George R.R. Martin’s series of books have become a phenomenon as HBO’s groundbreaking show continues to leap from strength to strength.
Whatever the genre, good film and television always relies on the same strengths. The Wire was such a hit because its characters were interesting, heavily flawed individuals who hardly ever got what they wanted. Boardwalk Empire succeeded in bringing history to live, immersing its audience in the 1920s of America’s East Coast. Breaking Bad is an outstanding character study and let’s the audience vicariously live a life of crime through the actions of Walter White.
Game of Thrones, a program now in its 3rd series, combines all of these elements and succeeds in making Westeros the most comprehensive fictional location since Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City. The heart of the programme is the power struggle between warring families. Think The Sopranos with swords, or Desperate Housewives if it were good. Hopefully you’ll have discovered GoT during season 1, but if not, be warned that spoilers lie ahead, and remember, ‘Winter is coming.’
10. Winter is Coming (Series 1, Episode 1)
Looking back on this very first episode, it’s strange to note how young all of the actors look. It’s even stranger still to see Lord Eddard Stark (R.I.P) still alive and well. The premise of the episode is that King Robert Baratheon has travelled up from the seat of his kingdom in the south, to ask his old war-buddy Ned Stark to take on the role of advisor, or ‘Hand’ of the king. It’s a great episode because it eases us in to the world of Westeros and gives us a bit of time with each Stark. It’s also interesting, watching back and knowing what fate has in store for each of them. The best part of the episode, is, however, the opening scene beyond the wall, in which men of the Night’s Watch encounter White Walkers. It’s the first time we encounter White Walkers, and the last time we see them for another 18 nail-biting episodes.
9. Dark Wings, Dark Words (Series 3, Episode 2)
Arya Stark is one of the two best characters in this series (I’ll tell you who the best is shortly, but I bet you can guess) and this episode gives her plenty to play with. Having escaped Harrenhal at the end of the previous season, she’s trekking north, in an attempt to reach Winterfell, her home. Her companions during this trip are the brilliantly named Hot Pie and the bastard heir to the throne, Gendry. The interplay between all three is fantastic, and when they encounter The Brotherhood Without Banners, it only gets better. There’s a real sense of mischief in this episode (not least because of Paul Kay’s brilliant turn as Brotherhood leader Thoros of Myr) and as Arya and co wander through the woods you get a brilliant sense that we’re poking into the hidden corners of Westeros.
8. You Win Or You Die (Season 1, Episode 7)
When Ned Stark revealed all he knew to Cersei Lannister, namely that her children were the fruits of her and her brother’s incest and that son Joffrey has no rightful claim to the throne, Cersei replied, ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.’ It’s a fantastic moment, and I’ll take it over Bobby squaring up against Al over coffee in Heat, any day. The fact that Ned is willing to warn Cersei, so that she can escape with her children, shows the nobility of the former-Lord of Winterfell. Unfortunately, nobility does not get you very far in the Game of Thrones.
7. The Ghost of Harrenhal (Season 2, Episode 5)
Another Arya-heavy episode, The Ghost of Harrenhal finds us at the titular castle, a fortress once thought to be impenetrable until it was all but destroyed by dragons. Harrenhal is not a nice place, in fact, it’s the grimmest place we’ve seen so far; people are tortured and the guards are more than ready to kill anyone at the drop of a helmet. What’s good about the episode is the brilliant interplay between Charles Dance as Lord Tywin Lannister and Arya, who is now serving as his cupbearer. Whilst Tywin suspects Anya is not who she says she is, he does not know she is the daughter of his enemies, making for some brilliantly tense scenes. It’s also the first time we get an idea of what Jaqen H’ghar is about. He’s the prisoner Arya rescued in an earlier episode and in return, he pledges to kill any three men Arya names. He’s brilliantly mysterious and has a great quirk of referring to himself in the third person, ‘A man will give three names.’
6. Walk of Punishment (Season 3, Episode 3)
Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen continues her quest to gather an army worthy of placing her on the Iron Throne of Westeros. With every episode she takes a step closer to become a leader, and here, as she argues with slave dealer Kraznys mo Nakloz, a ruthlessness we’ve hardly seen before is allowed to rise to the surface. It’s also fantastic seeing Ser Jorah Mormont and Ser Barristan Selmy subtly jostling each other for the Khaleesi’s favour. Let’s hope there comes a day when we get to see them ride into battle together.
The second reason this episode is fantastic is the developing relationship between Brienne of Tarth and her captive Ser Jaime Lannister. They’ve been taken captive by northern banner man, Locke who is transporting them back to Rob Stark’s camp. When Locke’s men take Brienne off to be raped, Jaime feels a sudden compulsion to save her, and the audience could breathe a sigh of relief. What happens next, however, came completely out of nowhere and left my mouth hanging open long past the end of the credits.
5. Blackwater (Season 2, Episode 9)
George R.R. Martin took the writing duties upon himself for this episode, and it’s clear to see why. Blackwater is the culmination of episodes worth of planning on either side of the war, as Stannis Baratheon plans to attack King’s Landing and Tyrion Lannister plans to defend it. It’s an episode that had to be handled with the utmost care, so as not to disappoint anyone, and thankfully, they got it spot on. The battle scenes are fantastic and the wildfire burning up Stannis’ ships is a truly breathtaking sight. Predictably, that snivelling little coward ‘King’ Joffrey slithers off inside, out of harms way. Unpredictably, his uncle, dwarf and Hand of The King Tyrion Lannister steps up to the plate, leading the men in a heroic charge against their attackers. As always Tyrion has a knack for a good line, ‘There are brave men knocking on our door- let’s go kill them!’
4. A Golden Crown (Season 1, Episode 6)
If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m rooting for Tyrion Lannister, one of the best characters of any TV show and the only sane member of the Lannister clan (apart from possibly his dear old dad, Lord Tywin). Tyrion’s pre-trial confessions (mainly wanking and drinking too much) are one of the lightest moments of the whole series, but it is his trial, by combat, that makes this an episode worth remembering. Lady Lysa Arryn demands her champion fight Tyrion and for a minute it looks like it could all be over. Cue Bronn who steps forward to defend the little man. He defeats the champion and so begins the beginnings of the best double act since Robson and Jerome. His lines aren’t bad either; when Lysa Arryn huffs ‘You do not fight with honour!’ Bronn shrugs, nods at his slaim opponent and says, ‘No, but he did.’ Strong work, Bronn.
3. Valar Morghulis (Season 2, Episode 10)
Arya and co escape Harrenhal after Jaqen H’ghar murders the guards and gruesomely props them up on their own spears. Later, when Arya catches up with him, Jaqen gives her a coin and a phrase to contact him by, ‘Valar Morghulis,’ which we later learn means ‘All men must die.’ Jaqen then changes his face as he walks off, promising more mysterious developments ahead.
Meanwhile, Sam is blundering about north of the wall when three horn blasts sound. One blast is for a Ranger returning, two blasts are for Wildlings and three blasts is for White Walkers, creatures who have supposedly been extinct for thousands of years. It’s not until Sam is abandoned and finds himself hiding behind a rock that we realise this might not be true. Suddenly, the war being fought south of The Wall doesn’t seem so important anymore…
2. The Pointy End (Season 1, Episode 8)
Robert Baratheon was the only thing keeping Ned Stark safe in King’s Landing. With Robert’s passing, Ned is left un-tethered and unprotected in enemy territory. Ever the man of honour, Ned feels compelled to carry out his duty in naming the rightful heir. Unfortunately, Jamie Lannister is not pleased about this, or the fact that Ed’s wife Catelyn Stark has taken Tyrion Lannister captive. Cue the sword fight we’ve been waiting for since the first episode as The Kingslayer takes on The Lord of Winterfell. It’s a brilliant scene and Ned is holding his own until one of Jamie’s banner men shoves a spear through his thigh. From then on, it’s all down hill for Ned Stark.
1. Baelor (Season 1, Episode 9)
There have been a few untimely deaths in television shows (R.I.P Jimmy Darmody and Stringer Bell), but never has the biggest name in the cast been killed off in such dramatic fashion at the end of the first season. For any other show hoping to secure a second series, this would be suicide, but, Game of Thrones is concerned with integrity above all else, and so, Ned’s head must roll. It’s a horrible moment and one that made me want to wring the neck of that little ‘C-U-Next-Tueasday’ Joffrey. It’s also interesting to see how Ned’s two daughters, Arya and Sansa. Sansa, helpless and engaged to Joffrey, let’s her facade of support slip and wails in despair, whilst Arya’s hand lingers over her sword as she swears revenge.
As GoT continues to grow and expand this list will surely become but a footnote in a list of many great episodes, but for now, this is the best of the best television has to offer.