Season 1, Episode 1: “Winter Is Coming”
By bookending this episode with the White Walker attack on the Night’s Watchmen and Jaime Lannister’s quip about “the things we do for love,” the creators establish the series’s intense stakes and foreshadow two elements that fuel the show for its duration: the threat of the Night King and the Lannisters’ dominance of power. However, this does not imply that the middle of the episode lacks emotional heft. On the contrary, across the Narrow Sea in Essos, Viserys Targaryen brokers a marriage between his sister Daenerys and the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo in hopes that their military might can help him reclaim the Iron Throne. As one of her wedding gifts, Daenerys receives three petrified dragon eggs . . . and thus, the seeds of a new leader are sown.
Season 8, Episode 3: “The Long Night”
In any other season, an episode of this magnitude would act as a season finale. But as the series comes to an end, the creators give us an early surprise with an uninterrupted view of the Great War. Though heavily criticized for the darkness of its visuals, this installment deserves accolades for the varying emotions conveyed during each wave of the attack. From the lights-out disappearance of the Dothraki to the walkers scaling the walls of Winterfell to Jorah Mormont laying down his life for Daenerys to Arya’s defeat of the Night King, this episode has something for everyone.
Season 1, Episode 9: “Baelor”
In many ways, this Game of Thrones episode starts the shock culture that’s become synonymous with the show since it’s best known as the installment where Ned Stark meets his demise. This episode also marks the official beginning of Arya‘s transformation from woman to warrior as the first names on her kill list begin to take shape. While in Essos, Daenerys fights for the life of Khal Drogo, whose infected wound means certain death. So she calls on the blood magic of a Lhazareen priestess named Mirri Maz Duur, who double crosses the distraught khaleesi.
Season 4, Episode 10: “The Children”
This is another huge season finale full of character-defining moments. For instance, Daenerys grapples with chaining her dragons after Drogon kills an innocent child in Meereen. Beyond the Wall, Jon attempts to put an end to the wildling conflict by assassinating their king, Mance Rayder, but finds himself relieving the free folk leader of an inhumane death when Stannis beats Jon to the task. In the dungeons of King’s Landing, Tyrion awaits execution for the murder of King Joffrey, but his brother Jaime helps him escape — but not before Tyrion seeks revenge by killing his father and Shae, the woman who betrays him. And in the Vale, Brienne shows her loyalty to House Stark by fighting the Hound (and winning!) to protect Arya, who hides so she can travel alone to Braavos.
Season 6, Episode 5: “The Door”
This is one of the few episodes to tug at our heartstrings without the use of dragon fire, warfare, or outright duplicity. Instead, this installment focuses on relationships, with Sansa confronting Littlefinger about his role in her marriage to Ramsay Bolton. Her moving speech about the trauma she endures during the union speaks to the content of her character and warns her former guardian never to cross her again lest he pay the price. Daenerys’s emotional moment comes in the form of goodbye as she sends Jorah Mormont away to find a cure for his greyscale. And of course, the titular event of Hodor holding the door so Bran and Meera can escape a horde of wights crushes our souls — especially once we understand Bran’s warging causes Hodor’s damaged mind.
Season 5, Episode 10: “Mother’s Mercy”
“SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!” The word haunts our dreams but also acts as an incantation that forces us to feel for one of the most vicious characters in the show’s history, Cersei Lannister. Meanwhile, on a ship outside of Dorne, Cersei’s brother-lover, Jaime, confesses to Myrcella that he’s really her father, only to have her die in his arms seconds later . . . a parting gift courtesy of the Sand Snakes.
As seasons finales go, this is one of the best, as every scene contains an emotional payoff either for the audience or the characters. For example, Brienne decapitates Stannis for his crimes against Renly Baratheon. Sansa and Theon escape the wrath of Ramsay Bolton by jumping from the walls of Winterfell.
Season 1, Episode 10: “Fire and Blood”
The title is the motto of House Targaryen, but the image of Daenerys emerging from the ashes of Drogo’s funeral pyre unscathevd serves as the episode’s most unforgettable element. However, this installment also contains several quieter moments that highlight the emotional intensity of the season. A few examples include Jaime Lannister telling Catelyn Stark about his role in Bran’s accident, Sansa suffering abuse at the hands of Joffrey and Ser Meryn Trant, and Arya escaping King’s Landing by disguising herself as a boy named “Arry.”
Season 6, Episode 10: “The Winds of Winter”
This season finale contains a series of memorable moments that speak to the show’s themes of power and duplicity. At the Twins, Walder Frey awaits the arrival of his sons to celebrate their recapture of Riverrun only to encounter a vengeful Arya Stark. She reveals his sons lay to rest in his dinner pie before slitting the old man’s throat. In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister uses wildfire to destroy Queen Margaery and the High Sparrow at the Sept of Bealor. However, the move comes at the cost of her son King Tommen, who commits suicide over the loss of his queen. At Winterfell, Jon Snow accepts the role of King in the North while Littlefinger attempts to conspire against his new leader. And in Meereen, Daenerys pronounces Tyrion the Hand of the Queen and the two of them, along with a massive armada, set sail for Westeros.
Season 6, Episode 9: “Battle of the Bastards”
The title tells the tale on this one — Jon Snow vs. Ramsay Bolton in a gritty battle for the fate of Winterfell. Along the way, hundreds die, including Shaggydog, Rickon Stark, and Wun-Wun the giant. Yet what’s most notable here is that Sansa Stark ultimately saves the outmatched Northern forces and helps win the battle by calling upon Littlefinger to bring in the Knights of the Vale. She then enacts her revenge against Ramsay by feeding him to his own hounds.
Season 3, Episode 9: “The Rains of Castamere”
Better known as “The Red Wedding,” the episode title serves to prevent spoilers and refers to the lyrics of the song played by the wedding band moments before the carnage begins. Robb, his mother, Catelyn, and several of the Stark bannermen visit House Frey for the union of Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey only to lose their lives in the ambush. Other notable storylines in this episode include Bran entering Hodor’s mind for one of the first times, Jon attempting to prove his loyalty while living undercover with the wildlings, and Daenerys planning her invasion of Yunkai.