With Game of Thrones’ fifth season premiering this Sunday, it’s time for me to do what I do best: arbitrary rankings in list form! Here are, in my humble opinion, the best episodes of Thrones thus far:
10. The Lion and the Rose
Season 4, Episode 2
Written by George R.R. Martin
Directed by Alex Graves
A.K.A. “The Purple Wedding” episode, the second installment in GoT’s most recent season saw the villain everyone loved to hate, Joffrey Baratheon, finally kick the bucket. The wedding is the best sequence in the episode, but there is a lot of other great stuff to. This was the ep that finally turned the Boltons into real characters and true villains. Ramsay hunting a girl with dogs was a bit excessive (though canonical), but the scene in which Roose rebukes his bastard for castrating Theon, forcing Ramsay to prove Reek’s loyalty with a close shave, really personified who these guys are and how awful they are. The ep also gave some much-needed humanization to Stannis, who stands up for his daughter Shireen when his crazy wife demands she be spanked.
But the wedding is the meat of the ep, and while it’s not as extravagant as it is in the books, it’s still great to see Joffrey cut a cake full of birds. Better yet is the mummer’s show of dwarfs, who dress like Joffrey’s rivals from the War of the Five Kings and proceed to insult literally everyone at the table: Loras for being Renly’s lover, Sansa for being Robb’s sister, and Tyrion for being a dwarf. Joffrey is at his most heinous here and torments his uncle mercilessly, and yet when he’s choking to death in his mother’s arms, you can’t help but feel sorry for him. It’s a testament to how GoT treats death, that no matter who it is biting the dust, it never feels good to watch.
9. The Old Gods and the New
Season 2, Episode 6
Written by Vanessa Taylor
Directed by David Nutter
Game of Throne’s second season is contentious amongst fans and critics but I have always appreciated the balance it struck between Martin’s source material and the Ds’ own creations. That being said, it’s hard to ignore a lot of the season’s missteps, namely Daenerys infamous “WHERE ARE MAH DRAGONS” scene and the subplot that followed. Dany spends most of Book Two having visions and talking to people who want to marry her/buy her dragons, so it was a hard arc to visualize.
That’s why the strongest story in season two is Theon’s. We meet his father and sister and are introduced to the hard world of the Iron Islands, which have since been neglected by the show save for one scene each in seasons three and four. Theon is one of the most tragic characters in A Song of Ice and Fire and the writers did a great job bringing that tragedy to life.
“May the gods have mercy on you, Theon Greyjoy,” Rodrik Cassel says moments before he’s beheaded (poorly). “Now you are truly lost.” It’s a line that sums up Theon’s character perfectly. There is no right answer for him, and he’s not capable of forging his own path in life—when he does, he mucks it up royally. Robb was his friend but not his brother, and Robb’s family killed Theon’s actual brothers during Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion. On the flip side, Robb is cool and Ned treated Theon kindly unlike his own father, who gave him up as a hostage but blames him for not being Ironborn enough. No matter what Theon does, he’s screwed, and it’s sad seeing him try so hard to do right by his kin, both blood and adopted. He even pulls a Ned Stark and executes Rodrik personally, but does such a mess of it he ends up hacking away at the poor castellan’s bone and tendons. Thrones is as good at on-screen violence as it is off, and seeing but not seeing Theon kick Rodrik’s head from his shoulders was pure horror.
Also of note in this ep: Jon meeting Ygritte for the first time and the smallfolk nearly tearing Joffrey and his retinue to pieces during a riot.
8. Kissed By Fire
Season 3, Episode 5
Written by Bryan Cogman
Directed by Alex Graves
Speaking of Ygritte, this episode saw Jon and his lucky wildling love consummate their relationship in one of the series’ most romantic scenes. Others will say that Robb and Talisa’s first sex scene was the show’s most romantic but I never cared much for Talisa. A show creation, she always felt like she came from another universe, and not the one GRRM created. Oona Chaplin is a fine actor, but I much prefer the book version of her story, where Robb breaks his vow to the Freys by marrying a Lannister bannerman. Love exists in A Song of Ice and Fire but it is never the main story, and as such Talisa + Robb always felt like something out of a romance novel to me.
Jon and Ygritte’s doomed relationship is more compelling, and as Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie ended up dating in real life, their on-screen chemistry is great. Composer Ramin Djawadi wrote one of his best themes for the scene, one that is used to even greater effect in season four, first when Ygritte dies in Jon’s arms (“we should have stayed in that cave”) and later when he burns her body in “the real north.”
I’m also a fan of this ep for spending so much time with the Brotherhood Without Banners, one of my favorite factions from the books, and one that like the Greyjoys, Stannis and the Boltons (initially), kinda got the shaft. They’re there and then they’re gone, and they never made much of an impact on show watchers the way they did for book readers. Plus, they’re rendered more despicable than their book counterparts when they sell Gendry, a member of their band, to Melisandre, something I highly doubt their book counterparts would have done (and an act that gets Thoros and Dondarrion onto Show Arya’s list).
But this episode was pure fan service, with one of the coolest duels in the show’s history, as the Hound faces R’hllor’s champion, Beric Dondarrion, in an epic trial by combat. The cinematography and sound effects excel here. Every whip and twirl of Dondarrion’s flaming sword is accompanied by a roaring woosh, giving the fight a visceral edge.
Also of note: Robb beheading Rickard Karstark and not messing it up like Theon. Tooting Djawadi’s horn once more, the “sad beheading” theme music he used for Rodrik Cassel’s death really drove home how tragic Theon is, and it is used again here to illustrate Robb’s slow but sure downfall. Like Theon, no matter how hard he tries, Robb is just not made to be king.
And I can’t not mention another scene that makes Stannis seem cool, because those are in short supply and I love Stannis. But in “Kissed By Fire” we first see his love for Shireen, the one thing the show does to make him not a dick. Also, I love any scene where Shireen teaches Davos to read.
7. The Laws of Gods and Men
Season 4, Episode 6
Written by Bryan Cogman
Directed by Alik Sakharov
Were it not for the Cersei rape scene and some other questionable choices, I would declare GoT’s fourth and most recent season to be its finest, and “The Laws of Gods and Men” is a great example of said quality.
This is the one with the Tyrion trial scene, which is one of the show’s (and books’) greatest moments, and probably Peter Dinklage’s best performance. It’s both sad and cathartic. Dinklage gives a masterful performance as Tyrion is forced to listen to Shae’s lies. You didn’t think it could get any worse for him, but it does, and then he finally loses it and delivers one of the show’s best speeches:
“I saved you. I saved this city and all your worthless lives. I should have let Stannis kill you all… I wish I was the monster you think I am. I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you. I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it.”
By this point Tyrion’s story had really become about his rivalry with his father, and I love how the episode ends with the two staring at each other, burning holes into each other’s skulls with hateful eyes.
Season 4 was all about doing right by two of my favorite characters: Stannis and Ramsay. Okay, it wasn’t all about that, but the writers did do a good job of fleshing both men out. While I’m not particularly fond of the way the show depicts Stannis and Davos’ relationship, I do love Davos’ “VOTE FOR STANNIS” speech, delivered in this episode’s first scene. Extra points for casting Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss as Tycho Nestoris, head of the Iron Bank, and one of the books’ most mysterious characters.
As for Ramsay, we get to see his insane fighting style as he takes on Theon’s sister Yara (a.k.a. Asha). He’s shirtless and covered in blood and loving it. This was a scene I’ve heard lots of show watchers talk about and I think it really sold Ramsay as a love-to-hate villain for them. He’s a bad guy that as my friend Harry Plinkett would say, is “evil and fucking loves it.” Those are the best kinds of villains, and Ramsay is GoT’s best iteration of that archetype. Bonus points for putting Yara in an episode and not totally forgetting that the Greyjoys exist.
I’ll update with #5-3 tomorrow.