Game of Thrones characters like to obsess over the Iron Throne. Game of Thrones fans like to obsess over the best Game of Thrones episodes. So yes, you might find one or two rankings published elsewhere on the internet.
But how exhaustive is the research? Did the writer really sit down and re-watch all of, say, Season 6, Episode 5 “The Door”, a popular choice for such lists? Or did they just remember the final heartbreaking ten minutes, get a pang at the thought of Hodor and his narratively satisfying story forgetting the subpar Arya and Daenerys moments that take up the other 45 minutes?
Let’s get serious about this. Best episodes are not best scenes, best battles, best characters or even best story arcs. Practically every episode contains at least one amazing moment; this is Game of Thrones we’re talking about, the best show in the history of TV. (Don’t @ me on that one.)
But a top ten-worthy episode has to be at the absolute top of its game from the clockwork map to the jaw-dropping fade to black. Acting, writing, lighting, music, good or bad CGI we’re assessing all of them in this list.
After an obsessive study of the first 60 episodes, I can confirm one thing: Game of Thrones is at its best when it takes a breather. Overstuffed episodes that check in with every character the length and breadth of Westeros, but barely move any chess pieces of plot forward, run together in the memory. Time and rewatching are not kind to them.
The more an episode took its time to be dramatically satisfying on its own terms, the more likely it was to stick in the mind and make this list. Let’s all draw our flaming swords of disagreement and charge in.
10. ‘Home’ (Season 6, Episode 2)
Credit to showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss: working without the net of an original George R.R. Martin novel for the first time, as they did in “Home,” could have been hugely problematic. Especially when they were left to answer the question of whether Jon Snow could be brought back to life after his assassination or not.
Spoiler: of course he could. Why else was Melisandre and her Red Magic hanging around Castle Black? But their choice to leave him on a slab for two episodes, and to let us think the Red Woman had failed linger on the corpse for a minute, eyes open, big gasp, fade to black was probably the most gripping way possible to resolve the Snow death crisis.
More importantly, by that point we were awash in satisfying new plot threads. ‘Home’ gave us Max Von Sydow’s perfect take on the Three-Eyed Raven; it plausibly introduced Bran Stark’s ability to time travel via tree to visit both young Ned Stark and young Hodor. Given how much was riding on us buying that concept, this was no mean feat.
Meanwhile we got Tyrion’s teary-eyed first encounter with his beloved dragons, as well as Ramsay Bolton’s most shocking and psychotic murders (his father, stepmother and newborn brother). The episode threw Balon Greyjoy off a rope bridge and had the wildlings successfully invade Castle Black to overthrow Jon’s murderers. How could it do all of this and not feel rushed? TV magic.
9. ‘The Laws of God and Men’ (Season 4, Episode 6)
Everyone remembers the shocking trial by combat that make up the final 15 minutes of ‘The Mountain and the Viper.’ Hardly anyone remembers the rest of the episode, with good reason it’s mostly meh. More worthy overall is the episode with the trial that led to the Red Viper’s eye-gouging in the first place.
Tyrion on the stand, falsely accused of murdering Joffrey, judged by his father, betrayed by his lover Shae, proved that Game of Thrones wasn’t just a one-note slaughterhouse of a show; it could do courtroom drama with the best of them. Peter Dinklage’s fiery speech damning King’s Landing and his father for anti-dwarf prejudice remains his finest hour.
Elsewhere in the episode we get our first glimpse of the Iron Bank, where Stannis and Davos go to beg for mercenary funds. We get Varys and the Red Viper talking power in the Throne room, Theon/Reek’s heartbreaking refusal to go with his sister when she tries to rescue him, and Dany being forced to confront the unintended consequences of both owning dragons and crucifying slave owners.
All in all, very mature stuff for a fantasy world that is often dark, but rarely this shaded in grey.
8. ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ (Season 6 episode 9)
Not all big-budget battle episodes work. Just look at Season 4’s “The Watchers on the Wall,” a good but pretty unsurprising attack on Castle Black with action scenes that jostle together confusingly; the hour drags, and the fighting isn’t even over at the end of it.
“Battle of the Bastards,” however, is a master class in how to keep raising the stakes, switch up the tone and the pacing, and generally keep us on the edges of our seats.
From the Cannae-like encirclement to the Agincourt-like arrows to the Waterloo-like last minute rescue, the episode was also one of the most historic depictions of human warfare ever made. It’s bloody as hell, yes, but also a 55-minute history lesson. And it ends with Ramsay Bolton being thrown to the dogs, literally. What’s not to love?
Answer: Jon Snow’s stupidity. This episode would be much higher on the list if it didn’t make the man who is supposed to be the show’s stoic hero look like its most hot-headed buffoon; not even turning the character into Lazarus affected his believability like this episode. (Sansa doesn’t come out of it well, either: you’d think she would have mentioned the little fact that the cavalry was literally on its way.)
7. ‘The Lion and the Rose’ (Season 4, Episode 2)
The beginning of the Jaime-Bronn partnership, sealed with a bantering bout, is followed by the heavyweight acting championship: Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) squares off against Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg). These two things alone would earn “The Lion and the Rose” a place on most top 10 lists.
But wait, there’s more! The real meat of the episode is the surprise poisoning of King Joffrey at his awkward, garish, dwarf entertainment-filled wedding. The satisfaction score of the Purple Wedding’s conclusion was off the charts if your last name wasn’t Lannister, that is.
All of this in an episode penned by George R.R. Martin himself? Two words: Replay, please.
6. ‘Hardhome’ (Season 5, Episode 8)
Everyone remembers “Hardhome” for its very end the instantly iconic image of the Night’s King literally raising the dead with a gesture. But it’s just as much worth remembering for what happens at the very beginning the first meeting of Daenerys and Tyrion, something fans have been waiting for since the Song of Ice and Fire book series began in 1991.
The pairing of the fiery young queen and the world-weary imp who drinks and knows things did not disappoint. Nor did Cersei’s first day in jail, courtesy of the Sparrows. Even Arya’s turn as an oyster seller was one of the better parts of her vacation in Bravos.
The chilling battle in the Wildling village that gives the episode its name wasn’t so much a battle more a rout and a lucky escape, a Westerosi Dunkirk. But it had a ferocity that no other moment of warfare in the entire series has matched.
It also has room to breathe; with half the episode set in the village, we’re set up to truly care about it and fear its speedy annihilation. The show has sometimes struggled to explain how much of an existential threat the White Walkers are to every one of the Seven Kingdoms. Not this time.
5. ‘Blackwater’ (Season 2, Episode 9)
Again, the success of Blackwater wasn’t all about the big-budget battle although it’s still amazing what the show could buy for its $8 million. (Then: The most expensive episode of anything on TV, ever. Now: roughly the cost of three-quarters of an average GoT episode.)
For all the full-sized ships and pretty green explosions, the battle of Blackwater Bay was most compelling because it focused on human stories. The pairings were irresistible: The preppy punk king everyone loved to loath and the disrespected dwarf who was saving his king’s cowardly ass. Cersei talking (and drinking) the fear away with Shae. Sansa and the beastly Hound who tried to save her.
The Hugo-winning Blackwater succeeded because it was so good at being a standalone. For the first time in the show, it stayed in one place and told interlocking stories. Suddenly, viewers understood that individual Thrones episodes could be compared to the year’s best movies and not found wanting.
4. ‘The Rains of Castamere’ (Season 3, Episode 9)
Ah, the Red Wedding. What is there left to say about the episode that practically tattooed itself onto the culture, plunging deep into our memories and creating more memes than any other piece of visual entertainment since 1977?
Only this: that the episode would have been even higher on this list if it didn’t spend more than half its time somewhere else. Bran’s still trundling towards the Wall with his gang, figuring out how to warg; Dany and Daario (the first, Fabio-like version, alas) are plotting their attack on Yunkai. Because of its grisly power we think of the Red Wedding as a standalone episode in itself, like “Blackwater”; it’s more like “Hardhome”, a half-standalone.
The main event hewed pretty close to its equally shocking source chapter in the book A Storm of Swords, except that it added Robb’s wife to the mix. Yep, the showrunners invented Talisa just so she could be stabbed to death in her pregnant belly. Which either makes them more horrifically imaginative or more problematic than George R.R. Martin, depending on your point of view.
But here’s the other thing: we’re still not over it. The shock of murderous hosts at an event that’s supposed to be about love and safety has no peer in world history even the most bloodthirsty Scottish kings didn’t massacre guests at weddings and it tweaks something very deep in our mythical bones. I don’t know about you, but I only have to think of Catelyn pulling up Roose Bolton’s sleeve or the musicians changing their tune to get shivers. That’s the power of peak TV right there.
3. ‘Baelor’ (Season 1, Episode 9)
You know it as the one where our hero Ned Stark got his head cut off and created the biggest WTF moment in TV history, at least up until that point. What’s less well-remembered about “Baelor” is just how taut, powerful and good-looking the rest of the episode is. The lighting has never been more stark pun intended for this Stark-heavy episode and the scenery never more subtle. This was back when the showrunners had to do way more on way less money.
On a rewatch, it’s chilling to see Catelyn Stark entering The Twins to parlay with Walder Frey for the first time, knowing that her throat will be slit on that spot two seasons hence. Robb Stark’s inability to negotiate for himself is telling, as is his sacrifice of 2,000 men just to fool the Lannisters.
And instead of focusing on that battle, “Baelor” focuses on the build up, and a touching this-could-be-the-last-night conversation between Tyrion, Shae and Bronn that makes you love each character. Which is also tragic in retrospect, considering how they’d be split asunder as permanently as Ned and his head.
2. ‘The Children’ (Season 4, Episode 10)
There is so much plot satisfaction in this episode that a better title would have been “the one where everything happens.” Each of these nuggets just works, rewatch after rewatch, and they come together to create something more than the sum of their parts.
The opening carries on from “Watchers on the Wall” and instantly supersedes it, as Jon parleys with Mance Rayder while Stannis surprises everyone by invading. Dany is forced to lock up two of her kid-burning dragons in the most affecting pet-related scene since Old Yeller. Bran and Jojen find the ethereal, beautiful Heart Tree that Jojen saw in his vision, only for Jojen to get stabbed by skeletons.
Those aren’t even the biggest moments. Brienne and Podrick finally meet Arya, and after a gruesome duel Brienne defeats the Hound, who begs in vain for Arya to kill him. Instead she sails off into the sunset for Bravos, and you think it’s all over but it isn’t, because only then does Tyrion escape from prison, reluctantly strangle Shea, kill his toilet-bound father with two well-deserved crossbow bolts and depart for Essos in a crate.
No other season would top the epic finale that was “The Children” well, not until …
1. ‘The Winds of Winter’ (Season 6, Episode 10)
Like the Red Wedding, it starts with haunting music. The hypnotic Light of the Seven theme plays for a full ten minutes as the camera lingers on Cersei, King Tommen and assorted nobles of Westeros in turn as they prepare for the trial of the century in the Sept. This episode has so much ground to cover, and it has the confidence to take its time, to set the stage so well.
From there, the tension (in music and images) builds expertly as the gears of Cersei’s most elaborate plot start to grind. We knew she was planning to use wildfire it had been telegraphed for several episodes but how? Would she, like the Mad King, try to blow up all of King’s Landing? No, she would simply destroy the Sept at just the right moment, and stand swilling wine in its green afterglow. The Sparrows, a threat for two seasons, were eradicated in an instant.
In that moment, she became queen of our black hearts.
And then her son jumped out of a window one of the most shocking events in a show that has had more than its fair share since it began with Cersei insisting a child be thrown out of a window. Cersei became actual Queen (a succession only Mashable had explained in advance), but with the taste of ashes in her mouth.
The episode is full of highs and lows like that. We weep when Samwell Tarly finally sees the Citadel library, but we also weep for Sansa as she gets overlooked and Jon Snow is declared King in the North. And we cheer at Arya’s cold-served revenge on Walder Frey, even though it involved slicing and dicing his sons into pies. What have we become?
On top of this, ‘Winds of Winter’ gives us three key events we’d been waiting an age to see: the official beginning of winter; the birth of Jon Snow, which confirmed that old R+L=J theory, and Dany raising an armada to sail west with her dragons at freaking last. She’s raised Tyrion to be her Hand the honor overwhelms him but she’s also had to put Daario away. Another bittersweet joy.
So large is her armada, the best single CGI creation of the show, that you have to rewatch before you notice the banners of Dorne and Highgarden among the ships. Varys’ alliance has worked, and the Seven Kingdoms are at war like never before.
Since the show’s most recent episode is also its definitive best, we can’t wait to see what’s next. If we’re lucky, most of the final 14 episodes of Game of Thrones will make their way into one final definitive, absolutely best top 10 list.
Read more: http://mashable.com/