Such is the consistent brilliance of Game of Thrones, ranking its 10 greatest ever episodes is a task fraught with difficulty. However, with season 6 just around the corner, it felt necessary to determine the show’s finest moments with many more promised to grace our screens in the upcoming run of episodes.
Before we get into too much rambling, let’s begin the 10 greatest Game of Thrones episodes of all time.
10. Valar Morghulis (S2 E10)
In a lot of ways, season two was even more impressive than its predecessor. It was a riveting yet deeply flawed season that was saved by an extraordinary one-two punch with its final two episodes (the other of which we’ll come to later). The season-ending spectacular made up for some of season two’s failings – like Bran and Rickon’s under-developed storyline or repeated scenes of Daenerys shouting about her dragons – with that climactic sequence of the White Walker army marching towards the Night’s Watch. It was truly chilling stuff and made the wait for season three particularly excruciating.
9. The Laws of Gods and Men (S4 E6)
One of the most heartbreaking and tightly-scripted hours of television we’ve seen in a long, long time, this doozy from season four featured Tyrion’s trial for the murder of Joffrey which transpired to be one of the most taut sequences the show has ever offered. It all built up to Tyrion demanding a trial by combat, which was a definitive fist-pump moment for any fan. The episode also featured excellent performances from Charles Dance and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Tywin and Jaime Lannister respectively – the scene where Jaime pleaded to his father for Tyrion’s life was wonderfully acted.
8. Baelor (S1 E9)
Ned Stark was always too honourable for his own good. It ended up costing him his head. It also became that crystallising moment where everyone sat up and took notice that Joffrey was the biggest weasel in all of Westeros. From that moment, everyone loved to hate him. In the context of the show’s future, Baelor was enormous – it toyed with emotions in a way that would become synonymous with Game of Thrones but, being the first time, it was tough to pick our jaws up off the floor (yes, we hadn’t read the books beforehand).
7. The Watchers on the Wall (S4 E9)
What an exhilarating hour of television. Directed with sheer action-packed virtuosity by Neil Marshall, season four’s penultimate instalment was a shining example of elevated storytelling on the small screen. It gave us everything CGI giants and mammoths and despite the scale of the production, the episode never lost focus. Like Blackwater from season two, The Watchers on the Wall focused exclusively on the events at The Wall, providing one of the most exciting episodes of television ever made.
6. The Children (S4 E10)
A well-placed and brutal conclusion to arguably the show’s strongest season, The Children was one of those times where Game of Thrones couldn’t be touched by any other show for sheer dramatic heft. There was that heart-wrenching moment when Dany locked her dragons away, to the deaths of Shae and Tywin – this episode simply rocked. There was even a swashbuckling moment of brilliance when Brienne of Tarth and The Hound faced off – it was the definition of blockbuster television.
5. Mother’s Mercy (S5 E10)
That chilling final image of Jon Snow, lying cold on the ground and looking up, fresh off being stabbed about twenty times by his Night’s Watch comrades, has grown to become one of the show’s most stark. The events at Castle Black were brutal and bleak, but the episode had other excellent sequences too, from Arya going blind to Ellaria Sand exacting bloody revenge on Cersei by taking her daughter Myrcella from her. There was also Cersei’s walk of shame, compounding her misery and, for the first time, provoking a sense of compassion and sympathy for her.
4. The Mountain and the Viper (S4 E8)
This episode’s showpiece was the unforgettable and horrifying showdown between The Mountain and Oberyn Martell (aka The Viper). It became abundantly clear that Oberyn was dead meat, but the build-up to his fate being sealed was thrilling theatre. Then, it happened. The Mountain crushed Oberyn’s skull like a beetle, confirming the fate of not only his but Tyrion’s fate too after losing the trial by combat. At the time, it felt like a towering moment for the show, but one we wanted to forget before we next ate.
3. The Rains of Castamere (S3 E9)
Perhaps the most harrowing Game of Thrones episode ever made, The Rains of Castamere will forever be known for the Red Wedding. And so it should. It was a simply devastating, blood-drenched end to the journeys of Catelyn and Robb Stark, along with his girlfriend Talisa and their unborn son Eddard Stark II. The acting helped too, from David Bradley’s brilliantly leering and sneering portrayal of Walder Frey, to Michael McElhatton’s slippery depiction of Roose Bolton (The Lannisters send their regards). Then, with one final shot, the show ripped our heart out, slicing Catelyn’s throat and leaving us to stare into space in amazement.
2. Blackwater (S2 E9)
A heart-stopping episode where Tyrion once again stole the show (thank the lord for Peter Dinklage). Blackwater proved – once again – that when Game of Thrones ignores the multiple storylines constantly threatening to bog it down, it’s as absorbing as television can possible get. The tense tale of Blackwater was Stannis’ mighty fleet arriving for battle at King’s Landing, prompting an exhilarating action sequence and exposing character’s for who they really are: Tyrion a lion-hearted leader, Joffrey the exact opposite and The Hound as a man with fear and weakness like everyone else.
“Fuck the King’s Guard. Fuck the city. Fuck the King.”
1. Hardhome (S5 E8)
I think the collective response to this episode’s relentless final twenty minutes can be summed up as: HOLY SHIT. Delivering the knockout blow a week earlier than the usual episode nine dramatics, Hardhome restored faith in Game of Thrones’ longevity after a shaky and underwhelming season. It was packed with wonderful vignettes and memorable lines, but the image of the Night’s King, standing in front of his reanimated Wight Army, was one of the most terrifying the show has ever conjured up. It promised so much for season 6; namely thrusting the White Walkers from the fringes of the show straight into nightmarish action. It looks like we’re getting Hardhome 2.0 in season 6 with The Battle of the Bastards but it’ll take an almighty effort to top this.