Our watch has ended. After an epic eight-season, 73-episode run, Game of Thrones is concluded, but the hit HBO series will live on forever. The show created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss based on the A Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin is etched in history as an ambitious, heartbreaking, emotional story that hit all the right notes, from the Season 1 premiere to the Season 8 finale. So what makes Game of Thrones the greatest television series of all-time? There’s a lot to go through.
Game of Thrones is a far-stretching storyline with many different settings within the fantasy world, but every character and plot was involved in a number of different genres. There was no other way for a world as big as Westeros to be put on screen, and it happened to lead to the show never getting boring for viewers, who were constantly on the edge of their seats. Put simply, Game of Thrones basically hit every genre at a master level that arguably made it the best drama, fantasy, action, suspense, and political show on television all at once.
The final season of Game of Thrones—and the finale in particular—played out as a high-class drama, with Daenerys Targaryen finally getting within reach of the Iron Throne, only to lose two dragons/children and her two closest friends/advisors, which caused massive grief and set the Dragon Queen out for blood. During it all, Daenerys and Jon Snow had come to love each other, without knowing Jon’s true parentage at first—his real name was Aegon Targaryen, Daenerys’ nephew—and the revelation (acted out beautifully by both Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke when Jon and Dany found out in consecutive episodes) ultimately led to a striking downfall.
Jon, loving his queen but conflicted about their relationship, was forced to make a drastic choice, putting an end to a character he (and we the viewers) had loved in a poetic scene in the series finale. The conversation with Tyrion before deciding to do the deed; the actual death scene itself, where Daenerys was back to being more like the good-hearted hero the majority of people cheered for as much as any character on the show; and the aftermath were all like something out of a Shakespeare play—but better, in part because we’ve gotten to know the characters for the course of nearly a decade.
There have been plenty of dramatic moments, including big ones like Ned Stark’s death, the Red Wedding, Jon Snow’s death (all of which will be discussed later), Tyrion’s trial, Jon’s relationship with Ygritte, and the deaths of the Lannister children—as well as simple things like the relationship between Jaime and Tyrion Lannister—but Season 8 is the best example of drama in Game of Thrones.
Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about Game of Thrones at first because of the fantasy aspect to it—but it’s not your typical fantasy world. The basis of Game of Thrones is its real-life relationships and actions, with the magic on the outskirts of the world—like to the East in Essos (with the dragons) and to the far North beyond the Wall with the Land of Always Winter. In fact, most people in Westeros didn’t believe in magic, as dragons had been dead for over 100 years before Daenerys did the impossible and brought them back, and virtually no one believed in the Army of the Dead until they saw it. The show provides just enough fantasy and magic so that it’s essentially a secondary thing despite the importance of it with things like the dragons, White Walkers, and the Lord of Light (mainly for bringing Jon back to life).
The battle scenes are going to get their own category later, but they are by far the best in the history of TV or film. HBO went all out giving Game of Thrones huge budgets to work with, and awesome directors, pace, cinematography, and characters we cared about helped make the battles insanely good. Great action in the show also included the trial by combats, the fight between Brienne of Tarth and the Hound, the Clegane Bowl, and all of Arya Stark’s predicaments as a highly-skilled assassin. A big standout is the gladiator scene from “The Dance of Dragons” (Season 5, Episode 9), with Jorah Mormont participating in the tradition at the Great Pit of Daznak, which I think is the best stadium battle scene ever.
Continuing with “The Dance of Dragons”, that gladiator scene immediately transitioned into one of the most suspenseful moments from the show, as Daenerys closed her eyes and appeared to be reaching the end with the Sons of the Harpy closing in—until, a dragon screech could be heard in the distance and Drogon arrived to save his mother. “Blackwater” (Season 2, Episode 9) and “The Long Night” (Season 8, Episode 3) were filled with suspense, particularly with the helpless women and children hiding away while the battles were taking place. Arya was also involved in a highly-suspenseful Season 6 storyline at the House of Black and White, and there was deafening suspense between Seasons 5 and 6 as fans awaited Jon Snow’s fate. Game of Thrones is likely the most suspenseful television show of all-time.
Finally, politics was an integral part of Game of Thrones, especially in the early seasons. Much of the King’s Landing storyline in the entire first season followed the honorable Ned Stark as he navigated a playing field of liars and schemers that operated with a completely different moral compass than him. Everything was about power, and many of the battles, betrayals, and sacrifices were all for the Throne. The politics was mostly tied to the Iron Throne, but it was about power in general—and the political happenings in Westeros are very realistic. Things didn’t just happen for the sake of pushing a plot forward, as the political implications had a huge impact on the story—examples include the forming of alliances, like Robb Stark and his marriage, which he turned back on, leading to his downfall; and Jon trying to rally allies to his cause on a few different occasions.
The White Walkers
Horror could have been its own category under the genre section, but the White Walkers are getting their own section because of the enormous impact they had on Game of Thrones.
The looming threat
From the very start of the series, the mysterious White Walkers were the looming threat over Westeros, even if no one in the country believed in them—in the famous “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword” scene, even Ned Stark told Bran that the White Walkers have been gone for thousands of years. But because of the opening scene, where we witness the deaths of Night’s Watch members Gared and Ser Waymar Royce at the hands of a frightening creature with blue eyes, we know that the threat is real. Over the years, the White Walkers becomes stronger, and they hang in the background with the potential to make all the politics of Westeros mean nothing.
The Night King
The Night King never said a word and only had several appearances in the show, but he’s arguably the greatest villain of all-time (a title that could be held by a few Game of Thrones characters)—or at least the most intimidating. While we did get insight on his 10,000-year origin from a Three-Eyed Raven vision, the Night King’s overall mystique added to the greatness of the character. The motivations of the leader of the Army of the Dead aren’t just spelled out for the viewer, but it’s clear he wanted to turn every living person into a member of his army until there was no one left—and it’s something he’s been after for thousands of years.
While the ultimate enemy was only seen in action a few times, all of those occurrences were insane. The attack on Hardhome (Season 5, Episode 8) might have been the most utterly shocking moment of the series aside from the deaths of Ned, Robb, and Jon, and it showed how important it was for the Army of the Dead to be stopped. “The Door” (Season 6, Episode 5) was another out-of-nowhere moment, and it was the Night King’s most extensive action as he struck down the old Three-Eyed Raven before missing out on killing Bran. He coldly watched Daenerys, Jon, and the others struggle to get out of his territory alive before striking Viserion with an ice spear to get his own weapon of mass destruction in the form of an ice dragon in “Beyond the Wall” (Season 7, Episode 6). And finally, “The Long Night” (Season 8, Episode 3) showed that the Night King could basically do whatever he wanted—falling from the sky couldn’t stop him and dragonfire couldn’t stop him, as he coldly and confidently walked from outside Winterfell all the way to the godswood. The Night King was such a powerful force that it wasn’t realistic for Jon Snow to even get within striking distance for single combat, and it took an expertly-executed Valyrian steel blade-hand switch by Arya to eliminate him.
The Army of the Dead
There are shows and movies that focus solely on zombies and apocalypses, but Game of Thrones blows them out of the water with their zombies and the Army of the Dead. The Night King’s army—which also included White Walker lieutenants that assuredly escorted their leader to the godswood during the Battle of Winterfell—is purely horrifying. The movements, sounds, and endless attacks made the wights truly terrifying, and “The Long Night” (including the undead coming alive in the crypts) was like something straight out of a horror film. The Army of the Dead also included zombie giants, a zombie polar bear, and eventually the ice dragon Viserion.
George R.R. Martin created a mind-bogglingly deep universe with his A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and he trusted David Benioff and Dan Weiss to put his characters, settings, and events on television for HBO. The structure set up by Martin led to amazing results, as it was an entire original world that Game of Thrones had to work with.
A key part of the structure set up in Game of Thrones is the presence of families (called Houses). The House words (like “Winter is Coming” for House Stark and “Fire and Blood” for House Targaryen), the House sigils (like the lion for House Lannister and the crowned stag for House Baratheon), and the typical personalities for members of each family are impressively in-depth. Houses are important for dynamics such as alliances, as well as giving insight on characters and the outlook other characters in the universe have toward others based on family names and traditions. Many viewers watched the show with allegiances in mind, whether they were pulling for House Stark, House Lannister, House Targaryen, House Tyrell, or any other family, adding another layer to the viewing experience.
Also, the talk of family legacy (particularly with the Lannisters) was of major importance, and Houses could be wiped away from history in the violent world of Westeros—like Cersei accomplished by taking out House Tyrell. Aside from the Houses, there are the other groups like the Dothraki that lived in Essos and never crossed the Narrow Sea between the continents (until Daenerys led them to Westeros), the wildlings that lived north of the Wall (until Jon safely brought some south), and the Children of the Forest north of the Wall.
The locations can be confusing because the universe is so massive, but no show goes in depth as Game of Thrones when it comes to locations—from the original continents (Westeros and Essos) to the ancestral homes like Winterfell and Dragonstone. Cities and castles have their own moods to them, each place has a distinct look and feel to it, and the differences between somewhere like Eastwatch and somewhere else like Braavos—and locations in between—is striking.
Robert’s Rebellion (which occurred about 20 years before the first episode of the show) had the biggest impact on Game of Thrones, but there is so much history in the universe (which allows the possibility of a few successor shows set thousands of years in the past) that influences the story. The history of the dragons, three of which were used by the Targaryens to conquer Westeros, made them such a critical re-emergence into the world after Daenerys stepped into the fire and brought them back—and the history of Targaryens being unstoppable with their dragons was a theme that came to fruition with Dany.
Religion and Language
In Game of Thrones, there are multiple religions, which is a reflection of the real world. The Faith of the Seven (also known as the New Gods, the dominant religion in most of Westeros brought over by the Andals) and the Old Gods (the dominant religion in the North, which includes important weirwood trees in the godswoods) are the two main religions, but there’s also the Lord of Light (worshipped by Melisandre and others), the Drowned Gods (worshipped in the Iron Islands), and the Many-Faced God (worshipped by the Faceless Men).
For language, Daenerys knows the Common Tongue (what we know as English), Dothraki, and Valyrian—and Valyrian has High Valyrian and Low Valyrian. The Common Tongue is mostly spoken throughout Westeros, but there are more languages than just the Common Tongue and Valyrian in Essos. It’s extraordinary how far HBO took the languages by further developing Dothraki and Valyrian from the ASOIAF world.
The fantasy category under the genre section already went over magic and how it’s on the outskirts of this world—the perfect amount to make its presence important, but not something that overrides the real actions within the world. The Three-Eyed Raven, the Red Priestesses, and Daenerys’ three dragons are the biggest forces of magic in Game of Thrones, but there are other magical themes that remain more mysterious and unexplained throughout—helping give a dark an ominous tone to the show.
We just went over magic in Game of Thrones, but the fantasy aspect being more on the outskirts of the series makes it believable. Putting fantasy aside, the realism of Westeros was evident for eight seasons.
Again, Game of Thrones definitely hits the political themes, as you’d expect from a show that involves the struggle for power. The first season following Ned Stark as he dealt with the politics of King’s Landing was already discussed, but the Battle of the Bastards is another good example of the importance of politics in Game of Thrones. When Jon Snow decided he would help Sansa Stark take back Winterfell from the Boltons, it wasn’t like they just suddenly had the soldiers to fight and stepped on the battlefield. Allegiances came into play, as the supposed bastard and his half-sister had to convince northern lords for fight for their cause—sometimes successfully, and sometimes not. Littlefinger was a character that exemplified playing politics in Westeros, as he was a skilled liar and back-stabber that was able to climb the ladder of chaos into a strong position—until his ways caught up to him.
Anything can happen
This could be a headline category of its own because it’s critically important, but perhaps the biggest reason Game of Thrones is so realistic is that unexpected twists, turns, and triumphs occur out of nowhere—anything can happen, just as is the case in real life. The “good guys” don’t always win, and the Red Wedding is a perfect of example of that. The anything-can-happen nature of Game of Thrones makes it believable that characters can die at any moment (like Daenerys at the end of “The Dance of Dragons” before she was saved by Drogon, or Jon Snow potentially falling again in the Battle of the Bastards despite just being brought back to life). And all the little things that happen add up—if the future Hero of Winterfell Arya Stark didn’t get on that boat in “The Children” (Season 4 finale) to get to Braavos and become one of the world’s best killers, the living might not have won in the Great War.
Relationships come into play for the politics part, but the focus of this category is the relationships between individual characters. Arya Stark and the Hound, and Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth are among the most obvious examples, but one of the most underappreciated relationships is between Tyrion and Cersei Lannister. “A Man Without Honor” (Season 2, Episode 7) shows the complexity of their relationship, and it’s as close as they get to liking each other—Cersei was distraught about Jaime being a prisoner and Joffrey being uncontrollable, and you could tell Tyrion felt bad but simply didn’t know how to comfort her, while Cersei didn’t know how to accept any potential comfort from her little brother.
Game of Thrones characters behave like real people, with the best character arcs you’ll find on television. Multiple characters from the show have a case for best character arc ever, but Jaime Lannister and Theon Greyjoy are arguably the top two.
Jaime went from being perhaps the most-hated character from early in the series—with max level smugness and arrogance—but we get more insight on the person after he’s taken prisoner by Robb Stark at Whispering Wood. He defends Brienne’s honor and loses his good hand for it, which was basically killing him without really killing him. Then the origin of his derogatory “Kingslayer” nickname comes to light when he unsettlingly described the moment that he killed the Mad King. From there, he was basically a sympathetic character that most fans came to like—but he displayed that he still certainly had his edge throughout the rest of the series. Jaime showed he did have a good heart when he kept his vow to fight for the living and knighted Brienne at Winterfell, but that amazing character arc didn’t change who he is when he ultimately decided he had to return to Cersei—that’s true to life.
Theon went from taking Winterfell from the Starks—despite being like a brother to Robb and a son to Ned—and instantly becoming a hated character, to going through hell and eventually fully redeeming himself by saving two Stark siblings: Sansa from Ramsay Bolton and guarding Bran during the Battle of Winterfell. It gives you goosebumps to think about how Theon was accepted by Sansa and Bran, and he had two of the most emotional moments of the series in Season 8 before meeting his demise at the hands of the Night King. The conflicted nature of Theon’s character was outstanding.
A shrinking world
Obviously, with a death-filled show like Game of Thrones, the story is going to change. It’s really awesome how Jon Snow went from Castle Black as a member on the struggling Night’s Watch, to eventually working his way to meeting Daenerys Targaryen (another character that had a long journey, starting in Essos away from the conflicts in Westeros) at Dragonstone in Season 7. The world kept shrinking and people from opposite sides of the world all came together by the end to help create the song of ice and fire.
Characters and Acting
There is stiff competition from other shows, but Game of Thrones arguably had the best cast of all-time. The ensemble cast was filled with many new faces along with established actors like Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, and Lena Headey, and it’s difficult to picture any other actors in almost any of the roles—it was the perfect storm led to the perfect cast.
Jon Snow/Kit Harington
Kit Harington went into his Game of Thrones audition with a black eye after standing up for his girlfriend at a McDonald’s, but he knocked it out of the park and earned the role of a lifetime in Jon Snow. That honorable action and subsequent black eye is somewhat representative of Jon, and Harington played the part to perfection. Despite being raised a Ned Stark’s bastard, Jon rose all the way to becoming Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, won the Battle of the Bastards to take back Winterfell, was named King in the North, and rallied the living together and helped lead them to victory in the Great War. Jon was actually a Targaryen and true heir to the Iron Throne as the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark, but he landed on the good side of the coin and always behaved like the son of Ned—including putting duty over love in the end when he killed Queen Daenerys. Jon’s conclusion was fitting for the character, as it was clear throughout the series that he didn’t care for the politics of Westeros and always loved it in the North and beyond the Wall. Harington, and many other actors in the ensemble, have showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to thank for giving him the opportunity in Game of Thrones, but he’s become one of the best actors in the world.
Daenerys Targaryen/Emilia Clarke
Daenerys Targaryen is an extremely powerful and inspirational character that’s become iconic in pop culture (parents have named their kids “Daenerys” or “Khaleesi” after the her), and Emilia Clarke’s acting ability had a huge hand in that. It’s amazing that Clarke was able to portray Daenerys Targaryen the way she did, because she seems like one of the nicest people in the world in real life, while Daenerys often had to be stern, cold, and ruthless. Dany had as many triumphant, motivational moments as anyone in the series (including a needed joyful season-ending scene in Season 3’s “Mhysa” one episode after the Red Wedding), which made her series-ending turn toward madness and eventual downfall all the more stunning. In the final episode, Clarke seamlessly went from delivering an authoritarian speech in a made-up language to becoming a tragic, sympathetic figure like the character many viewers loved as much as any character for 72 episodes. She also had to act and make it believable while on top of a fake dragon (that looked nothing like an actual dragon) surrounded by green screens—and she did it flawlessly. Clarke was added to the second shooting of the pilot, and the series probably wouldn’t be what it is without her.
Tyrion Lannister/Peter Dinklage
Peter Dinklage and his character Tyrion Lannister were in some ways the glue of the cast. Dinklage is an American actor that helped headline the ensemble for a show that was being made for an American television network in HBO, and he played a critical principle character that interacted with more key characters than anyone else. Dinklage’s acting—particularly with his eyes—helped give us the emotions Tyrion was going through. The Lannister outcast started the series as a bit of a carefree joke that pursued trivial things, but he found himself in politics, where he became a serious player in the game. I don’t think any actor in the world (even putting the dwarf requirement aside) could’ve played Tyrion close to as well as Dinklage did.
Cersei Lannister/Lena Headey
Lena Headey was another established and known actor along with Dinklage in the largely unknown ensemble, and it’s impossible to imagine someone else playing the part of Cersei Lannister. The character is clearly one of the worst people in Westeros, but her soft spot for her children shows she’s not just some evil psychopath—and her final moments superbly encapsulated that, as she was just a human being that didn’t want to die. Heaney’s confident smirks, cunning eyes, and mocking tone as Cersei is just sensational.
Ned Stark/Sean Bean
From the beginning, Game of Thrones knew it wanted Sean Bean to play Ned Stark, and the casting choice could not have been better. As discussed, the Warden of the North had to operate down in the south, serving as King Robert’s Hand despite not wanting to. Ned’s duty, honor, and love for his family was very powerful, and the portrayal by Bean—for every single scene he was in—was spectacular. In just nine episodes, Bean was able to make Ned a true main character that seemed set to have the series centered around him, with an impact that’s felt throughout the rest of the series long after the character’s death.
Sansa Stark/Sophie Turner
Sophie Turner’s first role came as Sansa Stark, but she grew up with the character and went through an astonishing arc as Sansa, going from a self-described “stupid little girl” into the Lady of Winterfell and the Queen in the North. Considering how naïve Sansa was in the beginning of the show, to where she was at the end—outmaneuvering Littlefinger and commanding the utmost respect from the northerners while setting the tone for the kingdom—and all the struggles she went through in between, the character arc has a case for being the best in Game of Thrones.
Arya Stark/Maise Williams
Going from a little girl that knew who she was and desperately wanted to be a fighter at the beginning of the series to actually becoming one of the deadliest people alive by the end, Maise Williams had a tough task playing Arya Stark; but again, it’s difficult to picture anyone else in the part, as it the case for all these characters. Arya’s journey was reminiscent of Odysseus’ journey in The Odyssey, and she went years looking for revenge on those that wronged her and her family—and she was successful in avenging the Red Wedding by eliminating House Frey, and of course she was the Hero of Winterfell after killing the Night King to end the Great War at the Battle of Winterfell.
Bran Stark/Isaac Hempstead-Wright
After the first episode of Game of Thrones ended with Bran Stark being pushed out of a window, Isaac Hempstead-Wright had to play a crippled character that eventually became unattached as the Three-Eyed Raven, so it wasn’t an easy part to play. Hempstead-Wright was able to still deliver some humor within the character, including when he showed Samwell Tarly the raven scroll as the method he found out Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen were sailing to Winterfell. Also, despite being an emotionless character, Bran delivered an emotional moment during “The Long Night” when he told Theon Greyjoy he was right where he belonged: “home.” Bran being named King was definitely a surprise, but his ability to look into the past and learn from the mistakes of others will certainly make him a good ruler.
The character arcs of Jaime Lannister and Theon Greyjoy were already discussed, but the acting job by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Alfie Allen were right on par with their co-stars, which is saying something. Truly, every cast member was superb, which you know if you watch the show, but we’ll quickly go over a few more characters before moving on.
Jorah Mormont/Iain Glen
Jorah Mormont was in Game of Thrones from the pilot, and he was able to survive into Season 8 despite a few brushes with death (including greyscale). Iain Glen splendidly portrayed Jorah as someone in love with Daenerys Targaryen, but when he returned to her at Dragonstone in Season 7 and saw Jon Snow was there, you could tell he had a subtle shift in thinking and was more so just happy to be by her side, even if it wasn’t on the level he had always hoped—Glen’s acting made that shift possible and believable. His death while defending Dany was the perfect way for him to go out.
Robb Stark/Richard Madden
Richard Madden stands at about five-foot-ten, but he was able to deliver an intimidating on-screen presence that helped his portrayal as Robb Stark match up to the character’s nickname “The Young Wolf.” After Ned Stark’s death, Robb was named the first King in the North in nearly 300 years, and he became a classic “good guy” that followed his heart despite some political missteps. Robb’s death at the Red Wedding is probably the most sudden and devastating in television history, changing the story (and television) forever.
Stannis Baratheon/Stephen Dillane
Stannis Baratheon was a nearly-emotionless but highly-successful leader that was stone-faced and single-minded, which Stephen Dillane executed in such a way it made the character comical at times—like when he matter-of-factly told his brother Renly to give up “otherwise I shall destroy you.”
Davos Seaworth/Liam Cunningham
While Davos Seaworth was a former smuggler, he had a good understanding of right and wrong, and he was willing to fight for what he believed in. Liam Cunningham brought spirit and wit to the loyal character, surviving long enough to serve three different kings and get a spot on the Small Council.
Melisandre/Carice van Houten
Carice van Houten made the Red Priestess Melisandre a convincingly alluring character that, like many other characters, was squarely in the grey area. Melisandre’s intentions genuinely appeared to be good as she served the Lord of Light, but she was behind some terrible things—none more terrible than having Shireen Baratheon burned at the stake. In the end before her death, the centuries-old Melisandre found some redemption by bringing much-needed fire to the Battle of Winterfell.
Though not as ambitious and cold-blooded as Littlefinger, Lord Varys was the main adversary of Lord Baelish, and the two complemented each other well. Conleth Hill expertly made Varys an unassuming figure that tried to do what was best for the realm—and that often meant switching allegiances whenever he felt it was best.
Joffrey Baratheon/Jack Gleeson
By all accounts, Jack Gleeson is one of the kindest people you’ll meet, so his ability to play a totally unlikable character like Joffrey Baratheon is pretty impressive. King Joffrey was an awful ruler, as he was insecure, cruel, and unwise—but it made for one of the most memorable villains in history.
Ramsay Bolton/Iwan Rheon
Iwan Rheon initially auditioned for the role of Jon Snow, but the audience is lucky the showrunners circled back and cast him as another bastard, Ramsay Snow. Initially a mysterious character that was introduced as a torturer of Theon Greyjoy, the bastard son of Roose Bolton worked his way up into being named a legitimate Bolton (in a scene that somehow made viewers feel happy for him for a moment). But he was a legitimate sociopath that was pure evil, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone playing the part as well as Rheon did.
Euron Greyjoy/Pilou Asbæk
He wasn’t just pure evil like Ramsay Bolton, but Euron Greyjoy was a definite villain that was simply absolutely nuts. Pilou Asbæk brought that craziness to the screen in a way that the Game of Thrones team must have been thrilled with. Asbæk was able to deliver a twisted-but-hilarious laugh—most notably when Theon Greyjoy jumped overboard instead of trying to save his sister Yara—and he even died with a smile on his face, thinking he killed Jaime Lannister in a fight he seemingly wanted just for the fun of it.
Tywin Lannister/Charles Dance
Tywin Lannister wasn’t an evil man, but he was one of the most selfish people in Westeros, caring about family legacy over anything—which made his death fitting, as it’s probably the last way he wanted to go out. Charles Dance was great during his four seasons as Tywin, starting from his first episode “You Win or You Die” (Season 1, Episode 7), when he carved a real-life stag numerous times to capture his first scene on the show.
Mark Addy (King Robert Baratheon), Jason Mamoa (Khal Drogo), and Harry Lloyd (Viserys Targaryen) during their limited time on the show were fabulous. John Bradley (Samwell Tarly), Rory McCann (Sandor “The Hound” Clegane), and Jerome Flynn (Bronn) were in all eight seasons and were all exceptional. Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) joined the show in Season 2 and became an integral character for the rest of the series; Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei), and Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm) did the same as loyal followers of Daenerys Targaryen with an interesting and important relationship. Rose Leslie (Ygritte) was obviously critical for the character of Jon Snow—and Kit Harington and Leslie are now married in real life.
Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell) played the upper hand on Cersei Lannister in a way that not many could pull off, and Dianna Rigg (Olenna Tyrell) was just as good at doing the same, delivering biting lines to anyone that crossed her path. Pedro Pascal’s time as Oberyn Martell was short-lived but unforgettable. Michael Huisman (Daario Naharis) was believable as a love interest of Daenerys Targaryen. And Kristofer Hivju (Tormund Giantsbane) was kept on the cast because he was just so good in his part, and the character eventually travels to the “Real North” with Jon Snow to end the series. This could go on and on to hit literally every actor and character in Game of Thrones. Just one bad apple—in terms of acting ability or attitude behind the scenes—would have stood out in a cast this tremendous, but there were none.
The actors have to be great for a television to be top-notch, but the entire crew all the way down to the extras must be exceptional for a show to be as successful as Game of Thrones. From the outside looking in, it appears that everyone involved with Game of Thrones (including all the actors) seems to truly get along like a family. If every single person that was part of the cast and crew wasn’t great, who knows what would’ve happened? The show might not have lasted more than a season or two.
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss correctly answered the question from George R.R. Martin: “Who is Jon Snow’s real mother?” From there, the rest is history, and HBO trusting the trio, securing the television rights to the ASOIAF books after getting the story brought to them, and giving D&D the freedom to create Game of Thrones with never-before-seen budgets and no known interference is probably the best decision the premium network has ever made. Benioff and Weiss had easy material to work with in the novels, along with great co-writers like Bryan Cogman, but they kept things going smoothly after they ran past the books—Season 6 is thought of by many as the best season of the show, and the final two seasons completed the story to perfection. It says a lot about Benioff and Weiss that Game of Thrones operated at a high level from top to bottom.
It would’ve been nearly impossible for Benioff and Weiss to direct all 73 episodes of the series, and everyone probably would’ve gotten tired of each other after a while if that happened. But there were directors that could be trusted to handle episodes and ensure everything feels connected from week to week. Tim Van Patten, Daniel Minahan, and Alan Taylor were three directors well-known for their work on previous HBO series, and their presence probably helped the show find its footing early on. David Nutter (directed the last two episodes of Season 3 and Season 5, among others) and Miguel Sapochnik (“Hardhome”, “Battle of the Bastards”, “The Winds of Winter”) were heavy-hitters brought back for the final season, but every director that participated in the show appeared to do A+ work.
The special effects in Game of Thrones—from the dragons to all the different types of destruction like wildfire and dragonfire—were second to none in television or film. The makeup and prosthetics for the White Walkers, battle scars, head explosions, etc. were crazy good. And the settings, costumes, and weapons teams made the world of Westeros feel more real every Sunday night. Everything looked realistic, even if it was totally fake walls that looked like real stone or the dragons that were built from scratch into life-like beasts.
Earlier, it was discussed how Game of Thrones is arguably the best show under a handful of different genres; but the show being the best extends to the acting, directing, special effects, and—perhaps most of all—the music. Composer Ramin Djawadi created the most epic scores you’ll hear for a show or movie, and all the background music helped with the theme of the show and set the tone for what was happening in a scene. I am no music expert, but these are some of my favorite usages of music in Game of Thrones:
“The Rains of Castamere” (the song of House Lannister) is played throughout the series, but it’s best use is undoubtedly when it’s played by the Frey men at the Red Wedding. You’re not sure what’s going to happen, but the music gives you this feeling that something isn’t quite right.
“Two Swords” combined the Stark and Lannister theme in an astounding song that gloriously complements the scene when Tywin Lannister melts down House Stark’s ancestral sword Ice.
The different songs using the Targaryen theme, including “Finale”, “Mhysa”, and “The Winds of Winter” give a feeling of triumph to Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons, which is unfortunate when you consider her downfall.
“The Light of the Seven” from “The Winds of Winter” (Season 6, Episode 10) and “The Night King” from “The Long Night” (Season 8, Episode 3) both use the piano to build tension in the case of the former, and to make you feel incredibly sad and feel like the living is going to lose in the case of the latter.
The songs used during the scenes with Jon Snow and Daenerys were phenomenal, as they went from hopeful and optimistic throughout Season 7 to sad and dramatic for the Daenerys death scene.
Finally, the last two songs of the series—“The Last of the Starks”, which is a beautiful version of the Stark theme, and “A Song of Ice and Fire”, which is a twist on the opening title theme for the closing credits—are two of the best. And that iconic main title theme has to be mentioned.
Game of Thrones is filled with highly emotional moments—moments that just give chills, incite feelings, or just break your heart more than any other television series. Even something as simple as Jon Snow and Robb Stark saying farewell in the second episode of the first season hits you, especially when you look back and think the two brothers never see each other again. These are some examples of undervalued emotional moments throughout the series.
Michelle Fairley was another recast for the second pilot, and that decision obviously worked out. As Catelyn Stark, Fairley delivered powerful moments filled with emotion—including when she talked to Talisa Stark about Jon Snow, and very early in the series when Cersei Lannister visited Catelyn at Bran’s bedside and discussed losing a child.
In the aftermath of the Red Wedding, the viewers were able to get a feel-good moment across the Narrow Sea to end Season 3, as Daenerys Targaryen addressed the crowd of newly-freed Yunkish slaves, giving a speech about them taking back their freedom. As the crowd chanted “Mhysa”, Daenerys learned it meant “mother”, as the Mother of Dragons was jubilantly carried throughout the crowd while her three dragons flew overhead.
In the penultimate episode of Season 5, Daenerys had another awe-inspiring moment when she escaped danger, flying away on Drogon while leaving Tyrion Lannister and her other allies stunned at this young queen riding a dragon. Earlier in the episode, it’s difficult not to shed a tear when Shireen Baratheon is burned at the stake while her father Stannis and mother Selyse look on.
And in the “The Long Night”, the look Tyrion and Sansa give each other as they face impending doom in the Crypts of Winterfell says it all. Thankfully, they both survived, but it looked like those would be their last moments when the music hit.
Other emotional moments include Daenerys ordering Jorah Mormont to find a cure (then Jorah’s eventual return), Theon’s return to Winterfell, and Hodor’s crushingly-sad origins as revealed in “The Door”.
We didn’t see battles early in Game of Thrones; for example, Whispering Wood occurred off screen. But when they happened, they got better and better—and by far the best in the history of television or film, which is crazy considering the show has to contend with feature films that far exceed even the big budgets for Game of Thrones.
While King Joffrey cowered despite a lot of tough talk earlier about giving his Uncle Stannis a “red smile”, Tyrion Lannister was forced to lead the defense of King’s Landing. The swift use of wildfire led to a victory for the Lannisters, but there was plenty of suspense throughout the battle, mostly focusing on Cersei Lannister. The final scene in the Great Hall, where Cersei sat on the Iron Throne ready to poison Tommen and herself to avoid being taken by Stannis before it was her father Tywin’s army that emerged victorious, was a brilliant end to the battle.
Watchers on the Wall
Jon Snow had always been a traditional hero that always tried to do the right thing, but the defense of Castle Black in “The Watchers on the Wall” is when his natural ability as a leader and a warrior really started to shine. The young Stark bastard first took command of the defense atop the Wall, but then he eventually made his way down to the more dangerous part of the battle when he joined the action below. Wielding Longclaw, Jon took his bumps and bruises, but he killed a Thenn and was the most skilled fighter out there. However, he was within striking distance of Ygritte, who just couldn’t pull the trigger on the man she loved. Jon’s final moment with Ygritte, as he cradled her in his arms, is one of the best shots of the entire series.
The massacre at Hardhome came out of nowhere for everyone, including book readers that knew something happened at the Free Folk village but nothing close to this level, with Jon Snow and Night’s Watch members in middle of a sudden attack by the Army of the Dead. Like during the battle at Castle Black, the attack on Hardhome mostly centered around tracking Jon, who looked like he’d be another hero killed before Longclaw held against a White Walker that was then shattered by the Valyrian steel weapon. The action was complete chaos, and it was a major defeat for the living from start to finish, as they were forced to retreat while contemplating the ultimate threat they were dealing with in the form of the Night King and his army of hundreds of thousands of the dead.
Battle of the Bastards
Cinematically, there is no battle that matches the Battle of the Bastards, which was perfect throughout. The score as Jon Snow took off his scabbard and gripped Longclaw as he set to face a charging Bolton army was exquisite, and the results of the fighting went about the opposite way Jon’s army had hoped—instead of setting up a double envelope, they were caught within a double envelope and getting squeezed in to the point that Jon almost suffocated to death after just recently being brought back to life, which seemed possible in a world as unforgiving as Game of Thrones. Even as Jon emerged, the battle was lost until the Knights of the Vale swooped in at the last moment, sweeping away the enemy in a stunning mid-battle twist. The Battle of the Bastards was so gritty and violent that it made Jon look almost like a beast instead of a human, and it’s rightfully hailed as a crowning achievement for the series.
The Battle of the Goldroad
The Battle of the Goldroad was the only battle in Game of Thrones history with two main characters on opposite sides of the battlefield, as Daenerys Targaryen decided she had enough of sitting around at Dragonstone and decided to ambush the Lannister army—led by Jaime Lannister—at the Blackwater Rush. The look on Jaime’s face when he heard Drogon’s screech in the distance said it all—it was staggering to see the dragon in action, laying waste to anything in his path. The Scorpion weapon, shot by Bronn, led to Dany having to land Drogon to remove the giant spear, setting up perhaps the most intense moment of the entire series, as Jaime charged the Dragon Queen in a moment where it looked like Daenerys was done—until, Drogon turned his heard in front of his mother, making it appear that it would be Jaime that meets his end in the battle; but Bronn was again there to save a Lannister, tackling Jaime into the water to end a high-stakes moment.
The Great War
In the words of Jon Snow, the only war that matters was the Great War, and it lived up to the hype with two main battles: the battle beyond the Wall at the frozen lake and the Battle of Winterfell.
The frozen lake battle was a bit of a surprise battle, as it was meant to be a stealth mission where the Eastwatch squad would secure a wight and return south of the Wall to bring it to Queen Cersei; but things changed when they became stranded on a little island in middle of a frozen lake, and the Night King showed up with a few White Walker lieutenants while the living were surrounded by thousands of dead. Daenerys arrived just in time with her three dragons, destroying thousands of wights with dragonfire as the tide immediately turned in favor of the living—but the Night King calmly was handed an ice spear and struck Viserion, whose terrible cries clearly affected Daenerys. Being the hero that he is and knowing how much Dany’s children meant to her, Jon was very angry and stared down the Night King, but his heroics led to him getting tackled into the ice, forcing Daenerys to leave without him. The battle was over, but Jon thankfully emerged from the water and narrowly survived with help from his Uncle Benjen.
The Battle of Winterfell was the most hyped battle in the history of TV or movies, and it took 55 nights to shoot it, with main characters like the Night King, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Arya Stark, Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Theon Greyjoy, Bran Stark, Jorah Mormont, Grey Worm, the Hound, Beric Dondarrion, Gendry, Melisandre, Davos Seaworth, Samwell Tarly, Eddison Tollett, Tyrion Lannister, and Sansa Stark all involved, along with hundreds of extras and remarkable special effects to bring the battle to life. The battle took place under moonlight, but the presence of fire—created by the dragons and by Melisandre—delivered the ideal contrast in the battle that helped lead to optimism for the living. There were continuous shifts throughout the Battle of Winterfell, and—with the help of the musical score “The Night King”—it appeared that the dead would successfully eliminate our heroes at Winterfell, including the Three-Eyed Raven at the godswood. We weren’t given a predictable Jon-versus-Night King single combat showdown because it simply wasn’t realistic for the former King in the North to get close enough to even have a shot at an unstoppable force like him, and Arya (who remember is a masterfully-skilled assassin) flying out of nowhere to deliver the Valyrian steel catspaw dagger to the body of the Night King was really the only way for the ultimate enemy to be defeated realistically. The Battle of Winterfell captured suspense, action, drama, and horror all within the one episode.
There were plenty of twists and turns throughout Game of Thrones, including many of the biggest events of the series.
Littlefinger turns on Ned
Again, the first season was mostly based around politics of King’s Landing while following Warden of the North Ned Stark as he tried to operate just and honorably. When Littlefinger turns on Ned in “You Win or You Die” (Season 1, Episode 7), holding a knife to the person he just said he was behind, most viewers probably realized Game of Thrones was different than any other show before it.
Ned Stark’s death
If you didn’t realize Game of Thrones was different in Episode 7, you certainly found out in “Baelor” (Season 1, Episode 9). Ned Stark was the main character of the show to this point—he was the person most viewers were behind, and Sean Bean was listed first in the credits—so there wasn’t much thought about him actually being killed. You just don’t kill off the main character like that, so we thought Ned would simply be sent to the Wall. Citing the “soft hearts of women,” King Joffrey had other plans, uttering the words, “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head,” and changing the realm forever as the King’s Justice dealt a sudden and crushing blow to House Stark.
The Red Wedding
The Starks had been through a lot since the start of Game of Thrones, so it was good to see everything was going so well at the wedding between Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey. Edmure was happy with his new bride, while Walder Frey seemingly forgave the King in the North Robb Stark for following his heart and going against his vow to marry one of his daughters—or so we thought. The heartwarming moment of Talisa Stark telling her husband that they would name their son Eddard if it’s a boy, followed by Catelyn Stark happily watching her son interact with his wife, slowly but surely turned into the most shocking and terrible event in Game of Thrones. “The Rains of Castamere” began to play, and it was too late; the Starks were butchered at what would become known as “the Red Wedding”, completely turning the series upside down as Roose Bolton put a knife into the heart of Robb. Killing Ned Stark was bad enough, but to eliminate one of the main heroes and his family in middle of the series—in middle of a wedding—is simply mind-boggling, making it simultaneously the worst and best moment in TV history.
Tyrion Lannister’s trial
Tyrion Lannister’s trial for the murder of King Joffrey was like a courtroom drama on steroids, as we were forced to watch the Lannister dwarf get wrongly accused precisely because he was a dwarf. You couldn’t help but feel there wasn’t any way Tyrion would get out of his predicament until Jaime was able to set up a back-room deal with Tywin to send Tyrion to the Wall while he would quit the Kingsguard and take his place in Casterly Rock to continue the family name, which was exactly what the leader of House Lannister wanted from the situation. However, one last gut-punch to Tyrion—Shae testifying against him—led to a surprising twist to end “The Laws of Gods and Men”: Tyrion requested a trial by combat. The reactions from Jaime, Cersei, and Tywin captured the character’s emotions, as did the aftermath of the actual trial by combat when Oberyn Martell lost to the Mountain after one mis-step (as was hinted at when Bronn said he wouldn’t fight for his acquaintance), getting Tyrion sentenced to death.
Jon Snow’s death
Ned Stark was killed, Robb Stark was killed—Jon Snow wouldn’t be the next to go, would he? All the signs were there that trouble was afoot for the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but he had just stared down the Night King while no other main character believes the Army of the Dead was even real, so his death didn’t seem likely. But Game of Thrones operates realistically, and sure enough, as Jon jumped up and eagerly wanted to hear from this supposed eye-witness that saw his Uncle Benjen, he found a sign reading “TRAITOR” in the courtyard, only to turn around and get stabbed by members of the Night’s Watch, including Olly delivering the final blow. Unlike the deaths of Ned and Robb, Jon’s death ended the season, with a sad Stark theme playing as he bled out in the cold snow.
Jon Snow’s parentage
While many people—including Benioff and Weiss to get permission from George R.R. Martin to use his books in a show—figured out Jon Snow’s parentage, Game of Thrones still delivered it masterfully on two occasions: first, when Bran’s flashback showed Lyanna Stark handing Ned a baby and the scene transitioned to Jon in the present day; and second, when it was revealed that Jon had never been a bastard, as Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna loved each other and were married in secret, making Jon the heir to the Iron Throne. The first revelation helped keep Ned’s honor more intact in the eyes of the viewer despite only a few people in Westeros knowing the truth, and the second revelation led to the events of the final season, with both Daenerys Targaryen and Jon dealing with the bombshell.
Aidan Gillen was exceptional as Lord Petyr Baelish, also known as “Littlefinger”. Lord Baelish worked his way up from nothing, and by the time we are placed into the universe for Game of Thrones, he was seemingly always in control because of his political acumen and manipulation skills—save for a few occasions, like when Ned choked him and Jon choked him in similar scenes seasons apart, and when Cersei gave the memorable “power is power” line and could’ve had his throat cut with the snap of her fingers. Throughout the course of Season 7, Littlefinger looked to be in as much control as ever, apparently turning Arya and Sansa Stark against each other to the point where it looked like one of them would die at the hands of the other—the scene where he placed Sansa’s forced letter to Robb back during the War of the Five Kings while realizing Arya was spying on him was excellent. So when Sansa brought Arya to court and then asked Lord Baelish how he pleads to the charges, it was a swift and stunning turn that led to the master manipulator finally not having the upper hand and begging for his life before Arya cut his throat with the catspaw dagger that was used to help turn the Starks and Lannisters against each other early in the series.
Daenerys Targaryen’s turn
For 71 episodes, most fans cheered for Daenerys Targaryen as she looked to make it all the way from Essos to Westeros and take the Iron Throne. The Dragon Queen had as many delightful moments as any character in Game of Thrones, and she showed ability as a just ruler across the Narrow Sea—but there were signs that a turn toward madness was possible dating all the way back to Season 1, when she unemotionally watched her brother Viserys die horrifically via molten gold, coldly telling Jorah Momront: “He was no dragon. Fire cannot kill a dragon.” She then lost two dragons and two of her best friends, and Jon Snow turned her down because of their relation—all causing enough grief to make her snap. Despite the signs, Dany was an overwhelmingly “good” character, which made her destruction of King’s Landing stunning and heartbreaking.
Impactful and memorable
Game of Thrones was legitimate appointment television and did things that will be nearly impossible for another show to match. Every Sunday night for eight seasons spanning nearly a decade, viewers were captivated by Westeros and Game of Thrones’ vast characters and history within different genres.
Game of Thrones was able to spawn many original quotes and references that’ll live on forever. There’ll be years of people saying “Winter is Coming” during the summer and fall, and being asked to hold the door can instantly bring up thoughts about Hodor’s origins for fans of the series. Game of Thrones is like The Godfather version of television, as aside from it being a masterpiece, it’s the most quotable show in the world—with original quotes, from Tyrion Lannister’s advice to Jon Snow (“Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”) that can be used in real life to a simple “Dracarys” from Daenerys Targaryen or a “not today” from Arya Stark.
The Starks were largely good from start to finish in Game of Thrones, but the show blurred the lines between good and evil more than any show, as it was like a real world with real actions—and its depth and capacity meant a ton of characters and relationships to navigate. Characters flipped back and forth between “good” and “bad,” and most of them were just seen as people in the end. Only Game of Thrones could make you feel bad for a character like Cersei Lannister during her final moments—and most viewers were probably even somewhat in Cersei’s corner during her showdown against the High Sparrow. Daenerys Targaryen’s invasion of King’s Landing flipped things totally around, as the Golden Company was given the same perspective that Jon Snow and his army had during the Battle of the Bastards had. As stated earlier, anything can happen, and things certainly don’t go exactly as you might want them, but Jaime fighting and making it back to Cersei in time was perfect—despite the weirdness of their relationship, you either feel bad for them or don’t know what to think. And in the end, Daenerys certainly wasn’t pure evil, which made Jon’s decision to kill her a painfully difficult one.
Maybe another creator will come around and make a story as expansive as Game of Thrones and find the perfect storm of showrunners, cast, crew, and television network to execute the plan—but it doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon, if ever. As the world moves toward more streaming and more impatience, with many people barely able to put down their phone for 15 minutes let alone an hour or so to watch even an edge-of-your-seat event like Thrones, will something like this ever happen again? Game of Thrones was a phenomenon that might never be matched.
Bringing a show like Game of Thrones to an end is complicated, but the characters received fitting conclusions that remains true to them all. “The Iron Throne” was a perfect finale, with an ultra-dramatic climax that led into the aftermath of Jon Snow killing Daenerys Targaryen.
Bran Stark could rule the Six Kingdoms as the Three-Eyed Raven, and the people could be sure he’d be a fair and just ruler. Tyrion Lannister became Hand of the King (his third time as Hand), which is something he enjoyed doing despite stating otherwise—with an interesting cast on the Small Council, including Maester Sam. Ser Brienne of Tarth would lead King Bran’s Kingsguard, and she filled up Jaime’s previously-light pages on the White Book. And the Stark sisters would be doing their duty in representing their family—with Arya leading a Stark voyage to the west of Westeros and Sansa ruling an independent kingdom as Queen in the North. The pack survived winter, and House Stark was now dominant throughout Westeros after years of heartbreak and suffering.
The story came full circle, as the final scene of Game of Thrones mirrored the opening scene of the series—only this time, as opposed to Night’s Watch members getting killed by White Walkers, Jon’s Watch was ended peacefully. After years of fighting, he could join Ghost and live out his life without worrying about his family south of the Wall—the Starks were all right, doing what they loved.