Big Battles And Bad Weddings: The 10 Best 'Game Of Thrones' Episodes

Game of Thrones returns for its eighth and final season this weekend, so you know what that means: it's time to rank things. And a show as epic as this offers a great deal to rank. So let's start with the best episodes, shall we?

/Film's resident Westeros experts, Jacob Hall and Ben Pearson, hunkered down, re-watched all 67 episodes of the series so far, and whittled them down to a lean and mean top 10. Before we enter the show's endgame on Sunday night, let's remember why we love this show in the first place. These are the best episodes of Game of Thrones.

Note: Before you wonder "Why isn't this episode part of the list?", Ben and Jacob have you covered. They recorded an entire podcast episode where they hashed out their personal lists and debated what should make the final cut. You can listen to it here.

10. Hardhome

There's more to "Hardhome" than its spectacular sustained battle sequence. Sansa Stark receives some much-needed good news: her brothers Bran and Rickon were not murdered by Theon Greyjoy and might still be alive. Across the Narrow Sea, Tyrion Lannister meets Daenerys Targaryen for the first time and becomes her advisor. But the true highlight is that extended battle as Jon Snow and the Wildlings unexpectedly face off against the White Walkers and the army of the dead as the Night King watches from on high. We learn the true power of Valyrian steel, witness some of the best shots of the entire series (shout out to Jon killing the White Walker and the baddie exploding into snowy diamond dust), and get the biggest zombie attack of the show thus far.

Plus, it introduces a new character we actually care about (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen's wildling warrior Karsi), immediately killing her off to drive home a frightening final point. The last few haunting seconds contain a chilling demonstration of the Night King's true power; he's not even interested in pursuing Jon Snow and the escaping survivors. He's content with just flexing, showing off his resurrection skills, and leaving Jon shaking in his wolf pelt. (Ben Pearson)

9. You Win or You Die

As much as I love the epic, blockbuster later seasons of Game of Thrones, a corner of my heart will always belong to the first season. Without the giant budget that would come with the show's massive success, the series has to make use of fewer locations and more storylines built around intrigue, mystery, shocking discoveries, and tense conversations. Few episodes of the series encapsulate the sinister joys of early Game of Thrones quite like "You Win or You Die," an episode that proves that Stark nobility is no match for Lannister treachery.

You remember this episode. Surely you do. King Robert Baratheon dies. Ned confronts Cersei about the true parentage of her children. Littlefinger promises to assist House Stark in their noble coup against the queen and her illegitimate children. Shocking betrayal. Stupid Ned Stark. Proof that no one should ever trust Petyr Baelish ever again. While other episodes feature more shocking acts of violence, few episodes provide such a clear snapshot of this brutally unfair, and wholly addictive, world. (Jacob Hall)

8. The Mountain and the Viper

This episode's horrifying ending – the shocking, gruesome death of the heroic Oberyn Martell at the hands of the vile Gregor Clegane – is one of the show's most surprising moments. But while that entire trial by combat is beautifully executed, there's more to this episode that's worth highlighting. Grey Worm and Missandei's relationship finally begins to heat up, giving us another reason to care about Dany's (often slowly-paced) subplot, and Arya and The Hound ride through the Bloody Gate and arrive at the Eyrie, only to discover that Arya's aunt has just died. Arya's reaction is perfect: after all she's already been through, all she can do is laugh.

I hadn't yet finished the books when I watched this episode live as it first aired, so its ending was the last big surprise of the series for me. Oberyn dying at the last second is one of the final vestiges of what the show used to do best: subverting the expectations of this type of fantasy storytelling. The "good guys" don't always win just because they have the moral high ground. In fact, as the show has proven time and time again, things often end poorly for traditional "heroes." And a big shout-out to Indira Varma, who plays Ellaria Sand – her scream after Oberyn's skull is crushed still gives me chills. (Ben Pearson)

7. The Door

Although Game of Thrones has always had its fair share of mysteries (R+L=J, amiright?), its greatest and most tragic mystery was one we never saw coming. In fact, the horrifying answers "The Door" provides accompany questions we didn't even realize we should have been asking all along. Hodor was just a simpleton, right? Gentle comic relief meant to grant the generally dry and expository "Bran Goes North" storyline some levity? That's what we thought. But it turns out that Hodor is another victim in a show about victims, one of the many common folk caught in the crossfire of a war they never asked to join.

It's appropriate that Lost veteran Jack Bender helms this episode, which features compelling scenes elsewhere (I'm a big fan of nasty Greyjoy politics, so the Kingsmoot is very much my jam), but ultimately builds to an extended sequence where the lair of Three-Eyed Raven comes under assault by the army of the dead and Bran and his friends must make a hasty escape. This means Bran warging into Hodor while simultaneously having a psychic flashback to the Winterfell of the past, which turns out to be a catastrophic choice. As Meera screams for Hodor to "Hold the door!" to keep the Wights from reaching Bran, her command echoes through time, triggering a seizure in young Wylis, who falls to the dirt in the Winterfell courtyard moaning. Soon, his cries of "Hold the door" slur into "Hodor," the only word he'll be able to say until he's torn apart by zombies decades later.

Dry your tears. The dead are still coming. (Jacob Hall)

6. The Rains of Castamere

Where were you when the good guys lost? Game of Thrones established its merciless stakes early on when it chopped off Ned Stark's noble, stupid head, but that didn't mean most folks saw The Red Wedding coming. The violence is upsetting, but the filmmaking that gets us there is why it works. Game of Thrones bounces around locations so fast and so often that when we stay in one place for too long, we know something is wrong. And we spend a lot of time at the wedding. Too much time. There is too much going right. Too much joy. Too much hope. Too much talk of a happy future. We can feel it in our bones, the same feeling Catelyn wears on her face. Something is wrong. 

You remember the details. Walder Frey and Tywin Lannister plot to murder Robb Stark and his allies at the wedding of Edmure Tully. You certainly remember Robb watching his pregnant wife being stabbed to death. You certainly remember a wounded Robb muttering "Mother" right before Roose Bolton slides a blade into him to finish the job. How could you forget Catelyn Stark's scream of anguish as she slices the throat of Walder's wife, an ineffective and pitiful act of vengeance, a pebble thrown at a brick wall. And then she's dead, too. And then it cuts to credits.

"The Rains of Castamere" is one of the most intense and unpleasant hours of television ever made, a long, slow march toward doom that demands your attention even as you want to look away. It ends not only with the death of several major characters, but the end of a seemingly vital storyline. When the credits roll, House Lannister has won. House Stark has been shattered. The good guys are wiped from the board. It's a bloody reboot of the whole damn show. (Jacob Hall)

5. The Spoils of War

Arya Stark finally returns to Winterfell and reunites with her siblings Sansa and Bran, and she has a fun little sparring session with her old pal Brienne of Tarth (possibly hinting at a match-up to come if one of them dies and is resurrected in season 8!). Jon Snow shows Daenerys Targaryen some cave paintings of the White Walkers at Dragonstone, lending some credence to his stories of the horrors he's witnessed beyond the Wall.

But most impressively, Dany hops on Drogon's back and cruises over to the Roseroad, where the Lannister forces are traveling back to King's Landing after taking Highgarden from the Tyrells. In a bravura sequence, Drogon torches the caravan as the Dothraki horde rides in and engages the troops on the ground, revealing the devastation Dany can rain down at the height of her power. It's a hugely impressive Game of Thrones debut for director Matt Shakman, a guy who was previously best known for directing episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (Ben Pearson)

4. The Lion and the Rose

It may sit in slot number four on this group list, but "The Lion and the Rose" is my personal favorite episode of the whole damn series. There is so much to love and treasure here, so much to chew on, so much to cherish. How do we even begin to count the joys and miseries?

First, there's tons of Joffrey being a total dick, something that later seasons are sorely lacking (admit it: you miss the bastard). Second, there's a ton of characters with wildly contrasting motivations all in one location for the majority of episode. Third, we get to watch those characters, including Tyrion, Sansa, the Queen of Thorns, Cersei, Oberyn, Jaime, Tywin, and so many more bounce off each other as they attempt to navigate the social and political minefield that is Joffrey's wedding day. Fourth, we get to watch these characters mercilessly insult and belittle each other, in ways both unsettling and hilarious. Fifth, it all builds to an extended wedding reception that is as tense and gripping as any battle, especially when Tyrion finds himself forced to stand up to his world-class ass of a nephew. And finally, like all great Game of Thrones episodes, it concludes with a shocking death. Goodbye, Joffrey. You little shit. We'll miss you, but few will admit it.

Honestly, this is a perfect hour of television. The fact that three episodes rank above it says a lot about the overall quality of Game of Thrones. (Jacob Hall)

3. Blackwater

"Blackwater" is one of the absolute finest hours Game of Thrones ever produced, but it ended up being a double-edged sword. Once HBO and the showrunners realized they could pull off a massive battle sequence, future seasons became a race to top it. The result: many impressive action scenes that are Hollywood blockbuster quality. The other result: many impressive action scenes that lack the character, humor, clarity, and ground-level, feel-it-in-your-gut intensity of what director Neil Marshall pulled off here.

The whole season has been leading to this. Stannis Baratheon and his fleet are arriving at King's Landing and only a skeleton crew of soldiers and Tyrion Lannister can save the city and its denizens from annihilation (not to mention rule under the least charismatic man to ever command forces in Westeros). It takes some time to get to the literal fireworks. "Blackwater" lingers in the calm before the storm: the sleepless night, the anxious conversations, the last-minute planning, the soldiers drinking and singing because this could be their final night alive. And when the battle does begin, the focus is less on the blood on the battlefield and more about the psychology behind the walls – how long can the defenses hold and just how doomed is everyone in the Red Keep?

Cersei's catty drunkenness. Tyrion's desperate rallying speech. The Hound spitting "Fuck the king" in Joffrey's face. That final arrival by Tywin and the narrow aversion of a decision the Queen herself could never take back. The fireworks are amazing, but the people watching them and suffering them on the ground? They're the reason we show up. (Jacob Hall)

2. The Winds of Winter

This episode has everything. Composer Ramin Djawadi's score has never been better than the "Light of the Seven" track that plays under the opening montage. Assassin Arya feeds Walder Frey's own sons to him and then slits his throat, enacting her revenge for the Red Wedding. Cersei Lannister blows the Sept of Baelor sky high with wildfire, killing Margaery, Lancel, Mace, Kevan, and that sanctimonious High Sparrow in the process. Realizing he's lost his wife, King Tommen Baratheon removes his crown and calmly falls out his window to his death. Cersei takes the Iron Throne for herself. Jon Snow is proclaimed the new King in the North, and his parentage is finally confirmed through one of Bran's flashbacks to the Tower of Joy. And after several years of fighting for a slavery-free Essos, Daenerys Targaryen gathers her forces and finally sets sail for Westeros. Just typing that out makes me want to rewatch the episode again immediately. (Ben Pearson)

1. The Children

Stannis Baratheon rides into the North and captures Mance Rayder, interrupting a tense stand-off between Mance and Jon Snow. Qyburn keeps the Mountain alive after the Viper's poison takes hold. Cersei confronts Tywin with the truth about her and Jaime, in one of the last great instances of the show crafting a small, brilliant scene with just two people in a room talking. North of the Wall, Bran and his friends fight their way through skeleton wights to arrive at the Three-Eyed Raven's tree of knowledge, with Jojen Reed dying in the process.

Tyrion Lannister, just hours away from execution for a crime he didn't commit, is freed by his brother Jaime – but before Tyrion leaves King's Landing, he takes his revenge on Shae and Tywin, killing both of them and ensuring that Varys comes along with him on a long boat ride away from the capital. And Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne stumble across Arya and The Hound, and one of the show's best one-on-one fights plays out, ending with The Hound left for dead and Arya on a boat to Braavos. This is peak Game of Thrones, with the show killing off major characters and paving the way for huge storylines to come. Valar morghulis. (Ben Pearson)


Game of Thrones season 8 premieres on HBO this Sunday night, April 14, 2019.