This article contains spoilers for all of Game of Thrones.
It may still be a little hard to believe, but the cultural phenomenon that is Game of Thrones is no more. It will of course continue to dominate watercooler conversation in the days and weeks ahead, but with Sunday night’s contentious series finale wrapped, it has shuffled off this televised coil and has already begun its ascent to belonging to the ages. Thus also begins the already heated debate about what the series’ legacy truly means.
Be that as it may though, it’s worth considering the series as it has been for the last nine years before getting too lofty or pretentious about its cultural imprint. For eight seasons, we have been thrilled, horrified, repulsed, and overjoyed by the triumphs and despairs of the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens. And while their watch is ended, ours may continue for many winters to come via streaming, box sets, and all the rest. With that said, which was the very best season of Game of Thrones? Which deserves the Iron Throne of posterity to be what the show was at its very best? Well…
8. Game of Thrones Season 8
Perhaps not surprisingly while we’re still in the midst of backlash and disappointment toward the final season, it is hard to disagree that this was the weakest of Game of Thrones’ whole run. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had the unenviable task of concluding George R.R. Martin’s sprawling “A Song of Ice and Fire” epic and to do so with only an outline of an ending to build toward—one that was by design meant to disappoint and horrify the legion of readers, viewers, and stans who’d thrown their support behind Team Daenerys. With that said, Benioff and Weiss did not do themselves any favors by insisting they could cram that sendoff into six extra-long episodes that favored expedience and spectacle over nuance and reflection.
The result is an uneven season that appeared to be in too big of a hurry to get to its own conclusion, resulting in as much frustration as despair when Daenerys did give into her long-established Targaryen demons only two episodes after saving the world. Even so, we doth think the fan vitriol is overstated against the season as a whole and especially its ending. Merely a few weeks ago, the same critics who dug out their knives into the finale were nigh uniformly praising the first two episodes, and the same social media tastemakers were applauding Arya killing the Night King as enthusiastically as they now condemn her and Sansa agreeing that Bran Stark should be king.
Frankly though, there is still a lot of good in this season. There are few character moments as satisfying in the whole series as Brienne of Tarth finally being knighted, and by Jaime Lannister whose own knightly soul was saved from nihilism by her. Likewise, Sansa’s completed journey from naïve and scared little girl to the wisest and most politically cunning of gameplayers in the series was a triumph, resulting in an Elizabethan-esque ascension. She achieved what her brothers could not and earned Northern independence, making the Starks proud.
And beyond characters arcs, the final season also included some of the best acting and imagery of the whole series. Like or hate Daenerys’ turn, Emilia Clarke has never been better than in that eternal deep breath atop the walls of King’s Landing as she relents to the rage that’s always been there, nor has Dany’s dark side been better articulated in an image than the dragon wings snaking around her arrival into the series finale. The season featured one of the most intense battle sequences in the series’ history during “The Long Night” and saw Arya assert her true independence from despair and death itself. Some will say we must accept that due to its flaws the series ended on a whimper. But do you know what we say to those people? Not today.
7. Game of Thrones Season 7
The penultimate season of Game of Thrones suffered from many of the same problems that were only slightly more visible during the final six episodes. Also a truncated run, albeit seven episodes here, season 7 suffered from an expedited pace that betrayed the subtler pacing of the earlier seasons—it also is the guiltiest season of cheating with “teleportation” shortcuts of traveling across Westeros in the post-George R.R. Martin era. The way in which Daenerys and her Dothraki can cross a continent in a morning to surprise the Lannister army by lunchtime, or how she and her dragons can fly the length of the North and the Fingers quicker than a 747 leaves something to be desired. The season similarly featured huge lapses in logic just as incredulous as Euron Greyjoy’s Invisible Fleet in the final season, including Highgarden falling to a siege in a day, and anyone thinking going wight-hunting beyond the Wall was a capital idea.
Nevertheless, there are virtues in the seventh season, including it being the season that finally brought Daenerys to Westeros and allowing Jon’s Ice to meet Dany’s Fire. Their introduction is one of the highlights of the series, underscoring her overstated self-importance and his dangerously understated modesty. The season also gave us the sequence fans have dreamed about since A Game of Thrones was first published in 1996: Dany on a full-sized dragon and leading a horde of Dothraki against Lannister troops. In classic Game of Thrones fashion, it too was not how we expected it with the fear of the Lannisters overshadowing the sense of catharsis that accompanies the Khaleesi blowing their shit up.
Similarly, Sansa evolving from student to master over Littlefinger, and him being judged by the three living children of Ned Stark—or Arya simply reaching Winterfell, period—were delights fans always yearned for. The season also provided Lena Headey with some of her finest scenes as she is at last allowed to address the Lannister brothers she hates, or hates to love, with the power she long craved. It is a crash course in portraying perpetual schadenfreude.
Still, the highlight of the whole season is something few fans could anticipate. With Highgarden fallen, Jaime Lannister triumphantly approaches Olenna Tyrell while accompanied by an orchestral battalion of “The Rains of Castamere.” It isn’t enough. Diana Rigg exited the series how she entered it: a treasure of regal gravitas and brutal condescension who could cut the victorious general who is there to kill her down to nothing more than a reprimanded little boy. When she slurps his “merciful” poison down in one gulp and then tells him that “it was me” who killed his and Cersei’s son, she went out like the most original of original gangsters. It’s a mic drop so resounding that no one should dare ever pick it back up.
6. Game of Thrones Season 5
The final season that pulled directly from George R.R. Martin’s novels, season 5 had the unusual distinction of being the only season to combine two whole books. While purists will object, the truth is both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons were overly long and indulgent. That does not, however, excuse some of the choices Benioff and Weiss made in streamlining the material.
The subplot that most withers on the lower end of the series’ legacy is an accursed and mostly reinvented Dornish narrative. Throwing out the admittedly dry and circuitous Dorne plot in the final two books was prudent, replacing it with a dippy buddy comedy for Jaime Lannister and Bronn that reduces the intriguing Sand Snakes to caricature is not. The season also suffers from being the most nihilistic and bleak in the show’s whole run. Yes, Dany going Mad Queen and dying in the final two episodes of the series is sad, but it was tempered with the optimism of a new dawn for Westeros where the Starks rule from Dorne to Beyond the Wall. There is hardly anything viscerally heartwarming to counteract the horror of seeing sweet little Shireen burned at the stake by her own parents.
And yet, that latter subplot had a Shakespearean edge of tragedy to it, complete with Stannis and Selyse Baratheon going out like the Macbeths; the season likewise recorded the first true embrace of Dany’s dark side as she flirted with tyranny after Barristan Selmy’s murder in the streets of Meereen. Not that her rage is rewarded when a spectacular gladiatorial set-piece descends into an assassination attempt only thwarted by Drogon’s interference. That moment flies high though, almost as high as Jon Snow laying eyes on the Night King for the first time at Hardhome in the whole series’ most apocalyptic White Walker sequence.
Also the season where the series began to contract instead of expanded, Arya reached Essos and transitioned from deadened young girl to murderous young woman (Meryn Trant’s murder is still nightmare-inducing), and Sansa sought agency that brought her into her most questionable subplot via Ramsay Bolton. Yet there were also graceful intersections, like Tyrion revealing himself as “the gift” to Daenerys. It might’ve been an ultimately bitter one, but every story needs its emotional valley, and Game of Thrones benefitted from it being in the year Jon Snow’s self-righteousness ran out of him like a red gush on white powder.
5. Game of Thrones Season 6
But many a dark night can be followed by a glorious dawn. Which is exactly how season 6 played and was received. While fandom is attempting to rewrite history to suggest all of Benioff and Weiss’ post-Martin seasons were failures, there is no denying season 6 was one of the most beloved installments in the series’ entire run, and at the very least surpasses the book-based season 5. Aye, its placement below season 2 was even a close call since this is the year where the threads Martin left untied in A Dance with Dragons were thoroughly and satisfyingly tied up.
Most dazzling of which is of course the “Battle of the Bastards.” The penultimate warfare episode that ultimately became a staple of the series, Bastard Bowl lacks some of the tactical or even narrative brilliance of earlier battles—did you really think Jon Snow really was going to lose to Ramsay Bolton with the fate of Winterfell hanging in the balance?—but it was nonetheless sheer joy to see the resurrected Bastard of Winterfell standing ever so broodingly before the forces of a a tyrannical force… and triumphing in no small part thanks to Sansa.
Yes, seeing Jon Snow and Sansa win back Winterfell was the series’ most cathartic, superheroic victory, made all the sweeter by Dark Sansa taking her first life and giving fans the most service-y cruel death of one of its villains, but the emotional highpoint was simply Jon and Sansa reunited at the Wall. As the Starks who grew up to most resemble the parents who raised them, it was the first and most heartfelt reunion in the series, and was the forerunner of a season filled with bittersweet payoff. This includes the show confirming that Rhaegal Targaryen and Lyanna Stark were Jon’s actual parents in a stunner of a tasteful cross-cut between Bran Stark witnessing his birth at the Tower of Joy in the past and present day Jon being crowned King in the North in the home he always yearned for acceptance in, as well as Hodor holding the door. Likely the last truly shocking death, Hodor died saving Bran Stark and Meera Reed in a sequence which revealed that form the very start, Martin and the showrunners knew that Hodor’s bemusing catchphrase is the product of a cruel fate inflicted upon him by Bran Stark’s pseudo-time traveling antics. The Lord of the Manor forced a peasant to witness his own death as a child, and trapped him to a lifetime of tragically “holding the door.”
It is a hell of a television moment, but even that might be overshadowed by one of the best sequences in the series’ entire history, which was also created exclusively by Benioff and Weiss. In the final episode of the season, Miguel Sapochnik directed a moment every bit as cinematic as “The Battle of the Bastards” but with a lot cleverer writing. Over 17 minutes, a practical silent movie of dread unfolds, with its menace only foretold by foreboding camera choices and composer Ramin Djawadi’s most stunning musical composition. “Light of the Seven” exudes aural terror in its reserved minor keys as an organ builds and builds, and Cersei’s scheme to blow up the Great Sept of Baelor with wildfire is slyly unveiled.
For two seasons, Cersei has been victimized by her own delusional hubris and the Sparrows it invited into the capital’s inner circle of power, but she pulls a breathtaking and unexpected victory over them by blowing up the game board… and taking Margaery Tyrell with them. Margaery and Loras Tyrell die as the only example of healthy sibling love in King’s Landing, adding a miserable tinge to a glorious comeuppance for the Sparrows, and it’s followed by the fact it drives Tommen Baratheon to suicide. Martin must’ve been proud.
4. Game of Thrones Season 2
The sophomore effort of Game of Thrones is definitely no slouch. As the season where production values really began firing on all cylinders, it features a confidence not present in the series’ first year and still stands as arguably the best run of episodes for the best characters. From this writer’s perspective, Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark were never better than in the season that saw one at his highest moments and the latter at her lowest.
Made the de facto Hand of the King in Tywin Lannister’s absence, Peter Dinklage brings swagger and wit to King’s Landing the likes of which we would never see again. After a lifetime of being called the Imp, Tyrion has power and it goes to his head; it also makes for delicious television. Bending the capital to his will, Tyrion puts Cersei, Joffrey, Grand Maester Pycelle, and Littlefinger in their places all while cunningly developing a shrewd defense strategy out of Cersei’s bumbling.
While lacking the production value of what came later, Tyrion’s greatest moment came in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, which for my money is still the best battle in the series. Written by Martin himself, what it lacked in razzle dazzle it made up for in vivid characterization and tension. If King’s Landing falls, Joffrey and Cersei will get their just desserts at the end of Stannis’ sword, but Tyrion will also die and Cersei promises that her executioner will take Sansa with her out of spite. As glorious as Tyrion’s green inferno on the water is, it’s just as well-matched by Lena Headey’s predatory wining and dining being juxtaposed against Sophie Turner’s anxious innocence, as well as her slowly figuring out how to keep the Queen and Joff from killing her.
Also the season where Jack Gleeson’s Joffrey has never been more unchecked in his sniveling sadism, and Charles Dance’s humanity first bubbled out when matched by Maisie Williams’ scarily deep reservoir of young talent, it was a great season for character development and disillusionment. Arya’s threadbare remaining innocence died as she survived with friends in a war torn riverlands, but the steeliness we’d love her for was borne out of that fire, one that in retrospect was built of stronger stuff than Robb and Cat’s more traditional heroism. It was also the season that introduced us to Brienne and Ygritte.
It really would’ve been higher on this list if not for the fact that Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen—the ultimate protagonists of the series—were left largely in the margins with slow-moving subplots while the far more fascinating War of the Five Kings unfolded in the foreground.
3. Game of Thrones Season 1
The first season still remains one of the very best television has ever offered. Amusingly economical in hindsight after the budget increases that came later, the first season of Game of Thrones is still an immense achievement in its own right, convincingly creating a high-fantasy epic of a world on premium cable in an era where it seemed like a bizarre gamble. During the height of cable’s obsession with the “anti-hero,” Game of Thrones built its saga around the forthright and undeniably noble Lord Eddard Stark. Played with sweeping gravitas and immediate sympathy by Sean Bean, the center of moral gravity he offered this often cynical and ambiguous show reverberates on nine years after his shocking execution in the penultimate episode.
The first season might now be best remembered for killing off Sean Bean, but it is the life his character lived that gave voice to “A Song of Ice and Fire.” In a handful of episodes, the first season sets up Ned Stark’s family as compelling protagonists we’d long to see reunited for pretty much the whole series’ run, even if they only spent two episodes as a happy family. And in one of them, Bran Stark was at death’s door after being crippled by incestuous twins in the series’ very first hour!
These tonal and narrative gambles paid off in dividends and were only enrichened by superb casting for all the leads, including the five important members of the six Stark children, as well as the Lannisters they are pitted against. Peter Dinklage was never more debauched and appealingly baroque than in his introductory year, contrasted well against Lena Headey’s stoic entitlement and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s deceptively sneering Jaime. Mark Addy was also a terrific one-and-done asset as the oblivious fat king this world briefly revolved around, enjoying a series-only highpoint in either medium of the saga where Addy’s Robert Baratheon and Headey’s Cersei Lannister finally have it out after 17 years of silent, stewing resentment.
It is the season that laid the foundation of the story that would come to define the pop culture of its decade, including a brilliant introduction to Daenerys Targaryen. Now that her fate is revealed, Emilia Clarke’s initially diminutive Khaleesi will be reevaluated forevermore, but she will always be a compelling heroine, if a tragic one, due to her sympathetic origins here. Born and raised as a parentless castaway, her Dany is an initially timid thing sold via marriage into glorified slavery. Yet over only 10 episodes, we view her convincingly grow in confidence and stature into a true contender for an Iron Throne she is years and continents separated from—and one we could somewhat dread even then as the birth of her dragons and true autonomous power comes with a biblical-esque iconography. She steps nude out of a fire with three newly hatched dragons in her arms. It will ever be an awe-inspiring moment even if it turned out to be more the story of Cain than Abel.
2. Game of Thrones Season 4
As the season that adapted the second half of Martin’s best novel, A Storm of Swords, Game of Thrones Season 4 was nothing but thrilling payoff after the ashen taste of bitterness. The Lannisters are never higher on their own supply than in the season opening after the Red Wedding. The Starks are either all dead or children lost to the wind; their ancestral Stark sword has been melted down into two Lannister blades; and Joffrey is about to have a multi-generational benefitting marriage to Margery Tyrell. So it’s delicious watching these scummy people’s best laid plans disintegrate like wet sand beneath their feet.
The Purple Wedding remains a highlight as iconic as the Red one or Ned Stark’s beheading, but this is the rare time when the bad guys are on the receiving end of unexpected suffering. Watching little Caligula/the Westerosi equivalent of New York real estate sociopath curdle into a crying heap in his mother’s arms is still the stuff of happy glands five years later, even if it leads to Tyrion’s darkest moments. By the time the season is over, Tyrion has murdered his father and a lover, but on the path to those dark decisions, Dinklage and Dance are given their best scenes against one another, including the hair-raising showdown in which Tyrion finally stands up for himself against Tywin in front of the whole of King’s Landing gentry class and their kangaroo court.
It is also the season where Sansa gains a greater self-awareness and realizes the only thing she wants in this world is to see her home, Winterfell, again and be safe. She’ll spend the rest of the series being the one Stark to make that dream a reality, even if it begins with her having to fend off her loopy aunt who is killed off by Littlefinger in his series-best moment—it’s the one where he reveals he’s been pulling the strings of all this chaos in the realm for the past four years. Arya meanwhile experiences the best buddy comedy pairing in the series alongside Rory McCann’s Hound as they meander form one bad idea to the next until the Hound meets his superior, and Brienne confirms she is the greatest swordsman in the realm. None of which can top Pedro Pascal’s one and done appearance as Prince Oberyn Martell, the Red Viper whose taste for vengeance makes him an audience favorite even as it gets him killed in his eye-popping duel with the Mountain.
All this while Daenerys and Jon Snow’s plots come to a head, as Dany makes her first true attempt to temper her bloodthirstiness (now with the tragic knowledge it won’t last) by locking away her dragons for an ultimately ungrateful Meereen’s benefit, and Jon chooses duty over love by leading the Night’s Watch against the Free Folk, only to have Ygritte die in his arms during a stunning and still economical battle episode. The season ends with Arya sailing off into the unknown with most of the conflicts that defined the first half of the series concluded in bloody ambiguity. But in retrospect, it also concludes Game of Thrones’ golden age.
1. Game of Thrones Season 3
In the end though, we love Game of Thrones for the bitterness of its snow as much as the joy of its fire, and season 3 had the best variety of both flavors. If there is one season that sums up “Peak Game of Thrones,” it is this 10-hour roller coaster of triumph, despair, and still lingering epiphany about the depths of George R.R. Martin’s intricate tapestry.
Aye, this is the season of the Red Wedding, and the one where a slew of heroes including Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn meet the Many-Faced God of Death. While the loss of Ned Stark in the first season suggested “anyone can die,” I doubt many were ready unless they read the book to learn how true that logic was. Ned might’ve been the hero we lost to kick off the series’ narrative in earnest, but it was intuitively understood that when Robb Stark and Cat promised each other they would have revenge and justice, they would. That’s how these stories go. If a loved character dies, then the strongest of their hearth and kin will get justice for them. Yet the Boy King and most righteous hero of the ensuing war died not even on the battlefield, but at a wedding party, caught between his slaughtered pregnant wife and his helpless mother. He looked but a boy when Walder Frey and Roose Bolton delivered the final blow before his mother, and Michelle Fairley delivered the most anguished and raw performance of the whole series upon seeing her eldest son die and then joining him.
But it wasn’t just the horror of the Red Wedding that made this season a winner; it was everything that built to it over three years, including the subtle implication that bad political mistakes like Robb’s choice to alienate the Freys and Boltons can have realistic, disastrous consequences. But it isn’t only the tragedy of that horrid moment that makes Game of Thrones Season 3 king. It is also the array of triumphs that led to it. While Robb was in a whirlwind romance, Arya came ever closer to him by the Hound’s side, suggesting a reunion that was cruelly snatched away, and which contrasted brilliantly against the epiphany of Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister’s odyssey amongst the riverlands.
Introduced as the first season’s seeming Big Bad, Jaime waited years to surprise audiences by becoming the most sympathetic anti-hero in a cable landscape overstuffed with them. The loss of his hand while protecting Brienne didn’t turn him into a hero, but his shocking confession of his unsung virtue that was wrongly vilified by Ned Stark made him a pitiable monster—one saved by Brienne’s innate goodness that is so unshakable that it shakes Jaime out of his apathy. Their ultimate team-up to survive fighting a bear in a torture pit is more thrilling than five Avengers movies, and it is but one head of the countless dragons firing at full-power here.
Also the year where Tyrion and Sansa are forced to wed, and the most hated of Starks and Lannisters find an unspoken humanity between their sham marriage, and Margaery and Olenna shake up King’s Landing, and Cersei, Joffrey, and Sansa, it offered brilliant curveball dynamics. Perhaps no more winningly so than the beginning of Daenerys the Conqueror. Even if that side of her led to ruin, at its height, it still allowed her to free thousands of slaves, none more satisfyingly than when she first unleashed Drogon on human prey and told her newly purchased army to slaughter their former masters. Her legacy is practically bookended by her murder of cities, one filled with slavers and one filled with innocents, but this moment is still worthy of its feminist mythmaking power.
Indeed, season 3 overshadows any of the series’ weaknesses and is strong enough alone to confirm Game of Thrones as one of the greatest television series in history, and certainly the most epic and cinematic in its sweep. But it wasn’t just season 3 that made Game of Thrones great. While season 3 is the highest pinnacle it reached in its dragon flight, the series as a whole it informed knew views we may never see any TV show reach again. But we can revisit its glory like the flames that engulfed Astapor, and the blood that covered the Freys’ Great Hall, six years back.