The Iron Throne ? what it was all for, until it wasn?t.
Game of Thrones came to me back in 2015, on my 21st birthday. It was just a TV show to me then, a collection of discs in a boxset ? now it?s a landmark event in my life. It saved my life, frankly. I extend my gratitude and my thanks to it, from this day until the end of my days. Its final episode has now aired, and my 25th birthday is imminent, and truthfully I?m in need of another show like it, one that?s capable of giving me a little purpose. But while it might not have any new episodes left to give me, it will never leave my life. I can map the last four years based on where I was, or where my life was up to, when I saw certain episodes for the first time (or the sixth time for that matter). I?ve formed new friendships and strengthened existing ones because of how much of a gateway show it is for the fantasy genre, I?ve started podcasts both because of it and about it, and earlier this year I fulfilled a personal dream of mine by interviewing one of its cast members. I am not the entertainment I consume, but this show tested that statement?s truth, and it will always be with me. So, goodbye, Game of Thrones. I wish you good fortune in the wars to come. Here?s every season, ranked from weakest to strongest as I see it.
WHAT FOLLOWS IS DARK & FULL OF SPOILERS. EXERCISE CAUTION.
Weakest (8th): Season 7.
Daenerys Targaryen in the Dragonstone throne room. (s07e03 ? ?The Queen?s Justice?)
Efficiency is here.
Story: BDelivery: B-
Now that the show is over, it?s reassuring to know that the season of Game of Thrones I consider to be the weakest was still consistently capable of producing powerful, entertaining television that constantly endeavoured to push back the boundaries of what could be displayed on the small screen. ?Blackwater? (2×9) and ?The Watchers on the Wall? (4×9) were fantastic battle set-pieces, and they remain two of the show?s very best episodes, but they were spectacles built for television, and their budgetary limitations were a sign of the hurdles the show had to overcome in its early days. Eventually, though, HBO realised the true potential of their product and subsequently loosened the purse strings, allowing it to become the ultimate home viewing experience. Since Game of Thrones first aired in 2011, the size of the average television set has grown from 34″ to 50″, and this season makes that clearer than any other. At the time, I?d never seen anything on television to match the sheer gargantuan terror achieved by the Loot Train Attack from ?The Spoils of War? (7×4). I doubt I ever will again. It?s easy to forget that you?re not watching a cinema screen as you see Drogon torch everything in sight during that sequence. It?s understandably regarded by many fans and critics as the series? finest battle.
But who would have thought, on a show with a reputation for featuring ginormous battles and flying lizards the size of a Boeing 747, that its increasing scale would be most obvious during its moments of quiet. The wonder of hyperlinks means I can simply show you what I mean. First, watch this scene from ?The North Remembers? (2×1). It features a war council, as Stannis Baratheon, Davos Seaworth, and Lady Melisandre sit around the Painted Table set at Dragonstone. Now, take a look at how the same Painted Table set is constructed and displayed in this scene from ?Eastwatch? (7×5), as Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Tyrion Lannister hold a war council of their own. If you didn?t immediately spot the differences, go back and focus specifically on how much of the set is squeezed into each shot across both scenes. This is an exercise you can carry out while watching scenes filmed in the great hall of Winterfell and the throne room in King?s Landing, too. As it reached its final act, Game of Thrones was the biggest show in the world in every sense of the word.
Now, the increase in scale would be for nought if season 7 had nothing else to support it. Spectacles are hugely entertaining and emotionally rewarding in the moment, but they need substance behind them, as well as years of waiting. Thankfully, the decision to increasingly narrow the focus of the story as it enters its final hours ? pairing wonderful characters with each other in the process, and watching them interact ? is another of its real strengths. So much of the momentum and drive of this season comes from anticipating those long-awaited reunions and first meetings, and the emotional pay-offs the show manages to conjure by delivering them are a testament to how rich and multidimensional these characters are. In its ?post-adaptation era? (so, roughly from season 5 onwards), Thrones is at its very best when it fully embraces its role as a fanfiction, both of George R. R. Martin?s source material and of the show itself. In other words, when it chooses to deliver moments fans have been hoping to see ever since 1996, when A Game of Thrones was first published, simply because it can.
?Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow need to meet and fall in love!? Well, moving ahead of the books has allowed the show to deliver their first encounter and develop their relationship. ?Lady Olenna has to reveal that she was behind Joffrey?s death!? No problem, the show has Jaime Lannister learn this news during the Queen of Thorns? typically abrasive final scene. ?Ancient illnesses like greyscale need to be cured!? With Samwell Tarly placed at the Citadel alongside Jorah Mormont, that?s now possible. ?All the major characters need to meet up and negotiate!? Well, the season finale is almost entirely dedicated to a scenario just like that. ?The White Walkers need to finally breach the Wall!? That?s the big cliffhanger leading into the final season. ?We need to see Daenerys riding Drogon into battle!? See: the outstanding previously mentioned Loot Train Attack. ?We need Gendry to come back so we know where he went after Davos set him free!? The show reintroduces him to the fold and reveals that he rowed to King?s Landing after all. ?We need to send seven of our favourite characters beyond the Wall to fight an army of 100,000 zombies!? ? Okay, that last one isn?t quite what we were demanding, and it?s probably the point where I should pivot to the criticisms. This is my least favourite season, after all.
I should clarify, before going into my problems with it, that I regard season 7 as terrific entertainment, and its weaker aspects don?t stop me from enjoying what it has to offer. Its problems are hard to ignore, but my love for the show means I find them to be easy to forgive. Fans have been quick to blame showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss for the weaker elements of the show?s later seasons, but I believe the situation to be considerably more complicated than that. The pair initially signed up to adapt five books into five seasons of television, with assurances that a sixth book would be ready to guide them to the finish line. George R. R. Martin has consistently failed to return manuscripts to his publisher on time, and, as of this date, the promised sixth book still remains elusive. With that being said, the decision by Benioff and Weiss to reduce this season to seven episodes gave them less room in which to squeeze their growing story, and exacerbated the problems heaped upon them by Martin?s consistent failure to meet deadlines. Once upon a time, Benioff and Weiss relied on the confidence they had in Martin?s story to hide their limited budget, but by the time of season 7 they were relying on an expansive budget to hide their anxiousness over being given complete control.
How season 7 reveals this behind-the-scenes anxiousness is through the lack of detail on show. That?s not to say this season has no detail whatsoever, but the episodes with detail on the agenda make up less than half of the season. ?Dragonstone? (7×1) and ?Stormborn? (7×2) gradually tease us into the season: they guide Arya away from vengeance and send her back home, and they show us how the North might stand a chance of repairing itself under the leadership of Jon Snow and Sansa Stark, as well as checking in with the Hound, who?s a little further in in his search for redemption. The plot that moves across these two episodes is where the pace of this season begins to struggle slightly against increased efficiency. Daenerys arrives at Dragonstone and begins to plan her conquest of Westeros, while Cersei quickly arranges alliances with both Euron Greyjoy and Randyll Tarly to level the playing field. Major plot developments that would usually take half a season of negotiating to tie up are secured as the show breezes through its bullet-point list.
Despite the quicker tempo, the first four episodes of season seven shift at a speed which is consistent with the comfortable compromise that season six found: plot efficiency was prioritised above detail, but the story alone was incredibly exciting and it was grounded in the history of both the characters and the overall story. The detail wasn?t a priority but it was present. Where season 7 buckles considerably, though, is the one-two combination of ?Eastwatch? (7×5) and ?Beyond the Wall? (7×6). This is just a personal view, but ?Eastwatch? probably contains enough story content to fill out three episodes, let alone one. The list of key events converge in this episode should have created a barrage of emotion for viewers, but the pay-offs are lost in the race, and the detail to support each key scene is lacking. And lets not even talk about the dreadful turn things take at Winterfell, where the animosity between Arya and Sansa feels incredibly sudden, completely uninvited, and comes about because of some pretty unforgivable contrivances. Too much happens in order for viewers to appropriately digest the episode. ?Beyond the Wall? is entertaining and dramatic in isolation, but the obfuscation of time and space in that episode ? which has since been revealed as a deliberate writing choice ? unfortunately drags it down. It leaves you questioning too much about how it pieces together to simply let it wash over you, and it makes the decision to shave so much time from the conclusion of this story feel like a regretful one. And again, the tension between Arya and Sansa is just? unusual.
The strongest features of season 7 return in excellent fashion, though, as it draws to a close, and reminds viewers of a wonderful truth: that the latter seasons of this show are capable of producing television that is as powerful and grandiose as it is elegant and composed. ?The Dragon and the Wolf? (7×7) returns to the pace of the first two episodes and brings the penultimate season to a close in confident fashion. Our various heroes and villains meet to break the deadlock and secure an alliance to defeat the dead. The episode dedicates half of its 80-minute duration to this tense negotiation between warring factions, which contains several internal acts of its own, before settling into a comfortable cadence ? at least until the Night King breaches the Wall. Season 7 is flawed, heavily in a few aspects, but the majority of its episodes use its quickened pace to tell an exciting story, utilise the show?s status as a fanfiction of the epic tale to bring about character interactions and emotional pay-offs which had been promised for more than two decades, and reminds everybody watching that, during its run, there really was no other show on television quite like it.
Best Sequence: The Loot Train Attack. It needs little more saying about it. Just go ahead of watch the scene again.
MVP: Kit Harington, who confirms that he can in fact lead this show. He?s opposite a whole host of new co-stars during this season, and he works hard to communicate Jon?s desperation to unite the Seven Kingdoms and face the White Walkers as one. He sells Jon?s love for Daenerys, he sells Jon as the ?honourable fool? whose honesty breaks the fragile truce between Cersei and Daenerys, and he sells himself as a brilliant stunt swordsman like always.
7th: Season 8
Bran Stark sits by the weirdwood tree in the Winterfell godswood. (s08e02 ? ?A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms)
Winter comes and goes.
Story: A-Delivery: B
I?ve never been envious of David Benioff and Dan Weiss. As it was explained in the recap of season 7 (above), the Game of Thrones showrunners signed up in 2008 to adapt George R. R. Martin?s A Song of Ice and Fire novels with assurances that, by the time they?d finished adapting the fifth book in the series, the sixth book would be published to guide them to the finish line. As anybody who watches the show will now be aware, this didn?t come to pass. Instead, Benioff and Weiss were tasked with not only taking complete control of the story after Martin failed to meet numerous deadlines, but with making sure a cultural event the size of Game of Thrones stuck its landing. That?s not an enviable position to be in. Season 7 was hugely entertaining and a respectful, exciting continuation of a wonderful story that Benioff and Weiss deserve credit for visualising, but its storytelling priorities differed from the six previous seasons and some fans found such a change to be uncomfortable. So, when season 8 rolled around and fans remembered that it would contain fewer episodes than ever before, fans were anxious that the show would double-down on the weaker aspects of its penultimate season. Not only was the world watching Benioff and Weiss? final outing as Game of Thrones showrunners, it was waiting to see whether they would fail. When asked where they would be when the final episodes aired, the pair simply responded: ?We plan to be very drunk and very far away from the Internet?. I completely sympathise. The ground underneath every final season of all TV shows is significantly shakier simply because the major decisions can never be reclaimed or retconned. Once something is set in concrete for a character during a final leg of a story, that?s it. There is no turning back. Knowing this, it makes it seem like an increasingly bizarre decision for the creators to give themselves even less breathing room to bring everything to a complete close. And the truth is that season 8 does suffer from the same issues that hampered season 7, but thankfully nowhere near as much. The pace at which the story moves during these final six episodes does force the audience to fill in some gaps themselves, but the sheer effort on the part of the cast and crew makes that job significantly easier. Do yourself and favour and watch through all of HBO?s The Game Revealed series on YouTube, as well as Jeanie Finlay?s The Last Watch. Just when you thought season 7 was the largest thing you?d ever seen on a television screen, season 8 came along and stepped it up further. The production team went above and beyond to create a grand, immersive universe in season 7; I?m struggling to find words to describe the physical effort exerted by everybody involved in this production to make season 8 a reality. Ever since the overwhelmingly positive reaction to ?Hardhome? (5×8), I believe Benioff and Weiss have constantly tried to outdo themselves, and the people tasked with bringing their vision to life have constantly matched these expectations. ?Battle of the Bastards? (6×9) soon followed, and then came ?The Spoils of War? (7×4). In season 8, though, two episodes might just have redefined how much is possible in television production. ?The Long Night? (8×3) and ?The Bells? (8×5) don?t behave like episodes of a TV show, they are blockbuster films that just so happened to make up a third of the final season. Before we reach its big battles, however, the final season opens with a pair of episodes that allow us to say our goodbyes. ?Winterfell? (8×1) might make it a little too obvious that it?s opening the show?s final lap, with a lot of admittedly stilted dialogue exchanged between various characters who remind both themselves and the audience of their previous meetings. But it?s still a sweet hour that?s built by reunions of all kinds, not only between the characters we love but for the audience and show itself. It?s ?A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms? (8×2), though, where things get really teary, as Bryan Cogman brings Winterfell to life. The Stark homestead has been the very centre of the show since its pilot episode. It?s why we wept to see it burnt out in the opening credits during season 3, and why it hurt to see Bolton banners flying above it until season 6 drew to a close. Cogman understands the vulnerability and intimacy of the people at the centre of this massive story, and he uses Winterfell?s walls to enhance the connections they form in what felt like its final hours at the time. It?s one of the show?s best episodes. I say ?what felt like its final hours at the time? because the very next episode, ?The Long Night?, promises death and destruction that?s stopped in its tracks before its effects can truly be felt. Before its final season began, Game of Thrones had a choice to make: its ultimate villain could be A) the Night King, B) a combination of the Night King and Cersei, or C) just Cersei. Option A would have drawn criticism for forgetting that the show is called ?Game of Thrones?, option B might have been too much to juggle, so the showrunners ? presumably for economic storytelling reasons ? chose option C. Doing meant prematurely resolving a supernatural threat which had been coming since the show?s very first scene, but in isolation ?The Long Night? is an incredible feat of television production. As an episode of television, it?s a lengthy, arduous slog of clanging swords, spilled blood, unbearable tension, incessant grunting, thick mud, hopeless despair, intolerable fear, and inescapable horror that director Miguel Sapochnik handles well. Watch The Game Revealed and the segment of The Last Watch dedicated to this episode and you?ll see that ?lengthy, arduous slog? could be applied to the fifty-five consecutive night shoots required to bring this battle to life. As I said, the production team went above and beyond. The pacing of both plot and character development becomes slightly problematic in the aftermath of this battle, however. ?The Last of the Starks? (8×4) is one of the longest episodes in the entire series but the story content that passes by in its 78 minutes could have easily filled more than double that. The whiplash effect is nowhere near as severe as season 7?s ?Eastwatch?, though, perhaps because ?The Last of the Starks? is a full twenty minutes longer. Personally, as much as I believe this episode belongs in the bottom half of any series ranking, I don?t find the speed to be much of an issue. The main problem I had with the rushed elements of season 7 was that the lack of detail often led to conclusions that I couldn?t wrap my head around ? I still don?t understand why Tyrion and Jon thought the plan to head out beyond the Wall was good strategy, but as far as I?m concerned the show has provided me with enough evidence to believe that Daenerys would snap, as much as her downfall occurs in maybe a quarter of the time it should. I?ve tried to avoid talking about the vitriolic backlash directed towards the back half this final season, but I?ve found that it?s informed my overall view of the season: I appreciate the criticisms, and I even agree with some of them, but the extent to which I do seems to differ greatly. ?The Bells?, another Sapochnik-helmed horror session, as Daenerys? downfall is completed against a backdrop of fire, ash, and genocide, provides more clarity to this viewpoint I hold. It contains elements that I find to be a little frustrating ? they?re mostly centred around the speed at which its various turns and conclusions are reached ? but the overall viewing experience is a spectacular, visceral nightmare, and elevates the episode?s quality. Similar could be said for the season and series finale, ?The Iron Throne?, which does ask the audience to fill in the details over the larger story ? but I?m willing to do that when the conclusions presented make sense. Why not kill Daenerys? She?s lost her mind. Why not have Brandon Stark as king? The guy can literally see everything. Why not send Jon to the Wall? It?s where he belongs. Why not make the North an independent kingdom? It?s what Robb Stark fought for in seasons two and three. And therein lies my main defence of this final season: it might have reached its end point a little hurriedly, but at least its end point felt suitable and appropriately judged. Its final decisions made sense. Season 7 also suffered from reaching its various bullet points at an increased pace, which diminished the overall emotional impact of doing so, but those problems felt so damaging because the conclusions needed more than just details to be filled in. Season 8 admittedly relied on the audience being aware of characters histories and foreshadowing from previous seasons to fill in those details, but there was at least a sliver of evidence behind, say, Jaime returning to Cersei, or Daenerys? decision to raise King?s Landing to the ground. Beyond childish squabbling in season one, there?s nothing to suggest that Arya might want to kill Sansa, and while Jon ranged beyond the Wall in a small group during season two, there?s nothing to suggest that stealing a wight is good strategy. So yes, season 8 is flawed, but compared to season 7 its ability to tell an exciting, compelling story is much improved. Best Sequence: Jaime Lannister knights Brienne of Tarth in a gorgeous, tender scene that proves to be the true culmination of their story together. There?s something of an epilogue in ?The Last of the Starks?, as Jaime realises he doesn?t deserve a new life of happiness with Brienne, but the moment Brienne finally allows herself to smile and reveal her emotions to a room full of people, after seven seasons of being so emotionally guarded, is truly beautiful. She was finally happy. Bryan Cogman really knocked it out of the park with ?A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms?, and this moment was its crowning jewel. MVP: Emilia Clark. This choice is admittedly affected by the story that emerged just before the season aired, as Emilia revealed her shocking history of medical complications brought on by not one but two brain aneurysms. As a character, Daenerys Targaryen turns on a knife-edge in the final season, and Emilia communicates every second of her emotional turmoil. She discovers that the man she loves is a threat to her claim, she unexpectedly loses one of her children and her closest adviser (Jorah), and without said adviser to temper her worst impulses, she commits genocide and loses her mind, leaving her to be killed by the man she believed to be her destiny. Emilia is there to communicate Daenerys? inner monologue with every beat of her performance, and she holds her character?s storyline together throughout.
6th: Season 5
Jon Snow battles with a White Walker at Hardhome. (s05e08 ? ?Hardhome?)
Act two begins.
Story: B+Delivery: B+
George R. R. Martin has implied in the past that the infamous ?Red Wedding? brought the first act of his A Song of Ice and Fire series to a close. It provided the strongest example of Martin?s ruthlessness as a storyteller and completely shifted the focus of his story, so he?s right to say that. In the world of the show, however, devastating and influential as the Red Wedding was, the true end of the first act is ?The Children? (4×10). Across the series, two specific episodes cut to black and linger before the credits roll while a variation of Ramin Djawadi?s ?The Children? plays over the final frames. One is the series finale, ?The Iron Throne? (8×6), as Game of Thrones cuts to black forever. The other is when Arya sails towards Braavos in the final seconds of season 4. That?s definitive, as far as I?m concerned. Sorry, George, I love the Red Wedding (as much as anyone can do), but the show is a different story and its first act ended a little later. What that meant for season 5, though, was that it had to start from scratch. Welcome to what I call the ?post-adaptation? era of Game of Thrones (as opposed to the ?adaptation era? of the first four seasons). Season 4 killed off so many important characters who had defined the series and captivated viewers up to this point. Joffrey, Oberyn, Tywin, Ygritte, Shae, the Hound (or so we thought), even Jojen, Grenn and Pyp, all gone. It was down to those who remained to do the heavy lifting. Behind the scenes, the showrunners moved quickly. Directors who had been series regulars up to this point, such as Alex Graves, Alik Sakharov, and Michelle MacLaren were never to be seen again, replaced by new faces who would come to define the grander, larger look of the new era. Miguel Sapochnik, Jeremy Podeswa, and Mark Mylod made their first appearances in the show?s credits, and they brought with them a vision for the show which gradually transformed it. In front of the cameras, the show began to treat certain characters differently, too. After testing Jon Snow?s (and Kit Harington?s) hero-heartthrob potential in the previous two seasons, as his romance with Ygritte became a central conflict, they were now ready to make him the unquestionable lead. If you were to ask the majority of Game of Thrones fans which of its eight seasons they consider to be their least favourite, it?s likely that season 5 would top the poll, perhaps pipping season 8 to the post. The decision to merge Sansa Stark?s storyline with that of book character Jeyne Pool lead to controversial plot points which would bring the show?s treatment of its female characters into question. The speed of the first seven episodes caused accusations of ?wheel-spinning?. Say the word ?Dorne? loudly enough and you?ll attract an angry horde. And as the show moved beyond the books for the first time, Stannis Baratheon?s downfall proved to be an especially unwelcome progression for a number of fans. If you?re someone who believes the above criticisms to be legitimate reasons for why season 5 was a particularly bad viewing experience I?d skip the rest of this recap, because I love season 5. Not ?despite its flaws? like I do seasons 7 and 8. No, I really, honestly adore it. Sure, it?s not perfect (I promise we?ll get to that), but I?m of the belief that if you love the characters in this show, then season 5 is one of the best ? and last ? chances you?ll get to really live with them. The season also has three acts which are easy to define. Act one starts with ?The Wars to Come? (5×1) and ends with ?Sons of the Harpy? (5×4), act two starts with ?Kill the Boy? (5×5) and ends with ?The Gift? (5×7), while act three starts with ?Hardhome? (5×8) and finishes with the season finale, ?Mother?s Mercy? (5×10). The first act spends time assessing where this story?s various characters are supposed to turn in the wake of the climax of season 4, the middle act slows down significantly as the central players begin to act on the decisions they made in the first four episodes, and the final act brings things to a head in devastating fashion. The final act of season 5 is the darkest, bleakest, and cruellest Game of Thrones ever got ? the overriding feeling is one of inescapable misery. Shireen Baratheon is burned to death as Stannis? campaign collapses; the massacre at Hardhome sees the Army of the Dead land a decisive victory; Daenerys is forced to flee Meereen in desperation; Cersei?s walk of atonement is brutal and protracted; Arya descends into vengeful madness; and Jon Snow is stabbed to death for trying to do the right thing. This is truly the fall before the rise. Before the final act can bring each of season 5?s separate plot threads to devastating climaxes, however, the groundwork has to be laid. One of my favourite character pairings of the entire series defines the earliest scenes at Castle Black, as Jon Snow meets Stannis Baratheon. It?s a timely meeting, too, as Jon is named Lord Commander of the Night?s Watch while Stannis tutors him in leadership. Their scenes together have such a wonderful master-apprentice dynamic that carefully teases at Jon?s progression, and impacts his decision making as the story continues. Elsewhere, Tyrion?s nihilistic misery ? brought on by him having to murder Tywin and Shae ? sees him taken by Ser Jorah to Daenerys. Their scenes together as they sail around the south coast of Essos have endless re-watch value for me. They meet in ?High Sparrow? (5×3), which is the season?s second-best episode (we?ll get its best episode soon). It?s an episode that introduces its titular character and features memorable scenes between Lady Brienne and Podrick in the North, Margaery Tyrell and Cersei in King?s Landing, Sansa and Petyr Baelish at Moat Cailin, and the moment Jon Snow finally beheads that snivelling piece of shit Lord Janos. It?s watching episodes like this that leaves me completely dumbfounded when I see such intense criticism of season 5 online. I?m less dumbfounded, however, as we enter the middle act of the season. Each episode from the middle third of the season suffers from the same issue. Slowing down for character-focused episodes isn?t the problem, it?s that the characters chosen simply aren?t as exciting as some of their series counterparts. Roose and Ramsay Bolton are at their best opposite characters we love as opposed to each other, and a lot of screen time is dedicated to Hizdahr zo Loraq and Grey Worm. These episodes are still entertaining but they lack a certain narrative thrust because of the characters given the heft of the action. And I?m not qualified to properly discuss the decision to have Sansa?s traumatic wedding night expressed through Theon?s experience of it, but do know that I understand the criticism the scene received. Rest assured, as well, that my least favourite scene in the entire show occurs during ?Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken? (5×6), as a clumsily staged scuffle between Jaime and Bronn and the Sand Snakes occurs. During a stealth mission. In broad daylight. The fight itself has no sense of space, either, and the choreography feels clunky to boot. It?s a shame, too, because while the events in Dorne aren?t amongst my favourites of the series, the plotline does focus on the impact of Oberyn?s death in his homeland, and it lays the groundwork for the audience to sympathise with Jaime Lannister. It?s the final leg of this season, though, where the show delivers what might be its strongest 1?2?3 punch: ?Hardhome?, ?The Dance of Dragons? (5×9), and ?Mother?s Mercy?. ?Hardhome? contains Tyrion?s first real conversations with Daenerys, as she reveals her desire to break the wheel, before dedicating the last twenty minutes to the Army of the Dead?s massacre at Hardhome ? the finest sequence in the show?s entire run. It?s the first time you can see the show?s expanded budget and increasing scope, and Miguel Sapochnik?s direction of this episode landed him the gig to direct ?Battle of the Bastards?, ?The Winds of Winter?, ?The Long Night?, and ?The Bells?. In ?The Dance of Dragons?, Daenerys boards Drogon for the very first time and she flees the scene of another massacre in Meereen, and Stannis Baratheon puts the final nail in his own coffin, burning his daughter Shireen alive in a futile attempt to better his chances of defeating the Boltons ? if the Hardhome massacre was the show?s best sequence, Shireen?s death is its darkest. ?Mother?s Mercy? brings out some of the show?s greatest, most miserable hits, too, as Cersei endures her walk of atonement, Stannis finally meets his end, Arya slaughters Meryn Trant, and Jon Snow is betrayed by his Night?s Watch brothers for trying to make peace with the wildlings. In three episodes, the show serves up enough emotionally devastating moments to rival the Red Wedding that ended the first act of George R. R. Martin?s original version of this story.
To summarise, season 5 begins as a patient character study in response to the climactic events that closed out season 4. Then, after a brief lull and one controversial episode (which is actually great outside of two scenes!), it delivers three episodes of devastating, challenging, harrowing television that pushes the show into a new era. This is the first season to go beyond the books and ride without stabilisers, and the plotlines that do stretch out beyond Martin?s source material are predominantly successful. There are a few clunky steps on occasion (mainly in Dorne), but Tyrion?s adventures with Daenerys are excellent once he?s in her presence, Stannis? downfall is accelerated but necessarily so, and the reasons behind Arya being blinded by Jaqen work better as a punishment. This is a strong season, perhaps the most underrated season. It had such an enormous amount of work to do to build the second act of this story after season 4, and considering the show eventually reached an end that satisfied me, I have to say it more than completed that job. Best Sequence: It almost goes without saying. It?s obviously Hardhome. ?The Night King and his White Walkers attack the wildling port of Hardhome in a blistering wave of destruction that leaves every living thing either dead or fleeing at tremendous speeds. It?s a frightening sequence that?s punctured with decisive moments for the story, as Jon?s Valryian steel sword Longclaw blocks a Walker?s ice spear before killing said Walker, and emotional character beats, as we?re introduced to the feisty and determined wildling Karsi, only to have her taken from us by a group of undead children. It?s post-adaptation Thrones at its absolute peak.?
MVP: Miguel Sapochnik. For the Hardhome massacre, for really defining the future of this show with little more than a twenty-minute sequence. What an episode, what a sequence.
5th: Season 2
Tyrion Lannister oversees the defence of King?s Landing (s2e09 ? ?Blackwater?).
The calm before the storm.
Story: B+Delivery: A-
Game of Thrones? fifth season had to do a significant amount of heavy lifting, perhaps more than any other season, but that?s not say previous seasons of the show didn?t either. Say hello to season two ? the season tasked with the difficult job of convincing viewers to keep faith in a show which had just wiped out its protagonist. Having said that, I personally know people who were too broken by the Red Wedding to carry on ? it?s like that the death of Ned Stark in the show?s first season encouraged viewers to stick around if only to see how the show behaved in the fallout. It did so by fleshing out the vicious world we were now trapped in, as if to further hammer home the point that Lord Eddard?s demise was completely inevitable the moment he started trying to do the right thing. If season 1 hinted that Game of Thrones would become a fantasy television show like no other, then season 2 confirmed those hints. With the War of the Five Kings now ignited, the second season finds itself concerned almost exclusively with political intrigue and military strategy. As some key players in this civil war fight to take whatever they can while they have the chance, others are determined to defend what?s theirs to the very last. The true star of the season is Tyrion Lannister, and by extension Peter Dinklage. He appears in every single episode for a reason (the only other characters to appear in every episode of a particular season before the shortened seasons were Cersei in season 1, and Tyrion again in season 5). In his new role as Hand of the King, the show is in its ?adaptation-era? element with him as he teases and taunts members of his own family and the small council, begins to grapple with the unwieldy beast that is King?s Landing politics, and plans the defence of the city from the coming invasion of Stannis Baratheon?s army. His relationships with Bronn, Lord Varys, Shae, and Cersei Lannister are expanded patiently and beautifully, with the show flexing its muscles in wonderful, detailed character scenes, adding numerous layers of depth and detail in the process. I don?t think the show got significantly better or worse as its priorities changed over the years ? that?s all it did, change ? but while this era of the show might not contain the same level of excitement and momentum, or scale and ambition, of the latter seasons the true joy I take out of it is from watching characters I love sitting down to exchange some brilliant dialogue that reflects wonderfully on this story?s deepest, more integral themes. This season is about power ? how it corrupts, how it behaves, how it operates, and how people respond to it. ?Why yes, I will watch Varys? ?Power resides where men believe it resides? monologue over and over again. Thanks, YouTube!? Away from King?s Landing for the time being, Ned?s death has scattered the Stark children far and wide. Until season 8, this was Sophie Turner?s best season as Sansa Stark. Her ?beloved Joffrey? gave the order to execute her father ? it?s left her broken, jaded, and looking at the world in a completely different way. She?s trapped with killers in the capital. On their way to rescue her are Robb and Catelyn, travelling south, sweeping up Lannister soldiers as they go. Far north of the Wall, Jon Snow is ranging with Qhorin Halfhand, where he soon meets the wildling Ygritte. Arya Stark is stuck at Harrenhal, disguising herself as a common girl in truly amazing scenes with Tywin Lannister and Jaqen H?ghar. Bran is left behind at Winterfell as the one remaining Stark inside its walls. To secure more allies for his conquest, Robb sends Theon Greyjoy home to his father, Balon. Instead of securing more soldiers for Robb, however, he is bullied by his biological family into betraying his adopted one, and seizes Winterfell from Bran, who is soon forced to go on the run. The scenes that play out inside the castle?s courtyard from that moment on are among the series? finest, especially the moments that show how Theon becomes ?truly lost?: beheading Ser Rodrik, burning two innocent farm boys, allowing Maester Luwin to be murdered, and finally being betrayed by his own men as the Boltons also betray the Starks and take the castle for themselves. It?s beginning to feel like a miserable time to be a Stark. A criticism of season 2 which I?ve seen over the years is that it lacks momentum. A considerable amount of the early episodes see characters either journeying to, or starting anew in, various locations we?re either unfamiliar with or are slightly detached from the main story. Feeling disconnected from the main story is what does for Daenerys? storyline in this season, as she meets the Thirteen of Qarth and has her dragons stolen, before reclaiming them and leaving the city. It?s a solid storyline which gives her something to do while the focus of the story becomes increasingly centred on the events in the south of Westeros, but its only real contribution to the endgame is the moment she experiences cryptic ? and ultimately prophetic ? visions in the House of the Undying, as she wanders through a destroyed King?s Landing throne room. Where were her dragons, anyway? Elsewhere, new viewers would probably have to keep a guide handy as Stannis Baratheon, Davos Seaworth, Lady Melisandre, Roose Bolton, Brienne of Tarth, Margaery and Loras Tyrell, Dolorous Edd, and Podrick Payne, amongst others, join the main cast. The benefit of numerous re-watches means that Stannis? scenes at Dragonstone introduce magic and darkness to the show (alongside Daenerys? dragons), and watching characters such as Brienne and ?Pod? begin their journeys to each other is rewarding, but a large amount of new details without significant plot progression could frustrate some new viewers. There are significant steps along the way, however, that new viewers would very much take to. Renly Baratheon is murdered by a shadow assassin, which splits his army and causes Robb to lose a valuable ally in the war. I could talk about the riot in King?s Landing forever but just know that I find it to be brutally tense and so rooted in character that it?s one of my favourite scenes in the entire show. And the season builds to the glorious ?Blackwater? (2×9), in which Stannis Baratheon tries and fails to take King?s Landing. It?s an episode penned by book series creator George R. R. Martin, who produces the series? best screenplay. It?s not the show?s best battle, but it is the show?s best battle-centric episode ? the second-best episode overall. In a season defined by Peter Dinklage?s performance as Tyrion, it?s Lena Headey who steals its best episode as Cersei. She?s a star here, descending into drunken despair and inflicting her bitterness upon the innocent Sansa as Stannis? men attack the city walls. Upon the city walls, Tyrion?s leadership and the Hound?s trauma bring to the surface such palpable emotion and desperation in the face of almost certain death. It?s a wonderful, wonderful episode. The wildfire sequence alone is one of my top three moments from the entire series and is marked as the moment I truly, truly bought into this show and realised the scale it was capable of achieving. What the season might lack in terms of momentum, it more than makes up for with truly wonderful characters and story plotting. Much like season 5, actually, only stronger ? that?s why it?s a place above season 5 in this list. A new viewer might be a little lost, but re-watchers know this is a season which takes the character introductions we got in the first season and throws new dynamics at them to see how they respond. Robb starts a war, Jon meets somebody who?s his exact opposite, Sansa?s worldview is broken, Arya is given the tools to exact the vengeance she?s feeling, Tyrion and Cersei exchange numerous wars with words, and completely new players ? the Greyjoys, Stannis, Roose Bolton ? change the destiny of the story forever. It?s the season that?s ideal for people who love the ?people talking in rooms? era of the show, as it?s become known. Best Sequence: Tyrion Lannister blows up Stannis Baratheon?s fleet with wildfire. Planning to destroy a fleet of ships with wildfire is one thing, but watching that wildfire explode with a boom much larger than expected is almost too much for him to witness. The screams of thousands of young men ? ?brave men? ? echoing across the water should be music to Tyrion?s ears, but he?s too human and too unexposed to war to feel anything other than horror and remorse. He?s not broken enough to be numbed by the prospect of death. The show captures it all with a neon-green explosion that gives viewers a sneak preview of the scale this show would eventually achieve with ease. MVP: Peter Dinklage. He controls the season from start to finish, appearing in all of its finest scenes, as well as every single episode it contains.
4th: Season 6
Jaime Lannister comforts Cersei after Myrcella?s death (s6e01 ? ?The Red Woman?)
Mythology leads to excitement.
Story: A-Delivery: B+
Season 6 might not be Game of Thrones? finest season, but it is the most exciting. Somewhere between Jon Snow?s resurrection and Cersei Lannister?s destruction of the Sept of Baelor, HBO?s fantasy genre show ? that was admittedly gaining a sizeable following already ? transformed into a cultural phenomenon that would see an incredible jump in ratings. Season 5 took the show slightly beyond the material provided by George R. R. Martin?s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, and now it was riding without stabilisers, with the content in this season derived almost entirely from a general outline mapped out by Martin and showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. What season 6 does so effectively and consistently is delve deep into this world?s backstory and mythology ? which had been teased by the currently available books and theorised about at length by the fans ? in order to strengthen the connection between character and plot in the ?present day?. It makes the events of the season significantly more intense, and as the pace ranks up from season 5?s deliberate speed it?s impossible to shake off the feeling that the show is heading directly for the end. Season 6 isn?t perfect, which we?ll get to, but on the frequent occasions when everything it roots for slots perfectly into place, it really, really delivers. Starting in the immediate aftermath of Jon Snow?s murder at the hands of his Night?s Watch brothers, season 6 has something to play with to keep viewers invested straight away. The premiere, ?The Red Woman? (6×1), dances around his fate and attempts some stylistic changes which aren?t always comfortable ? the characters are quipping quite frequently, some potential loose ends are wrapped up before they can even begin to breathe ? but the way it chooses to conclude a collection plot threads left hanging over from the season 5 finale provide its real strengths. Lady Brienne being sworn into Sansa Stark?s service, while Theon and Podrick watch on, is beautiful, and Cersei?s reaction to Myrcella?s death appropriately continues her descent into madness. In retrospect, I believe the next three episodes work best when viewed as a trilogy. ?Home? (6×2) declares the season?s intentions by wiping Roose Bolton and Balon Greyjoy off the board (with two new villains ready to take their places), reintroducing Brandon Stark and using his new powers to venture into the show?s past, and resurrecting Jon Snow after just two episodes without him. ?Oathbreaker? (6×3) continues Bran?s Three-Eyed-Raven training and introduces the fact that his actions can affect the past in some way, Arya regains her eyesight during a brilliant montage, and pieces leading up to the Battle of the Bastards are put into place as Jon Snow breaks himself out of his Night?s Watch oath. ?Book of the Stranger? (6×4) then completes this mini trilogy by providing definitive answers to the main question asked by season 5: ?Can our heroes turn their fortunes around?? Well, yes, it turns out that they can. Daenerys frees herself from the Dothraki by burning down their largest temple, Petyr Baelish organises the Knights of the Vale to come to Sansa Stark?s aid, and she reunites with Jon Snow in one of the most touching reunions in the show?s entire run. It also features Johnathan Pryce?s wonderful single-take monologue that explains a portion of the High Sparrow?s backstory. By the halfway point of the season the show is prioritising plot efficiency, yes, but it?s a type of plot efficiency that makes sure to deliver when it comes to character development and huge emotional beats, too. Of those ?huge emotional beats?, few get larger than the ones explored in ?The Door? (6×5). First, Sansa Stark regains some of her agency by defiantly rejecting (initially, at least) Petyr Baelish?s apologies for selling her to the Boltons in season 5. Ser Jorah reunites with Daenerys before admitting his love for her and revealing his greyscale affliction, before his queen commands him to find a cure to the fatal illness. It?s the final act of this episode, though, and everything featured beyond the Wall that leads up to it, that places this episode firmly as one of the series? best. After learning that the Children of the Forest were responsible for the creation of the White Walkers, Bran causes time-travel chaos. He carelessly allows the Night King to enter a vision, break the spell protecting them beneath the tree, and launch an assault on the cave. As they flee during the intense chase, Meera?s shouted instructions to Hodor ? to ?hold the door? containing a horde of wights ? pass through Bran?s consciousness, enter his vision, and break the mind of a young Hodor, who hears Meera?s cries from the future and suffers a seizure. The process creates a time loop that ties together at the point of Hodor?s death, creating one of the most heart-breaking revelations in the show?s entire run while also displaying Bran?s ability to affect history. Hodor held the door, and we wept like children. What follows are two of Game of Thrones? last table-setting episodes. Given the uptick in speed of the final two seasons, rarely was time afforded to episodes like ?Blood of My Blood? (6×6) and ?The Broken Man? (6×7). There?s a real focus on subtle manoeuvring in these two episodes. And though they don?t quite operate with the same level of detail that similar episodes did in earlier seasons, when the writers could copy and paste scenes from the books to flesh out its slower outings, they do find time to work in some interesting plot turns and some incredibly exciting character returns. Tommen is convinced to join the crown with the High Sparrow?s faith militant ?sparrows?, leaving Cersei, Jaime and the Tyrells with absolutely nowhere to turn, while the Hound resurfaces in the Riverlands to share some beautiful scenes with Ian McShane, backed by wonderful pastoral imagery. It?s at the end of ?The Broken Man?, though, where season 6?s one weak point is exposed: the conclusion of Arya Stark?s time in Braavos is a mess I still can?t make sense of, and the episode it?s part of ? ?No One? (6×8) ? is my least favourite of the whole show. The Blackfish?s off-screen death at the hands of the Lannisters is clumsy, Daenerys? return to Meereen during the slavers? siege feels like a dress rehearsal, and I?ve never been a huge fan of the Hound?s apparently hilarious attack on the rogue members of the Brotherhood. I don?t want to talk about it anymore, just know that this episode alone is responsible for season 6 not ranking higher in this list. The true power of season 6 comes through in its final two episodes, which work as two parts of a larger whole. First, we have ?Battle of the Bastards? (6×9) which, at the time, was the largest and most expensive battle sequence in television history (a record broken by ?The Long Night? from season 8). It?s brutal. It might not be the show?s best battle-centric episode (that honour is reserved for ?Blackwater? in my eyes) but it is the show?s battle set-piece. As Jon Snow?s forces meet Ramsay Bolton?s on the fields outside Winterfell, director Miguel Sapochnik pushes back the boundaries of what television is capable of displaying and produces intensely exciting results. After Daenerys? victory in Meereen, the second half of the episode then focuses entirely on the battle that was promised after Jon?s resurrection, and the payoffs are wonderful. Visually, the battle is absolutely stunning, with every swing of every sword thundering with serious impact, while horse hooves and arrows fly about the place in a dizzying swamp of a melee as we follow Jon?s footsteps throughout. As the battle progresses and as it seems all hope is lost, a little deus ex machina never hurt anyone (except the Bolton forces, who are quickly decimated) as the Knights of the Vale charge in to win the battle for Jon?s side. Sansa, a survivor of everything Ramsay put her through, finally notches her first major win in this game. And just like that, the Stark banners were back in Winterfell. After such an episode it would be hard to imagine season 6 topping that, but it somehow manages that feat. ?The Winds of Winter? (6×10) is everything a season finale should be, and it stands as the series? best episode for me. Before this point, the episodes considered to be Game of Thrones? very best were often driven by the same soap opera structure as all the others, with some plot threads working better than others, until a climactic moment or scene becomes the defining moment of it. Think ?Hardhome? or ?The Rains of Castamere? (3×9). ?The Winds of Winter? operates with the same structure but delivers an emotional barrage in each plot thread. Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor one of the show?s finest sequences, wiping out half of the main cast in the process; Arya powerfully avenges the Red Wedding by murdering Walder Frey; Cersei crowns herself as queen in the aftermath of her terrorist attack; Samwell Tarly lives out his dream of reaching the Citadel library at long last; Daenerys names Tyrion as her Hand and finally sets sail for Westeros after six seasons in Essos; Bran finds out that Jon Snow is in fact that Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne. It?s incredibly powerful, elegant television that brings the show?s most exciting season to a close in spectacular fashion, outshining its previous high points in the process. Best Sequence: Cersei?s destruction of the Sept of Baelor. Slowly planned and hinted at over the course of the season, Cersei Lannister?s plan to trap her enemies in a web of their own making before pulling a trigger that wipes them all out is played out beautifully by director Miguel Sapochnik. Blending grace and detail with force and tension, it spectacularly closes the story in King?s Landing, as far as I?m concerned. After this moment, all the scheming and back-biting that defined the politics of the capital for six seasons are over, as Cersei?s reign as queen proves itself to be brief, and riddled with isolation, detachment, and delusion, before Daenerys raises the city to the ground in season 8. From the moment the episode opens to the moment Tommen falls from his bedroom window, with Ramin Djawadi?s ?Light of the Seven? soundtracking these events, it?s hard to keep my mouth closed, no matter how many times I watch it. Season MVP: Sansa Stark. Convinces her brother to retake his home, then does so, overcoming some personal demons and wiping out one of the coldest, most sadistic villains in TV history in the process. This is the season Sansa took control.
3rd: Season 3
Arya Stark (left) and the Hound reach the Twins (s3e9 ? The Rains of Castamere).
Building to a bloodbath.
Story: A-Delivery: B+
The third season of Game of Thrones ebbs and flows beautifully between patient, character-focused episodes and episodes loaded with action and dramatic turns. It does so as a result of the decision taken by showrunners David Benioff & D. B. Weiss to split the third book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Storm of Swords, and tell its story across two full seasons. It does mean that sections of this season move a little slower than a casual viewer would ideally want, but for people in love with this world and its characters, there?s ample material here to keep you coming back on a regular basis. It opens with ?Valar Dohaeris? (3×1), jokingly titled in response to the season two finale, ?Valar Morghulis?, referencing the tendency of both Westerosi and Essosi characters to recite the full phrase ? ?All men must die. All men must serve.? The season premiere begins in the aftermath of two major battles, and how the defeated sides are planning to recover from their losses. Tensions and divisions run high in Stannis? camp on Dragonstone, as Davos attempts to murder Melisandre to prevent her from further poisoning Stannis? mind, but finds himself imprisoned for the trouble. Beyond the Wall, at the other end of the map, the remaining Night?s Watch brothers who survived the White Walker ambush are beginning their slow, tired march back to Castle Black. The victors at the battle of Blackwater, the Lannisters, have quickly returned to quarrelling as the Tyrells move into the Red Keep. With so many new faces arriving on the scene in King?s Landing, this season premiere and its following episode, ?Dark Wings, Dark Words? (3×2), are slightly preoccupied with introducing a range of new families and characters to the political games being played in the capital, but they contain a wealth of brilliant dialogue-driven scenes to keep the momentum high. The same could be said for ?Walk of Punishment? (3×3), but its defining sequence is completely wordless ? we?re invited to the funeral of Hoster Tully, as Catelyn?s Tully relatives are introduced to the show. Lord Edmure and the Blackfish make their first appearances in a wonderful sequence to open the episode, as Edmure fails to ignite his father?s funeral boat, leaving the Blackfish needing to do it for him. With so much conflict raging throughout season 2, the pastoral pause point of ?Walk of Punishment? is a refreshing change of scenery, as the world of Westeros is expanded even further. What follows this patient, careful start to season 3 is an explosive episode that, by its end, puts itself firmly in contention to be one of the show?s very best, as revenge takes centre stage in one of the most propulsive and decisive hours in the show?s run. ?And Now His Watch is Ended? (3×4) begins with a lesson from Varys, that patience is the most important aspect to exacting revenge. Rast has waited for his moment, and in this episode he strikes ? in complete chaos at Craster?s Keep, Lord Commander Mormont is murdered by his own men in a bloody mutiny that sees the brothers split in several directions. Sam and Gilly flee with Little Sam, while Karl and the mutineers take over Craster?s Keep. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea in Essos, Daenerys has been attempting to trade with slavers to buy herself an Unsullied army. The entire time, the slave master has insulted her in Valyrian, believing that Dany can?t understand him ? until she drops the bomb on him that in fact, yes, she?s understood him the entire time. Drogon burns the slaver alive, Dany takes command of the Unsullied, and leaves Astapor with an army in a fiery spectacle that blasts season three into life. It?s probably the best example of just how well Emilia Clarke could portray Dany when at the height of her powers. After that, season 3 slows itself down to a deliberate pace. ?Kissed by Fire? (3×5), recognised by quite a lot of book purists as the show?s finest episode. Their views aren?t without just cause: Beric Dondarrion is resurrected by Thoros of Myr after losing the Hound?s trial by combat, introducing the possibility of resurrection to the show; Jon Snow breaks his Night?s Watch vow by consummating his love for Ygritte beyond the Wall; Robb Stark loses his half his army after personally beheading Lord Karstark for treason, forcing him to head to the Twins for reinforcements. The episode?s defining scene, however, is the lengthy monologue from Jaime Lannister that reveals his true intentions for stabbing the Mad King: to save the people of King?s Landing from death by wildfire. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has produced some wonderful performances as Jaime Lannister, but this moment might well be his best. It almost single-handedly turns Jaime into a character desperate for the audience?s sympathy ? there?s a level of tangible insecurity constantly present in his performance from that point on, and it establishes the strongest connection yet between himself and Gwendoline Christie in front of the camera. The next pair of episodes let the side down slightly, however. Game of Thrones episodes without much in the way of incident are never usually a problem, but even the dialogue-driven scenes in these two episodes leave a lot to be desired with regards to how they must read to new viewers. ?The Climb? (3×6) is predominantly spent in the company of characters who are sat around campfires, waiting for the next developments to take place, while ?The Bear and the Maiden Fair? (3×7) sees George R. R. Martin return to the series to pen an episode concerned almost exclusively with love and sex. Its final scene ? Jaime returns to Harrenhal to save Brienne from a bear pit ? is a nice shot of action, but its placement feels a little on the nose. As the season slows down to ensure its final three episodes are increasingly climactic, this is perhaps the only occasion that leaves you questioning whether it was a good idea to spread A Storm of Swords over two seasons. The final leg of season 3 stops those questions in their tracks, however. ?Seconds Sons? (3×8) uses almost thirty episodes? worth of character relationships to build the tension and heartache at Tyrion and Sansa?s wedding. Beyond the Wall, some hopes arises in the form of Samwell Tarly, as he realises what dragonglass is for: killing White Walkers. And now for the episode that will define the show for years to come: ?The Rains of Castamere? (3×9). The Red Wedding needs no introduction if you?re reading this. I imagine you?ve already seen it if you?ve made your way here. Just know that I was aware it was coming before I even started watching the show, and I still sat there in silence for a good fifteen minutes after the episode cut to black. I?m not sure my words could really do it justice. ?Mhysa? (3×10) isn?t one of the most memorable season finales the show ever produced, save for one brilliant scene with Tywin, Joffrey, Cersei and Tyrion at odds during a Small Council meeting, but it has to do one almighty mopping up job after the Red Wedding.
Best Sequence: There are several contenders for this. It could be Daenerys? sacking of Astapor, it could be Jaime?s heartfelt speech in the hot springs of Harrenhal, it could be Samwell?s brave discovery that dragonglass kills White Walkers. But it would be unfair, I think, to discuss season three at such length without giving the title of its finest sequence to the Red Wedding. Game of Thrones already had its defining moment in its first season, when Ned Stark?s head was taken from the shoulders of the lead character, but the Red Wedding somehow outgunned it in terms of producing a brutal gut reaction. I personally know people who stopped watching after the Red Wedding and never picked the show up again. It wasn?t just the death of Robb and Catelyn Stark, it was the death of hope as well. The one shining light of this story turned burnt out well before its time.
Season MVP: In terms of ?most improved position on the board?, it has to be Daenerys. She begins this season with dragons and a small band of advisers. She ends it with an army, ships, larger dragons, and a band of followers after she frees the slaves of Yunkai. Across the Narrow Sea, however, it?s Tywin Lannister who owns this season. Charles Dance has the capability of eviscerating and out-performing anybody in the same scene as him, with his crowning moment coming in the season finale, as he ? to quote Tyrion ? ?sends the most powerful man in Westeros to bed without his supper?.
2nd: Season 1
Jaime Lannister (left) and Ned Stark (right) duel in a King?s Landing street (s1e5 ? ?The Wolf and the Lion?).
A lesson for the future.
Story: A-Delivery: A-
Jumping back into the first season of Game of Thrones is a fascinating exercise. From the moment the show?s legendary theme ignites, following the icy prologue, the changes the series underwent during its run immediately become apparent. Composer Ramin Djawadi?s music has been one of the aspects that has remained consistently popular with fans and critics alike over time, but back in 2011 the main title theme sounded a little different to how it does now. It sounds weaker, with the signature rhythmic cellos (dun-dun, dun-dun-DUN-dun, etc.) much lower down in the mix here and much lighter as a result, probably because they?re sourced from MIDI software patches as opposed to a live orchestra. The main title theme we all know and love was re-recorded twice between 2011 and 2019, and hearing this initial version of it reveals quite a lot of what makes the first season so fascinating overall. Because given what Game of Thrones has had a reputation for since at least season 4, it?s hard to imagine a world in which a show like it had to convince TV executives to show a little faith and provide a little cash. The production budgets during this first season are startlingly low when compared to even the sixth season, let alone the eighth. I remember when the $10?15m budget for ?Battle of the Bastards? was made public knowledge ? the producers and showrunners joked that they used to get $10?15m per season. Having such a small budget to play with, for what was roughly a ten-hour long story in the first season, meant that bringing George R. R. Martin?s expansive and rich world to life was a logistical nightmare. Numerous film and TV executives had come to Martin in the past, begging him to allow them to turn his fantasy novel series into a visual adaptation. David Benioff & D. B. Weiss were lucky enough to have a shot at creating a pilot episode in 2010, but as we now know, that pilot completely flopped. Their second attempt at doing so is what we now know as ?Winter is Coming? (1×1), the very first episode of Game of Thrones. As TV pilots go, this one is extremely overwhelming for the uninitiated. I?m surprised that new viewers stuck with a world like this, considering it?s so full of people, so steeped in history, so complicated to understand who is who and what their intentions are. The first characters we?re introduced to ? Waymar Royce & co. of the Night?s Watch ? are killed in the prologue, the one character who escapes the massacre beyond the Wall is then beheaded by our noble protagonist simply for trying to warn his fellow countrymen of a danger to the north, and then we spend the entire pilot being expected to follow the names of almost one hundred characters who are visiting Winterfell. What makes the world so compelling, though, is the sense of intrigue, both fantastical and otherwise ? the White Walkers, the direwolves, the fact that the episode ends on the sight of a man attempting to murder a child to keep his incestuous relationship with his sister a secret. The only option you have is to keep watching to analyse the fallout. But as the season continues, it becomes increasingly clear that there will be no fallout. Instead, the repercussions for those who committed heinous acts in the first couple of episodes are never realized ? instead, our noble protagonist in Ned Stark, and his family, are taken on a violent whirlwind tour and given a harsh lesson of how this world really works. Virtue and honour get you nowhere, honesty and a commitment to the truth get you nowhere. Instead it?s ?backstabbing and scheming? that allow people to get ahead. Littlefinger, for example, is the perfect example of someone who gives you the rules with one hand and works to stab you in the back with the other. When Ned Stark becomes aware of the same news his son Bran did in the pilot, before Jaime Lannister shoved him out of the window (that King Joffrey is the product of incest), his punishment is simply to be sent away to the far North and kept quiet. Joffrey takes things another step further, however, and changes television forever. Ned Stark, our hero, our virtuous and kind protagonist, beheaded in broad daylight. Gone forever, no getting him back. There?s resurrection in this world, yes, but not for our hero. The rest of the first season is spent building the characters of the younger generation who will take this story to its climax one day. The Stark siblings are spread far and wide and shown the vicious cruelty of the world they?re one day going to change, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen are deliberately kept at opposite ends of the map for now because they?re the two characters who will bring the encroaching fantasy elements to the center of the story, and in order for characters such as Jaime Lannister, Theon Greyjoy, and the Hound to be redeemed, they must first commit the acts that turned us against them in the early days. Knowing how this story ends, and knowing its various twists and turns, it?s fascinating to see certain characters interact in previous contexts. Just as one example, the first time Jaime and Tyrion meet one another, the former walks in on the latter to find him with Ros. It?s comical, jovial, friendly. It seems that all they do after that first meeting is go through dark shit and end up miserable ? or dead in Jaime?s case. In some ways, season one is a dream ? a dream that starts before everything goes to hell in a handcart. The season isn?t without its minor flaws. I?ve never been the biggest fan of ?Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things? (1×4) because it feels more like a detective crime show than anything else, while Ned and Catelyn scurry about the place searching for clues on their individual quests, which feels tonally at odds with the rest of the series. And, honestly, given what this show was eventually capable of displaying, it?s a shame to have certain battles skipped entirely. As much as I love Game of Thrones (and boy do I love it), I?m not sure it was ever able to be a true representation of its best self at any point other than season 4, which had the budget to stage large set-pieces and the creative freedom to adapt from the books where it saw fit, as opposed to being forced to pick one or the other. For example, in the first three seasons it had the brilliant source material to adapt from but didn?t have the budget to put everything on screen. For the final three or four seasons, it had the budget to stage those set-pieces but no remaining books to bring to life. What we were left with was brilliant, era-defining television, but sadly never the full product that it could have been, and season one is just one minor example of the very, very few things that did hamstring this show. But having said that, the budgetary limitations take barely anything away from this first season. This self-contained story is a warning ? not just about the world of Westeros and its uncompromising ruthlessness (?When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die?), but about trusting in heroes and believing in people who you think can change the world. It?s cynical, perhaps even slightly misanthropic, but quite often those who seek to change the system are either consumed by it or defeated by it. In Ned Stark?s case, or in the case of his disembodied head, it?s the latter. A problem I have with less successful adaptations is that, quite often, the creators? dedication to hitting the major plot points can often distract them from extracting the core themes. With Game of Thrones there is no such problem ? David Benioff and D. B. Weiss understood Martin?s messages and brilliantly communicated the core beliefs that he put into his prose. Best Sequence: Now obviously Ned Stark?s death is the key moment of the first season, along with Daenerys? dragon birth in the final episode, capping off the season by representing both the political and fantastical strands of this show. But when I watched this through for the first time back in 2015, I was always struck by Viserys Targaryen?s death at the hands of Khal Drogo. It?s the first of only a few satisfying deaths in this story, and the inventive use of molten gold to melt and crush his skull ? adding that brilliant ?clang? to onomatopoeically add a full-stop to his life ? really struck me. His screaming, the clunk of metal when he hits the floor, Daenerys? cold expression, it?s a great scene. MVP: Ned Stark. Sorry, buddy, I know you lost your head, but it was all a necessary evil. This man welcomes us to Westeros, takes us through it as we learn how it works, and then teaches us the ultimate lesson that honour gets you fucking nowhere in Game of Thrones.
1st: Season 4
Tyrion confronts his father, Tywin, with a crossbow (s04e10 ? ?The Children?).
The best of all.
Story: ADelivery: A-
And so, we reach the end of our story. Thank you to those who have read this far down and are planning on continuing to do so ? I was having trouble plucking up the courage and energy to finish this piece if I?m honest, but the amount of emails I received from Medium telling me how many people were reading it encouraged me to keep plugging away. Thanks to all of you, I managed to put the effort in to finish it. Game of Thrones fourth season is strongest season for one simple reason: it?s the happiest medium between, and the best combination of, the show?s strengths as an adaptation and the show?s strengths as a blockbuster television show. As I said in the recap of the first season, the earlier seasons of the show were truly excellent exercise in storytelling but there was an element of frustration rising from the viewing experience whenever it skipped over battles or didn?t quite manage to make CGI dragons look realistic. By the same token, the later seasons of the show redefined what the small screen was capable of showing but did struggle ever so slightly with producing a watertight story once the source material had dried up. Season four, though, adapts from the section of the books that fans consider to be the most exciting, while also being a big enough hit with audiences to convince HBO executives to give them the money to produce show-stopping battles like the one featured in ?The Watchers on the Wall?. This is top tier storytelling and top tier delivery ? it is, therefore, top tier television. It begins with the show?s strongest season premiere, ?Two Swords?. Sure, it has to update you on the latest small steps in various characters? stories in order to gear itself up for the rest of the season, but two strands in particular really steal the show. First, we have the devilish arrival of Prince Oberyn Martell to King?s Landing, who slides effortlessly into the show?s roster and provides a real sense of individuality and uniqueness to events in Westeros? capital. He is entirely singular, portrayed so brilliantly by Pedro Pascal, and his motive is simple: avenge the death of his sister, Elia Martell, at the hands of the Mountain. Elsewhere on the map, the Hound and Arya happen across Polliver?s men and slaughter the lot of them in a bloody sequence that sees Arya take revenge on the man who stole her sword with a chilling calmness. It?s one of the only times a Game of Thrones season premiere allows itself to put plot points mostly on the backburner ? instead of ticking off a checklist, it lounges comfortably in its surroundings and trusts the audience to keep up. It makes for an excellent opener and sets season four off the best possible start. George R. R. Martin then returns to pen ?The Lion the Rose? as Joffrey and Margaery tie the knot. But as the celebrations turn sour as Joffrey taunts Tyrion, Joffrey is poisoned in plain sight. Tyrion is wrongly accused of regicide, and the most nerve-wracking season-long plot is ignited. Over the course of season four, Tyrion is publicly humiliated on more than one occasion, lashes out against the city, reckons with his existence as a dwarf, watches Oberyn have his head crushed, is sentenced to death by his own father who he then murders, is testified against by his lover who he then also murders, and flees the country with Varys after being set free by Jaime. It?s a real reckoning for him as a character and it marks the end of his time in King?s Landing, at least until he returns there briefly in seasons 7 and 8 in an attempt to form a truce between Cersei and Daenerys. Peter Dinklage was already the star of the show after season 2, but season 4 absolutely cemented his role as one of the finest actors in it. For the Stark family, the first point on the agenda is recovering from the Red Wedding. After Joffrey is murdered, Sansa is public enemy #2, but before she can be wrongly accused of murder, she?s whisked away to the Eyrie by Littlefinger, who begins to teach her his ways. Her brief transition into Dark Sansa begins here (before its harsh end in season 5), as she begins to fall slightly under Littlefinger?s spell, covering for him after he murders her Aunt Lysa. Jon has separated from Ygritte as they join opposing sides in the battle for Castle Black. During the battle, Jon assumes the position of command and resists the wildling attack long enough for Stannis Baratheon to arrive and bring a four-season story to a close. The tension between the wildlings and the Night?s Watch doesn?t end with ?The Children?, but it?s certainly never the same again. Arya and the Hound learn the art of vengeance from one another with some wonderful character scenes ? that is until Brienne intercepts them and fatally wounds the Hound in the show?s best display of one on one combat, before Arya leaves him for ?dead? as she departs for Braavos. That iron coin has been hanging around Arya?s person for two seasons now, so it?s another beautiful pay-off to a long-running story to add to the dozens that season-best episode ?The Children? produces. Even Bran finally makes it all the way to the weirwood tree beyond the Wall, where he finally meets the Three-Eyed-Raven. It?s just pay-off after pay-off after pay-off this season. This isn?t an absolutely perfect season by any means. Jon avenging Lord Commander Mormont?s death by murdering Karl Tanner is one of the show?s first major diversions from the plot, and it?s a great swordfight, but it comes in the middle of a ?patient? group of episodes, during which very little occurs. Sure, Tommen is crowned and we see the Night King for the first time, but there is a slight lack of material just before Tyrion?s trial and the show?s decision to not only invent a story for Jon, but to have Jaime rape Cersei in front of Joffrey?s corpse, exposes that. Still, to say the positives outweigh the negatives would be a horrendous understatement. This is the best season of the one of the greatest TV shows of the 21st century and that is not something that should be ignored. Every episode contains an emotional or dramatic or visual epicenter that raises the quality of each substantially ? whether it?s the moment Arya stabs Polliver through the neck, or the moment Joffrey?s hand stops moving, or the moment Olly?s father is killed, or the moment the Night King turns that baby?s eyes blue, or the moment Jon?s sword rams through the back of Karl Tanner?s head, or the moment Tyrion demands a trial by combat, or the moment Oberyn agrees to be his champion, or the moment Oberyn?s head is smashed open, or the moment Ygritte dies in Jon Snow?s arms, or the moment Tyrion sends a crossbow bolt through Tywin?s chest, this season has an almost endless list of classic moments that audiences have cherished and re-watched in the years since. Man, what a magnificent season of TV. Best Sequence: There are tonnes, but the fight between Brienne and the Hound is utterly brutal and one of the most physically wearying sequences in the entire show. If only they?d listened to each other, or trusted each other, it could have all been avoided. What it results in, however, is Maisie Williams? finest moment as Arya, as she coldly steps away from the Hound as he succumbs to his injuries.
MVP: Peter Dinklage. Yup, I?m giving him the award again. He carries every scene in King?s Landing that he features in, all while carrying the weight of Tyrion?s shoulders in the process. He inhibits the character so beautifully that he turns the Tyrion of the show into someone completely different from the Tyrion in the books. As his circle of friends disintegrates, we get to peer into his soul and see what makes him tick more than anything else, and Dinklage is there to communicate all of it.