You know how it goes, when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. Well, after eight years and a dizzying array of twists and turns, we’ll finally find out who will get to sit upon the iron throne once and for all. In that time we’ve witnessed the birth of dragons, the rise of an undead army and an endless heap of political backstabbing – sometimes in a more literal sense than others. The journey through Westeros has been an exciting one but I’m sure we can all agree that Game of Thrones will be sorely missed once it’s off the air, at least, until the prequel shows up. So before we enter the Seven Kingdoms one last time, let’s take a trip down memory lane of the episodes that truly solidified Game of Thrones as must-see piece of programming. Spoilers aplenty!
The Door (Season 6, Episode 5)
While The Door is probably best remembered as a heartbreaking send off to one of our favourite characters, the episode also packs in a ton of mythology that the books have only barely touched. The origins of the White Walkers and their fearsome leader, the Night King, have only been hinted at in the source text, but The Door dives headfirst into revealing that Game of Thrones’ big bad was simply a nobody. Captured and transformed into a hideous weapon to be used by the Children of the Forest, the origin of the Night King complements the shows recurring theme of the repercussions of war.
Best moment: Let me just light a quick candle for my homeboy Hodor. Often used as the show’s comic relief, having Hodor ripped apart by a sea of undead monsters is as gut-wrenching as it gets. It only gets worse when you realise that no matter what happens, his fate was already sealed from an incredibly young age. Even now, being asked to hold the door brings a tear to my eye, and warrants strange looks from people boarding the lift.
Baelor (Season 1, Episode 9)
We all know where we were the moment Eddard Stark was beheaded – or at least the moment it was spoiled via social media/pop culture. The shock ending of Baelor is what elevated Game of Thrones from being just another fantasy narrative to something far more important, as the show revealed its party trick: any character can die. As we all know too well, George R. R. Martin has since done away with so many of our favourite characters over the years that we now expect at least one shocking death per season, but back in 2011, the shock was potent.
Best moment: Could it be anything else other than Ned Stark’s fate? Sure, it’s definitely not a happy occasion, but as soon as poor Ned’s head hits the floor, all our hopes for a sudden deus ex machina are also dashed across the Sept of Baelor. The fact that Varys and even Cersei try to reason with Joffrey to reconsider shows that no one (expect those who had read the books) could have seen this coming.
Kissed by Fire (Season 3, Episode 5)
In hindsight, I think we all should have realised that no one introduces the concept of resurrection into their story without a plan to use it further down the line, but I suppose we were too busy being wowed by Beric Dondarrion’s flaming sword. Pyrotechnics aside, there’s a ton of stuff crammed into this one episode, jumping from Jon and Ygritte getting it on for the first time, to the brutal scene of Lord Karstark’s beheading at the hand of Rob Stark. There’s no fluff here, just damn good storytelling.
Best moment: Ever since Jamie Lannister happily flung Brandon Stark off the top of a tower, he always had a reputation for a being a bit of an arse. After succumbing to the delirium of a missing hand (I mean, who wouldn’t?), Jamie finally reveals what really happened the day he became the ‘Kingslayer’. It’s the perfect example of a good deed gone bad – done to save thousands of lives, but all it earned him was a lifetime of scorn and being viewed as a traitor. Tough break.
You Win or You Die (Season 1, Episode 7)
Ah, the good old days – remember when Game of Thrones was all about politics and espionage? Sure, the show’s original defining traits may have fallen to the wayside in recent years due to shorter episode counts and the need to tie up several storylines with large scale battles, but You Win or You Die stands as a relic for when the show’s greatest mystery was about unearthing the circumstances of Jon Arryn’s death. It’s also the first time we come face to face with Lord Tywin himself, a role that Charles Dance would later solidify as one of the most memorable performances of the entire series.
Best moment: Having learned the truth about Joffrey’s parentage (and of the other Lannister children), it seemed as though Ned Stark’s confrontation of Cersei Lannister on the matter could only go one way. Hearing her side of the story however added a new layer of nuance to her character, and established Cersei’s love for her children as one of the main driving forces in her life – something that would come up time and time again as the show progressed.
Hardhome (Season 5, Episode 8)
The eight episode of the fifth season is one of those rare occasions where, despite outcries from diehard Game of Thrones fans, the book wasn’t better. In the original text, we never actually find out what happens at Hardhome. Instead, we’re given snippets of information, all with the collective theme that something terrible took place. With the show’s bombastic budget however, we got the chance to dive right into the Hardhome massacre, complete with a giant tearing through white walkers like no one’s business. At times, it even plays out like a horror movie, taking inspiration from both The Shining and Children of the Corn.
Best moment: The Night King is one terrifying son of a gun – if that wasn’t already apparent then his ‘come at me bro’ stare down with Jon Snow was sure to seal the deal. Raising his arms and glaring across the bay, you could almost swear that the Night King is looking directly at us. The action is two-fold of course, at once resurrecting a whole new batch of freshly killed soldiers for his army, but also to intimidate Jon Snow. On both accounts, it definitely worked.
Blackwater (Season 2, Episode 9)
Season two, without a doubt, belonged to Tyrion Lannister. Having become the Hand of the King, Tyrion managed to outsmart the small council and somewhat curb Joffrey’s maniacal antics, but his biggest challenge came in the form of Stannis Baratheon’s fleet. As the first major ‘battle episode’ of the series, Blackwater set the tone for what would later become a highlight of each season. We may have had better battles since, but without blueprint provided by Blackwater, Game of Thrones’ signature battles might have had a different style altogether.
Best moment: Everyone loves a good speech, especially one that arrives in the midst of battle. Tyrion was bang on the money when he warned Joffrey that his absence from the battle would cause dissent amongst the troops. What Tyrion had yet to realise was that his natural charm could also be called upon to rally an army. It might not be a long speech, but Tyrion knowing exactly what to say to the people of King’s Landing showed just how well he had come to understand the city, better than anyone.
Mother’s Mercy (Season 5, Episode 10)
Shame, shame! And just like that, an iconic moment in pop culture was born. Ever since Cersei’s walk of atonement down the steps of King’s Landing, a hearty yell of ‘shame!’ is bound to crop up when someone falls behind on the monthly pub crawl. Behind the ensuing hilarity however is a piece of television that shocked viewers and put Cersei’s love for her children to the test. And that’s without discussing one of the show’s most scarring cliffhangers, which leads me to…
Best moment: Having jumped on the Game of Thrones bandwagon around the time that season four began to air, a fair amount of the show had been spoiled for me before I’d even started watching. Luckily, no spoilers regarding Jon Snow’s fate had ever reached my ears, and so my jaw very much hit the floor as he lay dying, stabbed by his own men. Jon even has trouble believing it himself, failing to fight back against any of them. Ramin Djawadi’s score only heightens the emotion, seemingly able to convey Jon Snow’s despair as the cold seeps into his body.
The Rains of Castamere (Season 3, Episode 9)
I’m pretty sure that we have The Rains of Castamere to thank for popularising ‘reaction’ videos on YouTube, but the episode’s titular scene still remains as powerful as it did when it first hit our screens. The Red Wedding took the shock value from Ned Stark’s death and cranked it up to eleven, and unless you’d read the books beforehand, there was nothing that could prepare you for what the episode had in store. To be fair, the surprise of the Red Wedding lies in the fact that the audience is completely unaware that Rob, Catelyn and Talisa are in any present danger – it is a wedding after all. No scene in modern television history has generated so much buzz.
Best moment: This one can also be classed as the saddest moment in the episode. At this point in the show, Catelyn Stark had lost her husband and also believed that she had lost three of her children. With Sansa held captive at King’s Landing, Rob was the only member of her immediate family that she had left. To see her plead with all her heart to save her son’s life is haunting.
The Children (Season 4, Episode 10)
In a season that featured poisoned kings and exploding heads, one could have safely assumed that its conclusion would never be able to surpass the chaos that came before it, but showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss had one more trick up their sleeve. The Children is so jam packed with content that it almost warrants being readapted into a feature length film. Despite the numerous threads being juggled however, no character feels overlooked – a testament to the production team who can take a seemingly gargantuan task and turn it into one of the show’s best episodes. Even the episode’s minor moments, such as Cersei revealing her incestuous relationship to Tywin, still constitute for some great bits of drama.
Best moment: At the risk of vitriol from online commentators, this one has to be a draw between Brienne’s spectacular battle with the Hound, and Tyrion finally confronting Tywin for all the pain he caused him. Due to the evenly matched skill of both its combatants, the former scene has you on the edge of your seat the whole way through, while Tyrion’s crossbow wielding antics make for one of Peter Dinklage’s most engaging performances to date – plus it features a man dying on the toilet. It’s a close call to be sure.
Battle of the Bastards (Season 6, Episode 9)
Ramsey Bolton is a git. Any episode that sees him getting a swift dose of karma was always destined to be a winner. Knowing the title of the episode before the sixth season had even aired, the hype for the eventual clash between Jon Snow and the Bastard of Bolton was insurmountable, but given that the odds stacked greatly in Bolton’s favour, we were all panicking as to whether or not Jon’s number was up for good this time. What ensued was one of the most gripping pieces of television that I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. With a healthy dose of practical effects and some terrific performances, Battle of the Bastards is able to convey the pure chaos of war and capture the adrenaline rush that goes along with it.
Best moment: Of the few things I can say with absolute certainty, if I saw an army stampeding towards me, I’d be running as fast I could in the opposite direction. In a moment of true courage however, Jon Snow – when faced with the same threat – pulls out his sword and charges onward. What a badass. The decision to shoot the scene without the use of CGI just makes it all the more impressive. If I had the space, I’d frame the single shot and hang it in my living room. That’s not obsessive, right?