With the first season of the having taken audiences by storm and a second run of episodes currently in development, there is no better time to re-watch the original series than now. The universe is packed to the brim with lore, geography, and medieval iconography. The series is so rich with detail that it is hard to grasp the scale. Throw in the fact that many of the names sound similar, and you may have some serious trouble mapping the without taking notes.
Update November 19, 2023: If you're looking back at after having watched , you'll be happy to know that we've updated this list of the best episodes of the original HBO series with additional information.
The first episode of aired on HBO on June 19, 2011, and ran for eight seasons, with the final episode airing on May 19, 2019. In that time, the show became a ratings hit and a cultural phenomenon, gaining loyal fans all around the world. While the later seasons are generally considered to be weaker than the earlier ones, there are still plenty of great episodes on offer. This list takes a look at the very best of the bunch.
This is where it all started. The very first episode of "Winter Is Coming," not only kick-started but rewrote the TV rule book with an hour of television that had the same production value as a Hollywood movie. Right from the start, the episode sets in motion some pretty dramatic revelations and conflicts that will go on to be explored later down the line. We are also introduced to most of the major families in this episode, including the Starks, the Lannisters, and the Targaryens, and the very first scene offers a glimpse at some White Walkers, one of the main antagonists of the entire series. The episode culminates in one of television's most famous climaxes — Bran Stark being pushed from a tower by Jaime Lannister after witnessing him having sex with his own sister, Cersei.
First episodes are notoriously difficult to get right, but straight out of the gate, established itself as an action-packed fantasy epic filled with political intrigue, family drama, and violence. Furthermore, with well-drawn characters, strong performances from the talented cast, and lavish production design, "Winter Is Coming" succeeded in ensuring viewers would be back to experience more from this bleak world of power games.
For many fans, this is the last good episode. "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" centers on preparations for the final battle between the living and the dead and sees Jaime Lannister being allowed to join the fight after Brienne of Tarth vouches for him. Later in the episode, Jaime returns the favor by knighting Brienne, subsequently making her the titular Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. Elsewhere, Jon Snow reveals his true parentage to Daenerys.
In contrast to other season eight installments, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" is an efficiently constructed and purposely slow episode that both addresses past story threads and sets up the looming battle. A brooding meditation on its characters, this episode is the calm before the storm that contrasts heavily with the bombastic and action-packed nature of the next installment. It's a beautifully written episode, particularly for the characters of Jaime and Brienne, with the latter getting one of the most touching moments in the whole show.
The pace at which lovable characters die in this show can be upsetting. It seems as though the enjoyable characters die quickly, and the evil ones seem to live too long. When a truly evil character does end up dying, it can be a breath of relief and satisfaction. It is for this reason that "The Lion and the Rose" is one of the very best. This is the episode that depicts the wedding between Joffrey and Margaery, which ultimately ends with the former's face turning horrible shades of blue and red, his eyes swelling up, and his life coming to an end.
As twisted as it might sound, death plays a large role in and often the more shocking, the better. Few death scenes in the shows are more shocking than Joffrey's. The last episode of the show to be scripted by George R. R. Martin himself, "The Lion and the Rose" is a masterclass in how to build up tension and a sense of foreboding. Joffrey was a despicable brat from the start, but this episode shows him at his worst, which only makes his subsequent demise all the more satisfying.
While a just death in the series can make an episode enjoyable, an unjust one can be equally, if not more, emotionally engaging. There are many deaths of innocents over the course of this show, but "The Dance of Dragons" includes one of the most merciless and cruel; the death of Stannis Baratheon's daughter, Shireen. The innocent child who miraculously survived a dragon-scale outbreak as a child is willfully sacrificed by her father in the hopes that her royal blood will bring good fortune. She is burned at the stake as her mother screams hysterically for her to be freed, and her father watches from afar. Meanwhile, the Sons of Harpy attack Daenerys in the fighting pits, before she escapes on the back of one of her dragons.
With its various storylines all happening at once, often it is the case on the show that one plot stands out over the others. "The Dance of Dragons" is a rare example of an episode where almost all the storylines are equally engaging. While Daenerys' story is one of victory and triumph over villainy, with the sequence involving the dragon being one of , the scenes set in the North are a far bleaker, much more heart-wrenching and brutal affair. Ultimately, this episode displays at its two extremes and, in doing so, creates a truly fantastic penultimate episode of the season.
Following the previous adrenaline-pumping episode, "Mother's Mercy" somehow finds a way to pack a bigger punch as it sees the machinations of come to some conclusions. The episode starts with Arya brutally killing and stabbing Trant in Braavos after he beats her and two other young girls. Then, after Daenerys escapes Meereen on the back of her dragon, she is surrounded by a Dothraki horde. Meanwhile, in King’s Landing, Cersei is forced to walk naked from the Great Sept to the Red Keep while citizens jeer at her and throw feces, following her confession to the High Sparrow.
is filled with scenes that are uncomfortable to watch, but Cersei's punishment is up there among the most unbearable. As much over the course of the show, the level of humiliation and degradation inflicted on her is far beyond a humane punishment. Thanks to clever direction, which involves the viewer going with her for every step of the walk, and a sterling performance by Lena Heady, for one of the first times on the show, you start to feel bad for her. It's a significant and powerful moment in the character's journey and, like the rest of the episode, it's excellently realized.
Another action-packed episode, "Battle of the Bastards" opens with Daenerys confronting the Masters, who are currently attacking her city. Meanwhile, Daario leads the now allied Dothraki into the city to finally wipe out the Sons of the Harpy, and Theon and his sister, Yara, arrive in the city with ships to negotiate support of Daenerys's cause. The episode's biggest action, though, takes place at Winterfell, as Jon and Sansa, along with a Wildling army, confront Ramsey in order to negotiate the return of their captured brother, Rickon. However, it's not long before the conflict escalates into a full-blown battle.
There's no shortage of great battle sequences in , but "Battle of the Bastards" stands out, not only as one of the best in the show but on television in general. Violent, bloody, and brutal, the episode expertly succeeds in depicting the horrors of war. Each element of the production, from the direction to the cinematography to the performances of the cast, works hard to display the chaos and utter barbarity of the situation. It's an immersive episode of television that allows the viewer to feel all the pain, determination, and helplessness that the characters are experiencing, . No other show could pull an episode like "Battle of the Bastards" off.
Season four was a strong run for the show, with the best entry of them all being episode eight, "The Mountain and the Viper." The episode's many plot strands see the Wildings attack Mole's Town, Grey Worm and Missandei become closer, Littlefinger is questioned regarding Lysa's death, and Theon sheds his "Reek" identity. However, the episode is most memorable for featuring the showdown between Oberyn the Red Viper (played ) and Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane, which ultimately ends in the former's untimely demise.
Though the rest of the episode is enjoyable, the final duel is undeniably the highlight of "The Mountain and the Viper" and, indeed, one of the best moments in the show overall. Well-choreographed and full of tension, the fight plays with viewers' expectations, with it never apparent who the victor will be. Even when it looks like Oberyn has won, he is defeated in the blink of an eye in one of the most gruesome and bloody ways imaginable. It's a thrill ride of an episode filled with a clever editing, creative direction, and wonderful performances.
Another episode penned by creatorGeorge R. R. Martin, "Blackwater" is the penultimate installment of the second season, and revolves around Tyrion and the Lannister army defending King's Landing from Stannis Baratheon's fleet. The episode's title refers to the battle's location, Blackwater Bay, with the showdown ending in Stannis's defeat after Tyrion uses the sewers to mount a surprise attack.
"Blackwater" is bigger in scope than anything the show had to offer until that point. Like other battle episodes in the show, it's a technical and logistical triumph that makes for a truly entertaining hour of television. What sets "Blackwater" apart from other battles, though, is its storytelling. George R. R. Martin shows once again why he's the best in the business, by crafting a clever and focused tale that manages to be intimate and character-driven despite the scale and spectacle of the episode. With a stellar performance by the always-great Peter Dinklage and some top-notch direction, "Blackwater" is one of the most pleasing episodes in the show's history. .
Another episode revolving around an epic battle, "Hardhome" is pretty much as good as gets. The episode portrays the clash between the Night's Watch and the Free Folk, led by Jon Snow, against the Army of the Dead, overseen by the villainous Night King. Meanwhile, , Tyrion and Daenerys meet for the first time, and Cersei is charged with incest.
"Hardhome" is, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular episodes of television to have ever been made. More so than others on this list, it's a real technical achievement, with stunning visuals, top-notch CGI, and smart choreography making the battle sequence possibly the most exhilarating final 20 minutes of any episode in history. The White Walkers, which were teased for several seasons, lived up to the hype and made for some truly menacing and worthy opponents. This is the episode that made Jon Snow a household hero, adored by everyone, and for good reason. Kit Harrington puts in an excellent shift as The Bastard of Winterfell, while Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage show off some winning chemistry. "Hardhome" is at full power.
If viewers thought that was the same as any old medieval-inspired fantasy show, the season one episode "Baelor" made them think again. Eddard "Ned" Stark, who up until this point was the show's main character, is unexpectedly executed after being tricked by Joffery. He and Sansa are told that if he confesses to treason, his life will be spared. But Joffery, drunk with power, goes against his word and has Ned publicly executed in front of both his daughters. It's an unprecedented twist that would, no doubt, have come as a big surprise to anyone who hadn't read the books.
Though there had been eight episodes before it, "Baelor" is where really showed what it was made of. After all, what other show on TV would kill its main character off before the first season had even concluded? This is the episode that made clear that was like nothing else audiences had seen before; a show that's daring, cut-throat, and shocking. "Baelor," is like a Shakespearean tragedy, with all the drama and back-stabbing that comes with it. Furthermore, a glorious central performance by Sean Bean adds emotional weight and solidifies this as one of the show's high points.
If "Baelor" offered a shocking twist that blew viewers' minds, goodness knows what season three's "The Rains of Castamere" did to them. The highest-ranked episode of the series is also the show's most unforgettable episode. Centering on an event commonly referred to as "The Red Wedding," the episode sees the Stark army arrive at the Twins, where Robb apologizes to Walder Frey for not honoring their previous agreement for him to marry one of his daughters. Instead, Edmure marries Roslin and, after the ceremony, the two are ordered away to consummate the marriage.
Left in the room are Robb, Talisa, Catelyn, Walder, and Roose Bolton. Catelyn sees that Roose is wearing chain-link armor under his clothing, and soon the atmosphere changes as the Starks are ambushed. Robb, Talisa, and Catelyn are all murdered. At the same time, Arya rides to the Twins to meet her brother but is witness to the Stark soldiers being slain and realizes there was a betrayal. An absolute curveball in terms of character deaths and a huge blow to the Stark family.
Deliciously brutal, gloriously heartbreaking, and shocking beyond compare, "The Rains of Castamere" is the epitome of everything great about this show. If you want to watch an episode that sums up in a nutshell, this is it. Television has rarely been better.
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