When you rank the episodes of ‘Game of Thrones,’ you win or you die.
The common misconception about these big “ranked” lists is that they are easy. That the author just slapped them together as a piece of clickbait, throwing items in unexpected places to get a rise out of people. That might be how they make lists like this elsewhere, but not here. The most arduous work in ranking every episode of Game of Thrones was the preparation and the creation of the actual rankings. In the two weeks that I spent just creating the list, I revisited these episodes, consulted with fellow Thrones bloggers, and poured over my methodology. Game of Thrones is a show I care about a great deal, so ranking its first 50 episodes is something I take very seriously.
My ranking methodology emphasizes three qualities: Entertainment value and narrative productivity; Lasting Power and importance to the rest of the story; and an episode’s ability to illicit a response that further elevated Game of Thrones’ popularity. The final list is meticulously crafted and considered, from 50-to–1.
In completing the list, there are few things I’ve noticed about my rankings. These could be considered biases that emerged organically from the process of ranking the episodes. One is that I clearly favor episodes written by George R.R. Martin, as well as episodes that hew closer to the stories of the books. Those have always been the tightest, most complex and rich stories.
It’s also clear that those most famous episode 9s remain the champions of their respective seasons, for the most part. Some directors stand out — David Nutter and Alan Taylor. And writers on the show whose episodes are on the weaker end of the spectrum — the likes of Dave Hill and Bryan Cogman (the latter having one glaring exception). Are these my biases at work, or the product forcing each episode to stand on its own? It’s a chicken and egg scenario, for sure.
Below you will find my ranking of every episode of Game of Thrones, as someone who has watched every hour multiple times, read every book, poured over the behind the scenes details, and covered this show for the majority of its existence. If there is such a thing as a Game of Thrones scholar, I have to be getting close at this point.
Honorable Mention: The Unaired Pilot
Someday HBO, along with show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, will release the unaired version of the show’s pilot. That’s the hope. With a cameo from George R.R. Martin, Spotlight Thomas McCarthy in the director’s chair and some different casting choices, the unaired pilot will be forever fascinating. Someday I aspire to write its oral history (or maybe just see it once). For this list, it was not fair to include it. I’ve never seen it, nor has anyone I know.
60. Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken (Season 5, Episode 6)
To be honest, picking the 50th best — and thus “the worst — Game of Thrones episode wasn’t as hard as say, picking the 24th or 31st episode in a list like this. When it comes to the very top and the very bottom, some choices seem almost too obvious. “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” a season five episode written by Bryan Cogman and directed by Jeremy Podeswa, is merely an episode that culminated some very bad decisions by the show’s writers. Taking Jaime and Bronn to Dorne was a rushed, underwhelming venture. And bringing Sansa to Winterfell to become a Bolton plaything — while possibly a satisfying narrative choice by the end of the series — led to an unnecessarily horrible moment. No amount of explaining themselves in the press or on DVD commentaries will ever get the stink off this episode. The perception of the audience matters. And the perception is that this was a problematic, poorly executed episode. An obvious choice among 50 above-average hours of television.
59. A Man Without Honor (Season 2, Episode 7)
The road forward from #50 gets tougher for yours truly. Ranking some of these middling episodes is a challenge. Because let’s face it, Game of Thrones doesn’t deliver a lot of duds. What it does deliver are some ho-hum transitional episodes. “A Man Without Honor” is season two’s middle child, trapped somewhere between “Where are my dragons?!” and the explosion of “Blackwater.” It’s a Theon Greyjoy-heavy episode that sees both the Temporary Prince of Winterfell and Jaime Lannister killing children. Ygritte and Jon do some walking. Then the Warlocks of Qarth murder a bunch of rich dudes. Other than serving as the only episode in which we meet Quaithe of Asshai — a fun treat for book readers — very little of this episode can be considered exciting. Unless you’re into dead kids.
58. Dark Wings, Dark Words (Season 3, Episode 2)
Another transitional episode, much earlier in season two, “Dark Wings, Dark Words” gets credit for introducing the audience to Lady Olenna Tyrell (played by Diana Rigg). Catelyn Stark gets to monologue about Jon Snow — something a lot of characters have done in this show’s run. This episode also includes one of Brienne’s best early moments (the fight on the bridge) and introduces Thoros of Myr and the Brotherhood Without Banners. While it may be the season two episode that introduces us to many new and interesting characters, that’s all it is.
57. Mhysa (Season 3, Episode 10)
Spoiler alert: this is the lowest season finale of this entire list, and it’s not even close. The closing shot alone — in which Daenerys Targaryen crowd-surfs in a sea of the brown people she just white savior’d — is enough to push this down the list. It’s also the victim of being the episode that would follow The Red Wedding. That was never going to be a good spot. It’s a lot of clean-up. The Greyjoy clan receives Theon’s dick-in-a-box from Ramsay Bolton; Tywin does some scolding of Joffrey; Jaime and Brienne finally make it to King’s Landing, and Bran sneaks past The Wall. It’s all just an awkward sweep-up episode that gets us to the end of season three.
56. Lord Snow (Season 1, Episode 3)
Season one took a long time to pick up any steam. To get from Ned and Robert bonding at Winterfell to Ned’s head rolling in episode nine, there had to be some meandering. “Lord Snow” is a perfect example, as its biggest moments are (a) Tyrion urinating from the top of The Wall and (b) a closing scene in which Daenerys announces that she’s pregnant as Ser Jorah debates the finer points of mortal combat with a Dothraki rider. Not exactly a barn-burner.
55. The Broken Man (Season 6, Episode 7)
Even season 6 — which, as least thus far, is the best off-book season — had plenty of filler. Chief among its filler episodes is “The Broken Man,” which begins with a big reveal (The Hound is alive!) and ends with a sad, hard truth (Ian McShane is a one and done!) It’s also the episode in which Arya gets stabbed as part of her eternal battle with The Waif, a “shocking” moment that held almost no weight, as we were all pretty sure she’d be fine by, say, the next episode.
54. The Prince of Winterfell (Season 2, Episode 8)
Considering where this episode and “A Man Without Honor” landed on the list, it’s safe to call the 3/4 mark of season two the awkward teenage years of Game of Thrones. They saved all their season two budget for the big finish and spent a few episodes talking themselves to death. Or in the case of Jaqen H’gar, giving the gift of death. This episode’s crowning moment: Rob Stark’s mother lets Jaime Lannister go behind his back. Get your shit together, King in the North.
53. The Red Woman (Season 6, Episode 1)
They could’ve brought Jon Snow back in this episode. I’m just saying. The big problem with the season 6 premiere is that it wallows in the same misery that plagued much of season 5, providing ample reminder that the previous season was a real downer. On the side of wins, Sansa and Theon are rescued from the Bolton Hound Brigade by Brienne (and to a lesser extent, Pod). Bonus points for adding to the mythology around Melisandre and here necklace, but in context, those bonus points are later taken back when the fact that the titular Red Woman is super old is ultimately never explored further.
52. Breaker of Chains (Season 4, Episode 3)
Sorry Game of Thrones, that Cersei and Jaime scene didn’t do it for me, and I’m not alone. Unlike “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” which was a culmination of bad decisions, the “let me rape you next to our son’s rotting corpse” scene was directly adapted from the books. Only, they read it completely wrong. What was a consensual — albeit messed up — situation got turned into some dark incestuous assault. Not great, even by Lannister standards. Daenerys does hurl barrels full of broken chains at Meereen (a little on the nose, but still fun), but it’s overshadowed by the show’s bungling of what comes after Joffrey’s death. All made further ironic by Sam’s decision to move Gilly into a brothel to keep her safe. That logic is — what do they call it? — problematic.
51. Valar Dohaeris (Season 3, Episode 1)
“Valor Dohaeris” is another tough transitional episode, this time opening what would become one of the show’s two most explosive seasons. It provides an introduction to several great characters — Giants, Mance Rayder, Tormund Giantsbane, Maester Qyburn and Missandei — but it also does a lot of walking and talking the Westerosi way. Like Robb Stark’s army, audiences went into this episode tired and hungry, and all we got was a few nights stay at Harrenhal.