The 10 (okay, 11) Best ‘Game of Thrones’ Episodes, Pt. 1

With Game of Thrones returning sometime this summer (probably) and me being tired of Reddit speculation, I figured it’d be fun to look back at some of the series’ high points. In a two-part post I’ll count down my top ten eleven episodes of series thus far.

Opinions are my own. if you’ve read me before you know I’m not a huge fan of Dany’s storyline to this point, so don’t expect many Dany-centric moments to be highlighted here. Sorry, nerds.

#11) “Two Swords”

Season 4, Episode 1

Directed by: D.B. Weiss

Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

Game of Thrones season premieres tend to be lackluster relative to the series’ overall quality. They’re usually more or less an extended version of “previously on” previews: briefly checking in with our characters so we know where and with whom everyone is, keeping the story stagnant, beating us over the head with exposition so we’re sure to be ready for what will later unfold. It’s a wee-bit insulting as a viewer, frankly. The writers underestimate both the intelligence and passion of their viewers. Trust me, GOT fans know where everything is at heading into any given season.

But “Two Swords” was different. It did everything you could ask of a season premiere. It introduced a fascinating new character in Oberyn Martell, played with a perfect blend of anger and raw sexuality by the great Pedro Pascal. It sets in motion a major event when Ser Dontos gives Sansa the necklace that will later be used in the murder of Joffrey. But the high point of the episode comes at its end, when The Hound and Arya visit an inn also hosting Lannister soldiers, one of whom is the man who stole Arya’s sword and murdered her friend. The sequence is staged impeccably. It’s all fun ‘n’ games at first, with The Hound talking about chicken and whatnot. But there’s an ominous sense to the whole scene. The moment the men recognized The Hound we knew how it would end. We then get one of the more brutal close-quarter fights that ends with the thematic maturation of Arya Stark. She not only kills, but appears to enjoy it. This is where her revenge tour -still a significant subplot in the series- really kicks off. It also forces the The Hound to view her differently, which leads to some outstanding banter throughout the rest of the season.

“Two Swords” is the best GOT season premiere to date and one of the best episodes of season four. Even if I couldn’t quite sneak it into the top ten, it would’ve felt weird to not say anything about it.

#10) “The Broken Man”

Season 6, Episode 7

Directed by: Mark Mylod

Written by: Bryan Cogman

Sevens save ya, Ian McShane. When the great McShane was announced as a guest star for season six, there was rampant speculation from book readers as to who he would play. Casting him almost against type (remember, this is the man who made “cocksucker” sound eloquent on Deadwood), McShane played a one-off septon named Ray. He infused the episode with his trademark charisma. Of course, his real purpose was to provide an outlet through which The Hound could be brought back. I think most fans assumed that The Hound would return at some point, considering we didn’t see him die and his arc seems destined to end with him fighting his brother. What this revelation lacked in shock value it more than made up for in execution. That cold open where a group of five men haul a large log, then behind them just one man hauls an even larger log? Perfect. I think we all new it was The Hound even before the camera panned up to his maimed face.

Another high point of the episode is Yara Greyjoy emasculating her brother Theon by forcing him to chug ale and cracking jokes about his cajones, or lack thereof. But she still does care, and that’s clear. The Theon-Yara relationship hasn’t gotten a ton of time to develop but figures to be a significant part of the final two seasons. “The Broken Man” also includes the hilarious sequence where Jaime and Bronn arrive at the incompetent siege of Riverunn. Jaime, not known to be a particularly keen military commander, certainly makes the Freys seem foolish here. “You’re lucky we’re friends or we’d be fucking you in the arse right now”, says Bronn, bluntly. Yet, despite his newfound confidence, Jaime isn’t able to make the Blackfish move an inch.

The Blackfish has always been one of my favorite minor characters on GOT. Clive Russell plays him with this cool quietness that contrasts the emotive acting of nearly everyone else on the series. This episode also introduces Lyanna Mormont, who fucking rules.

#9) “The Rains of Castamere”

Season 3, Episode 10

Directed by: David Nutter

Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

Popularly referred to as “The Red Wedding”, the penultimate episode of season three is viewed by many as the most shocking GOT episode to date. The thing is, if you were paying attention, you’d have smelled the death of Robb Stark (and therefore his wife and mother by association) from a mile away. It just made too much sense thematically. Westeros is an unforgiving place that cares not for love. Robb lost support from his following the second he chose to wed Talisa instead of the Frey girl he was initially promised to. That dwindling support became more clear when Robb executed Lord Karstark, arguably the most powerful of his bannermen.

It’s said that classic works -particularly those by Shakespeare- end one of two ways; a comedy ends in a wedding, a tragedy ends with death. George R.R. Martin scoffs at that idea. The actual red wedding sequence was beautifully blocked and written. Something is afoul from the start and it slowly develops to the point we realize what’s happening just as it happens. Many people leave the chamber. Frey men lock the doors. The musicians start playing the melody to Lannister song “The Rains of Castamere”. Catelyn notices Roose Bolton’s chainmail armor. And then, boom. Talisa is stabbed in the gut repeatedly, Robb and the few who still follow him are slaughtered. What was once a celebration (did Edmure still do the sex?) instantly became one of the bloodiest moments on a show that often makes Braveheart look G-rated.

Brilliant acting by Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) in her last episode. Being a Stark, she just doesn’t understand how things actually work. Even after everything unfolds she still believes there’s a chance Robb will be spared. Fairley channels the despair with her voice. This is an iconic television moment in large part due to Fairley’s work.

#8) “The Old Gods and the New”

Season 2, Episode 6

Directed by: David Nutter

Written by: Vanessa Taylor

An episode loaded with quality scenes in nearly every location, I’ll begin beyond the wall. Qhorin Halfhand’s expedition, which includes the still pure Jon Snow, comes across a group of wildlings, including Ygritte. Charged with beheading her, of course Jon doesn’t. A cat-n-mouse game ends in them having to spoon for warmth. The sexual tension won’t come to a boil until a few episodes later, but this is where GOT’s most tragic love story begins. Rose Leslie (who plays Ygritte) is just so much fun. Her chemistry with Kit Harrington will go on to result in many of series’ best moments.

In King’s Landing, shit happens, literally. A crowd of starving people is getting unruly. One of them chucks a turd at Joffrey, who immediately shows off both his cruelty and stupidity by ordering them all to be slaughtered. This was really the first time someone other than Cersei checked Joffrey, and the first time we got a real glimpse of how upset commonfolk were with his rule. The sequences culminates with Tyrion bitch-slapping his nephew and hilariously proclaiming “And now I’ve struck a king! Did my hand fall from my wrist?”. I always found the Joffrey-Tyrion relationship to be one of the more interesting ones. Tyrion is never afraid to speak down to, even order around, Joffrey. Joffrey never really does anything about it early on. Perhaps he had a strange respect for his uncle, or perhaps he truly was that much of a coward.

My favorite scene in the episode comes at Harrenhal. Arya, serving as the cupbearer for a Tywin Lannister who has no clue who she is, lies brilliantly over a multiple episode stretch. But for a moment it appears over here as Littlefinger visits Lord Tywin. Arya stays in the room serving the two, even spilling wine on Littlefinger. As she circles the table he gives her multiple glances. It’s unclear if he recognized exactly who she was (Littlefinger is obviously tough to read), but he surely realized something was different about this girl. The tension is almost unbearable. Exceptional direction and blocking from David Nutter, one of GOT’s finest directors.

#7) “Hardhome”

Season 5, Episode 8

Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik

Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

The titular battle at Hardhome was only mentioned in the books. The showrunners made the executive decision to flex their budget and show it here, a wise move as it serves as the first real glimpse we get at the army of the dead in action. Other things happened in this episode, but let’s not pretend that’s why people love it.

The battle is glorious and manages to draw out tension despite it being obvious that Jon Snow isn’t going to die here. It also made the important revelation that Valyrian steel can kill the walkers. The actual battle features some great long-take fight choreography, something Kit Harrington and Miguel Sapochnik have expressed is important to them. It’s also surprising how hard the death of female wilding Karsi hits considering we were just introduced to her. “Hardhome” featured not just a visually spectacular battle, but one very important to the larger context of the series.

And, that ending, wow. Perfectly edited by Emmy winner Tim Porter. We alternate between shots of the Night’s King raising his arms, Jon Snow looking on in horror, and perspective shots of the boats and army of the dead. It’s a harrowing moment that genuinely had me speechless afterwards. What more can I really say about “Hardhome”? Fans voted it the best episode in the series. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but it is astonishing.

#6) “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”

Season 1, Episode 4

Directed by: Brian Kirk

Written by: Bryan Cogman

A relatively quiet but outstanding episode of GOT (yes, those exist). This episode features Tyrion returning to Winterfell after his visit to the Wall. As a dwarf, he of course has a soft spot for what Bran is experiencing. To see Tyrion make the kind gesture of giving Bran blueprints for a saddle that will allow him to ride while we know that Catelyn Stark is coming for him thinking he’s responsible for Bran’s crippling is quite a neat trick. And at this point we’re not yet aware that Tyrion is different from the rest of his family. For all we knew, he did conspire to kill Bran.

This is also the first episode where Ned really starts doing some investigating in King’s Landing, discovering the existence of Gendry (remember him?) in the process. Also in the capital, we see The Mountain kill a man during a joust just after Littlefinger frightens the Stark girls by telling them the story of The Mountain and The Hound. It’s a chilling moment for reasons far beyond the blood. Aidan Gillen is so good at playing Littlefinger. Those sly smirks help create the character more than anything he actually says.

One of my all-time favorite GOT moments happens here when we’re introduced to Sam at The Wall. He is of course fat and clumsy, and his apparent weakness gives us our first glimpse of the real Jon Snow, who defends him amidst the ass-beating he’s receiving from the other trainees. It kicks off the shows best bromance and serves as an important early moment for two major characters.

That’s it for now. Check back later for my top five GOT episodes.

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