The First 40 "Game Of Thrones" Episodes Ranked From Worst To Best

Dragons and death are a plus; torture and tedium are not. UPDATED with Season 4 episodes. SPOILERS ahead!

40. “Dark Wings, Dark Words”

HBO

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

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 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 the bottom of this list.

39. “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.

38. “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!

37. “The Prince of Winterfell”

HBO

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

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. So: It’s just fourth worst!

36. “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!

35. “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.

34. “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.

33. “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.

32. “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.

31. “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!

30. “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.

29. “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.

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.

28. “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.

27. “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!”

26. “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.

25. “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.)

24. “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.

23. “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…

22. “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.

21. “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)

20. “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.

19. “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!

18. “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.

17. “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, 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!

16. “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.

15. “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.

14. “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.

13. “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.

12. “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.

11. “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.

10. “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 the oddest, darkest, and most frustrating season of Game of Thrones yet. 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!

9. “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.)

8. “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.

7. “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!)

But really, this episode is all about 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.

6. “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.

5. “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!”

4. “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.

3. “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.

2. “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.

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’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’ embrace of 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.

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.

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