Since arriving on our screens in 2011, Game of Thrones has taken us on quite the eventful journey. There’s been trauma, exhilaration, shock, and utter desolation. Across the 67 episodes (so far) we’ve seen heroes cut down, villains rise up, and winter arrive in force.
There’s no episode of the show that feels superfluous or dull, and in terms of consistency, Game of Thrones packs a hit-rate that’s up there with the very best box set TV. However, there are undoubtedly some episodes which stand head and shoulders above the rest. They had us glued to the edges of our seats, generated countless hours of discussion, and contained the decisive moments that make the show so special.
Here though are the ten episodes which made the final cut, and showcase Game of Thrones at its unmissable best.
10. The Watchers on the wall (S4 E9)
Game of Thrones had already done an epic single-location battle episode before in the shape of season two’s Blackwater, however they repeated the trick here to mesmerising effect.
The hatred between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings was a vital part of the dynamic in The North, and a violent confrontation between the Watch and Mance Rayder’s army was inevitable. As the Wildling army edged ever closer to the Wall, things were looking fairly bleak for the outnumbered men at Castle Black.
The Watchers on the Wall plays out as an all-action fight for survival as the men of the Watch do what they can to fight off the invaders. In terms of spectacle, it makes for quite the striking sight with the night-time setting and torch-lit lighting creating a particularly eerie atmosphere for the assault. Throughout the battle there are plenty of memorable moments, from Grenn’s huge sacrifice at the inner gate, to Alliser Thorne’s undeniably rousing speech, and Janos Slynt’s classic cowardly reaction to the onslaught.
The star of the episode though is Kit Harington’s Jon Snow. This was the episode that first positioned him as a leader of men and a fearless warrior-hero. His heavy-hitting duel with Styr, the Magnar of Thenn, was a definite episode highlight and throughout the battle he popped up repeatedly to help out his brothers and orchestrate the defences.
The episode is primarily an extended action set-piece, however there is also a moment of inescapable tragedy thrown into the mix as well. It was always likely to end in disaster, and sure enough the great forbidden love story between Jon and Ygritte came to a crushing and abrupt end in this episode thanks to Olly and his arrow. The scene where Jon holds Ygritte’s lifeless body in his arms while the action slows down and the battle rages on in the background was a touching end to their doomed romance.
9. The Mountain and the Viper (S4 E8)
The lessons of Baelor (season one’s penultimate episode) were once again hammered home in this episode as another fan favourite met with an abrupt and grisly end. He may have only arrived at the start of season four, but Oberyn Martell, AKA the Red Viper, was suave, dangerous and unmistakably badass. Viewers had a cool new hero to get behind as he sought vengeance for his murdered sister and her children.
When Oberyn volunteered to be Tyrion’s champion during his trial by combat against the Mountain, you could be forgiven for thinking that we might soon be witnessing him finally getting a degree of vengeance as well as winning Tyrion his freedom. In true Game of Thrones style though, we were set to be sorely disappointed.
The duel between the Viper and the Mountain was expertly choreographed and strangely mesmerising. Every blow and jab packed a punch as Oberyn whirled around his heavier opponent, repeatedly imploring him to confess to his crimes. Just when he seems to have gained the upper hand and the bigger man looks all but beat, the Viper let his guard down for a split second and The Mountain took full advantage.
Clegane knocked Oberyn down with a hefty blow to the temple, gouged out his eyes and then crushed his skull with his bare hands. All the while he was gleefully confessing to the murders of Elia Martell and her children. With this shocking, graphic and deeply unsettling onslaught of violence, Tyrion’s fate was set and we were shown once more that justice can be extremely hard to find in Westeros.
What made this episode so memorable is the sheer intensity of the fight itself, coupled with the genuine shock at its outcome. Not only did Oberyn die before avenging his family’s loss, but Tyrion’s get-out-of-jail-free card was unsuccessful and he now faced a death sentence after all.
8. The Spoils of War (S7 E4)
This season seven episode contains a number of enjoyable sequences including Arya being reunited with Sansa and Bran as well as Jon and Daenerys sharing a moment in the caves beneath Dragonstone. However the bulk of the episode, and the scenes that make it a stone cold classic, involve the exceptional battle known as The Loot Train Attack.
The action begins with Jaime, Bronn, and the rest of the Lannister army making their way back from Highgarden laden with Tyrell gold. They are nearly back within King’s Landing when they hear a strange noise rumbling in the distance. Seconds later an army of Dothraki screamers comes rampaging over the horizon, looking extremely excited for their first battle on Westerosi soil. Jaime and Bronn’s startled reaction to a horde of Dothraki was one thing, but it was nothing compared to the look of terror on the face of the entire Lannister army once they caught sight of Daenerys riding into battle on the back of Drogon.
What followed next was a blistering battle which was expertly staged from start to finish. Given how spectacular the fiery devastation wrought by Drogon looked, it’s unsurprising to learn that the show’s production team actually set a record for the most stuntmen set on fire in the process. The battle was a glorious spectacle and was truly cinematic in scope, managing to feel palpable and real despite the CGI required. The frantic ending involving Qyburn’s scorpion device and Jaime charging towards a wounded Drogon was also a nail-biting cliffhanger to close on. We may never have truly believed Jaime was going to drown, but it still made for an agonising wait for the next week’s episode.
Within the context of the show, ‘The Spoils Of War’ also served to demonstrate just how formidable a threat Daenerys now was, sending a powerful message to Queen Cersei and her allies. There was now no denying it by anyone in the realm; Dragons were alive once more and had returned to Westeros in force.
7. Baelor (S1 E9)
The first season of Game of Thrones seems like an incredibly long time ago now. So many characters have come and gone since those simpler times. In its ninth episode however, an incident occurred which set the tone for the rest of the show and changed the expectations of its viewers forevermore.
After being wrongfully imprisoned by King Joffrey, Ned Stark found himself in a bit of a bind. The former Hand of the King was languishing in a dark prison cell, brandished a traitor and facing the indignity of having to confess to crimes he didn’t commit. When you first watch this episode, you never truly believe Ned will lose his head. Once he is hauled out before the baying masses and admits his guilt, you naturally assume he will live to fight another day. However, with a gleeful “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head!”, Joffrey instead sentences him to die and in the process immediately cemented his place as the show’s most detestable baddie.
With a swing of Ilyn Payne’s sword, the man positioned as the central hero from episode one, the great bastion of nobility and justice in Westeros, was no more. In this shocking moment, a valuable lesson was learned by all viewers about the fate of honourable men on this show and for the first time we truly realised that nobody was safe on Game Of Thrones. It was also the first major blow landed in the Starks vs Lannister feud which would go on to claim countless more lives the next six seasons.
Elsewhere in this episode, we saw Ned’s heir Robb pledging to marry Walder Frey’s daughter as well as him masterminding the capture of Jaime Lannister. In Essos meanwhile, Khal Drogo lay dying from his wounds with Daenerys resorting to blood magic to try and save him. It’s an eventful and vital episode that proved to be a strong statement of intent for the show. The repercussions of Joffrey’s decision to behead Ned Stark are still being played out as the show nears its eventual conclusion.
6. The Dragon and the Wolf (S7 E7)
Season seven of Game Of Thrones was filled with amazing crowd-pleasing moments, and a large number of them came in this exceptional finale. Seven seasons worth of plotting, backstabbing and fierce rivalry began to come to a head as the beginning of the end was finally glimpsed.
The dragonpit meeting between the three rivals for the Iron Throne and their assorted retinues was a huge moment in Game Of Thrones history. It marked the culmination of countless storylines and arcs that had been gestating since season one. Tyrion was brought face to face with the sister who wants him dead, the Hound was reunited with what’s now left of his brother and perhaps most crucially, the three prospective rulers of Westeros got to size each other up in person. This meeting also demonstrated just how pressing the threat of the White Walkers has now become, emphasising that it was now far bigger than the fight for the Iron Throne.
In amidst the posturing and power-speeches of the dragonpit, the fraught private one-to-one between Tyrion and Cersei was a definite highlight. Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey demonstrated here precisely why they are two of the show’s MVP’s as they traded verbal barbs and let years of frustration and resentment pour out.
The Dragon and the Wolf was also the episode where we got to witness the long overdue death of Littlefinger at the hands of Arya, as well as a telling revelation with regards the exact nature of Jon’s parentage. In the case of the latter, this involved a vital Bran-related flashback showing that Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark were in fact married, thus making Jon a legitimate heir to the throne after all.
The finale of the episode was truly spectacular. After seven season of glacial progress, the White Walkers and their army of the undead finally made it to the wall. The sight of the Night King riding on his newly acquired Ice Dragon was a daunting prospect in itself, but when he proceeded to melt the wall to the ground with ferocious blue dragon-fire, it signalled the start of something all the more terrifying. Winter had truly arrived and Westeros would never be the same again.
5. Blackwater (S2 E9)
Continuing Game of Thrones’ habit of delivering storming penultimate episodes, season two’s Blackwater gave us a thrilling battle that showed for the first time just how cinematic the show could be. It was an episode filled with explosive action and cunning twists that put Tyrion Lannister firmly at its centre.
The entire episode plays out within the confines of King’s Landing as Stannis Baratheon’s fleet arrives in Blackwater Bay and proceeds to lays siege to the capital. Though the defences are clearly struggling at first, Tyrion’s cunning comes in very handy as he gives us our first glimpse of the destructive powers of wildfire.
Once Stannis and his men make it ashore, we soon see Joffrey retreat to the safety of the Red Keep in true cowardly fashion and the city’s defences are left in Tyrion’s care. He does some great work in season one but this marked the point for me where Peter Dinklage really rose above the pack and showed why he’s such a valuable asset to the show. He showed Tyrion had bravery and passion as well as the smarts we’d seen him demonstrate thus far. With the capital set to fall, he delivers a rousing speech to his bedraggled men that culminates with the immortal line, “those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them.”
The climactic events involving an attempt on Tyrion’s life and Lord Tywin’s arrival are great developments too, and every moment of an increasingly drunk Cersei being awful to Sansa is unavoidably great fun to behold. It’s a frantic and engrossing episode that deftly swung to and fro leaving you unsure how it would finally play out. Small-screen action had rarely been this captivating before.
4. The Winds of Winter (S6 E10)
Game of Thrones’ season six finale was the perfect way to close on a high and ensure everyone would be on tenterhooks until season seven finally rolled around the following year. It provided shocks, vengeance and violence, and also marked the first official confirmation of the show’s most enduring fan theory. So much good stuff happened in this episode, you couldn’t look away for a second.
We saw Jon being claimed King in the North, much to Sansa’s chagrin. We also saw Arya get revenge on Walder Frey in typically grisly fashion after she forces him to eat *that* pie. Plus we got to glimpse Daenerys making for Westeros at last, her army of allies in tow and several huge dragons flying overhead. There was also time for Bran to arrive at the Wall where he proceeded to re-enter his vision at the Tower Of Joy which saw us finally get cast-iron confirmation that Lyanna Stark was indeed Jon Snow’s mother after all.
Already that’s a huge amount of plot to cram in, but none of these events are even the episode’s most memorable incident. That accolade belongs to Cersei Lannister and her explosive act of revenge. From the moment we see her looking eerily calm in her chambers on the day of her trial, we know something huge is going to go down. What makes the scene so incredible though is the slowly escalating buildup of tension. The little moments like Lancel stumbling across the wildfire stash and Margaery and the High Sparrow both realising something’s wrong when it’s already too late, serve to ramp up the tension even further.
The enormous explosion which then duly decimates the Great Sept was the culmination of not only Cersei’s grand plan of vengeance she had simmering away ever since her incarceration, but also her full on descent into madness. After Tommen duly commits suicide at the sight of the devastation, Cersei pronounces herself Queen of the realm, and her rise to power is complete. Jaime’s concerned face upon his return to King’s Landing spoke volumes, and there was once more an unpredictable mad monarch on the throne that he was sworn to protect. It was an eventful and dramatic episode that forever raised the bar for season finales.
3. Hardhome (S5 E8)
The fifth season of Game Of Thrones wasn’t the show’s strongest by any stretch of the imagination. It did however still manage to deliver one of its most thrilling and nerve-racking episodes to date.
The threat posed by the White Walkers has loomed large over proceeding in Westeros ever since the very first episode. It wasn’t until Hardhome however that we witnessed just how powerful and dangerous they really were. The bulk of the episode focuses on the titular icy beachhead where Lord Commander Jon Snow and a handful of his fellow brothers and wildling allies are attempting to convince the remaining wildings to come with them to Castle Black.
The inescapable tension between both parties is broken in pretty intense fashion when the sound of barking dogs and ominous storm clouds signal the arrival of the White Walkers. The onslaught that follows is fierce, frantic and utterly unrelenting. At first we only hear the attack from behind the locked gates as those caught outside face their grim fate. Soon though the masses of wights are scaling the walls, swarming the encampment and tearing apart anything they can get their hands on.
After enduring what they can of the onslaught, Jon and a lucky few barely escape from the beach with their lives. As they make their getaway, the chilling sight of the Night King standing tall, his arms spread defiantly while he calmly brings the dead back to life, is now one of the show’s defining images. The ferocity of the assault hammered home just how pressing the threat posed by the Walkers now was. It was a breath-taking and vicious set-piece that served as a severe statement of intent from the Night King.
2. Battle of the Bastards (S6E9)
Even more so than in season two’s ‘Blackwater’, ‘Battle of the Bastards’ sought to enforce the message that war truly is hell. It thrust us headfirst into the mud and blood of battle and didn’t shy away from the brutality involved for a second.
The fight for Winterfell may not quite take up the entirety of this episode, there is a brief glimpse of Daenerys making short work of the Masters’ fleet in Mereen first, but as soon as the action turns to Jon Snow’s beleaguered army arriving at Winterfell, there’s no looking away.
Before the battle explodes into life, we first witness poor Rickon Stark being led out by Ramsay Bolton and instructed to run towards Jon’s forces. When his inevitable death finally came, it served as a cold-blooded starting-pistol for the bedlam that was to follow.
The battle which ensued was an incredible visual achievement on a par with any Hollywood blockbuster. The production team excelled themselves as they deliver a battle that is savage, unflinching and often harrowing. The bodies soon pile up out on the battlefield, but by far the most discomforting moment is when Jon and the remains of his army get penned in and slowly pressed together by Ramsay’s forces. It’s an unforgettable sequence with Jon finding himself slowly being crushed by the weight of his own dead soldiers as the panic and desperation sink in. The immersive camerawork plunged us right into the melee and offered a frightening glimpse from Jon’s point of view.
The battle is gripping to watch but also incredibly draining. When Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale show up just in the nick of time, it almost comes as a relief. Against all odds, the episode closes with the Starks back in Winterfell and Ramsay finally meeting the gruesome end he so richly deserves. It was a rare victory for the good guys on a show where cathartic moments are few and far between. Battle of the Bastards packed an incredible emotional punch and represented a show expanding its scope and reaching new levels of exhilarating action.
1. The Rains of Castamere (S3E9)
A lot of the other landmark episodes of Game of Thrones such as Blackwater, Battle of the Bastards and Hardhome, all centered on specific large-scale set pieces. What makes The Rains of Castamere stand out though is something far more low-key and sinister. It’s the creeping sense of dread that pervades throughout the entire episode and the incredible gut-punch ending that remains the most shocking moment the show ever produced.
Up until this point on the show, the Starks had been clearly positioned as the good guys who we were meant to instinctively root for against the rotten Lannister clan. Throughout seasons two and three, we saw Robb prove himself in battle and grow confidently into the role of King in the North. It seemed like merely a matter of time until he gained vengeance for his father’s death and wiped that annoying smirk of Joffrey’s face.
Book readers were well aware of what was coming next of course, but even a prior knowledge of events couldn’t fully prepare us for seeing it unfold. From the second “The Rains of Castamere” begins to play in the background and Catelyn notices the Great Hall’s doors being barred, you knew something was amiss. The next few minutes unravelled in a chaotic frenzy of violence and bloodshed. First a pregnant Talisa was stabbed repeatedly in the stomach, then Robb was hit by a hail of arrows before the rest of the assembled Stark bannermen were slaughtered en-masse. The moment that hits hardest though is the final shot of a desperate Catelyn screaming in anguish before having her throat slit open. As the action cut to black, viewers everywhere exhaled for what felt like the first time in minutes.
It was a visceral and violent sequence which took the lessons meted out by ‘Baelor’ and drilled them home in even more explicit fashion. Nobody is safe on Game Of Thrones. This was the event from the books which showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff have stated spurred them on to make the show in the first place, and it’s easy to see why. It was intense, breath-taking and utterly unforgettable. The entire direction and tone of the series was turned on its head as the “good guys” as we knew them were obliterated before our eyes.
The episode proved monumental not only for the show’s storylines, but also for its reputation in general. This was without question the episode which elevated the show into the cultural zeitgeist like never before.
Game of Thrones will likely return for its final season in 2019.