode 3
Directed by: David Benioff
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Another jittery episode, skipping from King’s Landing, to Theon’s mystery cell, to Dragonstone, to Astapor, to Mance Rayder’s army, to Craster’s Keep, to Rivverrun, to wherever Arya and the Hound are, and wherever Jaime and Brienne are.

The difference here is that while several of these scenes are interstitial at best — farewell, Melisandre, wherever you’re going! — several other scenes manage to be good and/or consequential. Theon is set free and rescued (well, so far as we know at the time). Dany sells one of her dragons for the Unsullied of Asatpor, to the dismay of Ser Jorah and Ser Barristan. There’s the hilarious discovery that Tyrion’s loyal squire Podrick is so dynamite in the sack that the high-class whores Tyrion purchased for him refuse their payment. Annnnnnd Jaime is rewarded for rescuing Brienne from rape with the loss of his sword hand. Whoa!

38. “What Is Dead May Never Die”

HBO

Season 2, Episode 3
Directed by: Alik Sakharov
Written by: Bryan Cogman

This otherwise just-OK episode — yeesh, more cryptic Bran dreams! — contains one of my absolute favorite Tyrion sequences, when he tricks Pycelle, Varys, and Littlefinger into revealing which one of them is spying for his sister. And Margaery Tyrell (a perfectly cast Natalie Dormer) first reveals herself (literally!) as far craftier a player than we’d initially believed.

37. “A Man Without Honor”

HBO

Season 2, Episode 7
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

The tap dancing over whether or not to kill Jaime Lannister gets old fast, and Dany seems like a dunderhead for not concluding immediately that A) Xaro can’t be trusted, and B) the creepy bald wizard(s) at the House of the Undying have taken her dragons. Like, duh.

Thankfully, Jon Snow’s story line finally gets interesting as he strains to fend off Ygritte’s aggressive flirtation. And Tywin schools Arya on the art of pretending not to be high born, a delicious scene that allows the great Charles Dance to play something other than terrifying displeasure.

Theon’s fake-out murder of Bran and Rickon Stark, however, is muddled. On the one hand, Alfie Allen is always great in this role (even in later seasons when he’s no longer Theon), and especially this episode. On the other hand, for a show that has proven unafraid to kill off so many beloved characters, playing these deaths so coyly just makes the fake-out that much more obvious — and mean.

36. “The Climb”

 

Season 3, Episode 6
Directed by: Alik Sakharov
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

This is actually a pretty decent episode. Jon and Ygritte scaling the Wall is one of the show’s best visual sequences to date, and there’s a great exchange between Tyrion and Cersei — really, any time these two are on screen together is terrific.

So why is this episode ranked so low? Blame the Boy and his gleeful torture of Theon. Actors Iwan Rheon and Alfie Allen comport themselves well with what they are given, but torture scenes, especially ones without any clear point, are pretty much the antithesis of genuine drama. Which is probably why George R.R. Martin waited to depict them until Book 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire — the producers appear to have included them so they could keep Allen around for Season 3.

35. “Mhysa”

HBO

Season 3, Episode 10
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

There are some fantastic scenes here, especially between Tyrion and Tywin, Varys and Shae, and Davos and Gendry. Speaking of Davos, finally someone in the South knows about the shitstorm that’s coming north of the Wall. And it’s a bit of a relief to learn who has been tormenting poor Theon, though it’s hard to be thrilled at the prospect of spending more time with Roose Bolton’s bastard as he inevitably spreads his cruelty from Theon to the rest of the North.

Ultimately, though, when the producers split George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords in half — or, rather, split it off roughly two-thirds in — it was nigh impossible for them to manufacture a climax that came anywhere close to the power of the Red Wedding (or the previous season finales, for that matter). So they didn’t. This episode felt like it fell where it does in Martin’s text — somewhere in the middle. And as for that final tableau, with the mass of Yunkai swarming the benevolent blonde Dany, calling her “mother” and treating her like a savior — not good. As my colleague Kate Aurthur put it, “Hi, colonialism!”

34. “High Sparrow”

HBO

Season 5, Episode 3
Directed by: Mark Mylod
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Casting Jonathan Pryce as the High Sparrow — the pious, barefooted leader of Westeros’ cult of fundamentalist religious ascetics — was a particularly savvy decision; he lends a sense of pragmatic gravitas to a man who could have come across as merely a raving fanatic. (I’m not sure what to make of Pryce’s uncanny physical resemblance to Pope Benedict in this context, but it’s certainly there.) His introduction is a high point in a decent-if-slow interstitial episode, which also features Margaery consummating her marriage to Tommen and throwing some thorny shade at Cersei, which is what drives the Queen Mother into the High Sparrow’s dangerous nest in the first place.

33. “Two Swords”

HBO

Season 4, Episode 1
Directed by: D. B. Weiss
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

The decision to open this season premiere with Tywin melting down Ned Stark’s ancestral Valyrian steel sword proved to be telling harbinger of the dark and gloomy proceedings for the rest of Season 4. Yes, there is yet more setup in this hour — as Ygritte and the Wildlings advance south, and Dany and the Unsullied march on the slavers of Meereen — but this episode also introduces of one of Game of Thrones’ very best characters, Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne (Pedro Pascal), a bisexual badass with a murderous grudge against the Lannisters. As was the case in the Season 2 premiere, we end with Arya, learning the ways of killing and revenge at the begrudging tutelage of the Hound, in the most delightfully twisted buddy comedy in Westeros.

32. “Sons of the Harpy”

HBO

Season 5, Episode 4
Directed by: Mark Mylod
Written by: Dave Hill

A mixed bag. The Faith Militant are a good idea, but in execution, their reign of terror feels rushed and small, and King’s Landing has rarely felt more like a backlot. And whatever the Sand Snakes were supposed to be this season, their underwhelming treatment started here, with Keisha Castle-Hughes, Jessica Henwick, and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers doing their best with the scraps the show seemed to give them.

But this is also the episode in which Ser Barristan valiantly dies while battling with the insurgent Sons of the Harpy, and Stannis delivers a heartwarming proclamation of love and devotion to his only daughter and heir. Yeah, remember that? How much it filled you with unexpectedly warm and cozy feelings for GOT’s most hard-hearted character? We all should have known better.

31. “The Old Gods and the New”

HBO / Via kotaku.com.au

 

Season 2, Episode 6
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: Vanessa Taylor

A solid mid-season episode: Jon Snow meets Ygritte, Theon takes Winterfell (and executes Ser “Beard Braid” Rodrik!), and Arya’s job moonlighting as Tywin Lannister’s secret cupbearer is almost blown — twice! OK, yes, this is also when Dany’s silly stolen dragon’s story line began, but that barely matters in the face of what happens once King Joffrey’s cruelty foments a full-bore riot. (See above.)

30. “Valar Dohaeris”

HBO

Season 3, Episode 1
Directed by: Daniel Minahan
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

It’s probably the best of the “setup” episodes — Tywin is at his most glower-y and Margaery at her most diabolically kind; Dany’s dragons are getting big and catching fish on the open sea; and Jon meets a giant! The reveal that Ser Barristan Selmy has come to serve at Dany’s side, meanwhile, is treated with a bit more pomp and circumstance than is probably warranted, since we’d last seen him way back in Season 1.

29. “The Wars to Come”

HBO

Season 5, Episode 1
Directed by: Michael Slovis
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Like the last three GOT season openers, Season 5’s first episode slowly seeds the ground for the plotlines that will (one hopes) blossom later in the season. We first hear of the Sparrows via Cersei’s cousin and sometimes-lover Lancel; Varys and a filthy Tyrion begin discussing traveling to Meereen to meet Dany, just as the Sons of the Harpy begin their insurgency campaign there; and Stannis first suggests allying with the Wildlings to Jon Snow. Each of these setups, however, unfold with an ease that earlier season openers have lacked. It’s GOT’s most assured season premiere yet — so much so that we’re also treated to its very first flashback: a young Cersei, already full of confidence and seething anger, confronts a witch, who predicts, essentially, that she will get everything she wants in life before it goes to utter shit. So it’s not like Cersei can say she wasn’t warned.

28. “You Win or You Die”

HBO

Season 1, Episode 7
Directed by: Daniel Minahan
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Yes, this is the episode responsible for the invention of the word “sexposition,” thanks to Littlefinger’s decision to inexplicably explain his motivations to two of his prostitutes as they practiced their…techniques…with each other.

But it also has one of the great character introductions ever on TV: Tywin Lannister dressing down his eldest son while skinning an enormous stag, presaging the death later on of King Robert. And watching Ned get outplayed by basically everyone around him carried just the right amount dread without tipping off unknowing viewers to what Ned’s shortsighted nobility would cost him.

This is a great episode, but Jon Snow’s direwolf finding a severed hand isn’t quite as exciting as…

27. “The Pointy End”

HBO

Season 1, Episode 8
Directed by: Daniel Minahan
Written by: George R.R. Martin

…Jon saving the Lord Commander by setting a zombified wight aflame!

Things really start cooking now, with Robb launching his war against the South, Cersei browbeating Sansa into denouncing her father, and, sadly, Khal Drogo winning a duel that leaves a mortal wound that will ultimately cost him his life.

Not so sure about Tyrion’s band of barbarians, though.

26. “The Gift”

HBO

Season 5, Episode 7
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Just one episode after the disaster that was “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” GOT employs the threat of rape again as a storytelling device to allow Sam a moment of heroism (aided greatly by Ghost) that consummates his relationship with Gilly.

Otherwise, however, this episode put Season 5 back on much surer footing. Cersei’s shortsighted support of the High Sparrow bites back at her with a vengeance, but not before she’s allowed the small victory of seeing Margaery stripped of her finery and dignity. And once again, Benioff and Weiss take a bold step beyond Martin’s books by bringing Tyrion and Dany together after Ser Jorah triumphs in the fighting pits. Woot!

25. “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”

HBO

Season 3, Episode 7
Directed by: Michelle MacLaren
Written by: George R.R. Martin

Everything about this episode is fabulous — especially the sight of Brienne fending off a grizzly bear with a wooden sword — except for two scenes. One: more mystic wheel-spinning with Bran, Jojen, and Osha. And two: two naked women torturing Theon by turning him on, just so the Boy can cut off his… (Shudder)

24. “The Mountain and the Viper”

HBO

Season 4, Episode 8
Directed by: Alex Graves
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

The bad: The sudden discovery of Ser Jorah’s betrayal of Dany three seasons earlier feels weirdly, needlessly abrupt, as if Benioff and Weiss weren’t quite sure how to fit it in this season, so they just tacked it on. The good: Sansa’s brilliant transformation from Cersei’s innocent “little dove” into Littlefinger’s slippery dream woman. The split decision: The battle between Oberyn and Ser Gregor Clegane, in which the former nearly defeats the latter, until the latter crushes the former’s skull like an egg. Yes, the execution of the scene was packed with top-notch tension, and Pascal certainly made the most of Oberyn’s blinding need for revenge. But this felt like one cruel storytelling twist too far, not really punishing the characters — none of whom really got to know Oberyn all that well — but the audience — many of whom came to love Oberyn more than they may have expected.

23. “First of His Name”

HBO

Season 4, Episode 5
Directed by: Michelle MacLaren
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

After lurking so long on the sidelines, Littlefinger looms large in this episode, as we learn that the inciting incident that launched the entire series — the death of Jon Arryn — was really his doing, a twist that makes brilliant sense. (But when did Littlefinger start talking out of the side of his mouth all the time? Does he have a canker sore or something?)

Also, and this is no small thing: Bran actually does something — warg-ing his way into Hodor’s body — that is actually, certifiably cool! Wonders!

22. “A Golden Crown”

 

Season 1, Episode 6
Directed by: Daniel Minahan
Written by: Jane Espenson and David Benioff & D. B. Weiss (teleplay); David Benioff & D. B. Weiss (story)

Tyrion talks his way out of certain doom at the Eyrie (more on that place later), and Ned at long last figures out that it’s a wee bit odd that all of King Robert’s kids happen to have blonde hair. But this episode is all about Viserys’ golden crown. Of all the “shocking” deaths on this show, the fact that Khal Drogo killed his wife’s lout of a brother came as no surprise. How he did it, however, was an outstandingly gruesome method of execution.

21. “Garden of Bones”

HBO

Season 2, Episode 4
Directed by: David Petrarca
Written by: Vanessa Taylor

We could talk about Joffrey’s staggering sexual cruelty, or the welcome end to Dany’s drudgery through the desert, or the beginning of the end of Robb Stark as he meets his beloved Talisa for the first time.

But, really, we can’t stop talking about Melisandre’s smoke baby. Watching an inky black creature emerge from the loins of a suddenly pregnant woman was memorable, to say the least.

20. “The Watchers on the Wall”

HBO

Season 4, Episode 9
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Like “Blackwater” before it, this is the rare episode that spends the entire run rooted in a single location: Castle Black as it is besieged on both ends by Mance Rayder’s army. The quiet scenes of interaction — like between Samwell and Gilly, or Sam and Maester Aemon, or Sam and pretty much anyone — are just as rousing as the epic scenes of battle featuring giants, wooly mammoths, and a massive chain scythe slicing down the Wildlings trying to scale the wall. Unlike “Blackwater,” however, the buildup to this battle during Season 4 felt too slack, starving it of a necessary feeling of driving anticipation and dread — which may be why Ygritte’s death doesn’t pack quite the punch that it should. Still, Kit Harington gives great weary, tragic hero.

19. “The Kingsroad”

HBO

Season 1, Episode 2
Directed by: Tim Van Patten
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

When this episode first aired, it was dismissed by some as too slow. But looking back at it now, so much of what was to come — not just in this season, but the subsequent two — was presaged in this episode. The Stark’s conflict with the Lannisters. Arya’s vendetta against Joffrey and the Hound. Sansa’s divided loyalties. Dany’s connection to her dragon eggs. And yet none of it felt like “setup” — it was just the characters dealing with the circumstances before them. Oh, and Tyrion slaps Joffrey — over and over and over. It’s glorious.

18. “The Laws of Gods and Men”

HBO

Season 4, Episode 6
Directed by: Alik Sakharov
Written by: Bryan Cogman

A thoroughly solid and satisfying episode. Davos proves his worth to Stannis in Braavos (including a great cameo by Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss as a supercilious banker); Yara Greyjoy discovers just how far her brother has fallen; and Dany’s dragons lay waste to some poor goats. And then there’s the Tyrion’s barnburner of a trial, which features a classic Game of Thrones curveball, leading us to believe Tywin has manipulated Jaime into saving Tyrion’s life, only to have Tyrion turn the tables by venting his fury at all of King’s Landing for being persecuted for being a dwarf, and request trial by combat — once again.

17. “The Wolf and the Lion”

HBO

Season 1, Episode 5
Directed by: Brian Kirk
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Of all the locations in Westeros, I’m still the most enchanted and unnerved by the Eyrie, from the towering prison’s “sky cells,” with their open wall facing a long drop down, to Catelyn’s batcrap-crazy sister Lysa, who still breast-feeds her 8-year-old son.

Lest that image burn too deep into our brains, we also got Theon Greyjoy going full monty with Ros, and Renly getting busy with Ser Loras. So everything balanced out.

Plus, genuine story developments! Ned resigns! And fights Jaime! And loses! For those unfamiliar with the books who’d been grousing that nothing was happening on this show, “The Wolf and the Lion” announced that Game of Thrones was weirder, sexier, and more dangerous than your average fantasy fare.

16. “Kill the Boy”

HBO

Season 5, Episode 5
Directed by: Jeremy Podeswa
Written by: Bryan Cogman

There is more unpleasantness with the Boltons of Winterfell, this time at the dinner table. And Jon Snow’s decision to unite with the Wildlings is given so much screen time that anyone who has been paying attention to GOT’s attitude toward the Stark family’s best laid plans gets the hint that it is not going to turn out well for the new Lord Commander.

But those are quibbles when compared to the marvelous developments unfolding in Essos. Dany begins to find her mojo again, employing her dragons Viserion and Rhaegal to bring the great families of Meereen back in line. And as Missandei tends to an injured Grey Worm at his bedside, they share the single most romantic moment of the season — granted, there wasn’t much by way of competition, but still, when they kissed, I swooned.

And then — and then! — there is Tyrion and Ser Jorah’s boat ride through the ruins of Valyria. From their discussion of the ancient Doom, to Tyrion’s face upon seeing a dragon for the first time, to the terrifying attack of the greyscale-riddled Stone Men, this is a superlative example of the grand fantasy storytelling at which GOT excels.

15. “Valar Morghulis”

HBO

Season 2, Episode 10
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

With the world of GOT spread so far and wide by the end of Season 2, this episode suffered a wee bit from having to touch base with every single story line. But so many of those story lines ended so well — Theon getting thunked on the head, Tyrion licking his wounds, Samwell cowering from the army of wights and White Walkers — that it hardly matters. (Given what happens to them, meanwhile, I cannot bring myself to say that the marriage of Robb and Talisa “ended well,” but it was nice to see them happy for a short time, at least.) And the episode still carved out plenty of time for Dany to both rediscover her dragons and, more importantly, her sense of power and purpose.

14. “Second Sons”

HBO

Season 3, Episode 8
Directed by: Michelle MacLaren
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

So much happens! Sansa and Tyrion endure the most awkward wedding ever. Melisandre seduces Gendry so she can draw out his royal blood. And what seems like the introduction of three new characters — mercenaries Dany hopes to woo over to her side — really turns out to be the introduction of one: Daario Naharis (played by Ed Skrein this season, and recast with Michiel Huisman in Season 4), arriving just in time to take up the mantle of Game of Thrones’ cocky dreamboat warrior from the handless and humbled Jaime. The best moment, though, goes to the spooky murder of crows that gather to witness an attempt to steal Gilly’s newborn son by a White Walker, which gets shattered instead by Sam’s dragonglass dagger.

13. “The Children”

HBO

Season 4, Episode 10
Directed by: Alex Graves
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Tyrion’s escape comes far too easy, as does Stannis’ unwitting rescue of Jon Snow in Mance Rayder’s camp. And Dany placing her dragons in chains feels just bit too undifferentiated from all the other hard choices she’s had to make as the self-imposed ruler of Slaver’s Bay. Then there’s whatever the hell happened when Bran finally reaches the Heart Tree — skeleton zombies, a child who can throw fire, and an old man who lives in/has become the Heart Tree before he was the three-eyed raven who tells Bran he will fly, and what in the seven hells is going on here?!

That aside, however, this is a energizing conclusion to an odd, dark, frustrating, and satisfying season. So many little moments were pitch-perfect, like Jon Snow finally meeting the man for whom his father died; Cersei spitting her incestuous affair with Jaime in her father’s face; Tyrion discovering Shae in his father’s bed; and Brienne and Arya bonding over being women who love to fight. Speaking of, that battle between Brienne and the Hound is easily the best one-on-one brawl ever on this show, and the Hound’s subsequent sad end begging a stoic Arya to stab his heart — well, I certainly do not understand why HBO is not submitting Rory McCann for an Emmy.

As for Tyrion killing Tywin on the privy — happy Father’s Day, everyone!

12. “Mother’s Mercy”

HBO

Season 5, Episode 10
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Season 5 was Game of Thrones at its most surprising, infuriating, and thrilling, swinging wildly from the series’ worst episode to date to some of its very best. But the Season 5 finale was all of these things at once. I laughed out loud in delight when Varys returned to Tyrion’s side atop the pyramid of Meereen, and I felt a pang of genuine fear and wonder at what that swirl of (probably) Dothraki horsemen surrounding Daenerys could mean for her. The tragedy of Stannis, meanwhile, ended with the perfect note of epic, calamitous regret. It was an equally gratifying surprise to witness Brienne fulfill her long lapsed duty to Renly, and Stephen Dillane brought just the right note of teeth-gnashing weariness to Stannis’ final moments. At least, I think they were his final moments.

Both Arya and Sansa’s storylines reached similarly satisfying climaxes — the former racing headlong into her transformation into a vengeful sociopath and assassin, the latter taking hold of her own fate really for the first time in her life. But like the decision to cut away right before Brienne swung her killing blow to Stannis’ head, the Stark daughters’ storylines ended with a frustrating lack of clear resolution. Why is Arya blind — or, like, is she blind? Where did Reek and Sansa land — or did they land safely? And with this many cliffhangers already, why not an accidental one: After blithely confessing that she’s totes fine that her uncle is also her dad, we never actually see Myrcella die in Uncle Pappy Jaime’s arms, even though HBO’s press site includes a photo of exactly that happening.

As for The Thing That Happens to Cersei, I remain deeply conflicted. Cersei’s walk of literal shame through King’s Landing was excruciating to watch, and I may be alone in this feeling, but it evoked the Internet Shame Machine so vividly that the sequence felt almost too meta for me. And yet, unlike the multitude of times GOT has wallowed in Ramsay’s sadism, the degradation of Cersei felt truly consequential, for the show and for her character. I don’t know what lies ahead for her — and for the first time, neither does anyone else other than Martin, Benioff, and Weiss! — but nothing should ever be the same for Cersei. (It certainly isn’t the same for The Mountain!)

What’s that? I’ve ignored The Thing That Happens to Jon Snow? Nope. Sorry. I don’t care what Kit Harington has said: Jon Snow cannot be dead. I refuse to believe it. And if he is, I don’t know where in the seven hells this show is going, but I am sure I am rooting for the White Walkers.

11. “Kissed by Fire”

HBO

Season 3, Episode 5
Directed by: Alex Graves
Written by: Bryan Cogman

Hot tubs and sexy times abound: Jon and Ygritte get horizontal in a cave with hot springs, and Ser Loras grabs some sack time with his (alas, disloyal) squire. And when a broken and beaten Jaime slides into a steaming bath with Brienne, he finally drops the armor around his soul — and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau nails the scene he’s waited three seasons to play. Emmys, are you paying attention? (UPDATE: Sadly, they weren’t.)

10. “Winter Is Coming”

HBO

Season 1, Episode 1
Directed by: Tim Van Patten
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

If the series premiere didn’t work — if it didn’t simultaneously transport us to a fully realized fantasy world and immediately dial us into the emotional lives of its characters — then, well, for one thing, this list wouldn’t exist. Fortunately, from the eerie prologue set beyond the wall (can’t you still hear the ominous clicking of the White Walkers?) to Bran’s discovery that Cersei and Jaime are really close siblings, the first episode of Game of Thrones ranks up with The Sopranos’, The West Wing’s and Lost’s as one of the most successful opening episodes ever.

9. “The Lion and the Rose”

HBO

Season 4, Episode 2
Directed by: Alex Graves
Written by: George R.R. Martin

Ding dong, the king is dead! Before the fateful climax of the wedding between Joffrey and Margaery, however, there are some fabulous scenes with the Lannister siblings — together, and apart, as they strive to protect what they love most dear. We also finally understand exactly what Ramsay Snow was doing with Theon Greyjoy — turning him into a simpering human pet named Reek — and it is so much more compelling than all the torture that preceded it. (Did we need to see that torture to believe Theon’s transformation? Discuss!)

The crown jewel of this episode, however, is Joffrey’s purple, blood-clotted face as the life is choked out of him thanks to some poison planted by the Queen of Thorns herself. Jack Gleeson makes the absolute most of his final hour on Game of Thrones (and as a professional actor, apparently), driving Joffrey’s gleeful sadism to its most cruel and cutting limits without ever tipping into arch self-parody. It’s such a masterful act of high-wire acting that, may the gods forgive me, I’m actually going to miss the little snot. A little.

8. “Fire and Blood”

HBO

Season 1, Episode 10
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

The fallout from Ned’s execution touches (almost) every story line, and unlike the disappointing “Mhysa,” this season finale manages to reflect the audience’s shock at the unexpected death along with the characters’. (Who didn’t want Sansa to push Joffrey off that catwalk for exposing her to her father’s severed head?) The episode also pulled off a major pivot in the show’s attitude toward its fantasy roots with the awesome reveal of Dany’s dragons. After the unearthly prologue that opened the show, Game of Thrones in Season 1 was essentially a medieval period piece. But after that baby dragon hopped on its mother’s shoulder and let out its first wail, GOT finally let its freak flag fly.

7. “And Now His Watch Is Ended”

HBO

Season 3, Episode 4
Directed by: Alex Graves
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

So much went down in this episode — the Lord Commander bites it! — but really, it all comes down to one word:

“Dracarys!”

6. “Mockingbird”

HBO

Season 4, Episode 7
Directed by: Alik Sakharov
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Think I’m being too generous? Well, Game of Thrones spends so much time either moving its characters like chess pieces across the board, or smashing them together, that it is a rare delight when they are allowed to settle and simply reveal themselves to each other. And there are many marvelous moments here, including Hot Pie’s unexpected encounter with Brienne and Podrick, Dany ordering to Daario Naharis to show off his assets, Sansa building Winterfell from memory in the snow, and Littlefinger shoving Lysa out of the Eyrie’s moon door.

But what has stayed with me the longest is a pair of haunting near monologues about the cruelty of family ties. The first: the Hound relating to Arya how his brother burned his face and his father let it happen, capped with the heartbreaking line, “You think you’re alone?” And the second: Oberyn telling Tyrion of their first encounter, when Tyrion was not the monster he’d been promised by the venom-filled Cersei, but, instead, “just a baby.” And then Oberyn declares he will be Tyrion’s champion, and our hearts are filled with hope and excitement, perhaps for the last time ever…

5. “The Dance of Dragons”

HBO

HBO

 

Season 5, Episode 9
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

…or, perhaps not!

We have waited five long seasons, trudging through the endless Red Waste and the quagmire of Slaver’s Bay, for the rightful Queen of Westeros to take her place atop her dragons, or, specifically, her Drogon. When GOT finally arrived at that moment — having Drogon swoop in to save Dany just as it looked like the Sons of the Harpy were closing in to kill her — it was as thrilling, and as joyous, as just about anything the show has accomplished so far.

It was also an all-too-rare moment of genuine triumph for a show that far prefers to watch its characters struggle with setbacks, failures, and wrenching tragedies. Like, for example, Stannis’ gutting decision to sacrifice his daughter to save his increasingly desperate campaign to win back the Iron Throne. Listening to Shireen’s desperate screams as she burned alive in front of her parents was as harrowing, and bleak, as just about anything the show has attempted so far.

And at least, for once, Dorne wasn’t a maddening disappointment!

4. “The Rains of Castamere”

HBO

Season 3, Episode 9
Directed by: David Nutter
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

We already know why this episode is so powerful, and I’m still in the middle of the recovery process, so I’d rather not dwell on it. But I would just like to add that this is also the first time all season that Bran has actually, you know, done something, and for that we should all rejoice.

3. “Blackwater”

 

Season 2, Episode 9
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Written by: George R.R. Martin

For the first time pretty much in the entire series, we’re allowed to track a single story, the Battle of the Blackwater, which means we can drink in so many more smaller moments spent with each of the characters: a drunk and bitter Cersei calling Sansa “little dove” with thinly veiled venom; the Hound recoiling from the wildfire explosion; Tyrion rallying the army after Joffrey abandons them. And, yeah, that explosion is pretty killer too.

2. “Hardhome”

HBO

Season 5, Episode 8
Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

The first half of this episode unfolds in standard GOT fashion, except that it’s punctuated with a bounty of tremendously satisfying scenes, including Cersei brought low in the cells beneath the Sept, Reek finally confessing to Sansa that he hadn’t killed Bran and Rickon, and, best of all, a pair of conversations between Tyrion and Dany in which these two Westeros exiles begin the first steps of what could blossom into a beautiful, and powerful, partnership. Benioff and Weiss took several major storytelling detours from Martin’s books in Season 5; some really did not work (see “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”), but having Dany and Tyrion meet, instead of having them remain excruciatingly separated for the rest of the season, was a brilliant creative choice.

It’s almost as brilliant as what the showrunners chose to do with the second half of “Hardhome,” which was no less than a mini-master class of cinematic storytelling that rivals the best of what Hollywood has to offer. Unlike the other major battle episodes on GOT, the horde of wights bearing down from the cliffs surrounding the wildling encampment came with no warning — not even from Martin’s books — and the battle that followed was GOT at (almost) its stunning, brutal, scream-at-your-TV best.

1. “Baelor”

HBO

Season 1, Episode 9
Directed by: Alan Taylor
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

So much attention is paid to the indelible climax of this episode (see above, if it wasn’t obvious) that it’s easy to forget that it is also filled with superlative work throughout, like Maester Aemon’s revelation that he’s oldest living Targaryen, and Dany’s desperation to save the life of her dying husband. In hindsight, placing Lady Catelyn’s agreement with Lord Frey that Robb will marry one of his daughters in the same episode that killed off Ned Stark was an inspired piece of foreshadowing and fan service. And then, of course, Peter Dinklage won an Emmy for this episode, specifically for the scene in which he told Shae and Bronn about the time when his brother tricked him into marrying a prostitute and then his father paid other men to fuck her and made him watch. Those Lannisters and their practical jokes!

That said, it all comes back to the death of Ned Stark. Yes, yes, it was in the book, but imagine The West Wing letting Jed Bartlet’s assassination attempt at the end of its first season remain successful, or consider a world in which Buffy Summers stayed dead the first time she dies. The allure and power of this show all stem from David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’ embrace of George R.R. Martin’s merciless fealty to the story he’s trying to tell — and there is no better, and more successful, example of that storytelling craft and nerve than this episode.

Gah: Theon’s torture is depicted in a different form from the show in Martin’s A Dance With Dragons; an earlier version of this post stated they weren’t depicted in Martin’s books.

update

This post has been updated to include the episodes from Season 4.

update

This post has been updated to include the episodes from Season 5.

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