The 10 (okay, 11) Best ‘Game of Thrones’ Episodes, Pt. 2

Here I conclude my countdown of my favorite Game of Thrones episodes with the top five. For #’s 11-6, click here.

Obviously, spoilers ahead.

#5) “The Children”

Season 4, Episode 10

Directed by: Alex Graves

Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

GOT has built itself a reputation for unorthodox season structure. Usually, it rolls out its “big” episode as the penultimate one then uses the finale as a way to catch-up amidst the aftermath. Episode nine of season one saw Ned Stark beheaded. Episode nine of season two saw the Battle of Blackwater. Episode nine of season three saw a little event called the Red Wedding. So when the season four finale proved eventful, following the battle at The Wall in the prior episode, it was certainly a pleasant surprise.

Where do I even begin with this one? Maybe beyond The Wall? Jon Snow travels North to assassinate Mance and break up the wildling army. But after a tense conversation, Mance is quick to realize Jon’s plan. Jon seems doomed, but then Stannis’ army shows up, easily running through the tired and horseless wildlings. The key moment here is Jon suggesting Stannis spare Mance and take him as a prisoner. It’s proof that even after the bloodshed, Jon truly does respect Mance and his people. I found it a bit out of character that Stannis listened to him, but whatever. Also beyond The Wall, Bran and his traveling companions reach the Heart Tree. They’re attacked by some wights, who are fought off by the Children of the Forest in what made for the show’s most impressive use of CGI yet. The corpses were beautifully animated; horrifying.

Shit certainly goes down in King’s Landing as well. Tyrion, awaiting his execution, is sprung free by Varys and Jaime. The escape included a nice, minimalist farewell between the brothers. I don’t think anyone really thought Tyrion was going to die -his imprisonment had been dragged out too long as a plotline for it to end as one would conventionally expect- but Benioff and Weiss still managed to squeeze real emotion out of this moment. Of course, Tyrion, wronged by nearly everyone, isn’t interested in merely escaping. One of the series’ most heartbreaking moments comes when Tyrion enters his father’s chamber, sees Shae laying on the bed, and she mutters (thinking Tyrion is Tywin), “My lion”. To this point the series painted Shae as a whore with a heart of gold. It turns out, she’s was just a whore with a regular whorish heart. As Tyrion graphically strangles her to death, the look in Peter Dinklage’s eye is one of both sorrow and pure hatred. A fine speechless moment from the series’ best actor. He follows that up by putting a couple crossbow bolts in Tywin as he drops a deuce. That was a fascinating scene. Even facing certain death Tywin was incapable of truly apologizing to or embracing Tyrion. He gave some quick spiel about “You think I’d actually let them kill you?” but it was such an obvious lie. A great sendoff for Charles Dance, who gave one of the stronger performances on the series as Tywin. Tyrion-Tywin scenes were always great.

But my favorite moment came in the Vale. Brienne and Podrick come across Arya and The Hound. They recognize the girl, and The Hound’s insistence on being the one who looks after her results in the best fight the show’s had yet. Brienne and The Hound, two of Westeros’ mightiest warriors, both truly having the best of intentions regarding Arya, square off. That’s a complex scenario given how both characters developed into two of the more likable folks on the show. And the actual fight? Sheesh. It quickly becomes hand-to-hand combat as their swords are lost. The Hound kicks Brienne in the vayjayjay. Brienne smashes The Hound’s head with a rock. The sound design in this scene is exceptional. Every blow is heard clearly. It’s raw. No music plays (which differs it from most GOT action sequences). After Brienne wins the fight and The Hound takes a tumble, it appears he’s dead. Yett Arya finds him just barely alive. He begs her to kill him, to cross another name of her list. But she won’t. It’s the climactic moment in what developed into one of the series’ best relationships. Outstanding acting by Rory McCann, who’s been repeatedly snubbed by awards groups for his work in this role.

What a packed episode. And more than that, what a packed episode that takes its time with key moments.

#4) “Baelor”

Season 1, Episode 9

Directed by: Alan Taylor

Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

“Baelor” served as GOT’s first true holy shit moment. As the first season neared its conclusion, I don’t think anyone sans book readers actually believed Ned Stark would be executed. After all, he was one of the few clear “good guys” on the show and the closest thing we’d ever get to an  actual protagonist. Ned Stark’s death was the moment when GOT showed us that nobody is safe and that nothing is predictable. It’s not automatically going to end happy for fan favorites as most fantasy stories tend to. It was certainly a ballsy moment both in print and on screen. Killing the guy whose face was on all the advertisements before the first season even ended? Unheard of. Looking back, however, it’s the only thing that made sense. It showed Joffrey’s monstrosity. It showed that honor gets you nowhere in Westeros. Most importantly, it showed that any character can be (literally) put on the chopping block.

Adding to the importance of the moment is the fact that it was shot and edited perfectly. We get images of Sansa looking on in horror, closeups of Ned’s head being put in place, Arya witnessing it all from the statue. As the sword finally comes down on Ned’s neck we cut to the Night’s Watch man Yoren holding Arya as she looks up, and then to an almost serene image of birds flying above. It was impeccably handled by Alan Taylor, perhaps the series’ finest director.

The other high point of the episode comes at the Lannister camp, where we’re introduced to Shae. She plays a revealing drinking game with Tyrion and Bronn, and the chemistry between her and Tyrion is clear from the start. In Dinklage’s best bit of acting this season, he recounts the story of how his brother set him up with a prostitute, who he married. Upon hearing of this Tywin made Tyrion watch as a gang of his men fucked her (not clear if it was rape or not). It was the first really dark moment from Tyrion, who to this point seemed like little more than a careless lusthound with an always problematic BAC. It provided great insight into why he feels so separated from every other Lannister.

#3) “The Winds of Winter”

Season 6, Episode 10

Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik

Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

That opening. Holy fuck. Miguel Sapochnik hits us with a quiet, ominous sequence that lays the groundwork for the biggest massacre on GOT to date. Perfectly drawn out. Ramin Djawadi’s beautiful score plays as everything falls into motion. It’s primarily just piano, vastly different from the main theme and any character music. We slowly realize what’s happening as Qyburn’s “little birds” shank a few people and Cersei has The Mountain prevent Tommen from attending the trail in the Sept; where all of the Sparrows, all of the Tyrell’s, and many other innocent people are gathered. Margaery, perhaps Cersei’s greatest rival, is the first to notice that something is off. But it’s too late. Kaboom. The impressive set piece turns into a glorious onslaught of green flames. Cersei finally gets her revenge and is now in charge. The whole sequence was a remarkable filmmaking achievement, complimented by the scene of Tommen killing himself.

Elsewhere, Arya kicks off her revenge tour by giving her best Eric Cartman impression, baking Walder Frey’s sons into a meat pie that she feeds him just before she kills him. It was a nice little appetizer for what is sure to be a very violent conclusion to Arya’s storyline. We also get a preview of a very neat new location as Sam arrives at The Citadel. Yet another tease for next season takes place as Lady Olenna arrives in Dorne to spark an alliance against the Lannisters. And to cap it all off we see Dany FINALLY sailing her fleet to Westeros. This finale found the balance between previewing the next season, containing its own exciting moments, and wrapping up a few storylines. Quite the writing/directorial achievement.

The big revelation comes as Bran enters a vision of Young Ned at the Tower of Joy, one we were briefly shown earlier. The scene confirms what many believed for years; R + L = J. Jon Snow is not in fact Ned’s bastard child. He is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark (Ned’s sister). Lyanna, knowing Robert Baratheon would have the boy slaughtered, made it her dying wish to Ned that he protect him. So Ned, honorable to a fault, claimed Jon as his bastard. In real-time, Jon was just proclaimed King in the North because everyone thinks he has Ned’s blood running through him. In reality, he’s a Targaryen, and Dany is his aunt. Got it?

The showrunners were likely tired of the endless speculation surrounding who was in the Tower of Joy and Jon’s real heritage, so making the truth clear before the series goes into its final act was a wise move. Rather than end with a cliffhanger, season six ended by solving a mystery. Jon and Dany are obviously going to meet soon and there will be an interesting complex at play. Who else besides Bran will learn Jon’s true lineage? Maybe something Sam discovers at the library.

God, I am so excited for season seven, so this finale certainly did its job. It’s by far the strongest GOT finale yet.

#2) “Blackwater”

Season 2, Episode 9

Directed by: Neil Marshall

Written by: George R.R. Martin

GOT’s first real battle episode remains its strongest, despite later ones having much more money to work with. Stannis’ assault on King’s Landing benefited from: A) the viewer genuinely having no clue what was going to happen, B) a perfectly directed and written episode that kept everything in perspective. The actual wildfire explosion was spectacular, beautifully colored amidst the night sky. When we cut back to the faces of Tyrion, Joffrey, others on the wall there’s this subtle green lighting highlighting their faces. A nice touch by DoP Sam McCurdy.

“Blackwater” served as the series’ first bottle episode. The entire hour was focused on the events at King’s Landing. That allowed for not just some awesome action sequences but tense quieter moments as well. Bronn and The Hound almost fighting just before the bells ring? Tyrion channeling his inner Henry V to rally the troops (“Those are some brave men out there…let’s go kill them!”)? Joffrey showing his cowardice? Stannis refusing to admit defeat and having to be literally dragged off by his men? Gold. All great moments that, combined with the bloodshed, made for a fantastic hour.

But the highlight of the episode came inside the city. Locked away, Cersei and Sansa have a killer conversation. An increasingly drunken Cersei explains many things to young Sansa. She explains the raping that happens when a city is sacked. She explains that a woman’s most powerful weapon is what’s between her legs. In theory, she’s trying to help Sansa. But Cersei’s tone makes it clear she’s doing nothing more than trying to scare the shit out of the poor girl. One of the best moments for Lena Headey in the role. The scenes of the two talking provide a perfect contrast with what’s going on outside the walls.

GOT may have topped “Blackwater” in terms of sheer spectacle with episodes like “The Watchers on the Wall”, “Hardhome”, and “Battle of the Bastards”, but no battle episode was more carefully put together. This made for one of the finest hours in television history.

#1) “The Door”

Season 6, Episode 5

Directed by: Jack Bender

Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

Am I crazy to say the saddest death so far on GOT was that of Hodor? At the very least, it was the most significant to the series’ overall mythos. Bran breaks his consciousness in two, staying at Winterfell in the past and warging into Hodor in the present. This of course tells us that Bran can serve as a direct connection between the past and present, and that many things that have happened or will happen were impacted by Bran long ago (check reddit for crazy theories concerning this). Can he literally change things that’ve already happened? We’ll see.

The actual death of Hodor, maaaaaaan. Young Hodor Wylis, through Bran, hears Meera Reed’s cries from the present for him to hold the door. So he has some sort of seizure, shaking and shouting “hold the door” until eventually all he can say is Hodor. It was an astonishing moment. The uncomfortable imagery of seeing the youngin’ have an attack while nobody is able to help him, cut together with Bran and Meera just barely escaping the army of wights. GOT enlisted Jack Bender to direct this episode. Bender has real experience with weird TV time continuums thanks to his work on Lost. This final scene felt like a tipping point in Bran’s often-shaky storyline. Isaac Hempstead Wright has become a significantly better actor with age and in season six Bran actually became one of the strengths of the series.

And Hodor, poor Hodor.

Other fun moments in this episode include the traveling players in Braavos recounting earlier events in hilarious fashion and the touching moment where Jorah, finally having been accepted back by Dany, reveals his greyscale to her. She orders him to find a cure. Could he be visiting Sam at The Citadel next season?

“The Door” is by no means the biggest GOT episode, but it’s certainly the most important. The entire narrative of the show falls apart if they don’t nail that scene with Bran and Hodor. It could’ve easily been confusing and/or corny. Instead, it made for the series’ finest moment.

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