TV Top 10: The Best Episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’

2

On April 14, 2019,  “Game of Thrones” will begin its final season. The series has become the landmark series on television, easily finding itself in the discussion for the best show of all time. The scale of the series is unlike anything ever attempted on television. As we make that turn, many are rewatching the series in its entirety. Count me as one of those fans. Based on my most recent trip through Westeros and across the Narrow Sea, here are the top 10 episodes of “Game of Thrones” since it began in the summer of 2011.

10“You Win or You Die” (Season 1, Episode 7) – Directed by Daniel Minahan

Key Events

  • Ned tells Cersei (Lena Headey) that he knows her children are from her twin Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), not her husband King Robert
  • Robert Baratheon dies, launching the future War of the Five Kings
  • Ned Stark is taken prisoner by Cersei Lannister, Joffrey Baratheon, and Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen)
  • The assassination attempt on Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)
  • almost works but is thwarted by Jorah. Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) vows to take his army and capture Westeros
  • Jon Snow is named Steward in the Night’s Watch and takes the black
  • We’re introduced to Tywin Lannister, who delivers an enthralling speech about the legacy of the Lannisters while gutting a stag.

Key Deaths

  • The Stark soldiers

Emmy Performance

  • “You Win or You Die” received no Emmy nominations

Why is it a top 10 Episode?

As the first season of “Thrones” progressed, many non-book readers thought they had figured out the series. After all, Martin was inspired by Tolkien and Lewis. “Game of Thrones” bore more than a passing resemblance to famous fantasy literature. That idea went out the window in “You Win or You Die,” which proved that Martin had created the ultimate subversion of the genre and its tropes.

As Robert Baratheon passes, (and proves one last time he was an inept king), pieces moved quickly. Tywin Lannister unleashes a plan decades in the making. Joffrey and his mother Cersei rise to the throne, and the Lannisters finally rule the realm. However, Ned Stark (Sean Bean) stands in the way. He’s the only one not on the take, and his belief in nobility and honor runs deeps. It is also his undoing.

While Ned Stark would be the hero in every other version of this story, he is the cautionary tale in Westeros. He was never a true threat. Yet Ned knew the truth of this world. In a conversation with Cersei, he uttered the phrase “when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” While Ned would not die until “Baelor,” the War of the Five Kings begins here.

9“Battle of the Basterds” (Season 6, Episode 9) – Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

Key Events

  • The wildling forces of Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) march into Winterfell and defeat Ramsay Boulton (Iwan Rheon) in the Battle of the Bastards
  • When the battle seems lost for Jon’s forces, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Littlefinger bring the forces of the Vale into the fight
  • Ramsay Boulton is captured and fed to his dogs
  • Daenerys Targaryen defeats the Sons of the Harpy
  • Theon (Alfie Allen)  and Yara (Gemma Whelan) arrive in Meereen and offer their fleet to Daenerys in exchange for her support in helping Yara ascend to the throne of the Iron Islands.

Key Deaths

  • Ramsay Boulton
  • Wun Wun the Giant
  • Rickon Stark
  • Shaggydog
  • Smalljon Umber
  • The Masters of Meereen

Emmy Performance

  • Wins
    • Miguel Sapochnik for Directing in a Drama Series
    • David Benioff & D.B. Weiss for Writing for a Drama Series
    • Make-Up for a Single-Camera Series (Non-Prosthetic)
    • Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series
    • Sound Mixing for a Series
    • Special Visual Effects
  • Nominations
    • Kit Harrington for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

Why is it a top 10 Episode?

Ramsey Bolton was a hateful villain, very different from Joffrey and Tywin Lannister. Ramsey was an anarchist that ruled through fear but felt like the kind of infallible big bad that could never actually make a mistake, despite the fact he never thinks things through.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow had been raised from the dead. He had built a new coalition from of the North on this lore, and the mistakes he had made along the way. The Wildlings followed Jon with fervor, and with Stark loyalists like the Mormont’s backing his play, he finally had a chance to take back Winterfell, his ancestral home.

The battle begins with another fallen Stark, this time leaving Rickon dead on a battlefield. What erupted can only be described as “Braveheart” on television. The battle was massive in scale, and physically intimate in ways television has rarely found possible. While the battle set pieces of “Game of Thrones” can often be overrated, “Battle of the Bastards” was a technical marvel that deserved the stakes-placed upon it.

8“Kissed By Fire” (Season 3, Episode 5)- Directed by Alex Graves

Key Events

  • Jaime Lannister tells Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) the story of how he killed the Mad King
  • Berric Dondarian (Richard Dormer) and Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann) battle. The Hound wins, but Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye) resurrects Berric with the help of the Lord of Light. This is the first time resurrection is proved possible
  • Arya (Maisie Williams) leaves the Brotherhood without Banners with The Hound
  • Jon breaks his vows and sleeps with Ygritte (Rose Leslie) beyond the Wall
  • Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) takes his place as the head of the Unsullied for Daenerys
  • Robb Stark (Richard Madden) executes Lord Carrstark. His forces abandon Robb, prompting him to seek an alliance with Walder Frey (David Bradley)

Key Deaths

  • Lord Carrstark
  • Berric Dondarian (for a minute anyway)

Emmy Performance

  • Win
    • Makeup for a Single-Camera Series (Non-Prosthetic)

Why It is One of the Best Episodes

There are small character moments throughout “Game of Thrones” that completely alter a character’s trajectory. Jaime Lannister was as far from sympathetic as one might get. He had dropped Bran Stark out of a window, sired incestuous children with dangerous perversions, and was known as the Kingslayer.

Yet the perception of Jaime turned in this episode. Before this, there were good and bad people in Westeros. There were characters with wits that could survive the game but felt like they were born into the wrong family. Hearing Jaime discuss a moment that would forever shape his legacy showcased one of the most emotional arcs of the series. It also solidified Coster-Waldau as one of the most underrated members of the cast.

7“The Children” (Season 4, Episode 10)- Directed by Alex Graves

Key Events

  • Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is freed by Jaime as he awaits execution. He discovers Shae (Sibel Kekilli) in Tywin’s bedroom and strangles her. He then shoots Tywin (Charles Dance) with a Crossbow while he is in the privy
  • Tyrion and Varys (Conleth Hill) board a ship for Essos
  • Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) meets the Three-Eyed Raven
  • Daenerys chains Rhaegal and Viserion in the dungeons
  • Brienne defeats the Hound in battle, and Arya leaves him to die. She uses Jaqen’s coin to buy passage to Essos
  • Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) save Jon and the Nights Watch from death at the hands of the Wildlings

Key Deaths

  • Tywin Lannister
  • Shae
  • Jojen Reed

Emmy Performance

  • Wins
    • Prosthetic Makeup for Series
    • Special and Visual Effects
  •  Nominations
    • David Benioff and D.B. Weiss – Writing for a Drama Series

Why is it a top 10 Episode?

Tywin Lannister was one of the most compelling characters in the history of television. His hatred towards Tyrion, his youngest child, created his ultimate downfall. Tyrion and Tywin’s relationship felt antagonistic early in the series. However, as “Game of Thrones” continued, it became apparent how deep the fracture ran.

The episode is a standout for several of the actors. For Coster-Waldau, his character finally seeks redemption. As he lets his brother go, you can feel Coster-Waldau brighten for the first time in more than a season. However, Dinklage turns out one of his powerhouse performances. He digs deep into his soul and brings the pathos, with his eyes conveying every feeling of guilt, anger, and pain at each of his actions. You can feel him pushing out every word as if its the hardest thing he’s ever done.

While Dance was certainly given more interesting moments, his defiance and believe he was superior to Tyrion up until the moment of his death showed off the arrogance that made him a fan favorite. His final line, “you’re no son of mine” flickers with hatred for what Tyrion has done, not because he has died, but because dying in the privy will not be part of his story. For a man hellbent on myth-making, what could be worse?

6“The Mountain and the Viper” (Season 4, Episode 8) – Directed by Alex Graves

Key Events

  • Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) is killed defending Tyrion Lannister in Trial By Combat when fighting Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. The Mountain crushes his skull while Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma) screams
  • Ramsay Snow becomes Ramsay Boulton after taking the Moat Cailin
  • Littlefinger is questioned for his role in Lysa Arryn’s death and Sansa reveals her true self to Lord Royce
  • The Night’s Watch awaits the attack of Mance Rayder

Key Deaths

  • Oberyn Martell
  • Ralf Kenning

Emmy Performance

  • Wins
    • Art Direction for a Single-Camera Fantasy Series
  • Nominations
    • Music Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score)

Why is it a Top 10 Episode?

Oberyn Martell strolled into “Game of Thrones” and instantly made audiences swoon. Not only did he ooze charisma, sex, and brains, but he was driven by revenge. There were plenty of reasons to expect he would be a formidable player for the series. Motivated by the rape and murder of his sister, he was an erotically charged Inigo Montoya.

Yet Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane is a monster. Not only is he one of the largest killers in Westeros in a literal sense, but his anger and fury are also legendary. One of our introductions to his violence came when he murdered his horse in the Hand’s tournament.

For the most part, the battle is one-sided. Clegane is certainly Martell’s superior physically, but the Viper lives up to his name. His agility and anger are fierce, and he downs The Mountain. For the second time in the series, it appears that Tyrion will be saved in a trial by combat.

However, when Oberyn gets caught monologuing, the tone changed quickly. As the Mountain crushes Oberyn’s skull in his hands, the iconic moment was seared into our memories. It was brutal and disgusting and ends another pretender to the Iron Throne. The show calls back to the audience once more, reminding us this is not a story for heroes or revenge tales. This is a practical game, and no one should be underestimated at any moment. That was Oberyn’s mistake.

5“Blackwater” (Season 2, Episode 9) – Directed by Neil Marshall

Key Events

  • Stannis Baratheon lays siege to King’s Landing against the Tyrion Lannister-led King’s Guard
  • Tyrion almost orchestrates a victory, but it is not until Lannister and Tyrell forces converge on the city that the day is won
  • Bronn (Jerome Flynn) becomes Bronn of the Blackwater after a single arrow destroys dozens of ships
  • Cersei and Sansa have some frank discussions about the ways women wield power in the Westeros

Key Deaths

  • Mattos Seaworth
  • Ser Mandon Moore
  • Thousands of Golden Cloaks and Baratheon soldiers

Emmy Performance

  • Wins
    • Sound Editing for a Series
    • Sound Mixing
  •  Nominees
    • Peter Dinklage – Best Supporting Actor

Why is it a top 10 Episode?

A watershed moment for the series came in the highly focused battle sequences that became the Battle of Blackwater Bay. The battle contains some of the best writing of any episode, especially when it comes to Tyrion. It’s a showcase for Dinklage, who proves his might as a tactician. Yet most important of all, he gives Tyrion a bravery and charisma one would not expect from his character.

The effects and scale of the battle were perspective changing for television. While other shows had attempted large scale battles, including “Rome,” nothing had really worked on the level of “Blackwater” when it aired. The special effects for the explosion and fire were breathtaking. Even the use of mushroom cloud imagery, and focusing on the Hound’s reaction to the fire, help define what the moment meant for Westorosi history. The Hound gets some excellent character development in these shots as well.

Finally, seeing Cersei and Sansa interact as two of the most tactical minds on the show was important for future season growth. Sansa may not have always been a fan favorite, especially because of her poor decision making. Yet as she absorbs knowledge like a sponge. Headey and Turner lay the groundwork for future character beats that would make each a series favorite.

4“The Door” (Season 6, Episode 5) – Directed by Jack Bender

Key Events

  • Bran learns about the Night King’s origins and accidentally summons him to the home of the Three-Eyed Raven. The Night King attacks and kills Hodor, the Three-Eyed Raven, the Children of the Forrest and Summer the Direwolf
  • Euron Greyjoy is named King of the Iron Islands. Yara Greyjoy and Theon steal the best ships of the fleet and head to Essos.
  • Sansa receives Littlefinger’s support to retake Winterfell

Key Deaths

  • Hodor
  • The Three-eyed Raven
  • Summer
  • Leaf
  • The Children of the Forest
  • Euron Greyjoy (but only for a minute)

Emmy Performance

  • Wins
    • Prosthetic Makeup
  •  Nominees
    • Jack Bender – Directing for a Drama Series
    • Max von Sydow – Guest Actor in a Drama Series
    • Hairstyling for a Single-Camera Series
    • Sound Editing for a Series

Why is it a top 10 Episode?

After disappearing for an entire season, fans were excited for the return of Bran, Hordor and Meera. Despite an entire season, away, Bran never really matured.

For all the character would (and could) become, no moment was more devasting to watch unfold than Bran’s choice to use the weirwood tree on his own. Up to this point in the episode, we’ve already seen Bran go back once, and he had to be talked down after understanding why and who created the White Walkers. His choice to go full three-eyed raven also opened the door for a lot of speculation.

The episode comes to a climax as Meera realizes the temperature has changed. She runs through the tunnels and sees the Night King. Something is different about the Night King’s this time. Rather than his chilly and collected self, there’s a fear and urgency to the events. Even the way he stares at the Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow), there’s fear and knowledge about his potential undoing. At the same time, we watch heroes fall, including Summer the Direwolf, the Children of the Forest, and Hodor. The episode ultimately combines an emotional core with important storytelling beats.

A lot of speculation about the future of the show can be found in these moments. Questions have swirled about other time periods where Bran may have altered history. Beyond that, why does the Night King take this boy and old man so seriously? Without jumping into potential spoilers, lets just say this episode could have laid some essential groundwork for the conclusion of the series.

3“Hardhome” (Season 5, Episode 8) Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

Key Events

  • Jon Snow travels to Hardhome, and the camp is attacked by the Wights. We’re introduced to the Night King and his Wights
  • Tyrion meets Daenerys and they discuss “Breaking the Wheel”
  • Reek/Theon reveals to Sansa that he faked the Rickon and Bran’s deaths

Key Deaths

  • Karsi
  • Loboda
  • Many wildlings
  • Some wights

Emmy Performance

  • Wins
    • Peter Dinklage – Supporting Actor
    • Production Design for a Fantasy Program
    • Sound Editing for a Series
    • Sound Mixing for a Series
  •  Nominees
    • Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series
    • Prosthetic Makeup for a Series
    • Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series

Why is it a top 10 Episode?

The first time I watched this episode, I was on a bachelor’s weekend, huddled around a phone because the WiFi didn’t work, and constantly worried we were missing important dialogue. It was quite a way to watch it, but luckily we got it onto a TV for the last thirty minutes.

The battle episodes of “Game of Thrones” are where you see the visual splendor of the series really come into view. While “Battle of the Bastards” will be known as the “Braveheart” episode, or “Blackwater” changed the landscape of what the show could accomplish, “Hardhome” leaned into the genre elements of the story. Equal parts horror battle and creature feature, there had never been a sequence as visually unique as this one on television. In an instant, it no longer mattered what happened south of the Wall.

The battle sequence, which takes up the last twenty-five minutes of the episode, was terrifying. Seeing a Wight for the first time sent chills down my spine. The size of the army made it that much scarier. They clawed through the frozen ground and destroyed Hardhome. Their relentlessness pulls from the best of Romero and modern zombie incarnations. Perhaps nothing was more disturbing than seeing emaciated remains of wight children.

While it would not be long until we surpassed the books, this was a key moment where the show could add its own content. While news of what happened at Hardhome spreads in the books, no point-of-view characters were present. This gave hope to many that Benioff and Weiss could keep the ship afloat after they passed the books at the end of the season.

2“The Winds of Winter” (Season 6, Episode 10) – Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

Key Events

  • Brann returns to the Tower of Joy. He follows a young Ned Stark up the tower and finds Lyanna Stark covered in blood from childbirth. As she dies, she asks Ned to take care of her son, who is revealed to be Jon Snow
  • Cersei blows up the Sept. She kills Margaery, The High Sparrow, Loras, Kevan Lannister, and more in the process. Tomman jumps out of the Red Keep when he hears of Margaery’s death. Cersei is named Queen
  • Jon Snow is named the King of the North
  • Arya makes Frey Pie and makes Walder Frey eat it. She then kills him and crosses a name off her list
  • Daenerys Tygarian departs for Westeros and names Tywin the Hand of the Queen

Key Deaths

  • High Sparrow
  • Margaery Tyrell
  • Loras Tyrell
  • King Tommen Baratheon
  • Walder Frey
  • Kevan Lannister
  • Maester Pycelle
  • Unella
  • Lancel Lannister
  • The Faith Militant

Emmy Performance

  • Wins
    • Costumes for a Period/Fantasy Series, Limited Series, or Movie
  •  Nominees
    • Lena Headey – Supporting Actress

Why is it a top 10 Episode?

One of the most iconic images of the latter half of the series sits on an open window with smoke billowing in the background. Yet the moments that precede and follow this shot are some of the most interesting in the series. Cersei finally gets revenge on her enemies for the pain and suffering they caused a season ago. Her rise to power was inevitable. It was Cersei against the world. When Jaime walks into the throne room and sees Cersei on the throne, it is clear that their love was a lifetime ago. You would almost expect Jaime to take a tumble from the Red Keep next.

Arya crosses a big name off her list. Surpassing “The Help” as the definitive pie sequence of the 2010s was tough, but Frey Pie might be the most delicious of all. It was a great moment for the fans, but also necessary to show Arya as a true threat. She could be the most dangerous character left in the game. It won’t be the last time we’re reminded of her newfound killer instincts.

Yet there are massive reveals in this one that make Cersei’s rise feel unimportant. Turns out Jon Snow is not Ned’s kid. Who knew (R+L=J)? It’s still a big reveal that had not been made canon until that moment. The scene at the Tower of Joy changes the story we’ve been told and shifts the history of Westeros. It mattered more than the actual reveal of his legitimacy that came in “The Dragon and The Wolf” in Season 7. A song of ice and fire indeed.

1“The Rains of Castamere” (Season 3, Episode 9) – Directed by David Nutter

Key Events

  • The Red Wedding

Key Deaths

  • Karsi
  • Loboda
  • Many wildlings
  • Some wights

Emmy Performance

  • Wins
    • Peter Dinklage – Supporting Actor
    • Production Design for a Fantasy Program
    • Sound Editing for a Series
    • Sound Mixing for a Series
  •  Nominees
    • Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series
    • Prosthetic Makeup for a Series
    • Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series

Why is it a top 10 Episode?

While Weiss and Benioff had proven their brutality to follow Martin into darkness, no moment was more upsetting in television history than “The Rains of Castamere” when it aired. Keep in mind, Ned Stark’s beheading had already hammered home the truth that no one was safe. However, as you entered the episode, there was reason for joy. It’s time for a wedding after all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The brutality of the Red Wedding is something that can never be erased from your mind. The first realize there’s something wrong is Grey Wind, the direwolf that had led Robb to his many victories. As soon as Robb ignores his wolf, its game, set, match for the Lannisters. Michelle Fairley gives a powerhouse performance in this episode. Her final fifteen-second shot as she looks over the wedding says everything. It rips out your heart.

“The Rains of Castamere” also cemented a few truths about the series. One, no one was safe. It needed to be reiterated because we all got a little comfortable in the two seasons since Ed’s death. Two, effective counsel matters. Robb over-relied on Cat throughout the series. Sadly, despite their military prowess, the Starks were not good at playing in this world. Until Arya went on an assassin training regiment across the sea and Sansa learned from Little Finger, none ever presented a legitimate case for their standing.

Finally, and most important of all, there are consequences to our actions. Robb’s death doesn’t happen in a vacuum. He broke a vow to the Freys, and Walder used that broken vow to lull the Starks into his home. Robb’s marriage to Jeyne Westerling may have been for love, but it was the wrong choice. He hoped he would get off with a slap on the wrist. Instead, he got far worse. Robb also executed Rickard Karstark, a man who had been one of Robb’s most loyal bannermen. The execution led to the Karstark’s abandoning his forces and left him vulnerable. These two decisions, regardless of how you felt about Robb’s decision making, were critical misses.

“Rains of Castamere takes the title because of all the other things that happen. The excellent development of The Hound and Arya pays dividends throughout the rest of the series. Jon Snow officially leaves the Wildlings, but not before some great Tormund moments. Jon just misses Rickon and Bran. Bran wargs into Hodor and the Dire Wolves for the first time on his own. Bran and Rickon separate, and Bran heads north of the wall with Jojen and Meera. Jorah, Grey Worm, and Daario 1 take Yunkai. It’s a massive turning point for the audience, and subtly a key episode for the characters as well. While The Red Wedding dominates the episode, every moment of the episode matters.

What are your favorite episodes of “Game of Thrones?” Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

The final season of “Game of Thrones” airs on Sunday at 9 PM EST. 

CHECK OUT ALL THE OFFICIAL PREDICTIONS IN THE CIRCUIT HUB AND MAKE YOUR OWN!