At its cultural peak, Game of Thrones was an unstoppable global phenomenon. With timeless characters, world-class performers, and a perfect narrative balance of medieval political intrigue and Tolkienesque magic, the show was able to ensnare even the most fantasy-averse of television viewers with awe.
Its first four seasons were universally beloved by fans and revered by critics. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss displayed mastery over George R.R. Martin’s source material as they faithfully adapted his magnum opus. However, signs of trouble arose during the fifth season, as the series’ plot began to surpass Martin’s published material. By the time the final two seasons aired, it was hard to deny a marked decline in overall quality.
Whether the blame lies more with Benioff and Weiss for rushing through the final seasons or Martin for leaving the HBO production team high and dry is still debated among fans. Despite these issues, Game of Thrones is still a singularly commendable television achievement, stuffed to the brim with some of the best episodes in small-screen history. In anticipation of the extended Thrones universe HBO is rolling out, we thought it would be fun to commemorate the show that started it all with a list of its best episodes.
10. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (S8E2)
Season eight might be the show’s worst, but despite its myriad flaws, it was the only time we got to see all of our favorite characters interacting in one location. A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms functions efficiently on multiple levels: it’s a character reunion, a tense calm before the storm, and most importantly, a heartwarming celebration of one of Thrones’ most honorable and just characters, Brienne of Tarth.
This episode proved Benioff and Weiss didn’t always need Martin’s source material to make an exceptional prestige drama. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to give similar praise to the rest of season eight, but we digress.
9. The Rains of Castamere (S3E9)
Every Game of Thrones fan remembers what it felt like to see this episode for the first time. After Ned Stark’s execution in season one, his first-born son Robb and widow Catelyn became our trusty avatars for Stark revenge. To steal them both away from fans in such a cruel twist of fate felt almost vindictive.
But since its first airing, the Red Wedding has stood the test of time as one of the most shocking and tragically inevitable plot twists in television history. It might not have the most replay value in the Game of Thrones catalog, but its importance and exalted status in the fan community are well-deserved.
8. The Laws of Gods and Men (S4E4)
The Laws of Gods and Men is like Better Call Saul meets Lord of the Rings. It’s a gripping trial sequence in the most unjust medieval courtroom ever devised. Peter Dinklage gives a career-best performance as Tyrion’s relationship with his hateful father and vindictive sister comes to a boiling point.
Tyrion’s innocence makes his father’s indifference sting even more, but the episode’s true gut-punch moment comes in the form of Shae’s cold betrayal. This episode finds Tyrion at his lowest point, but unfortunately for him, it just so happens to make for magnificent television.
7. The Watchers on the Wall (S4E9)
Whenever Game of Thrones opts for a bottle episode, you know you’re in for a treat. And The Watchers on the Wall might be the best in the bunch. Not only does this episode treat us to some of the most exquisitely mapped action set pieces in the series, but it also offers up one of its most heartbreaking death scenes.
Jon Snow and Ygritte’s relationship was the beating emotional epicenter of Thrones for three seasons. Watching it all end on the snowy grounds of Castle Black as the arrows soar was one of the series’ most tragic turning points.
6. The Winds of Winter (S6E10)
If we were assessing this list based on the sheer volume of iconic moments alone, The Winds of Winter might just be number one. Not only is season six’s finale home to Arya’s Frey pies and Cersei’s wildfire explosion, but it also confirmed a long-standing popular fan theory about Jon Snow’s true parentage.
With blistering action, methodical pacing, and triumphant character reveals, this episode masterfully sets the stage for the series’ end phase. Plus, composer Ramin Djawadi brings the house down with some of his most brilliant scoring to date.
5. The Mountain and the Viper (S4E8)
Game of Thrones always understood that fight scenes are only as engrossing as the emotional dynamics that underpin them. In The Mountain and the Viper, fan-favorite character Oberyn Martell finally gets his chance to avenge his slain family in single combat with the villainous Ser Gregor Clegane.
But it’s not only Oberyn’s revenge at stake in this trial by combat; it’s also the life of everyone’s favorite Lannister. In classic Thrones fashion, tragedy strikes right when it seems the battle is won. Of all the gruesome deaths in this series, none drill themselves into your eyes quite like Oberyn’s. No pun intended.
4. Baelor (S1E9)
The series’ first season is undoubtedly exceptional television, but it wasn’t until Baelor that it became clear just how much Game of Thrones intended to break the mold. For the first eight episodes, we follow Sean Bean’s stoic Ned Stark as our venerable traditional protagonist.
Until Baelor, the idea of killing off a character like Ned in a prestige television drama would be laughed out of the pitch meeting. This is the episode where Thrones came into its own in earnest. It fearlessly shuffled off the black-and-white morality of classic fantasy in favor of something much darker and tonally complex.
3. The Lion and the Rose (S4E2)
After punishing viewers with the tear-jerking bloodbath that was the Red Wedding, the showrunners had to serve up something we could cheer for – and fast. Thankfully, a quick three episodes later, we finally see the demise of the brattiest tyrant in fantasy history, Joffrey Baratheon.
But it’s not only Joffrey’s death that makes The Lion and the Rose such a memorable episode. The political scheming usually done in the shadows of the Red Keep finally makes its way to the light as different players attempt to further their interests at the debaucherous royal wedding.
2. The Door (S6E5)
Until The Door, it seemed as though Hodor’s inability to use any word other than his name would remain a quirky curio the series would never fully unpack. Oh, how wrong we were. This episode manages to deftly intertwine the supernatural and the emotional, resulting in a heartbreaking and awe-inspiring display of the full extent of Bran’s psionic abilities. Hodor’s tragic life and courageous sacrifice allowed Bran to fulfill his destiny. We will never see his like again.
1. Hardhome (S5E8)
Hardhome is Game of Thrones at its absolute best. It’s potent and expertly written, with laser-focused pacing and horror-film tension. On the first watch, there was no way to know just how wrong Jon Snow’s diplomatic mission to ally with the Free Folk at Hardhome would go. However, it doesn’t take long for the pieces to fall into place, as the White Walkers launch a full-scale attack on the small Wildling village.
Once Jon, his new allies, and his brothers from the Night’s Watch manage to escape, we finally meet the series’ true overarching antagonist: the Night King. When he raises his arms and the fallen combatants reanimate, we feel the same dread Jon Snow does as comprehension of his insurmountable odds dawn.