Five seasons. 50 episodes. Here are the 25 best, ranked in descending order. Eight of them are from season 1, three from season 2, five from season 3, five from season 4, and four from season 5.
As far as ranking the seasons on whole, the order is: 1 > 3 & 4 > 5 > 2. I can't really choose between 3 and 4. They seem like two halves of an extended season, as they represent the third monster novel, A Storm of Swords,
which is without question the best book of the novels, and indeed one of the best books of all time. In the TV series, however, season 1 remains the strongest.
Season 5 is the inverse to seasons 3 and 4. It condenses two novels, A Feast for Crows
and A Dance with Dragons
, both of which needed serious editing, with astonishing good results. I disagree with the detractors of season 5. Aside from the silly Dorne plot, all of the plot changes (especially Sansa's) were for the better.
Season 2 is the only one I would call less than excellent. It was still very good, but something about it lacked impact, and it also involved the worst adaptation from the novels. The kidnapping of Dany's dragons and political revolt in Qarth was unconvincing, and even a bit silly like the season-5 Dorne plot.
1. The Rains of Castamere.
Season 3, Episode 9. This the rare episode that sets an impossible bar, the equivalent to Breaking Bad's Ozymandias
, The Sopranos' College
, and Doctor Who's Blink
. The Red Wedding makes Ned's execution seem almost banal by comparison, for the scale and treachery involved: slaying guests under sacred protection, mass murder (including Robb's pregnant wife), allies turning on their liege lord. This episode also has the best Bran scene of the series: holed up in the lake tower, warging his brains out, when Jon saves him from the wildling attack. Great wolf action here from both Ghost and Summer. Easily the best episode of the series; it doesn't stand a chance of being topped.
2. The Kingsroad.
Season 1, Episode 2. I've watched this episode more than any other. After the introductions of the premiere, we get deeper family dynamics as the Stark kids go their separate ways. Ned promises Jon they will talk about his mother when they next meet; Jon gives Arya Needle. Ned and Robert argue about killing Dany. (Dany, for her part, suffers marital rape until she tames Drogo on her terms.) There's major wolf action, as Bran is attacked in bed and recused by Summer; on the Kingsroad, Arya stabs Joffrey, Nymeria bites him, and Sansa's poor wolf ends up paying the price for it. In Lord of the Rings, the breaking of the fellowship comes long after the hobbits leave the Shire. In Game of Thrones, the breaking of the Stark family is
the initial departure (from Winterfell), and many of these terrific characters will never see each other again.
Season 5, Episode 8. The most drastic departure from the novels results in one of the best episodes. Why? Because it gets to the point in a way that Martin has stalled on for too long. The undead threat beyond the Wall is what Game of Thrones is about
. That the walkers have made few appearances has been a strength, to be sure; this is a patient series not given to cheap thrills. But by book 5, a dramatic outing was overdue, and the show writers rectified this deficiency. This reviewer
explains all the reasons why the attack on Hardhome is a gut-puncher second to only the Red Wedding. Also overdue was the hookup of Tyrion and Dany, and their disputing where and how Dany should rule.
4. The Dance of Dragons.
Season 5, Episode 9. If Hardhome
is the ice we'd been waiting for, this episode is the fire. Drogon's dance in Daznak's Pit is everything I hoped for and more, but before that comes another and more outrageous fire. It's possibly the most upsetting scene of the series: Stannis sacrificing his daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light. Back to back we witness the burning-at-the-stake of a completely innocent child, and then the glory of a queen reclaiming her destiny, as her untamed baby, now of monstrous size, roasts her attackers in the arena. I'm hard pressed to say which scene is more powerful, and I love how the "Dance of Dragons" theme weaves through both; Stannis and Shireen's discussion of the ancient dragons is so tenderly played, and a heartbreaking prelude to a father's despicable decision.
5. The Climb.
Season 3, Episode 6. A visual masterpiece. I was sweating when the Wall defended itself and sent wildlings falling to their screaming demise. Jon and Ygritte's precious moment at the top is well earned. Tyrion and Cersei have their best moment in the series (finding common cause in grief over the marriages they've been shafted with), as do Tywin and Olenna (who sling mud at each other over the homosexual/incestuous inclinations of the other's children). The best part, however, is Littlefinger's monologue about his own "climb" of the ladder of life. He glorifies the ruthless who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, which plays over the ugly death of Ros. It's the coldest speech of the series and steals the show.
6. A Golden Crown.
Season 1, Episode 6. One of the most unforgettable episodes. War is foreshadowed when Robert (after punching Cersei in the face) refuses to allow Ned to step down as the Hand. He gets more than he bargained for when Ned sits the Iron Throne and summons Tywin Lannister to court on pain of treason, precipitating awful events. Meanwhile, over in the Vale, Tyrion is championed by Bronn, and the duel is a ripper. Still further east, Dany gets carnivorous with the horse heart -- without question the best cross-cultural scene of the series -- and Viserys is "rewarded" by Drogo with a molten gold crown. His death is so disturbing that it almost plays like fantasy snuff.
7. The Mountain and the Viper.
Season 4, Episode 8. The duel between Oberyn and Clegane is the best fight sequence of the series. It's so well done that even if you read the books, it manages to make you think Oberyn might win and free Tyrion. Despite his relatively small size (compared to the Mountain), he looks entirely believable as the most lethal warrior of Dorne; his acrobatics with the spear are hypnotic. This episode also features Sansa's best performance to date, as she tearfully recounts Lysa's "suicide" to the nobles of the Vale -- both exposing and concealing Littlefinger's deceptions, and finally taking control
of her miserable life. She could just become more dangerous than Cersei and Littlefinger combined.
8. And Now His Watch is Ended.
Season 3, Episode 4. The title heralds the death of Lord Mormont, killed by his own men at Craster's Keep. That's explosive enough. But the real explosion comes overseas in Slaver's Bay, where Dany comes into her own and roasts the city of Astapor. The "Dracarys" moment is almost as powerful as in the book -- I say almost because of the liberties taken back in the House of the Undying, where the dragons made their first "Dracarys" kill with Pyat Pree. (The Qarth thread of season 2 has been the weakest adaptation to date.) But it doesn't end up mattering: this is a truly glorious episode.
Season 1, Episode 9. Sansa's gateway into hell. The death of Ned Stark showed that no one is safe in Westeros, that the more you grow attached to Martin's characters, the more likely they will be unexpectedly and unfairly slain. It's an instant classic for good reason, and it's not just Ned who gets snuffed. In the east, Dany faces the impending deaths of Drogo and Rhaego: the horse ritual that kills her husband and baby is hideous. Walder Frey makes an appropriate first appearance, negotiating with Catelyn for terms that Robb will fail to keep, precipitating his own treacherous downfall.
10. Garden of Bones.
Season 2, Episode 4. By far the nastiest episode to date, and an underrated gem. Joffrey has Sansa beaten in front of spectators in the throne room. Joffrey forces Ros to beat another whore bloody. The Mountain and his men torture young prisoners at Harrenhal. Most spectacularly, after Stannis and Renly trade public insults, Melisandre gives hideous birth to a shadow creature. It's one demented act after another, and was scripted by Vanessa Taylor, whose other season-2 episode places on this list (see #14). She should be writing a lot more for the series.
11. The Watchers on the Wall.
Season 4, Episode 9. It's not often that battle episodes are bottle episodes, but that's what the next two entries are. I think the battle for the Wall is slightly better than the one for King's Landing, and for my money it's definitely more impressive than Helm's Deep in Jackson's Two Towers
. It sets a new bar for TV warfare. It's faithful to the book's imagery, some of it exactly how I imagined. There are giants, a mammoth, and exploding barrels of oil; wall-scaling; the breaching of the gate. Alliser Thorne is in fine, vulgar form; the deaths of Pyp and Grenn are moving, and of course Ygritte even more so.
Season 2, Episode 9. Another bottle episode and battle epic. Like the characters we feel caged inside the Red Keep, with no hint as to what's going on elsewhere, and just because they're Lannisters doesn't mean we don't feel for them. Tyrion owns the spotlight, as his cunning plans to save the city explode with an emerald vengeance. The wildfire on the river is incredible, and you don't know whether to cheer or cringe as Stannis' men burn like auto-de-fés. And Tyrion's reward? A sliced face, and his come-late father who will take all the credit.
13. The Pointy End.
Season 1, Episode 8. A pure bad-ass episode. Drogo is challenged by one of his men when Dany refuses to allow war captives to be raped, and Drogo rewards him by ripping his tongue out of his throat
. At Kings' Landing, Arya kills a stable boy in the chaos following Ned's imprisonment -- and after watching Syrio Forell clobber the shit out of four Lannister knights with a wooden training sword
before dying under Ser Meryn's blade. In the north, the Greatjon challenges Robb's right to lead the clans, and Grey Wind leaps over the dinner table and bites his finger off. At the Wall, Jon kills a reanimated wight. This one gets your blood up like no other.
14. The Old Gods and the New.
Season 2, Episode 6. Theon captures Winterfell, and when he executes Rodrik in front of Bran, it's a brutal hack job that takes four goddamn swings (a far cry from the single clean strokes of the Starks). In a way it's as upsetting as Ned Stark's beheading, because the fall of Winterfell represents the evaporation of Ned's entire house. Things also get rough at Kings Landing, as Joffrey and his retinue are attacked by a starving mob, and Sansa nearly raped until rescued by the Hound. Meanwhile, Arya has become Tywin's cupbearer at Harrenhal, and they have some of the best character moments in the series. Up north Ygritte makes her debut: Jon is unable to kill her, and she begins tormenting him with lewd come-ons.
15. The Laws of Gods and Men.
Season 4, Episode 6. Tyrion's mummer trial, his "confession" before the court, and demand for a trial by combat harks back to his imprisonment in the Eyrie, but this time the drama is more stirring. When even Shae testifies against him with lies, his reaction to the crowd’s laughter is spot on: "I saved you all -- all your worthless lives
." He confesses to the "crime" of simply being a dwarf, for which he's been on trial all his bloody life. "I didn’t kill Joffrey, but I wish I had. I wish I had enough poison for you all. I wish I was the monster you think I am." This pivotal scene is true to the book, and without question my favorite Tyrion scene to date.
16. Winter is Coming.
Season 1, Episode 1. The prologue establishes the threat beyond the Wall, and the bulk showcases the wonderful Stark and Lannister characters we'll come to love and hate. The Stark kids claiming their wolf pups is the best part. Bran climbing the tower walls and getting pushed off by Jaime is a close second, and promises that Game of Thrones
won't be generic fantasy: George Martin plays hardball.
17. Fire and Blood
. Season 1, Episode 10. The first season-finale is an introspective aftermath that sees everyone coping with Ned's death. Joffrey forcing Sansa to look at her father's head displayed on the castle walls, and Ser Meryn beating her face bloody, is especially heartbreaking. But Dany's side of the story upstages this, as she copes with Drogo's death, the question of her fate among the Dothraki, and finally of course, the amazing birth of her dragons.
18. The Children.
Season 4, Episode 10. The pivotal scene in this finale is Bran's arrival at the weir-tree of the Three-Eyed Crow, and it's prefaced by a brilliant undead attack sequence that sees the death of Jojen Reed and Bran warging. Then there is Dany's dragon horror, as she finds out that Drogon roasted some poor Merenese child. Tyrion shooting his father with a crossbow is another priceless climax: Tywin is on the toilet when it happens. Shae gets her due as well. Like Tyrion, Arya sails for the east -- after watching Brienne beat the Hound within an inch of his life.
19. Kissed by Fire.
Season 3, Episode 5. Jon and Ygritte's love-play in the cave pool is the heart of the episode, and as in the book, it resonates with foreordained tragedy. Ygritte really means when she says she wishes they could stay there forever, though certainly not because she fears war. On an unacknowledged level, they both know their romance can't last. Then there is the Karstark fiasco that cements Robb's own doom. If breaking his marriage-oath to Walder Frey was the unforgivable offense, executing Karstark and alienating his men is what will make the Red Wedding possible. Last but not least is the duel between the Hound and Beric Dondarrion.
20. High Sparrow.
Season 5, Episode 3. The first seven episodes of the fifth season aren't nearly as weak as people complain about, and this one is especially good. There is Jon's beheading of Janos Slynt, which is fantastic, but it's really about the Stark girls and the hardest decisions they've yet faced. Sansa enters into a marriage pact with Ramsay Bolton, and this radical departure from the novels is an excellent move, as it promises Sansa a pro-active role in payback for the Starks. Her scenes with Littlefinger, as he counsels her to use this ugly situation to her advantage, are brilliant. Meanwhile over in Essos, Arya is initiated into the Faceless Assassins, and she makes the painful choice of putting her old life completely behind her.
21. The Lion and the Rose.
Season 4, Episode 2. Joffrey's death is a scene you can replay over again, just like the scenes of Tyrion slapping his face in episode 2 of the first season and episode 6 of the second. Except Tyrion isn't the offender this time, much as he will pay dearly for it. The culprit is sharp-tongued Lady Olenna, who obviously wants Margaery to be queen of Westeros, but won't stand for her granddaughter suffering Joffrey's sadism. (She's undoubtedly in league with Littlefinger, who has in hand in every nefarious plot.) I also love the midgets' courtly re-enactment of the War of the Five Kings.
22. The Wolf and the Lion.
Season 1, Episode 5. Here we get the catalyst for the War of the Five Kings: Catelyn's rash abduction of Tyrion. The Eyrie is spectacular, the sky cells terrifying, and young Prince Robin a piece of work. True to the book, he suckles his mother's breast at the age of eight, and is sadistic like Joffrey. At Kings Landing there's some intense drama: the Mountain gets thrown from his horse and chops its head off; Ned resigns as Hand when Robert condones Dany's assassination; then he's ambushed by Jaime, who has his men slaughtered. From here on out Westeros won't be the same.
23. Second Sons.
Season 3, Episode 8. The theme of protective second sons plays everywhere. Mercenaries by that name rally to support Dany. Tyrion weds Sansa, and defends her against Joffrey's bullying. Sam protects Ghilly, and in a major heroic moment kills a White Walker. But the best part is at Dragonstone, where Stannis (the realm's "protector") leeches the deaths of the "usurper" kings. It's creepy as hell, and implies that he and Melisandre are the true assassins of Robb and Joffrey, working their regicides through supernatural forces; Walder Frey and Lady Olenna would appear to be mere proxy killers in the grander scheme of things.
24. You Win or You Die.
Season 1, Episode 7. Two scenes sell this episode with a vengeance. The first is Drogo's vow to avenge the assassination attempt on Danerys: "I will take my khalasar west to where the world ends. and ride wooden horses across the black salt water as no khal has done before! I will kill the men in iron suits and tear down their stone houses! I will rape their women, take their children as slaves, and bring their broken gods back to Vaes Dothrak! I swear before the Mother of Mountains as the stars look down in witness! As the stars look down in witness! As the stars look down in witness!" The other, of course, is Littlefinger's betrayal of Ned Stark in the throne room.
25. Mother's Mercy.
Season 5, Episode 10. Cersei's walk of shame is the centerpiece, but this finale is mostly a series of cliffhangers: Theon and Sansa jump from the walls of Winterfell; Brienne swings her sword down on Stannis; Myrcella starts hemorrhaging; Dany is surrounded by a horde of Dothraki; Arya goes blind; most critically, Jon is killed by the Night's Watch, and the big question is how he might live on (through Ghost?). Tease-endings like this follow the pattern of Martin's fourth and fifth books, and they work for the most part with certain payoffs, like Arya's revenge on Meryn Trant.