25. The House of Black and White (5×02)
The glorious return of Ser Bronn of the Blackwater! Bronn and Jaime are teaming up again, and although the reasoning for Bronn to go through with the plan may be flimsy at best, no one should really complain because more Bronn is always a good thing. With Jaime gone, Cersei gets to work: promoting Mace, dueling with Kevan, and giving a dwarf’s head to Qyburn without question, because honestly, we’re probably better off not knowing what he’s using that for. I really wish Kevan had stayed around the whole season so he could spar with Cersei more. The Small Council needed to be beefed up.
The Lord Commander vote is a little too quick and tidy, but Sam sort of makes up for it by roasting Janos Slynt in his speech. Brienne’s chase/fight with the guards fulfills an action quota but is pretty empty. The subplot from which we get our episode’s title is aptly done though, and giving the master role to Jaqen instead of another unfamiliar face is a bit of fan-service that I think the show has earned. The whole mess in Meereen is probably necessary to show the dissatisfaction of the city to Dany’s rule, although I personally don’t find it that interesting. Mossador is barely a character and Dany’s decision-making probably deserves a facepalm, and it was a bit lame to end on Drogon flying away as opposed to the Jaqen reveal.
24. Oathkeeper (4×04)
It says a lot about season four that its second-worst episode is still in the top half. I don’t actually have a lot to say about it because it does all of its scenes well, though nothing is exceptional. We get confirmation that the Purple Wedding was orchestrated by Littlefinger and carried out by Olenna, and Margaery begins her manipulation of Tommen in an arousing bedroom scene that probably plowed him through puberty in about 30 seconds.
There are two notable changes that occur in “Oathkeeper”. First is that Grey Worm and the Unsullied enter the sewers of Meereen and convince the slaves to revolt. I think it’s a great change that makes even more sense because I believe the Meereenese servants would be more likely to follow the lead of former slaves instead of knights or sellswords. They’ve built up Grey Worm to something much better than he was supposed to be.
An even bigger change, though, is what they did with Craster’s. In the book, the mutineers are never dealt with, Jon never fights them, and Bran is never captured. However, if the writers wanted to condense the wildling attack into one episode, then this is a good way to keep the Night’s Watch relevant and an even greater way to give Bran something to do besides just trudge northward to the tree. Not to be forgotten: that final scene with the White Walker that surprised all of us.
23. Breaker of Chains (4×03)
“Breaker of Chains” and “Oathkeeper” feel like two halves of the same episode; there are similar scenes between the two (like Margaery and Olenna talking in the garden, or Sansa/Petyr on the boat) or scenes that seem like half of the same idea (Grenn and Edd warning of the mutineers, then Jon pushing to fight the mutineers). So I feel like they are tied together in that way, and I only put “Breaker of Chains” on top because of how Tywin seizes control of Tommen in front of Joffrey’s corpse and because of Daario’s “duel”, in the very lightest sense of the word, with the champion of Meereen. Any reservations about Michiel Huisman should have evaporated after that. This gets knocked down a point for Sam sending Gilly to Mole’s Town. In addition to making very little sense – since he KNOWS it’s in the line of fire for Tormund’s group – it’s far from the most interesting thing to happen.
22. Mockingbird (4×07)
Isn’t it weird how the episode is titled “Mockingbird” and yet there doesn’t seem to be any reference to the mockingbird as Petyr’s personal sigil? In any case, Lysa becomes the bird here when she “goes flying” at the end. Except for the slightly corny CGI when we see her falling backwards into the hole, the scene was good. One thing I did NOT expect was the return of Hot Pie, who helps Brienne on her quest. Readers know that Brienne’s story was majorly reconfigured for season four and instead of hopping around to five different points, Benioff and Weiss wisely made Hot Pie the one link in the chain that ends up with Arya. Love that he made a better version of the wolf bread but Arya never got it. Speaking of Arya, she runs into Rorge and Biter again, but they are dispatched in the quickest and most anticlimactic way possible. They couldn’t squeeze another 20 seconds out of them?
One little part I think deserves more attention is Melisandre and Selyse. The red woman openly admits that some of her vials and potions are tricks that are meant to make people believe they are witnessing the Red God’s power. She even cites one that creates black smoke. It’s an unexpected right-turn in that thread of the story that I think is important to remember when thinking about “Mother’s Mercy”. And despite everything with the Moon Door, I think the best scene of “Mockingbird” is Oberyn’s emotional story to Tyrion and his pledge to be his champion. Fist-pump for sure.
21. High Sparrow (5×03)
Few deaths were as highly celebrated or as wished for as that of Janos Slynt, and Jon didn’t let us down (those of you lamenting the absence of “Edd, fetch me a block” can go cry in a corner with Strong Belwas and the Griffs). Jon seemed to have achieved a new level as he toyed with Thorne in the dispensing of Wall duties and went toe-to-toe with Stannis. For the short time that we’re in Volantis, it makes a mark with a beautiful tracking shot across the bridge and the mysterious stare-down from the red priestess. Jorah’s sudden reappearance could have been teased a little bit better.
Among the major deviations or merges between book and screen, I think the decision to have Sansa marry Ramsay is one of the choices that makes the most sense. Sansa has a barebones story in this part of the book that doesn’t really have a climax, and the Winterfell plotline doesn’t exactly have a strong heroic anchor since Reek is still a walking footstool for most of it. Merging the two cuts down on unnecessary characters anchors Winterfell with a favorable character, and it saves time by excising one more subplot that could take up precious minutes in an already crammed season. Many beats remain the same and it also manages to rope in Brienne along with it. With time, I think even some of the more diehard book purists will come to accept its legitimacy. “High Sparrow” has a meaty runtime of 60 minutes, and they accomplish a lot in that hour, even if the title character gets kind of lost in the shuffle.
20. First of His Name (4×05)
With the exception of Craster’s Keep, this is pretty much a character-building episode. Not as good as season three’s “Kissed by Fire” (also, coincidentally, episode five) but a short rest-stop before the bonkers second half of season four. I had no idea how much I missed The Eyrie until we returned there – first passing through the Bloody Gate which was suspiciously AWOL when Catelyn and Tyrion were there earlier. I don’t necessarily like who Crazy Lysa is as a person, but I do enjoy WHAT she is when she shows up. There are nice little scenes with Brienne and Podrick hanging out, Arya and The Hound bickering, and Cersei opening up to Margaery and Oberyn–all pleasant, if largely inconsequential.
As I said in “Oathkeeper”, I liked the Craster’s Keep diversion. Karl ended up as a bit of a cartoon character, but he works as a mid-level antagonist. And if Locke wasn’t going to be tossed into the bear pit to get mauled to death, then getting his neck snapped by Hodor is the next best thing.
19. Garden of Bones (2×04)
This is another of those episodes that is just solid all-around and evenly balanced among the subplots. Harrenhal looks perfectly macabre and ruined on the outside, filthy and soul-crushing on the inside. The Camp Renly scenes, once again, feel very unique to this specific section of the story and this is the only time where Stannis gets to be onscreen with either of his brothers. Renly trolls him like any younger brother would and that’s a dynamic I wish we’d got to see more of. I already mentioned how Renly’s death probably should have come in this episode, but the smoky vagina monster is still one hell of a way to go out. The scenes at King’s Landing and the gates of Qarth are pretty good too.
Another one of the great changes the show made was to show more of Robb’s conquests and courtship. He was not written as a POV character in the books, but it’s a critical area that needed to be seen for the Red Wedding to have as much of an impact as it is supposed to. Talisa, by and large, does not exist in the book; rather Robb’s wife takes the form of a local girl named Jeyne Westerling who has the characterization of a cardboard box. For Robb’s decision to break his vow to Walder Frey, we really had to see a charismatic, fully-realized character and that’s how we end up with Talisa who makes her debut in the first few minutes. We don’t see Robb’s battle victory, but it doesn’t matter because now he has a conquest of a different sort to focus on.
18. Kill the Boy (5×05)
Can I bow at the feet of Bryan Cogman? He seems to excel at writing these midseason pit-stop episodes that largely halt the action in favor of pressure-cooking some of the marginalized stories. This is a big Winterfell episode that shades in Reek and the Boltons after being third-string players in season four. I wouldn’t say the Ramsay backstory softens our stance on him or raises his stock, but it lends some explanation to his personality. Watching Sansa take in her new surroundings at an old location, I truly felt this was something that could have come from George R.R. Martin’s hand, which I can’t exactly say for every change. King’s Landing, Dorne, and Braavos sit this one out, and the focus away from the power-center of Westeros makes the subplots on the outskirts feel connected and relevant.
The fallout from the Harpy attack does not dominate screen-time, but it does lead to maybe the coolest Dany moment since the Astapor uprising as she shoves a former master into the dragon chamber only to be roasted alive and ripped in half as the rest of the masters cower. I’m sorry, but that’s just too cool for school. Dany’s marriage idea with Hizdahr is a little out of left-field but we are mercifully spared from a five-minute scene with a naked Daario pleading with her not to do it and Dany waffling back and forth between her heart and her brain. Sure, they kind of do that in “The Gift” but you don’t see it rated up here, do you?Perhaps the biggest joy, and most welcome surprise, of “Kill the Boy” is the Jungle River Boat Cruise through the ruins of Valyria. I was nearly as mesmerized as Tyrion and Jorah when Drogon soared silently overhead, almost as if in a dream. But there’s no time to appreciate what this signals because the stone men attack. They set it up so often in the previous four episodes that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise but that false ending was pretty nifty. Jorah’s contraction of Greyscale gave us a ticking-time-bomb scenario, and totally flips the game as they slowly make their way to Daenerys, a fun and scary ending to a unique episode.
Perhaps the biggest joy, and most welcome surprise, of “Kill the Boy” is the Jungle River Boat Cruise through the ruins of Valyria. I was nearly as mesmerized as Tyrion and Jorah when Drogon soared silently overhead, almost as if in a dream. But there’s no time to appreciate what this signals because the stone men attack. They set it up so often in the previous four episodes that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise but that false ending was pretty nifty. Jorah’s contraction of Greyscale gave us a ticking-time-bomb scenario, and totally flips the game as they slowly make their way to Daenerys, a fun and scary ending to a unique episode.
17. Walk of Punishment (3×03)
I am going to make an assertion here: “Walk of Punishment” is probably the funniest episode of the series thus far, and probably ever, given how bleak the story keeps getting. Consider two early scenes that say so much with essentially no dialogue. First, we are introduced to Catelyn’s brother and uncle at Hoster Tully’s funeral. Edmure steps up to shoot a flaming arrow onto the canoe, but he misses, tries to hide his embarrassment from the uncomfortable onlookers, and tries again. Eventually the Blackfish has enough, shoves him aside with a scowl, and nails the canoe on his first try–two great introductions with no dialogue. Not long after, we get another quiet scene but with characters more familiar to us, and this familiarity makes the humor work. The Small Council members jostle for the seat next to Tywin, until Tyrion arrives and drags his chair as far away from the others as possible, screeching the whole way. Only then does the talking begin.
This is also the episode with Podrick becoming a sex god. Some people hate that little addition, but I personally found it kind of enjoyable that Tyrion and Bronn are so gob-smacked at the kid’s abilities between the sheets. It really serves no other purpose than to endear the young squire to the audience and I’m fine with that. Plus, we have the cute little scene where Hot Pie gives Arya the blob of bread that’s supposed to be a wolf. So yeah, there’s a lot to enjoy if you want something light.
Jumping around the map, we get Daenerys negotiating a trade for Unsullied and the Night’s Watch shacking up with Craster again, two plotlines that will break open in the following episode. And in Locke’s captivity, Jaime and Brienne continue to show their chemistry, which results in Jaime losing his hand rather abruptly in the final seconds. I know the ending song was controversial, both for being a modern rock song in a medieval setting and for ruining the shocked mood of Jaime’s injury with an up-tempo sound. I didn’t hate it, but I would have preferred a more old-fashioned version of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” instead of the one we got. I actually liked the one briefly sung by Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody as they trotted through the woods.
16. The Dance of Dragons (5×09)
Easily the weakest Episode Nine but not by fault of Daenerys and her Pit of Abundant Violence and Merriment. It looks really good, even if we don’t get to experience the full games. I appreciate that the random pit fighters are each given a different look, culture, and weapon. My personal favorite is the Braavosi with the rapier. It’s so much more elegant than Jorah’s hack-and-slash style. It’s a little unclear what the Harpy’s goal is with slaughtering all the random people, and why they didn’t just storm Dany’s crew when they were surrounded. Drogon essentially melts most of that frustration away, and the special effects are as good, or better, than they’ve ever been. Your mileage may vary on how Dany’s flight looked, but I was too swept up in the moment to notice–overall, a strong and memorable segment that saves the episode from falling further down.
There was great potential in Arya’s stalking of Meryn Trant, but for some reason they delayed the payoff on that for the finale, which ends up hurting both episodes. I guess Shireen and the Pit were too much craziness for one day, but Trant totally could have died here. Props to Ian Beattie, who has spent most of the series standing silently by the Royal Court or grunting an order, for making Trant into a more of a hateful d-bag just in time for his swan song.
Dorne was Dorne, and I will talk more about that in “Mother’s Mercy”. Shireen’s burning was difficult, not just for her sake, but for what it said about Stannis. They could have fashioned an alternate route where Mel does the deed behind his back, but that might take away from his brutal comedown in the finale. For my part, the jury is still out in this.
15. Second Sons (3×08)
Unlike most other episodes, “Second Sons” mainly focuses on three storylines. There is also a scene each with Arya/The Hound and Sam/Gilly but they’re quick and act more like bookends to the episode. First we have the intrigue outside Yunkai as Dany deals with the mercenaries, who in turn try to find a way to thwart her. Mark Killeen makes a strong impression in the small but fun role of Mero. I don’t know where the majority of the fans fall on the Ed Skrein vs. Michiel Huisman debate, but if I could assemble my preferred Daario, Mr.-Potato-Head-Style, I would give him Ed’s hair and Michiel’s face.
Then we have the weirdness at Dragonstone. Our goal today is to get Gendry to have a boner so that his magical King’s Blood is perfectly concentrated into one appendage to make for easier leech-sucking. Stannis then burns the leeches in the fire as he lists off the usurpers Robb, Balon, and Joffrey. Given what we now know happens, is this perhaps the true turning point in the story? Or is it all coincidence? Stannis is kind of a stick in the mud, sure, but I love the costumes, sets, and performers of Team Dragonstone, so any sort of prolonged stay with them makes me happy.
Finally, we have Tyrion’s wedding, and the feast which gives Peter Dinklage his best work all season as Tyrion drinks a little too much, gets increasingly irritated, threatens Joffrey, and then plays it off as drunken nonsense. You can see in his face and how his hand quivers that Dinklage is giving everything to that scene. It’s just great. The narrowed scope of “Second Sons” works to its benefit, as Jon, Robb, Theon, Bran, and Jaime are sidelined in favor of these other stories which have major consequences moving forward in the saga.
14. The Pointy End (1×08)
Finally, Robb Stark becomes a major piece to the puzzle when he calls the banners and declares war. Of the three bannermen from the north that we end up meeting eventually (Umber, Bolton, Karstark), Greatjon Umber is by far the most colorful and charismatic. Roose Bolton ends up being the most relevant and intriguing, but Umber makes such a strong first impression with his booming voice and his maniacal laughter upon having two fingers bitten off by Grey Wind. He’s only in three episodes because the actor wasn’t able to return for one reason or another, but he helps kick off the war in grand fashion.
After Drogo’s passionate speech in “You Win or You Die” the Dothraki go out and plunder a village, kill the men, and rape the women. Dany saves one of them – which will soon prove to be a fatal mistake. As weird as it sounds, I do like that the story went this route. We presumably like Dany at this point and want her to invade with her army, but these are some serious savages we’re dealing with. I like it when we have to ask ourselves if we really want these people to win or lose. The other really cool part of the episode is the dismissal of Barristan Selmy. His verbal beat-down is legendary and it’s too bad he isn’t more of a fan favorite character.
13. Mother’s Mercy (5×10)
I am writing this less than 24 hours after it aired, so I am still digesting what we just saw. At the top of my list of things, I wasn’t sure of what ultimately happened with Stannis and his army. It certainly won’t play out this way exactly when we finally have “The Winds of Winter” in our hands, and it’s unclear if it will even have the same outcome at all. But with the absence of a comparison, I must judge the show as if it were an original story, and through that lens I think I can accept Stannis’ fate. For a man obsessed with duty, honor, and the rule of law, he was quick to use Melisandre’s powers for dishonorable and unlawful things. It’s only fitting that her most recent charade robbed him of his daughter, wife, and army. And his first trick, the Renly demon, comes back around to haunt his final moments as Brienne seemingly rids the world of him. It’s a tragic arc but one that I can accept. Stannis played his part in the story, but now it’s over. If George has different plans for him, that’s fine too. But this…this, I’m okay with.
The episode had a stronger second half than the first. Cersei’s walk was beautifully done but more importantly: tastefully done. The show has a mixed record of female nudity, but this is an example of how you do it right. It’s not sexual or gratuitous. It’s necessary. This is a woman who had kept many secrets for many years, not all of them good. Now she has been paraded through the streets, naked not only physically but spiritually, and everyone can see and judge. Great work by Lena Headey, even if her face was digitally inserted into the full-frontal shots. The finish line with Qyburn and FrankenMountain provides a grim hope for her future. As for Jon…well, you saw it. The fact that it was planned, as opposed to spur-of-the-moment adrenaline, makes it more depressing and tragic. Thorne and the others weren’t exactly angry, just betrayed and scared. Melisandre’s last-minute arrival provides one final thread of hope, but it will be a long time before we know for sure.
My main problem with the episode will probably get better with time, but it threw me for a loop when it was airing: there was too much death in too rapid a timeframe. We open on Stannis. Selyse is dead. The battle occurs. Stannis is dead. Cut to Winterfell. Myranda is dead. Cut to the brothel. Trant is butchered. Cut to the House of Black &White. Jaqen kind of maybe dies. Cut to Dorne. Myrcella dies. It’s too much, to the point where it’s almost comical and the deaths have less meaning. If we move Trant’s (HORRIFYING!) slaughter to episode nine and remove Myranda’s tumble altogether, maybe it cleans up better. Arya’s blindness is the perfect season cliffhanger, but the gag of pulling all the faces off removes a lot of the spookiness of the operation.
I held onto hope that Dorne would end up working itself out, but it just never did. They killed Myrcella but now Trystane is in the clutches of the Lannisters. If Doran had a greater plan, it should have been shown because otherwise it just doesn’t add up. Tyene gives us maybe the worst line in the entire series: “You want the good girl, but you need the bad pussy.” Oh man. I usually don’t complain about dialogue, but that is just terrible. The last order of business is Meereen. Not sure how much sense it makes for Tyrion, Varys, Missandei, and Grey Worm to be the rulers of the city, but I could just chalk that up to Daario not giving a shit about Meereen. His road trip with Jorah will be fun to watch. As for Daenerys, the Dothraki reunion was majestic, even if it feels tinged with danger. In all, it appears we might be starting a trend of good finales, even if this one needed some shuffling to get the pieces in a presentable order.
12. A Golden Crown (1×06)
I really enjoy this one. Before there was “The Laws of Gods and Men”, Tyrion had a different trial, albeit a funnier one. Instead of confessing to Bran’s attempted murder, he confesses the various shameful incidents of his life: from stealing a bathing woman’s clothes to pleasuring himself into a bowl of soup. It’s vintage Tyrion and culminates in a duel between Ser Vardis Egan and Bronn, who instantly becomes a top-tier character. The sky cells are properly scary and it’s compounded by the dimwitted Mord, whom Tyrion manipulates fantastically. Even Winterfell manages against all odds to be interesting when some wildlings sneak down to the woods and nearly get Bran killed before Robb and Theon save the day. Osha joins the party!
Viserys had one of the most perfect deaths in the series. Drogo manages to find a loophole in the “spill no blood” rule of Vaes Dothrak when he melts gold into a pot and dumps it on the dragon-king’s head; thus ironically, giving him the golden crown he always wanted and proving to Daenerys that he was no dragon because “fire cannot kill a dragon”. Beautiful. The only thing I’ll mention from King’s Landing is that they had the difficult task of translating Ned’s investigation to screen. They can’t have his inner monologue to show that the black Baratheon hair contrasts with Joffrey’s blond, so he just reads it out loud. Problem is, Sean Bean has a thick accent so “black of hair” sounds like “black of air”. The couple times where I saw this episode with people watching for the first time I had to confirm if they understood what was happening. But that’s a nitpick. This episode is fun.
11. Kissed by Fire (3×05)
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like it should be a top eleven episode. There really isn’t much plot progression or flashy scenes (other than the Beric/The Hound fight), but there are a LOT of great character beats that keep things interesting after the previous episode’s big excitement in Astapor and at Craster’s. First, we have some family time with the Baratheon family, which apparently includes jar fetuses. Shireen is adorable but marred by the greyscale disease. Combine this with the dreary backdrop of the Dragonstone castle and it’s easy to see why Stannis is so grouchy and depressing all of the time. It goes a long way to humanizing the guy, which the show desperately needed at this point. Shireen helping Davos read in the dungeons is another great moment.
Moving to Riverrun, Lord Karstark murders the two Lannister children which prompts Robb to behead one of his most valuable commanders. Richard Madden usually doesn’t get to play a wide range of emotions, but his fury over Karstark’s betrayal beneath a curtain of rain certainly gives one the impression that Robb may be losing his grip on not only his army but the entire war. There’s a quick scene of Jaime/Brienne arriving at Harrenhal but even that packs a punch as Bolton trolls Jaime hard by pretending Cersei was killed in Stannis’ siege. Then there’s the fan-favorite bathtub scene with both Coster-Waldau and Christie doing good work as we unravel some more layers of Jaime.
King’s Landing is ripe with marriage drama, which isn’t always that exciting (and leads to the Littlefinger/Loras/Olyvar sequence which goes by too fast for it to make much sense) but we do get the long-anticipated Tyrion/Olenna conversation. In Slaver’s Bay, Jorah and Barristan bro down for a bit and talk about their history and Jorah tries to gauge if Barristan knows about his spying. Unfortunately Ser Barristan doesn’t really get many other personal moments in the next two seasons, so this is crucial. Dany assesses her army and is introduced to Grey Worm who vows to keep his slave name since it is the name he had when he was freed. Good stuff.
But in an episode of highlights, maybe the MVP goes to Arya and the Brotherhood. The duel is exciting, although it occurs a little too early in the hour for Beric’s resurrection to have much of an impact. The rest is gold though. Arya and Gendry have a bittersweet conversation, while Arya chats with Thoros and Beric about resurrection and where they should go from here. Maisie Williams continues to be a terrific asset to the show and she can have chemistry with just about anyone they put into a scene with her.
10. Baelor (1×09)
OMG! How could they kill Ned Stark?! He was the main character and he was the good guy! He was going to take down the Lannisters and he knew about the … yeah, fine. Not even my favorite part. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good scene and I love how the crowd sound drops out as the sword is about to be swung. But there’s more to “Baelor” than the beheading. It has our first glimpse of The Twins and Walder Frey and the capture of Jaime Lannister. I am a sucker for scenes involving Robb, and I have no idea why. He doesn’t have the characterization of Tyrion or Arya, he’s not super funny and doesn’t intersect with many storylines like the others do. Maybe it’s his thick Scottish drawl? His curly locks? I don’t know. It’s weird.
The best part of “Baelor”, by far, is the drinking game that Tyrion, Bronn, and Shae engage in. They play games and share stories and give us a ton of characterization for a main character, another character who’d only had several minutes of screen-time, and a character who just appeared for the first time. It’s funny, sad, and mysterious all at the same time. I really can’t rave about it enough; it’s one of the best scenes of the season and maybe the series. The next day is the first big battle of the war, and although we don’t get to see it, the lead-up and wrap-up is good enough. We’ll get our fighting quota raised for season two.
So I hope “Baelor” is remembered for more than just “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head.” There’s a lot of great beats that came before it.
9. The Laws of Gods and Men (4×06)
Coincidence that the episode that introduced Shae is on the list right before the episode where Shae betrays her lion? Well, yes, it’s a coincidence. But it’s NOT a coincidence that some of the top episodes of the show involve major moments of Tyrion awesomeness because that’s what he is. And the trial scene is the culmination of three and a half seasons worth of buildup. Every time Tyrion expressed irritation with Cersei, every time he slapped Joffrey to the cheers of the audience, every time he expressed vulnerability to Shae, it was all leading to this. Much has been said about Peter Dinklage’s final speech, justly so. When Tyrion gets angry, it’s almost as if Dinklage is getting angry. I could theorize that when he confesses his crime of being a dwarf that we were witnessing Dinklage oozing out years of repressed anger at any jokes and teasing that he received growing up as he did. You know your ending is good when we cut to credits on a version of “The Rains of Castamere”.
We have our first official look at Braavos (complete with maybe the best credit sequence pop-up thus far) and the Titan. I think this may be the first time we have ever seen Davos’ fingers outside of the gloves so that was a nice touch. And it’s the most recent sighting of Salladhor. He’s not as quippy as the first two times, but he’s bathing with two naked ladies, so, sure. Dany properly meets Hizdahr zo Loraq for the first time. I don’t recall the book having this anecdote of Hizdahr’s father being staked so that makes things kind of interesting knowing how it all played out.
There was some irritation and confusion regarding Yara’s attempt to rescue Theon. The way it was executed was a bit sloppy, but overall I think it mostly works. If you look at it from the perspective of confirming Theon’s transformation into Reek, it makes sense. When Ramsay tricked Theon into thinking his sister was saving him in season three, the purpose was to condition him to distrust anyone who claims they are freeing him. After all, it’s probably just another of Ramsay’s tricks which will lead to torture. It’s easier to portray the descent into Reek when reading it in the book because we get inside his head. We don’t have that luxury on TV. For all we know, Theon is just pretending to be this creature, so he doesn’t lose a finger. So Benioff and Weiss position Yara to attack the Dreadfort, so she gets to her brother face-to-face, ready to save him. But Reek refuses. His sister is RIGHT THERE, with no Bolton men around, and he still refuses because he’s been twisted into this new person that can’t, or won’t, differentiate real help from the tricks of Ramsay Snow. Now the audience knows for sure what has happened to him.
The problematic part comes when Ramsay vows to sick his dogs on the Ironborn and they just leave. Why don’t they just keep fighting? Well, because Yara realizes her brother is a lost cause, and he’s the sole reason they came, so they pull back. It’s not that well-explained, and the entire raid happens in the span of a few minutes, making it pretty anti-climactic after waiting not only the entire Game of Thrones offseason but also another five full episodes. They might have been better served spacing it out over the hour, but those missteps still don’t detract from the incredible second half.
8. And Now His Watch is Ended (3×04)
Okay fine, let’s get it out of the way: Daenerys taking down Astapor was awesome. Kraznys getting what’s coming to him is awesome, Dany revealing her Valyrian was awesome, her speech to the Unsullied was awesome, the soundtrack was awesome, and even that final shot of the army and dragons leaving the city was awesome. It’s easy to place this episode on a pedestal because of that alone, but it was still just the final seven minutes. There’s a lot of other good things to mention, not the least of which is the mutiny at Craster’s Keep. It was such a tense chapter in the book and it largely translated well to the screen, though my only real disappointment is that there was no moment where Commander Mormont had any final dying words to Sam. It could have been a great way to connect back to Jorah.
Meanwhile, Theon realizes the innocent little janitor boy has been toying with him when he realizes they wandered around in circles right back to the torture chamber. It’s hard to put myself into the mind of a new viewer since I knew that this was Ramsay and he was messing with Theon, so I have no idea if this part was confusing or frustrating or jaw-dropping or maybe all of them at once. I think it makes a bit more sense once you realize he is trying to turn Theon into Reek, and can only do it by giving him the hope of rescue before yanking the football away like Lucy does to Charlie Brown, ensuring that whenever REAL help arrives (see: The Laws of Gods and Men) Theon/Reek is conditioned to be mistrustful of it.
In King’s Landing we get two great bits. First we have a wonderful visit with Varys where we hear of his castration and see he has acquired the magician who cut him—a creative addition, but a welcome one. Then we arrive at the Sept of Baelor as Joffrey practically gets a boner while telling Margaery about the torturous history of the previous royal families and tries to make nice with the crowd. Cersei is troubled by the growing influence of the Tyrells on Joffrey and the court. Just a great episode overall, but misses out on the top spot of season three because of a certain dinner party gone awry…
7. The Watchers on the Wall (4×09)
It’s quite difficult to place this one, isn’t it? On the one hand, it’s more of an exciting battle than “Blackwater”, what with the giants, mammoths, hammers to the head, and a giant-ass scythe. On the other hand, the characters within that battle are collectively just a fraction as interesting as those in “Blackwater”. It does go a long way to make Grenn, Pyp, Edd, and Thorne memorable – even heroic – but ultimately it’s a dreary location with almost no color, which doesn’t really lend itself to a full episode. Still though, it’s a great action piece and that counts for a lot. The mammoths and giants look good and I appreciate that they included the barrels of burning oil and Mag the Mighty charging through the tunnel. The close-combat fights were well-choreographed, especially Styr vs. Jon. And was that a super-brief cameo from Three-Fingered Hobb with the giant cleaver?
They dug a little into Aemon’s past and made Janos Slynt a complete doofus, which I am happy about. The big question mark is if it should have ended with Stannis coming to the rescue. I can see why they may have wanted to leave it for the following week, but I still think they could have trimmed a couple minutes in order to fit all that in. It might also have freed up the finale to tie things up more nicely. But even still, it was a thrilling 51 minutes that set a new benchmark for “Thrones” action sequences.
6. The Mountain and the Viper (4×08)
“YOU RAPED HER! YOU MURDERED HER! YOU KILLED HER CHILDREN!” The head-splat heard ‘round the world. It may have gone by all too quickly, but it looked damn good while it was happening. Pedro Pascal (and/or possibly a stunt double) does some serious footwork, and his performance is wonderful, both in the cockiness and the blood-curdling screams of getting your eyeballs mushed like grapes in a vineyard stomp bucket. It pretty much met expectations and even exceeded them with the final crushing blow. This whole event could have benefitted from a few buildup scenes earlier in the hour like Oberyn cleaning his spear, Tyrion trying to calm himself down, The Mountain doing…whatever it is that he does before a fight. It’s the episode title and it’s the number one priority after episode seven, so they could have thrown us a bone with that one.
But seven really good minutes alone does not a Top Five episode make. The secondary headline is probably the fallout from the Moon Door debacle. For such small parts, I really enjoyed the actors they got to play the Lords of the Vale. Sansa took a little longer to make a major move than her siblings did, but after 37 episodes, it feels earned because she was the least likely. We only got three episodes of Theon/Ramsay this year and this is the last we see of them for the time being, but it’s a pretty critical moment. Moat Cailin, in and of itself, does not seem to be terribly important but the Boltons neutralize the Greyjoy threat after forcing Reek to pretend to be Theon. When Roose arrives, he legitimizes Ramsay and officially claims the North for himself, as they ride into Winterfell. It’s been a long road to get here – most of what Theon has endured over these two seasons either happened off-page in the book or was invented for the show. We got back on the railroad tracks with these guys and season five would give them their due diligence.
Jorah’s betrayal of Dany has been set up for a long time and now Chekhov’s Gun must go off. When they changed Barristan’s storyline, they had to change this too, but I think I may like this version slightly better because it doesn’t paint Barristan in a poor light. This may have been a plot point that would have been better served spread over two episodes so as to give Dany time to process what happened and allow Jorah to put up more of a fight. It’s a tad too rushed and doesn’t come up in the finale, which is weird because this is maybe the one pair of characters that have been side-by-side all the way through the series. People have rolled their eyes at the Grey Worm and Missandei love story, but I actually don’t mind. In addition to making them rounder characters, I think it might be worth pursuing what happens when an Unsullied wants to love. They are essentially a giant tool used by Dany in her conquest, but when she freed them, she gave them permission to be human again. Their training has taken most of their humanity (not unlike Reek) but what happens when it starts to creep back in? Is it a cause for celebration or is it the beginning of a downfall?
5. The Children (4×10)
I was so ready to put this at number one. There were so many climaxes we were expecting and while they were all done pretty well, I realized after the fact that a finale full of climaxes may actually end up being slightly less than the sum of its parts. I think you need some of that connective tissue, some of those smaller moments to build up to the bigger pieces. We got a couple of those scenes in King’s Landing but really it was almost all adrenaline. And that goes a long way, but it makes it seem like a “best of” clip-show rather than a full episode.
If I’m being honest, I think my favorite part of the episode is at the Wall. The Jon/Mance bro-ment is possibly Hinds’ best scene as King-Beyond-the-Wall. Then Stannis storms in. I thought we’d only get a few riders stampeding through the forest, but we got the whole damn army! Stannis’ theme gets heavier and louder which feels right, and he and Davos emerging from the fog was a clutch shot. Stannis does not seem like someone who belongs at the Wall and just seeing him standing in the snow is like mixing two mediocre foods and discovering it tastes amazing. And that Melisandre stare? Well, it doesn’t lead to all that much in season five, but it was interesting at the time.
After a four-episode absence, Bran finally returns in a big way, as he has now ended the journey he began back in the season two finale. Lots of people hated the skeleton wights. I think they’re goofy, perhaps, but not sinful. I was less high on the Child of the Forest throwing fireballs like she was in a Dragonball Z movie, a rare miscalculation there. Plus, her performance was very uninspiring. We’ll have to wait for season six to see if Bloodraven truly lives up to expectations. The Brienne/The Hound fight was grade-A, and a great way to make those two stories connect while still having the same outcomes that they separately have in the book. This was Rory McCann’s finest hour as he begs Arya to kill him. There were just great performances from everyone, really– a brutal fight and an even more brutal cold shoulder after the fact.
Finally, it’s Kill Bill: Tyrion Edition. There are some gaps that make it a bit confusing as to why he took a detour to Tywin’s room, but I won’t get worked up over it. Shae’s murder is quick and uncomfortable. Tywin’s is given very little fanfare, but the mere fact that it happened (in the privy, no less) is enough to be satisfying. There’s not much else to say. Tyrion and Arya are both sea-bound, and if you take out the disappointment of the-scene-that-was-not-shown, I think Arya hopping a boat to Braavos was probably the best way this season could have ended. It signals new horizons as we close the chapter on the first half of the series and head for new waters. After another bleak season, it’s the most hopeful we’d been in a long time.
4. Hardhome (5×08)
In the long-awaited conversations between Tyrion and Daenerys, Tyrion’s dry wit and level-headed pragmatism prove to be the right elixir to combat Dany’s over-the-top “I will BREAK the wheel” rhetoric, which has been a small burden to her for the last couple seasons. There hasn’t really been a sarcastic figure in her entourage, so Tyrion finally gives her a dose of the truth. It remains to be seen just how useful his advice to her could be, but just getting these two at the same table together, even briefly, is the correct move for the show.
Going into this, we all expected a battle at Hardhome, but, because Jon is not present for this in the book, we had no idea on specifics, and the feeling of “anything could happen” was pulling on me from the moment they rowed onto shore. When the dogs started barking and the snow kicked up, my heart started beating with a sense of dread at what we were about to witness. The battle exceeded expectations. It was a free-for-all, with wights ripping through the gate and wildlings maniacally stampeding into the surf.
What it lacked in flashy tricks and seismic scale (as seen in “The Watchers on the Wall”) it made up for in pure viciousness. I will single out the portrayers of Loboda and Karsi for creating two interesting characters in twenty minutes, even if we immediately lose them. The revelations of the White Walkers were a long time coming, and the “Thrones” team managed to keep them menacing despite limited screen-time. The final moments of the boat drifting away as the army of the dead leers just out of arms reach brings the fervor to a level of zero as we are asked to patiently and quietly think about what this means for the story’s endgame. I don’t think there were any real missteps here. It was fun and intense. That’s all you need for Game of Thrones.
3. The Lion and the Rose (4×02)
Let’s get the appetizers out of the way first. Now that we actually know who Ramsay is, we can finally start unraveling him, and it begins with Roose Bolton. I love these guys together. The shaving scene with Reek is really cool and it was long overdue for Ramsay to have a new dimension added to him. Bran’s scene is short, but it’s his first time warging into a tree and gives us a little bit of footage to analyze. Really hope they can do a lot more of this. On Dragonstone, Stannis burns some heretics and they do some talking. Not much to say there. This whole chunk is pretty good but gets lost in the shuffle of the Purple Wedding.
The second half is basically one long scene and just about every segment of it is top-notch. It’s probably the best that the costumes and set design have ever been and it’s a feast of color for the eyes. Getting characters like Jaime/Loras, and Brienne/Cersei to pair up and chat was a nice way to shuffle the cards, and Jack Gleeson gave his most well-rounded performance of Joffrey ever. Seriously, have we ever seen him laugh hysterically before? From the moment he brought out the dwarf performers (who, by the way, all received very detailed costumes which was also appreciated) the tension slowly built up, as Tyrion and several others grew more and more offended by his antics. They couldn’t resist making Joff so deliciously evil one final time when he poured wine onto his uncle’s head and made him pick up the dropped goblet. Extra kudos for setting up the potential for Sansa to be in on the plot.
And when the other shoe dropped, it was long and painful and pretty much perfect. In my opinion, the Royal Wedding reception may be the single greatest sequence in the history of the show thus far, outside of the big battles. It’s even better than the Red Wedding – but just barely misses out to it on the list simply because “The Rains of Castamere” had two great subplots mixed in with it, while “The Lion and the Rose” subplots were a mixed bag. While there may be more exciting scenes coming up in the show, I doubt any of them will match the detail, extravagance, and attractiveness of the Purple Wedding.
2. The Rains of Castamere (3×09)
This could easily be placed in the top five for the Red Wedding massacre alone, but let’s also not forget that some other memorable scenes happen. Bran’s group arrives at an old mill and finally link up with Jon and the wildlings that are in pursuit of a horse breeder. This leads to a skirmish and Bran warging into Summer to help Jon escape (R.I.P. Orell). It’s a pretty exciting semi-reunion, and gives the impression to the viewers that all of these various storylines can, and will, converge and link up at certain points. Osha and Rickon part ways in a tearful goodbye.
Over in Yunkai, a plan is made and Jorah, Daario, and Grey Worm form the world’s greatest tag team as they take out soldiers near the entrance. The choreography is wonderful and all three get to be badass in their own fighting style with three different weapons. The city seems to “fall” relatively quickly, but it gives Jorah and our two newest heroes a chance to show off a little.
The meat and potatoes of the episode is at the Twins, where Edmure weds Roslin Frey and everything seems nice and positive for Team Stark before the doors close, the band plays the Lannister theme song, and everybody dies (R.I.P. Grey Wind). Talisa and her unborn baby are slaughtered brutally, and Bolton quickly dispatches with Robb, as Catelyn screams in agony and kills Mrs. Frey before ultimately losing her own life in a very quick and spooky shot that leads straight to the silent credits. It’s a painful gut punch, made even more so by Arya’s arrival, and I do wish I could put myself into the mind of a Game of Thrones newbie and watch it for the first time surprised. Even as I was reading, I knew beforehand that something called the Red Wedding was coming, so I have never truly gotten the full effect. In any case, it’s an expertly-crafted episode that contains three great climaxes and action scenes without even anything from King’s Landing or a couple other locations. There’s no fat to trim. Ultimately, I still think I like one episode slightly more than “The Rains of Castamere”, but wow, it was fun seeing the world’s reactions to it for the entire week afterwards.
1. Blackwater (2×09)
Just about all of the previous ten episodes on this list had the death of at least one major character, sometimes more. Blackwater is a battle episode with no notable fatalities except Matthos Seaworth who was barely a character, but this is still probably my favorite episode of the series thus far. The sole focus on King’s Landing was absolutely the right decision, and what sets it apart from “The Watchers on the Wall” is that it features many characters we actually like watching for extended periods, Tyrion being the big one, of course. The buildup is great, notably Varys’ ominous line, “I’ve always hated the bells. They ring for horror.” The Hound finally comes into his own here (not surprising, since George wrote it) and shows us his prickly side. Up until now he’s mostly been the strong but silent killer. And his “Fuck the king!” tirade quickly turns soft when he hides out in Sansa’s room to escape the fire. Stannis doesn’t really raise his stock all that much, other than by leading the charge on the gates, but Davos gets literally blown off his boat from the wildfire. Now there’s a scene I’ve watched many times over.
The fighting itself is well-choreographed and contained a few bloody surprises. By the time we reach the climax, Cersei has taken Tommen to the throne room and relays a story about how a “little lion” becomes king and that all of the animals will bow to him. Some major foreshadowing, no? She is about to poison him, but Tywin and the Tyrells arrive to save the day. One of my favorite shots of the show is the one seemingly from the injured Tyrion’s perspective of the army coming to save the day, charging on their horses and blowing horns. It looks almost dream-like. There’s not much else to say. It was a one-hour episode that felt like a movie and had me nervous for the characters that, if not outright villains, were certainly presented as the antagonists to the story at this point. It proved that Game of Thrones could do big battles, and do them well.
Now that the hard part is out of the way, let’s crunch the numbers and see the average placement for each season:
Season 1: 32.3
Season 2: 31.8
Season 5: 23.8
Season 3: 23.4
Season 4: 16.2
Season 4 being at the top is no surprise. It has half of the top ten. Season 5 is saved only by a solid three-episode ending streak, beating out Season 3 by fractions. I’m slightly surprised Season 2 edged out Season 1, likely due to “Blackwater” getting the gold. I guess the numbers don’t lie, but my gut tells me Season 1 still has the edge because it has three episodes in the 10-14 range, while Season 2 only has two in the top HALF. And it’s entirely possible that on another rewatch I may find more to enjoy about “The Kingsroad” or “Lord Snow” and less to like about “The Old Gods and the New” or “The Prince of Winterfell”. In the end, it’s just a silly game to waste time until we have a new season of Game of Thrones.
So there you have it. How much of my list do you agree with? What’s your top three, five, or ten episodes? Your least favorite? Until next time, keep climbing that ladder.