For close to a decade, “Game of Thrones” reigned supreme on television screens worldwide, inspiring a surge in Westeros-inspired baby names and revolutionizing storytelling on the small screen. This cultural phenomenon, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, captivated both devoted book enthusiasts and those previously skeptical of fantasy genres. The show’s expansive fictional realm encompassed dragons, White Walkers, and magic, along with themes of love, war, and religion. It showcased a vast array of characters, ranging from heroes to villains and everything in between. As “GoT” celebrates its 10th anniversary, Variety has revisited the series to rank its seasons from good to greatest.
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Charged with the formidable task of concluding television’s most highly anticipated final season, Benioff and Weiss fell short of the towering expectations set by “GoT” fans. Their shift away from the show’s foundational principles in favor of fan service ironically left some fans dissatisfied, as they had come to appreciate “GoT” for its harsh realism, setting it apart from other fantasy series. Plotlines that had been meticulously developed over seven seasons were either disregarded, hurried through, or glossed over, and certain beloved characters were denied the justice they deserved. Although Daenerys’ descent into madness had been foreshadowed throughout the series, it felt hastily compressed into just two episodes, arguably undermining the character development of the Mother of Dragons. Jon’s lineage and claim to the throne, which had become central plot points in the latter half of the series, were never fully explored. Even Cersei, one of TV’s most iconic villains, spent the entire season gazing out of her window. Nevertheless, even in its weakest season, “Game of Thrones” maintained its allure and possessed redeeming qualities, such as Arya’s pivotal kill — a moment destined to live on in YouTube clips for eternity. While Season 8 was not entirely devoid of merit, it suffered from rushed pacing and the absence of many elements that initially endeared “Game of Thrones” to its fans.
Daenerys spends the first six seasons embarking on her journey to Westeros, but in Season 7, she remarkably traverses the continent within a mere couple of episodes. This abrupt departure from the meticulously crafted world and the extended narrative arcs that spanned multiple seasons marked a significant shift for “Game of Thrones.” Season 7 faced the formidable challenge of condensing the sprawling narrative of the television phenomenon into a more focused storyline, streamlining countless plot threads into two major conflicts and bringing together the series’ most beloved characters at key locations. Arya reunites with Sansa, Jon establishes a relationship (both politically and romantically) with Daenerys, and Cersei encounters a wight. Nearly all the central characters find themselves in face-to-face encounters, heralding the true commencement of the “great game.” Despite its pacing issues, Season 7 delivers some of the show’s most iconic moments. The loot train attack in “The Spoils of War” is nothing short of electrifying, Littlefinger’s demise is immensely satisfying, and the White Walkers’ acquisition of one of Dany’s dragons ranks among “Game of Thrones'” most breathtaking “holy sh*t” moments.
Positioned between two of the series’ most thrilling seasons, Season 5 finds itself in a somewhat stagnant state. Daenerys’ struggles in Meereen seem to stretch endlessly, Arya’s training in Braavos becomes monotonous, and the High Sparrow’s religious campaign in King’s Landing proves to be a source of frustration. Nevertheless, each of these storylines ultimately yields compelling payoffs. Jorah’s return and Drogon’s dramatic rescue of Daenerys in the fighting pits inject excitement into her plot. Arya, in her faceless disguise, gruesomely dispatches Meryn Trant. Cersei’s harrowing walk of shame serves as a brilliant setup for the explosive events that unfold in Season 6.
Jaime and Bronn’s venture into Dorne may lack the expected excitement, despite the emotional scene between Myrcella and her uncle-father during her ill-fated journey home. Sansa endures further manipulation and torment at the hands of Littlefinger and Ramsay, which can be distressing to watch. However, Season 5 plays a crucial role in advancing the overarching plot of the series. Stannis’s tragic decision to sacrifice his own daughter in pursuit of the throne ultimately leads to his downfall. Jon Snow’s shocking murder by members of the Night’s Watch leaves viewers stunned. The climactic battle at “Hardhome” between the living and the dead escalates the stakes to an unprecedented level, sending chills down the spine of anyone watching.
Season 1 primarily functions as a prologue, laying the groundwork for the characters and events leading up to the titular “game of thrones.” Despite the introduction of numerous fictional locations, religions, languages, characters, and histories, the season manages to strike a balance that avoids overwhelming the audience. The meticulous portrayal of Ned Stark’s downfall stands out as a masterful storytelling moment, and the shocking decision to kill off the series’ main character not only stunned viewers but also challenged the conventions of on-screen storytelling.
In hindsight, Season 1 becomes even more appreciable when viewed in the context of the entire series. Moments such as Jaime pushing Bran from the window and Daenerys giving birth to three dragons emerge as foundational pillars upon which the entirety of “Game of Thrones” is constructed. While the season may be characterized by a slower pace and less overarching significance compared to later seasons, its careful establishment of the narrative foundation sets the stage for what would ultimately become one of the greatest shows in television history.
In the post-Ned Stark era of Westeros, Season 2 marks the point at which “Game of Thrones” truly comes into its own, allowing those who hadn’t read the books to orient themselves within the story. The vast world of “GoT” further expands as we are introduced to characters like Stannis, Ser Davos, Melisandre, Brienne, Margaery, and the intriguing inhabitants of Qarth. Arya forms an unlikely alliance with Tywin, Jon experiences a burgeoning romance with Ygritte, and The Red Woman gives birth to a mysterious shadow baby. The quest for the Iron Throne intensifies, with Robb Stark gaining momentum as the “King in the North,” and Stannis embracing the Lord of Light’s faith. Perhaps most notably, Season 2 culminates in “GoT’s” first epic battle sequence at the Battle of Blackwater, where Tyrion emerges as an unexpected hero. The season closes with a haunting glimpse of the White Walker army, serving as a powerful reminder that the show’s narrative transcends mere politics, armies, and dragons.
While Season 3 of “Game of Thrones” is often remembered for the heart-wrenching Red Wedding — a scene that somehow surpasses the shock and devastation of Ned Stark’s execution — it also serves as a masterclass in character development, primarily centered around Jaime Lannister. Only “Game of Thrones” could transform an incestuous would-be child murderer into a one-handed hero with whom viewers sympathize. The scene in which Jaime confesses to Brienne why he killed the Mad King represents a subtle turning point in the series. Other notable moments include Jon Snow’s loss of virginity, Daenerys acquiring the Unsullied, and the breathtaking wall-climbing sequence that frames Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech. While the excessive focus on Theon’s torture can be grating, Season 3 offers little to complain about.
Season 4 of “Game of Thrones” opens with the infamous Purple Wedding, where Joffrey meets his demise, and concludes with Tyrion exacting revenge on his father, Tywin, in a toilet-strapped assassination. Throughout the season, Peter Dinklage delivers a standout performance as Tyrion, as he faces trial and imprisonment for Joffrey’s murder, delivering one of the show’s most memorable monologues and solidifying his status as an iconic TV character.
Pedro Pascal’s portrayal of Oberyn Martell captivates audiences’ hearts and then, in classic “Game of Thrones” fashion, shocks with his gruesome death, one of the series’ most horrifying moments. Amid the chaos in King’s Landing, it’s almost easy to overlook the adventures of Arya and The Hound, the dynamic buddy-cop duo of Westeros, as well as the conflict in the North between the Night’s Watch and the Free Folk, culminating in Jon Snow cradling his star-crossed lover after an epic battle at Castle Black.
“Game of Thrones” is fundamentally a show built on delivering satisfying payoffs, and Season 6 masterfully brings these moments to life. This season contains ten of the most thrilling episodes in “GoT’s” history, where highly anticipated, unexpected, and immensely rewarding scenes unfold seamlessly.
Jon Snow awakens and reunites with Sansa Stark. The heartbreaking sacrifice of Hodor occurs as he holds the door. The Hound makes a triumphant return. Daenerys emerges from the flames, having set fire to the khals. Arya extracts sweet revenge on Walder Frey. Sansa dispenses her own form of justice by feeding her tormentor to the hounds. Cersei, driven by years of humiliation at the hands of the High Septon, orchestrates a spectacular explosion, eliminating several of her adversaries in one fiery blast.
As if this weren’t enough, Jon Snow’s true parentage is revealed, introducing a multitude of new conflicts that will shape the subsequent seasons. Daenerys, after 60 episodes of anticipation, finally sets sail toward Westeros. Season 6 maintains the series’ signature blend of slow-burning storytelling and delivers a one-two punch with “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter.” Striking a perfect balance between human and supernatural elements, personal and political conflicts, Season 6 stands as the pinnacle of the entire series.