How that epic ‘GoT’ Arya-Brienne showdown was shot
The Throne room: 'Game of Thrones' cast assembles for the Season 8 premiere in New York this month.Image: jeff kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO
Even after the curtain falls on the final season of Game of Thrones, fans will continue to argue over which episodes were the best — and “definitive” rankings will continue to appear online ad infinitum.
Few of those lists, however, accurately define “best episode.” Most hour-long chunks of Game of Thrones contain one unforgettable moment. But best episodes are not the same as best scenes, best character pairings or even best battles. The truly great episodes are at the top of their game — in writing, acting, lighting, music, and CGI quality, from the clockwork map to the fade to black.
For example, a popular choice for lists is Season 6, Episode 5, “The Door.” That’s because we all recall the heartbreaking last 10 minutes, which revealed the full meaning of Hodor’s name. But rewatch the whole episode, and you’ll see the vast majority of it consists of subpar Arya and Daenerys scenes.
After an obsessive study of the first 67 episodes (7 more than in the shorter 2017 version of this story), I have declared a new winner. And I can confirm one thing: Game of Thrones is at its best when it focuses on a handful of characters and settings. Time really is not kind to episodes that check in with everyone the length and breadth of Westeros.
So let’s draw our flaming swords of storytelling and charge out beyond the Wall of conventional wisdom to slay the wights of episodic myth.
15. “The Dragon and the Wolf” (Season 7, Episode 7)
It wasn’t a surprise that Game of Thrones started to run out of steam in its seventh season, which was truncated to a mere seven episodes. But the show found a new lease on life with this, the Season 7 finale, which contained a constant stream of scenes we’d been dying to see for years. Better yet, none of these scenes felt too much like fan service.
The all-Westeros crisis summit in the Dragonpit set the tone here. It’s mostly a series of achingly simple, spare, sad reunions between characters who’ve spent seasons apart (Tyrion and Podrick, Brienne and the Hound, etc.), punctuated by short bursts of hair-raising drama (Dany arrives on dragonback, Cersei comes face-to-skull with a wight).
Throw in Sansa and Arya finally disposing of Littlefinger, the full revelation of Jon’s lineage, Jon finally hooking up with Dany (whatever you think of how it was handled), and the Wall finally falling, and it’s hard to keep this episode off the list. Even if some of the in-between scenes feel like snippets, as disjointed as dialogue from dead-eyed Bran.
14. “Fire and Blood” (Season 1, Episode 10)
Why has Game of Thrones succeeded for so long? Not because it gives us shocking plot twists, but because it takes the time to fully explore the ramifications of each one. “Fire and Blood” was the first example of this, and remains one of the best. Instead of moving swiftly on after the execution of Ned Stark (see “Baelor,” below), the showrunners took an episode to show all the ripple effects of Ned’s death, the surprising ups and downs it caused. Some of which still reverberate seven seasons later.
Joffrey was revealed as an unbridled tyrant, forcing Sansa to see her father’s head on a spike. But Tywin Lannister was put in a weaker position, unable now to sue for peace with the North and the Baratheon brothers. Jon tried to desert and ended up being sent beyond the Wall to find White Walkers instead; Arya was sent on her way to becoming a badass.
And speaking of badasses, there was that closing scene involving Dany, a fire, and three newly hatched dragons. What’s Valyrian for “mic drop”?
13. “Home” (Season 6, Episode 2)
Working without the net of an original George R.R. Martin novel for the first time, as the showrunners did when they reached “Home,” could have been problematic. Largely because they were left to answer the burning question of whether Jon Snow would be brought back to life after his assassination.
Spoiler: of course he would. But the show was smart enough to leave Jon on a slab for two full episodes, allowing us to think Melisandre had failed to bring him back. We linger on the corpse for a minute — its eyes open, big gasp, fade to black.
By that point, more importantly, we were awash in satisfying new plot threads. “Home” not only gave us Max Von Sydow’s take on the Three-Eyed Raven, it plausibly introduced Bran Stark’s ability to time travel via tree, visiting both young Ned Stark and young Hodor. Given how much was riding on us buying that concept, this was no mean feat.
Elsewhere we got Tyrion’s teary-eyed first encounter with 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 killers. How could it do all of this and not feel rushed? TV magic.
12. “Valar Morghulis” (Season 2, Episode 10)
Another vastly underrated season finale episode, this episode sealed more fates than we remember. Robb, in marrying Talisa, unknowingly put himself on the road to the Red Wedding. Bran, escaping north from Winterfell after Theon’s incursion, started on the path to becoming the Three-Eyed Raven. Arya, escaping Harrenhal with Jaqen H’ghar, made her eventual conversion to faceless assassin inevitable. Through Sam’s eyes, we finally saw the scale of the White Walker army heading to the wall, even if it would take another five full seasons to get there.
And after a ponderous season stuck in Qarth, Dany had a vision at the House of the Undying that may be of the most vital importance to Season 8: the Iron Throne covered in snow in the ruins of King’s Landing. Will we look back and say that the show’s ending was planted in plain sight, right here?
11. “The Laws of God and Men” (Season 4, Episode 6)
Everyone remembers the shocking trial by combat that makes 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 Laws of God and Men,” 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 could do courtroom drama with the best of them. Peter Dinklage’s fiery speech damning his father and all King’s Landing for 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 owning dragons and crucifying slave owners.
All in all, very mature stuff for a fantasy world that is often dark — but rarely lives this deep in the grey area.
10. “You Win or You Die” (Season 1, Episode 7)
No character ever had a better-acted introduction than Tywin Lannister — thanks to the mighty Charles Dance, who literally learned to field-dress a stag for this scene. And that was just the beginning for an episode that grows in stature with every rewatch and is unsurpassed when it comes to court intrigue.
The confrontation in the garden between Cersei and Ned that gives this episode its immortal title, where he reveals that he knows who Joffrey’s true father is, is also the crux point of the entire show. If Ned Stark the classic hero had only played the game for keeps, we’d be watching a very different and duller Westeros. Game of Thrones‘ genius is that it is defined by his heroics and their absence.
Events accelerate at devilish speed once Robert Baratheon is speared by a boar and dies. A few breathtaking chess moves on both sides, and suddenly it’s checkmate: Littlefinger has a knife at Ned’s throat. It says a lot that this episode takes a breather by … cutting to an assassination attempt on Dany.
9. “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. She could have told Jon that the literal cavalry was on its way.)
8. “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 golden moments alone would earn “The Lion and the Rose” a place on any sensible list.
But wait, there’s more! The real meat of the episode is the surprise poisoning of King Joffrey at his awkward, garish, little person 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.
7. “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 memorable for its 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 Braavos.
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 sometimes struggled to explain how much of an existential threat the White Walkers are to everyone in the Seven Kingdoms. Not this time.
6. “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, it was the most expensive episode of anything on TV, ever. Now, it’s 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 loathe 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 damn good at being a standalone. For the first time, Game of Thrones stayed in one place and told interlocking stories. Thrones episodes would now be compared to the year’s best movies and not be found wanting.
5. “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 arguably any other piece of entertainment this century? Only 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.” In truth, 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. You only have to think of Catelyn pulling up Roose Bolton’s sleeve to reveal the chainmail, or the musicians suddenly changing their tune, to get shivers. That’s , right there.
4. “Baelor” (Season 1, Episode 9)
You know it as the one where our hero Ned had his head cut off — 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 buildup, 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.
3. “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.
And we haven’t even got to the three biggest-deal 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 Braavos, and you think it’s all over. Only then does Tyrion escape from prison, strangle Shae while choking back sobs, kill his toilet-bound father with two well-deserved crossbow bolts, and depart for Essos in a crate.
No wonder that no other season finale would top the epic that was “The Children.” Well, not until …
2. “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 10 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 yet it has the confidence to take its time, to set the stage in silence.
The tension builds 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 of literal brilliance.
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 ), 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.
For an encore, “Winds of Winter” gave us three key events we’d been waiting an age to see: the official beginning of winter, the birth of Jon Snow, and Dany raising an armada to sail west with her dragons. She makes Tyrion her Hand — the honor overwhelms him — but also has to put Daario away.
Dany’s awe-inspiring dragon armada, off to Westeros after seven seasons of buildup, had to be the finest CGI-filled scene in the show — that is, until …
1. “The Spoils of War” (Season 7, Episode 4)
Hate on Season 7 all you want (I did). The reveals and reversals of “Spoils of War” proved Game of Thrones had the power to delight our eyes more than before, and send our pulses racing faster than ever. Our jaws hurtled further to the floor when we saw the show’s most unexpected moment of war.
First a quick shout-out to the things you forget are in this surprisingly perfect episode. Arya returned to Winterfell, had her reunion with Sansa after seven whole seasons, and then fought Brienne effortlessly in the show’s most immortal duel.
Bran got the drop on Littlefinger. Jon unearthed the ancient etchings of the First Men fighting the White Walkers and told Dany people follow her because they hope she’ll change the whole system, which may well be a spoiler for the end of Season 8.
What sealed the creation of an instant classic was the sudden surprise of the loot train attack. Here, finally, was what all Westeros had feared: dragons and Dothtraki in action. The technical expertise did not disappoint. The dragonfire scenes provided what is probably the most stunning CGI in the whole show. With 73 stunt men on fire, an all-time record, it made Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day scenes look tame.
And it all built to that one perfect scene at the end: Jaime on horseback, charging Dany and her dragon before being plunged to the bottom of an icy lake. It’s easily the most breathtaking cliffhanger in the whole show so far. Let’s see whether Season 8 can top it.