- 11Episode 610Directed by Miguel SapochnikThe Winds of WinterDirected by Miguel Sapochnik
George R.R. Martin published A Game of Thrones, the first book in his sprawling A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy saga, in 1996, and for the ensuing 20 years, readers obsessed over the mystery of Jon Snow’s parentage. Through five of Martin’s novels and 59 episodes of the show that those tomes inspired, the speculation and theorizing surrounding that question fueled an unrivaled shared fan experience. In “The Winds of Winter,” Bran returned to the Tower of Joy to uncover the truth, in so doing providing legions of amateur sleuths and genealogists with the clarity they’d craved for two decades: Jon is not Ned’s son; he’s Lyanna’s. The cut from baby Jon’s face to adult Jon’s face as he’s poised to be named the White Wolf and the King in the North instantly earned its place in the pantheon of shattering TV moments, the rare reveal that not only meets but exceeds expectations and that sparks as many new questions as it just answered. Jon isn’t the episode’s only new ruler, though: Cersei channels her inner Aerys, burning her enemies by blowing up the Sept of Baelor in a chillingly choreographed and scored sequence. As always, her miscalculations have grave consequences, in this case her son Tommen’s suicide. But as Littlefinger once said, chaos is a ladder, and Cersei climbs those rungs right to the Iron Throne, crowning herself queen. She won’t sit comfortably for long, though. After years of languishing out East, Dany finally heads West as the episode concludes, a new Hand by her side, and Greyjoy, Martell, and Tyrell ships in her fleet. Not even Frey pie can beat that.
- 21Episode 508Directed by Miguel SapochnikHardhomeDirected by Miguel Sapochnik
We can say a lot of things about this episode: how it was the first time that the audience really understood the stakes of the story; how it set the stage for Jon's assassination; how its awesomeness stabilized a generally substandard season. All valid. I would add this: The last 20 minutes are as blistering an action sequence as anything I’ve seen in films or television in the last five years.
- 31Episode 309Directed by David NutterThe Rains of CastamereDirected by David Nutter
“The Rains of Castamere” altered audiences’ expectations. Mind you, this is after Ned Stark's beheading at the end of Season 1, which at the time was the most notable NO ONE IS SAFE moment in television history.
This time, the ostensible hero wasn't just killed off; he was murdered in shameful, savage fashion along with his family members and many of his supporters. King Robb's lovely, pregnant queen, Talisa, was stabbed in the belly right in front of him. His mother, Catelyn, pleaded for her son's life and the answer came in the form of a knife, slicing open her throat. Robb's direwolf was speared to death, decapitated, and its head sewed onto his body. AND IT ALL HAPPENED AT A WEDDING! OVER DINNER! AT THE HANDS OF ROBB'S SUPPOSED ALLIES!
- 41Episode 209Directed by Neil MarshallBlackwaterDirected by Neil Marshall
“Fuck the Kingsguard, fuck the city, fuck the king” — but cheers to “Blackwater,” a cinematic-quality experience that redefined not only what was possible from a bottle episode of a series or an hour of Game of Thrones, but from the television medium itself. “The dwarf has played his little trick; he can only play it once,” Stannis tells his men following Tyrion’s wildfire ploy, but that pyrotechnic brilliance has played in our minds on loop ever since we first saw it bloom, as green and fierce as any dragon. Amid Tyrion’s stunning heroics, the traitorous sword thrust to his face is also a blade to our hearts, awakening us fully and truly to the danger his own family poses to him. To be fair, kinslaying appears to be in the Lannister blood: Cersei, in one of the show’s most haunting scenes, is on the verge of poisoning Tommen during storytime, dropping her vial only when the saviors arrive. The Hound may be able to flee from fire, but Cersei can’t flee from the truth: In dedicating her life to keeping her children safe, she developed something of a habit of putting them in mortal peril. In ways both explosive and hushed, this episode is an achievement. It is, as Joff would say, urgent business.
- 51Episode 109Directed by Alan TaylorBaelorDirected by Alan Taylor
Among its other magical qualities, Game of Thrones is unique on television because of its reputation as a show unafraid to kill any character. Throughout the realm, there is no Valyrian plot armor strong enough to protect even the most central of protagonists. Six seasons in, that’s part of the appeal, but back in 2011, viewers were entirely unprepared for Ned, the series’ first central protagonist, to die. “Baelor” plays with the common fantasy-genre expectation, too: Even with Ned, looking ragged and disheveled, in chains, Joffrey announces a possible plan to send the former King’s Hand to the Wall — and then he pauses, looks lovingly at Sansa, blinks, and declares, “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head.” Watch Arya’s face throughout this scene. Observe how the camera slows and the mics amplify Ned’s gulping breath in his final moments. You’ll see why — and when — Thrones became a cultural phenomenon.
- 62Episode 605Directed by Jack BenderThe DoorDirected by Jack Bender
So the whole Hodor thing is pretty messed up, right? In “The Door,” we finally find out what happened to the show’s friendly giant. After one of Bran’s visions goes awry, the Night King and several White Walkers turn up at the Three-Eyed Raven’s arboreal lair. In an attempt to escape, Bran wargs into Hodor, rupturing the gap between the present and past for Hodor (né Wylis), and inadvertently causing severe psychological distress to boy-Hodor, who from then on is able only to repeat a slurred version of adult-Hodor’s final instruction from Meera: Hold the door. So, to recap: Bran deeply traumatized a child and then forced that now grown-up child to die while defending him. It’s tragic, and it’s also more than a little bit messed up, even if it was an accident. (Like, whoops, a certain castle fall.)
- 73Episode 602Directed by Jeremy PodeswaHomeDirected by Jeremy Podeswa
JON BACK. There are so many critical plot points in “Home,” but most of them were forgotten the second Jon’s eyes flew open. The second episode of Season 6 is exactly as advertised: It’s all about homes. Jon reunites with his body, Ramsay starts his reign in the North by killing off his relatives, and Theon decides to journey back to the Iron Islands while his father, Balon Greyjoy, takes a walk on a rickety bridge in a storm and meets his end at the hands of his brother, Euron. Bran returns to Winterfell, if only through the Weirwood network, and sees a young version of his aunt Lyanna — a beautiful introduction to a character that will become crucial later in the season. And although Tyrion is not “home,” he makes friends with some dragons and spouts the quote that launched a thousand “saaaaame” responses on Twitter: “I drink, and I know things.”
- 81Episode 408Directed by Alex GravesThe Mountain and the ViperDirected by Alex Graves
This is an all-timer, a fantasy nerd’s dream come true: Two mythical figures — a monstrous killing machine in Gregor Clegane and a smooth-talking, poison-loving fighter in Oberyn Martell — going head-to-head. As a book reader, I could not have been more hyped for this episode, and it delivered with a near-perfect re-creation of a ridiculously entertaining duel. For much of the fight, Oberyn is cool and calm, and he eventually takes the Mountain down. He briefly tastes victory, but he’s there for vengeance, needing Gregor to confess his crimes against his sister, Elia Martell. It’s one misstep, but it leads to Oberyn’s gruesome death: His head is squished like a large piece of fruit. In typical George R.R. Martin fashion, just when you think your favorite character has a victory, it’s immediately taken away. Rest in peace, Red Viper. May your head be forever unsquished in the afterlife.
- 92Episode 402Directed by Alex GravesThe Lion and the RoseDirected by Alex Graves
It’s not every day that Twitter celebrates the death of a teenage boy, but that’s all I can remember after the original airing of “The Lion and the Rose”: pure, unadulterated joy that King Joffrey was finally out of our lives forever. This Lannister death was deeply satisfying, in part, because it was preceded with a relentless string of cruel, petty behavior. Joffrey chops up his uncle’s thoughtful wedding gift, tortures a fool for entertainment, uses dwarves to act out the recent deaths of his guests’ family members, and publicly humiliates Tyrion by forcing him to be his cupbearer. His demise begins with a pathetic little cough, and ends with him lying helplessly in his mother’s arms. Tyrion is immediately blamed, but an earlier conversation hints at the true assassin: “War is war, but killing a man at a wedding? Horrid,” Olenna Tyrell says to Sansa. “What sort of monster would do such a thing?”
- 102Episode 107Directed by Daniel MinahanYou Win or You DieDirected by Daniel Minahan
Shouts to this Season 1 episode for making it plainly clear how unfair the world of Game of Thrones is — watching Ned Stark’s honorable choices blow up in his face, as Cersei and Littlefinger brazenly circumvent the proper chain of succession, is an “aha” moment. But this episode stands out not for the ending, but for the beginning: Tywin Lannister’s stern speech to Jaime about the importance of the family name — delivered while skinning a deer — is a top-three Tywin moment.
- 112Episode 305Directed by Alex GravesKissed by FireDirected by Alex Graves
Though “Kissed by Fire” does feature a fight to the death between the Hound and Beric Dondarrion with a FLAMING SWORD, Robb Stark (stupidly) beheading Rickard Karstark, and some all-time maneuvering by Tywin Lannister, this episode should be remembered as The One Where Jaime Lannister Tells His Story. Sitting in a Harrenhal bath, his right arm newly missing a hand, Jaime tells Brienne his side of the tale that led to his nickname, Kingslayer. Jaime’s confession that he needed to make a choice between keeping an oath and saving innocent lives is the first time we empathize with him. It’s a shining example of one of Game of Thrones’ greatest abilities: presenting us with complex characters who do not land comfortably in classifications of good or bad.
- 123Episode 409Directed by Neil MarshallThe Watchers on the WallDirected by Neil Marshall
"Watchers" is probably the least celebrated of Game of Thrones' now-anticipated blockbuster episodes, but simply being in that category automatically lands it in the top 15 overall. Formidable as Neil Marshall's proved ability to fit an action feature inside a TV season may be, though, "Watchers" is largely remembered for one of the more emotional deaths in a series with an average of three-plus deaths per hour. Ygritte and Jon were likely doomed from the start, but having her die at a child recruit's hands — a child who'll eventually kill the other half of the couple, too, for completism's sake — is a particularly tragic twist.
- 133Episode 101Directed by Tim Van PattenWinter Is ComingDirected by Tim Van Patten
Pilots are often terrible, but Game of Thrones’ inaugural episode is a sprawling, gripping epic, introducing most of the series' main characters and conflicts. It’s stuffed with detail, but somehow doesn’t feel rushed. This is the result of meticulous retooling: The original version of the episode fell short of HBO's standards, so “Winter Is Coming” was completely reshot, and several key roles were recast, including Daenerys. Imagine Dany played by anyone but Emilia Clarke! I can't, and that's a testament to how assiduously Game of Thrones mapped out and populated George R.R. Martin's universe, right from the start.
- 144Episode 410Directed by Alex GravesThe ChildrenDirected by Alex Graves
After a head-smashing trial by combat and an epic showdown at the Wall in the previous two episodes, what else is left for the Season 4 finale? SO MUCH. Stannis captures Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall; Bran is tree-united with the Three-Eyed Raven; Dany chains two of her dragons; the Hound and Brienne savagely clash over Arya; and the man who supposedly “shits gold” is given a fitting end.
- 152Episode 510Directed by David NutterMother's MercyDirected by David Nutter
Every character strives to return to what’s familiar — sometimes at a great cost. For Theon, that means finally breaking free from his torture-induced alter ego, saving Sansa from an arrow to the face, and jumping off a very tall wall to escape Winterfell. Arya’s reunion was a bloody confrontation with the man who killed her sword-fighting teacher, which also angered the Many-Faced God and cost her her eyesight. Cersei confesses (some of) her sins to the High Sparrow, endures the saddest pixie cut makeover ever, and bares all in her walk of shame back to that high castle in the sky. But of all the bum reunion deals handed out in this episode, Jon Snow’s is the worst. He’s told a wildling might know about his uncle’s whereabouts, but when he runs into a crowd to investigate, all he gets is a bunch of daggers to the gut. Reunions have a funny way of going South on this show, just like weddings.
- 164Episode 609Directed by Miguel SapochnikBattle of the BastardsDirected by Miguel Sapochnik
This is, in my opinion, the greatest Game of Thrones episode ever, and it has the best battle scene in the entire series. The episode hits on three major Thrones themes: dragons, murder, and revenge. It’s dragons galore in the first half of the episode, as Dany and her crew attack the slavers’ fleet, with Drogon looking bigger than ever (I guess those offseason workouts paid off). Later, Ramsay kills Rickon Stark, a death that probably could have been avoided if Young Rick just zigzagged as he ran. The last 30 minutes are full of blood, guts, and a full range of emotion: fear when the Bolton army is constricting Jon’s crew; sadness when Wun-Wun, possibly the last giant, dies after taking an arrow to the eyeball; and happiness when the Vale army arrives, and Jon punches Ramsay’s face repeatedly. Finally, in perfect Thrones fashion, Sansa gets her revenge on Ramsay by feeding him to his own dogs.
- 173Episode 304Directed by Alex GravesAnd Now His Watch Is EndedDirected by Alex Graves
I’m generally annoyed by the way Daenerys breezes through any obstacle that comes her way, so her going on yet another uninspired “I am Daenerys Stormborn, etc., etc., etc.” speech before taking the Unsullied and burning the masters of Astapor is a low point for me. But the beginning of Jaime’s babyface turn (his hand was cut off in the previous episode), a classic Tywin scene, Varys finally revealing his backstory, and Olenna and Margaery Tyrell running wild more than make up for Dany’s unsatisfying conquest.
- 181Episode 704Directed by Matt ShakmanThe Spoils of WarDirected by Matt Shakman
We’ve seen Daenerys’s dragons in action before, but never like we do in “The Spoils of War.” Sure, Dany’s children have been in past battles: As infants, they burned Pyat Pree in the House of the Undying; as an adolescent, Drogon provided fire support during the sack of Astapor; in Meereen, at the end of Season 6, Rhaegal and Viserion (RIP, big boy) broke out of their kennel under the Great Pyramid to help Drogon set fire to the slave masters’ fleet. But this was different. We’ve never seen a dragon rain fire down upon a disciplined Westerosi army of archers and infantry, commanded by characters (Jaime and Bronn) that we truly give a shit about, in support of a horde of howling Dothraki. The lit-ness of the Loot Train Attack (#LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT TRAIN) was of such hype-inducing quality that many fans immediately after were talking about “Spoils” as a top-5 all-time episode. That’s crazy, but it speaks to Thrones’s capacity, even seven seasons in, to surprise and awe us through sheer spectacle.
- 194Episode 110Directed by Alan TaylorFire and BloodDirected by Alan Taylor
Goodbye, Khal Drogo — HELLO, MOTHER OF DRAGONS! In the wake of Ned’s shocking beheading in the freshman season’s penultimate episode, the finale birthed a new hero for us to invest in — and three miraculous baby dragons to boot. Also back in the world after a prolonged slumber: the King in the North title, awarded to Robb Stark in a scene as chilling as the events that fueled his rise (and that will come to fuel his fall). Robb’s siblings, meanwhile, are in dire straits: Bran is starting to grasp the power of his Three-Eyed Raven dreams; Arya is in hiding, pretending to be a boy and a Night’s Watch recruit; and Sansa is Cersei’s prisoner, forced (by Joffrey, who else?) to gaze upon her father’s severed head. Speaking of Cersei: Don’t underestimate the importance of the finale’s Lancel affair reveal. Jaime, now Robb’s prisoner, tells Catelyn in “Fire and Blood” that “There are no men like me; only me.” If only he’d known to say “And the younger, scrawnier version of me who’s going to bed my sister, find religion, and then betray her, thereby causing her to burn down half of King’s Landing.”
- 205Episode 104Directed by Brian KirkCripples, Bastards, and Broken ThingsDirected by Brian Kirk
The seed is strong! And so is this episode’s closing scene, a thrilling call to arms in which Catelyn Stark, suddenly face-to-face with the man she thinks tried to murder her son, solicits the assembled knights of the Riverlands to come to her aid to take Tyrion Lannister prisoner. Of course, Cat’s decision is one of the chief inciting incidents for the wars to come, a bold but hasty maneuver that will spark myriad other bold but hasty maneuvers. But that’s what makes it fun! Also fun: Meeting Bronn, Gendry, the Mountain, and Sam for the first time; hearing Littlefinger creepily tell Sansa about the Mountain and the Hound’s fiery history; and witnessing Ned and Grand Maester Pycelle discuss what Hermione Granger would surely consider a bit of light reading. Also, never forget that we got one of our earliest and best dragon intel downloads while Viserys was boning Doreah in a bathtub. Ah, sexposition.
- 215Episode 406Directed by Alik SakharovThe Laws of Gods and MenDirected by Alik Sakharov
Tyrion turns heel! "Laws" is home to three of the finest minutes of grandstanding in Thrones history (and boy, is there some competition there). Peter Dinklage does stunning work in showing his character's bitterness finally overtaking his pragmatic idealism, gleefully letting his long-repressed spite boil over into a truly vicious series of takedowns. "Watching your vicious bastard die gave me more relief than a thousand lying whores" is a burn for the ages. Oh, and it sets up Oberyn Martell's iconically grisly death as Tyrion's champion in a trial by combat.
- 226Episode 401Directed by D.B. WeissTwo SwordsDirected by D.B. Weiss
“Everything’s changed,” Cersei says to Jaime as she exiles him to the brother/friend zone, and she’s not wrong. “Two Swords,” the Season 4 premiere, reorients our Westerosi reality in a post–Red Wedding world. Sansa has finally realized that being a Stark sucks. We are introduced to Oberyn Martell, who stabs a Lannister 75 seconds into his debut and then invites Tyrion and Bronn to a good old-fashioned Dornish orgy (Dorngy?). But ultimately, this episode is about the Hound slaughtering a bunch of Lannister soldiers over some food. They should have just called this episode “Two Chickens.”
- 236Episode 108Directed by Daniel MinahanThe Pointy EndDirected by Daniel Minahan
Jon (re-)kills a wight, Tyrion bonds with Bronn, and Robb gains the respect of the assembled Northern lords with a dinnertime animal show. The best scene in “The Pointy End,” though, comes in King’s Landing, where Syrio Forel shows full-speed water dancing for the first time. He’s graceful with a wooden sword and utterly contemptuous of the oafs who dare attack him, and before he falls, one last time we hear: “What do we say to the God of Death?” “Not today.”
- 245Episode 603Directed by Daniel SackheimOathbreakerDirected by Daniel Sackheim
“My watch is ended,” the newly resurrected Jon Snow says as he resigns his post as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch (presumably because “This job sucks” isn’t a very Messiah-like thing to say). After Jon is reborn at Castle Black, we finally get a sneak preview of his original birth at the Tower of Joy, and with it an up-close look at Ser Arthur Dayne slicing up Stark bannermen like cheese on Cersei’s cutting board. The only thing in this episode more brutal to watch than Dayne being stabbed in the back of the throat is Tyrion trying — and failing — to get Grey Worm and Missandei to play a drinking game with him (a.k.a. the most awkward college-freshman-like exchange ever seen on Game of Thrones).
- 254Episode 306Directed by Alik SakharovThe ClimbDirected by Alik Sakharov
Ygritte and Jon Snow have basically the same relationship as a pair of horny teens fumbling around at sleepaway camp: They flirt by talking shit, pitch tents in more ways than one, and make out during deadly, scenic hikes. But their repartee isn’t even the episode’s best: Second place goes to Olenna Tyrell and Tywin Lannister’s exchange (“He’s a sword-swallower, through and through!” Olenna chirps of Loras, her grandson), while a conversation between Littlefinger and Varys earns the gold. “Chaos is a ladder,” Littlefinger hisses, channeling Steve Bannon and defining the entire Game of Thrones series more accurately than even valar morghulis does.
- 262Episode 210Directed by Alan TaylorValar MorghulisDirected by Alan Taylor
Thrones finales are for cleaning up the mess the penultimates’ explosions leave behind. Coming immediately after "Blackwater," "Valar Morghulis" is no exception, particularly since it has to shoulder some of the plot burden its predecessor shrugged off by focusing exclusively on King's Landing. That said, "Valar Morghulis" is surprisingly exciting, featuring the first of many dragon roastings, a rough comedown for Tyrion the hero, and the beginnings of Brienne and Jaime's buddy routine. Overall, it's an effective springboard for Season 3, one of Thrones' very best.
- 276Episode 608Directed by Mark MylodNo OneDirected by Mark Mylod
There’s plenty of strategic maneuvering in “No One,” but this episode also injects some necessary humor into a season that will only get heavier in its final two episodes. Early on we see Brienne and Pod chilling on horseback outside Riverrun, monitoring the Lannister forces surrounding the castle. “Looks like a siege, m’lady,” Pod points out. Brienne stares out over the field and responds, “You have a keen military mind, Pod.” From there we get some Pod-Bronn shenanigans, a Tyrion-hosted comedy night in Meereen, and a few sassy comebacks from the Hound. Although “No One” largely serves to tie up loose ends before “Battle of the Bastards,” we do end with one shining moment. Arya finally bests the waif and then mic-drops her way out of Braavos: “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell. And I’m going home.”
- 283Episode 509Directed by David NutterThe Dance of DragonsDirected by David Nutter
This is a compelling hour in which the pressure is on for several of the show’s female characters. Faced with a choice between duty and personal vengeance, Arya betrays her assassin’s code to exact unbelievably gruesome revenge on Ser Meryn Trant; Daenerys’s tenuous hold on Meereen breaks as rebellion rises (though, on the bright side, Drogon returns!); and in one of the show’s darkest moments, Stannis Baratheon burns his own daughter at the stake as a sacrifice. The penultimate episode of Season 5 is a brutal one, but it proves to be an important turning point in the show.
- 295Episode 310Directed by David NutterMhysaDirected by David Nutter
Following an act like the Red Wedding isn’t easy, and living up to the previous season finales — Dany and her dragons in Season 1, those White Walkers in Season 2 — is just as tough. The solution: the ol’ dick-in-the-box — always a crowd pleaser. This is an episode filled with desecration: the Frey’s mount Grey Wind’s head on Robb Stark’s body; Joffrey fantasizes about serving Sansa her brother's head for dinner; Ygritte fills Jon Snow’s torso with arrows. And then there’s Gendry, who avoids his own bodily harm by hopping on the slow rowboat to wherever. Bon voyage!
- 302Episode 707Directed by Jeremy PodeswaThe Dragon and the WolfDirected by Jeremy Podeswa
This finale was Season 7 in miniature: a rocky boat ride that felt likely to capsize at times but like a lover’s soothing embrace at others. It’s hard to feel fully satisfied after an 81-minute episode that gave us more Theon than anyone other than Ramsay ever wanted but robbed us of Cleganebowl, and that saw Dumb Plan (™) culminate in numerous Dumb Speeches (™ pending), but it’s also hard to deny that the show rediscovered its form during the thrilling final 30 minutes of “Wolf.” Littlefinger’s death didn’t undo a season’s worth of head-scratching Winterfell machinating, but it was inarguably poetic to see the story’s chief puppeteer finally, fatally caught in his own strings. The delicious Jaime-Cersei scene, meanwhile, was so heavy on Valonqar foreshadowing that it culminated with Jaime literally cloaking his prophetic murder weapon of a hand, thrilling book readers and theorizers everywhere. And yet even those scenes were B-side plot lines compared to two reveals 21 years in the making: the crumbling of Chekhov’s Wall under the dual force of Wight Viserion’s blast and our captivated stares, and the crumbling of the last barrier to full clarity regarding Jon’s (excuse me: Aegon’s) parentage. That this final, crucial piece in the puzzle of the show’s central mystery popped into place as Jon and Dany were popping into each other on a seafaring vessel was comfortingly familiar — Thrones returning to its unsettling and mesmerizing DNA.
- 317Episode 407Directed by Alik SakharovMockingbirdDirected by Alik Sakharov
In the episode in which Oberyn is named Tyrion’s champion for a trial by combat, Dany gets it on, and Lysa Arryn dies, it's an encounter in the Riverlands that stands out most. Normally when Thrones talks about death, it’s romanticized. Every God, king, lord, and serf has something to say about the end, often with an idealized tone. In “Mockingbird,” that isn’t the case. Arya tells a dying man not to be afraid of “nothing,” because "Nothing isn’t better or worse than anything. Nothing is just nothing” — right before the Hound puts him out of his misery. No kill we’ve watched is more matter-of-fact. The man’s death is a harsh reality in a fantasy world.
- 323Episode 205Directed by David PetrarcaThe Ghost of HarrenhalDirected by David Petrarca
THE MOTHERFLIPPIN’ SHADOW MONSTER COMES TO SAY HELLO! Or, uh, goodbye. The unleashing of the Red Woman’s murderous Shadow baby sentenced us to umpteen future scenes of Stannis “Boring Weirdo Who I Think Taught at My Middle School” Baratheon, but it also launched Brienne of Tarth’s allegiance to the Stark family. It signaled something new, at least for those of us who’ve never read the books: Magic is real in this world, and it’s in all likelihood going to be the thing that shapes how the kingdoms look at the end of all the mortals’ scheming.
- 337Episode 606Directed by Jack BenderBlood of My BloodDirected by Jack Bender
"Blood of My Blood" is one of those unglamorous midseason episodes — featuring check-ins with Arya, Bran, and of all people, Walder Frey — that does a lot of heavy plot lifting without many well-known highlights. It does, however, feature Sam learning to stand up to his asshole of a dad during a pitstop in the Reach on the way to the Citadel. Sam’s memorable lifting of his family's Valyrian steel sword lands "Blood" solidly in the middle of the pack in the rankings.
- 347Episode 103Directed by Brian KirkLord SnowDirected by Brian Kirk
The episode introduces us to Littlefinger and Varys, two characters who’ll make the King's Landing viewing experience delightful for seasons to come. It's also the first appearance of Arya's beloved sword-fighting instructor, Syrio, and a standout episode for Maisie Williams. It's almost like a second pilot, in that it’s extremely exposition-heavy. I will always hold "Lord Snow" dear to my heart because in it we see Tyrion and Jon Snow bond on the Wall, and I would watch a whole show about Tyrion and Jon being buds.
- 354Episode 208Directed by Alan TaylorThe Prince of WinterfellDirected by Alan Taylor
Everyone acts like an idiot in “The Prince of Winterfell.” Robb and Lady Talisa finally make out after she tells him a long-winded story about her brother almost drowning, which might have been a happy moment for people who hadn't read the books before watching the show, but for readers it was like watching people take the first steps toward their inevitable deaths. Theon preens around Winterfell, Cersei mistakenly kidnaps Ros instead of Shae in a failed attempt to punish Tyrion, Dany mopes about her dragons, Catelyn gets arrested by her own son for being such a nuisance, and Sam FINDS A MAGICAL HORN AND LEAVES IT IN THE SNOW. I recommend skipping this episode if you're doing a rewatch because it's tough to see everyone reaching their foolish apex at once.
- 368Episode 105Directed by Brian KirkThe Wolf and the LionDirected by Brian Kirk
Memorable moments abound in a solid mid-first-season episode. Tyrion makes his first kill, Ned and Robert spar, and Ned and Jaime star in the series’ first standout fight sequence. The long-gestating plot Arya overhears developing deep in the Red Keep’s dungeons is the episode’s most important element and provides a delicious rewatch.
- 375Episode 203Directed by Alik SakharovWhat Is Dead May Never DieDirected by Alik Sakharov
There’s some excellent scheming in this one: a pragmatic Margaery offers to let her brother fluff her husband if it will help produce an heir; a suspicious Tyrion, hoping to find the human leak in Westeros’s deep state, gives different information to various members of the Small Council to see which version of the story gets back to Cersei. (Turns out Pycelle isn’t just a laxative dealer; he’s also the mole.) The episode also includes an introduction to tha gawd Brienne of Tarth, poor sweet Tommen’s first lines in the series, and a tender moment between Sam and Gilly involving a cherished thimble.
- 386Episode 207Directed by David NutterA Man Without HonorDirected by David Nutter
This is a workhorse episode of Thrones, prepping for future events that will rock the series. Sansa enters womanhood, Tyrion continues preparations for Stannis’s attack, Ygritte’s flirtations with Jon become more explicit, and Pyat Pree invites Dany to find her dragons in the House of the Undying. There’s plenty of interesting wrinkles here, but it doesn’t have the “wow” factor of so many other episodes.
- 398Episode 601Directed by Jeremy PodeswaThe Red WomanDirected by Jeremy Podeswa
This episode is brought to you by misery, with instructions on how to wallow in it. The premiere of Season 6 finds our protagonists depressed by, and powerless against, their increasingly extenuating circumstances. After discovering that Jon is dead, Davos and Co. lock themselves in a room with his lifeless body, unsure of what to do. Jorah hopelessly searches for Dany (and her forgiveness) alongside her much more handsome suitor, Daario, all while itching at that nasty rash of Greyscale that will eventually turn him into a monster. Thoroughly shook by her false prediction that Stannis would prevail, the Red Woman takes off her choker to reveal that she’s actually a terrifying 10-million-year-old lady who just needs a long nap. The only two people with optimistic plotlines in this episode are those who had given up hope long ago: Sansa and Theon. Just when it looks like they’re doomed to be torn apart by the Bolton canine unit, Brienne of Tarth saves them and pledges her allegiance once again. As Sansa accepts, you can almost see a twinkle of optimism in her eye.
- 409Episode 106Directed by Daniel MinahanA Golden CrownDirected by Daniel Minahan
“A Golden Crown” provides the first instance of a viscerally hateable character meeting a gruesome end when Viserys gets his titular golden crown. (Just listen to the clank Viserys’s head makes hitting the floor.) Second, and more important, this episode unites Tyrion and Bronn. Tyrion’s trial by combat teaches us everything we need to know about Thrones: Gold talks, honor is overrated, and social mobility is all about killing the right people at the right time.
- 417Episode 204Directed by David PetrarcaGarden of BonesDirected by David Petrarca
[Extremely Stefon from SNL voice] If you’re looking for a classic Game of Thrones episode featuring all your favorite players, this is the one for you. Head to King's Landing if you’re jonesing for some Joffrey cruelty or a Tyrion monologue that gets Emmy voters all hot and bothered. Westeros’s hottest new club is Harrenhal. It’s got a Tickler, a Mountain, and a scene where good-guy-bad-guy Tywin Lannister befriends Arya Stark. Finally, across the Narrow Sea, a new club-promoting group called the Thirteen has the hottest place in downtown Qarth. This episode has all the things you love about Game of Thrones stuffed into 51 minutes of quality cable content.
- 428Episode 206Directed by David NutterThe Old Gods and the NewDirected by David Nutter
There are only a handful of moments when we get the satisfaction of Joffrey being completely humiliated, and none is better than a cowpie to the face quickly followed by a slap from Tyrion in “The Old Gods and the New.” Plus, a forbidden-love story is born as Jon Snow meets Ygritte the wildling in a botched beheading turned cuddle sesh.
- 436Episode 302Directed by Daniel MinahanDark Wings, Dark WordsDirected by Daniel Minahan
All I want is Jaime + Brienne. Braime. Jaimenne. They are so right for each other and yet duty/sororal libidos keep interfering. A lot happens in “Dark Wings, Dark Words,” principally scheming that’s going to end poorly for everyone soon enough — Shae mackin’ on Tyrion; Margaery giving Joffrey a Murder Boner (medical term) — but it’s the first real bit of heave-ho with Jaime and Brienne that makes the episode memorable. Jaime’s a jerk; Brienne’s too proper; but they agree even on this early occasion that love follows no rules and makes everything else look petty. Braime forever.
- 447Episode 303Directed by David BenioffWalk of PunishmentDirected by David Benioff
In “Walk of Punishment,” Podrick Payne goes from big ol' virgin to the hottest stud in Westeros, so it gets an automatic A. This is also where Dany meets Missandei and Hot Pie bakes a hilariously crappy direwolf bread loaf. It's not perfect, because Theon first encounters Ramsay (which means this is the beginning of Game of Thrones’ most dragged-out, grossly violent story line), but it has a hell of an ending — this is the last episode featuring both of Jaime Lannister's hands, and the final scene made me scream the first time I saw it.
- 458Episode 307Directed by Michelle MacLarenThe Bear and the Maiden FairDirected by Michelle MacLaren
This episode is representative of the third season’s up-and-down nature. “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is mired in Ramsay’s ongoing torture of Theon (this is the infamous “Theon castration” episode) and Daenerys’s aimless Essos conquests. But it’s also filled with moments of brilliance, like a delicious tête-à-tête between King Joffrey and Tywin (I miss thee!) and, most notably, Jaime Lannister in Peak Good Guy mode, racing back to Harrenhal to save Brienne from an angry bear.
- 468Episode 404Directed by Michelle MacLarenOathkeeperDirected by Michelle MacLaren
This marked a major turning point in the diverging Books vs. Show narratives: The eerie closing flourish especially, involving the Night King and a crying baby, was defiantly off-book, and helped cement the idea that this show was intent on doing its own thing. In Meereen, Grey Worm gives a big slave-rebellion speech (“A single day of freedom is worth more than a lifetime in chains.”) while Daenerys crucifies the slavers. There’s plenty of dour Jon Snow–Sam-Gilly-Bran–Craster’s Keep action, sure, fine. But the MVP is Jaime Lannister, managing the fallout from Joffrey’s death via a series of delicate conversations: with a defiant Bronn, an imprisoned Tyrion, an inconsolable Cersei, and most effectively a moon-eyed Brienne, who gets a new sword (Oathkeeper), new armor, a new squire (Pod!), and a new mission to hunt down Sansa. For Jaime-Brienne shippers, this is the Emmy moment in our cold, cold hearts.
- 473Episode 703Directed by Mark MylodThe Queen's JusticeDirected by Mark Mylod
The third episode of Game of Thrones' penultimate season packs a nearly unbelievable amount into a single hour—arguably too much. When you have Daenerys and Jon's tense first meeting, the seizure of two significant seats of power, the reunion of a pair of Stark siblings, and the death of a fan-favorite character all in one episode, how can you possibly pull them all off with equal panache? "The Queen's Justice" does a much better job of its juggling act than some other late-period episodes, essentially fast-forwarding past the taking of Casterly Rock and Highgarden to focus on Olenna's gloriously vindictive last hurrah. Still, the episode can't help but induce vertigo in longtime fans more accustomed to a steadier pace. Rest in peace, Queen of Thorns. You died as you lived: making the Lannisters' lives miserable, one zinger at a time.
- 484Episode 501Directed by Michael SlovisThe Wars to ComeDirected by Michael Slovis
This is the episode that gives us Cersei's flashback to Maggy’s prophecy — a move I was initially skeptical of, but it was handled excellently, setting the stage for the Tower of Joy flashbacks in Season 6. The other highlight of this episode: Jon shooting Mance Rayder in the heart as he’s being burned at the stake. Anything that foils the Red Woman’s barbaric acts of human sacrifice is a plus.
- 499Episode 604Directed by Daniel SackheimBook of the StrangerDirected by Daniel Sackheim
This is one of those sprawling episodes that mostly “sets the table,” but as Osha finds out the hard way after trying to seduce Ramsay, the knives on that table are super sharp. Dany coolly strolls through murderous flames, Margaery hears about the bad ol’ days when “The High Sparrow” was a description of her captor’s favorite orgy positions, some Stark siblings embrace, and we all wish Brienne and Tormund would, too.
- 5010Episode 102Directed by Tim Van PattenThe KingsroadDirected by Tim Van Patten
So the pilot ended with an incestuous brother-sister couple shoving a cute kid out a high castle window, and here you are, back for more. Huh. As you wish! Ned heads to King’s Landing and Jon Snow gets his first look at the Wall, gaping at it with his trademark erotic vacuousness; meanwhile, Joffrey sniffs through his first super-evil showcase, menacing Arya and a poor doomed “butcher’s boy” down by the river. In happier, or at least sexier news, Daenerys learns how to please her new husband Khal Drogo by speaking a little Dothraki. She also hones her bedroom wiles after hearing the inspiring legend of a famous courtesan literally named “Irogenia of Lys,” an early indication that this show would be trying hard, but not that hard. The episode ends with a comatose Bran opening his eyes as Ned slashes a direwolf’s throat — yikes — but it’s not like you weren’t warned.
- 5110Episode 607Directed by Mark MylodThe Broken ManDirected by Mark Mylod
All right! Ian McShane! Finally! He’s gonna do all kinds of rad stuff! Welp! He’s dead! Never mind! The Hound’s still alive and super-pissed, though, which is reasonable consolation; meanwhile, the show (and the internet) gains a new folk hero in Lyanna Mormont, the 10-year-old ruler of Bear Island, who thoroughly owns Jon Snow during his wan attempts to build an army for his attack on Winterfell. Otherwise, we’re a little stalled here: Margaery Tyrell butters up the High Sparrow, Jaime negotiates with the Blackfish in the midst of a castle siege that will definitely not end in anticlimax, and Theon and Yara get some drinking in before they head off to find Daenerys. The most alarming development: Arya’s endless battle with the Waif is finally winding down, which is to say that Arya gets stabbed in the gut a bunch of times and is left for dead. Relax, she’ll be fine. Eventually.
- 529Episode 201Directed by Alan TaylorThe North RemembersDirected by Alan Taylor
The War of the Five Kings is underway, and drama is everywhere in the Seven Kingdoms. Robb Stark is winning battles, newcomers Stannis and Melisandre come in blazing hot, and Tyrion returns to King’s Landing to begin his fabled arc as stand-in Hand of the King.
- 534Episode 702Directed by Mark MylodStormbornDirected by Mark Mylod
"Stormborn” is one of those scattered, twisty episodes that exist to shake up plotlines and test characters in unpredictable situations. Jorah undergoes a truly disgusting last-minute greyscale removal procedure from Sam, the budding dermatologist/maester. Melisandre drops in on Daenerys to hint that Dany could be the Prince(ss) That Was Promised. Littlefinger tells Jon Snow—for no apparent reason—that he loves Sansa. Grey Worm ... improvises when given a chance to get intimate with Missandei. And Arya alters her travel plans at the news that Winterfell is once again under her family’s rule. All of those surprises are topped off by a twilight sea visit from Euron Greyjoy, who embraces his supervillainy by raiding the ships of Yara’s fleet, taking hostages, killing side characters, and causing Theon—who is consistently terrible in high-stakes situations—to leap off the boat in terror.
- 549Episode 308Directed by Michelle MacLarenSecond SonsDirected by Michelle MacLaren
Sansa, who has been the victim of one long chain of tragedy and wickedness, finally had the fortune in “Second Sons” to find kind-hearted misfortune: Her new groom, Tyrion, opts not to rape her, which somehow comes across as an act of great kindness given everything else that happens in this world. The O.G. Daario, moon of my own personal life, makes his first, lock-flowing appearance, and we are all better for it.
- 559Episode 405Directed by Michelle MacLarenFirst of His NameDirected by Michelle MacLaren
Tommen is crowned King, Cersei and Margaery get passive-aggressive, and, across the Narrow Sea, Dany puts Jorah in the friend zone (poor Jorah). We also get a weird family reunion between Sansa, Li’l Robin Arryn, and Bizarre Aunt Lysa. They eat lemon cake together and stare at the Moon Door, like all families do in the Seven Kingdoms. Toward the end of the episode, Bran wargs into Hodor — forming Brandor — and Jon has a warm embrace with Ghost. If only we all had a direwolf or a Hodor to call our best friend. This is a solid Thrones episode, especially for people who love lemoncakes, odd family dynamics, and besties.
- 565Episode 505Directed by Jeremy PodeswaKill the BoyDirected by Jeremy Podeswa
The Sansa-Ramsay-Myranda triangle is the least compelling, most discomfiting relationship in which the show has invested. Everything that goes down in Winterfell in “Kill the Boy” is uncomfortable to watch — and not in a narratively engaging, Red Wedding–type way, either. It’s just hard to stomach, and it dims the appeal of an episode that’s otherwise fine, if largely transitional in nature.
- 575Episode 701Directed by Jeremy PodeswaDragonstoneDirected by Jeremy Podeswa
It's easy to look at "Dragonstone" and think that nothing really happened in the episode — that it was an hour of television with the sole purpose of setting up future hours of television. That's not entirely unfounded, but in a season jam-packed with plot point after explosive plot point, I actually find "Dragonstone" to be a breath of fresh air.
Arya killing the Freys brought a long-awaited retribution to a close, and I'll enjoy anything that gives us another Walder Frey scene. Not long after, she's kicking it with Ed Sheeran — a scene I will defend, even if most Thrones fans won't. It isn't often enough that the show gives us a look at the anonymous foot soldiers who die in senseless wars that protect only Westeros's nobility. Euron Greyjoy's arrival in King's Landing was bombastic, and the Hound's scenes with Beric and Thoros are the type of contemplative moments the show had no time for after this episode. Then there's Dany, finally arriving in Westeros with a five-minute scene that contains just a single line of dialogue: "Shall we begin?"
You think nothing happened in this episode? I can't say I agree.
- 5810Episode 301Directed by Daniel MinahanValar DohaerisDirected by Daniel Minahan
This is a great premiere episode that sets the tone for an amazing third season. We start with Sam and the remaining members of the Night’s Watch, who escaped death at the hands of the White Walkers. At the wildling camp, we get two classic scenes: Jon nearly soiling himself in front of a giant, and then foolishly bowing to Tormund, thinking he was Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall. Tywin continues to be a bad dad in King’s Landing, and Barristan Selmy pledges his loyalty to the Mother of Dragons in Astapor. Season 3 is one of the best, and this episode starts things off with a (mild) bang.
- 596Episode 502Directed by Michael SlovisThe House of Black and WhiteDirected by Michael Slovis
I had high hopes for Arya reuniting with Jaqen H’ghar, but her journey to that reunion was a slog, and this episode is where it begins. Meanwhile, Jaime decides to head to Dorne — talk about another slog. The only good moment is Lyanna Mormont’s forthright letter to Stannis ("Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is Stark”), a preview of her delightful inclusion in Season 6.
- 6010Episode 202Directed by Alan TaylorThe Night LandsDirected by Alan Taylor
Family usually comes first in Game of Thrones, but “The Night Lands” explores the messy dynamics that arise when characters form alliances outside their own clans. Theon returns home to Pyke dressed in fancy Stark attire, and his dad immediately questions whether iron still runs through his son’s veins. (Also: in the most twisted Punk’d stunt ever, Yara waits till after Theon gropes her to reveal she is his sister.) Meanwhile, Tyrion’s affinity for his Shae, his prostitute turned-lover, becomes a problem when Varys points out how easily she could be used against him. And north of the Wall, in Craster’s terrifying polygamist ice prison, Sam takes a chance on helping a pregnant Gilly. (Spoiler alert: It pays off big time.) Of course, it’s Jon Snow who discovers the most unholy arrangement of all: that Craster is sacrificing his newborn sons to the White Walkers, unwittingly helping them build a colossal army. It may be one thing to fall in love with a prostitute, but it’s a whole other one to help a dangerously ambitious ice king build a killer army from scratch.
- 6110Episode 403Directed by Alex GravesBreaker of ChainsDirected by Alex Graves
In “Breaker of Chains,” we’re post–Purple Wedding and shit has hit the fan in King’s Landing. Sansa escaped and meets up with Littlefinger, who promises her safety (which basically means nothing — words are winds, my dear Sansa). Joffrey’s death is mourned by nobody except Cersei and Jaime, and in Meereen, Dany launches barrels full of broken chains at the masters of the city to send the message that she’s there to spread freedom.
- 626Episode 706Directed by Alan TaylorBeyond the WallDirected by Alan Taylor
Somehow the episode that gave us an undead wight dragon is also the most lackluster and depressing penultimate episode the series has ever released. "Beyond the Wall" built up to a fight between the living and the dead, but neither the plot convolutions to get there nor the fight itself made a lick of sense. (Where did the Night King get all those industrial-strength chains? Why wouldn't he have just thrown his spears directly at Jon Snow? How did Dany travel across an entire continent that fast?) The visuals were spectacular, and the scenes with the band of bearded brothers getting to know one another were fun, but the plot's head-scratching holes made "Beyond the Wall" beyond disappointing.
- 637Episode 503Directed by Mark MylodHigh SparrowDirected by Mark Mylod
Good: Margaery taunts Cersei about how she boinked Cersei's youngest son.
Bad: Arya gets smacked by the Waif during her boring assassin apprenticeship in Braavos.
Worst (Like Literally, I Can't Watch It Again It Makes Me So Upset): Littlefinger callously hauls Sansa back to Winterfell to wed the monstrous Ramsay Bolton.
- 648Episode 507Directed by Miguel SapochnikThe GiftDirected by Miguel Sapochnik
“The Gift” is basically the appetizer leading up to “Hardhome,” which excuses the fact that it puts you to sleep faster than a glass of milk of the poppy. Admittedly, saying a Thrones episode is boring is like complaining that your Valyrian sword is dull, but when the most violent act of the episode comes from Tyrion, of all people, it makes for a subpar Sunday.
- 659Episode 504Directed by Mark MylodSons of the HarpyDirected by Mark Mylod
“Sons of the Harpy” suffers from an imbalance toward meandering and ineffectual plotlines, notably by introducing the Sand Snakes, the show’s most disappointing adaptations, who announce themselves with hyperintense dialogue to the point of parody. And look — I don't mind that Barristan Selmy dies. It's Game of Thrones; that's fine, it happens. I don't even mind that Barristan dies at the hands of untrained insurgent fighters thousands of leagues from Westeros; Jaime Lannister lost his hand to a random guy in the Riverlands, so again, it happens. What I do mind is that Thrones has proved time and again that it’s capable of staging a dynamic fight scene, but for Barristan’s last, it instead veers toward the schlocky and unimaginative.
- 667Episode 705Directed by Matt ShakmanEastwatchDirected by Matt Shakman
A lot of work goes into the big Game of Thrones battle scenes, and not just in visual effects, sets, costuming, and choreography. All the appropriate pieces have to be moved into position. Enter Tyrion, who comes up with the dumbest plan in living memory: Go beyond the Wall, take a wight—well, not alive exactly, but you get the idea—and bring it back to King's Landing so Cersei will drop this implacable grudge against her enemies and fight with them against the army of the dead.
But before Jon battles beyond the Wall in "Beyond the Wall" (Episode 6), he has to go to Eastwatch in "Eastwatch." And Jorah has to reach Dragonstone to show he no longer has greyscale, Davos has to dig up Gendry from Flea Bottom, and the crew has to ride to Eastwatch to grab Tormund, Beric, Thoros, and the Hound to fill out their raiding party.
The biggest payoffs in this episode are finding out that Cersei's having another incest baby, that Gendry is alive and well, and that fermented crab will decrease your refractory period—which is appropriate, because "Eastwatch" is less about what's happening in the moment than it is about setting up a payoff later.
- 6710Episode 506Directed by Jeremy PodeswaUnbowed, Unbent, UnbrokenDirected by Jeremy Podeswa
For a show with a notoriously checkered history in its depictions of sexual assault, this episode marked the point of no return. There's a case to be made for confronting the audience with Sansa's suffering by demonstrating the horrors of her wedding night at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. That the final shot of "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken" frames that suffering in terms of Theon's relatively minuscule discomfort is inexcusable. For many fans, this was a deal breaker — and who could blame them?