30. “Dark Wings, Dark Words”
Season 3, Episode 2
Watching Game of Thrones is like drinking wine — even when it’s not that good, it still does the trick. That said, the “bad” GoT episodes are the ones that are preoccupied with checking in with all the disparate characters scattered across Westeros and beyond the Shivering 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 has otherwise been a sterling season this year. 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 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 the bottom of this list.
29. “The Ghost of Harrenhal”
Season 2, Episode 5
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!
28. “The Prince of Winterfell”
Season 2, Episode 8
At first, I thought I’d put 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 re-watched 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.
27. “Lord Snow”
Season 1, Episode 3
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!
26. “The Night Lands”
Season 2, Episode 2
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.
25. “Walk of Punishment”
Season 3, Episode 3
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!
24. “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
Season 1, Episode 4
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.
23. “The North Remembers”
Season 2, Episode 1
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.
22. “A Man Without Honor”
Season 2, Episode 7
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.
It’s a split decision, however, on Theon’s fake-out murder of Bran and Rickon Stark. On the one hand, Alfie Allen is great. 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.
21. “What Is Dead May Never Die”
Season 2, Episode 3
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.
20. “The Climb”
Season 3, Episode 6
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 they are not in George R.R. Martin’s books — the producers appear to have included them so they could keep Allen around.
Season 3, Episode 10
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, at least, 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. Go get him, Yara!
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 — oof. As my colleague Kate Aurthur put it, “Hi, colonialism!”
18. “The Old Gods and the New”
Season 2, Episode 6
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.)
17. “Valar Dohaeris”
Season 3, Episode 1
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.
16. “You Win or You Die”
Season 1, Episode 7
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…
15. “The Pointy End”
Season 1, Episode 8
…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.
14. “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”
Season 3, Episode 7
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.)
13. “A Golden Crown”
Season 1, Episode 6
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.
12. “Garden of Bones”
Season 2, Episode 4
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, this episode is all about Melisandre’s smoke baby. Watching an inky black creature emerge from the loins of a suddenly pregnant woman was certainly memorable.
11. “The Kingsroad”
Season 1, Episode 2
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.
10. “The Wolf and the Lion”
Season 1, Episode 5
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.
9. “Second Sons”
Season 3, Episode 8
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 (Ed Skrein), 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 a White Walker attempt to steal Gilly’s newborn son, which get shattered instead by Sam’s dragonglass dagger.
8. “Kissed by Fire”
Season 3, Episode 5
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?
7. “Valar Morghulis”
Season 2, Episode 10
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.
6. “Winter Is Coming”
Season 1, Episode 1
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.
5. “Fire and Blood”
Season 1, Episode 10
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 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 geek flag fly.
4. “And Now His Watch Is Ended”
Season 3, Episode 4
So much went down in this episode — the Lord Commander bites it! — but really, it all comes down to one word:
3. “The Rains of Castamere”
Season 3, Episode 9
We already know why this episode is so powerful, and honestly 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.
Season 2, Episode 9
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.
Season 1, Episode 9
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’s 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 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 be successful, or Buffy Summers staying dead the first time she dies. The allure and power of this show all stem from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ willingness to embrace George R.R. Martin’s merciless fealty to the story he’s trying to tell — and there is no greater example of that storytelling craft and nerve than this episode.