Over all seasons of the most famous popular TV Show –Game of Thrones- it has thrilled us with so many gruesome deaths, gratuitous sex scenes and razor sharp passages of dialogue this could easily be a top 100 list. As the fifth season in Westeros heats up, Esquire‘s resident GoT addicts (that’s most of us) have poured over every back-stab, beheading and unnecessarily beared breast to bring you what are, in our opinion, the 20 best scenes from the show to date. Naturally, what follows is 100% spoilers, so if you’re still catching up, look away now. Otherwise, scroll down to see what took the top spot, and feel free to tell us how we know nothing, Jon Snow, in the comments below.
THE KING IN THE NORTH
fated though it was, the moment when Rob Stark was embraced as the one true King by the various factions of the North was a real spine-tingler, and went some way to healing the wounds left by his father’s beheading (our wounds, we mean).
In the wider context of the show, this scene was significant in explaining the political tensions that underpin Game of Thrones. “Why should the rule over me and mine from some flowery seat in the South?” asks Jon Umber, a question that gets to the heart of the North / South divide – and why Westeros is never far from another war.
”HE CAME FROM THE SKY. THE BLACK ONE. THE WINGED SHADOW”
Game Of Thrones often looks at the cost of power, and since they hatched, Dany’s dragons have been the embodiment of power; a weapon she can use to sack cities and overthrow armies, but a weapon that is increasingly out of her control.
In the last episode of season 4, Dany learns her biggest and baddest dragon, Drogon, has killed a girl by roasting her alive. There’s a horrible sense of foreboding as the child’s father kneels before her and slowly unravels a bundle of cloth; the camera creeps towards the contents, and the girl’s tiny, charred bones are revealed. It leads her to make the painful decision to chain her dragons up – making her, in a sense, no different to the slavers she’s fought to overthrow.
”THE THINGS I DO FOR LOVE”
Bran Stark climbs higher and higher up a tower in Winterfell, his direwolf puppy barking from below. He can hear voices coming from the upmost room. The gentle harp music playing in the background gets faster, tenser, and as Bran inches closer to the window, his dog gets more and more agitated down below.
As the sound of a woman moaning gets louder, Bran peers around the corner and sees Jaime Lannister having sex with his sister, Cersei, who is married to the King. Their reaction? Shove Bran out the window, ending the episode with a ten-year-old boy plummeting to the ground. Infanticide, incest… to say Game Of Thrones‘ first episode pushed boundaries is an understatement.
”IT IS NOT YOUR SCREAMS I WANT. ONLY YOUR LIFE”
By dismissing the most extreme forms of magic and sorcery, Game Of Thrones managed to pull in people not normally won over by typical fantasy tropes. Characters were regularly told that magic had long since gone, that the dragons died years ago, and we believed this show was not a Lord Of The Rings style drama, but a political mind game mapped out over an ancient kingdom.
But the first season ended by throwing that idea firmly on its head. As Daenerys Targaryan boldly walked into the flames of her husbands funeral pyre, she withstood the fire and hatched the three petrified eggs she was given as a wedding gift. From them emerged the first dragons seen in centuries, and the little girl in the middle of the dessert suddenly became one of the most powerful claimants for the Iron Throne.
”EVEN NOW I COULD CUT THROUGH THE FIVE OF YOU LIKE CARVING A CAKE”
Despite his status as the Greatest Knight Ever, Ser Barristan Selmy is cruelly (and publically) discarded from the King’s Guard by Joffrey so his Uncle (sorry: Father) Jamie can take his job. Thanks to that and a crass joke from Littlefinger, the poor man is in danger of being a laughing stock, until he reaches for his sword and challenges the court. No blood is shed (though you’d fancy him), but you get to watch one of the only good men in Westeros walk away with his honor intact.
”YOU’RE AYRA STARK”
With such a sprawling cast, Game Of Thrones can often be at its most satisfying when new character pairings emerge, and in the season four finale, Brienne tracking down Arya Stark stood out as one of the best.
These two characters realize instantly that they have a lot in common; both have both grown up frustrated at the box society wants to put them in, and Brienne has fought hard to retain her own identity in a world where a woman in armour is considered ridiculous. This is someone Arya could aspire to be just like, so it’s even more disheartening to see the youngest Stark girl reject safety and companionship to forge her own path in a completely new land.
”I DO KNOW SOMETHINGS, I KNOW I LOVE YOU”
When Jon Snow makes his escape from the Wildlings, he doesn’t get far before Ygritte catches up with him for possibly the first break up scene in TV history to involve bow and arrows. “I have to go home now,” Jon tells her, and he does – but not before she’s shot him a couple of times in the fleshy parts. Not to kill him, of course, just to let him know he’s a bastard of the other kind this time.
”THOSE ARE BRAVE MEN KNOCKING AT OUR DOOR. LET’S GO KILL THEM.”
There are few more poisoned chalices for an actor than the rousing battle speech. In theory it’s a chance to sound epic, but in the wrong hands, it’s only going to sound cheesy – less Henry V and more Independence Day. Of course when those hands belong to Peter Dinklage, you have nothing to worry about.
In the wake of King Joffrey’s predictable cowardice at the battle of Blackwater, it falls to Tyrion to rally the troops as Stannis Baratheon’s battering room knocks at the King’s Landing gate. Dinklage plays the moment with a perfect mix of dread and bravado, imploring the men to fight, not for the King, but for themselves. Of course, he’s a dwarf, and has spent two seasons telling us how he fights with his mind not his body, making it particularly poignant and possibly the first moment we really start to like his character.
”IF YOU THINK THIS HAS A HAPPY ENDING, YOU HAVEN’T BEEN PAYING ATTENTION”
Even in a fictional world full of dislikable characters, few are as unappealing as Theon Greyjoy. Arrogant, disloyal and a child-murderer, most would argue he deserves everything he endures at the hands of Ramsay Snow. Theon spent most of season three being tortured but things took an even darker turn when he was freed and seduced by two maidens before Ramsay re-appeared and removed Greyjoy’s manhood. A great performance from Alfie Allen and a deeply-unsettling one by Iwan Rheon.
The scene is pivotal in marking Theon’s transformation to his post-torture alter-ego “Reek”. By cutting off Theon’s favourite body part, Ramsay robs him of his identity and ensures the Bolton’s have a loyal dog eager to do their bidding, eventually ensuring Roose Bolton becomes the uncontested Warden Of The North.
”YOUR JOB IS TO MAKE THEM FORGET WHAT THEY KNOW”
When you’re writing a TV show, sometimes it’s hard to explain complicated stuff without worrying that your viewers are going to glaze over. Aaron Sorkin invented “pedeconferencing” in The West Wing, whereby characters could talk about intricate affairs of state while also hurrying down corridors and guzzling lattes to help keep the action going and the chat less stale. Game of Thrones has a different approach – let’s call it “peneconferencing” – in which boring backstory is delivered while characters are, well, you know.
The iconic example of this is when Petr “Littlefinger” Baelish delivers a whoring masterclass to two young wenches reclining behind a strategically placed fruit bowl, while also explaining the history of his major jones for Catelyn Tully. This leads to such incredible exchanges as one girl, while merrily fisting her fellow student, proclaiming: “I do believe my lord’s in love!” To which Baylish responds: “For many years – play with her arse – and she loved me too”. The problem was that by the end of the scene even the most cold-blooded viewers would have been hard pressed to remember any of what Baelish had been banging on about. Which – hang on a goshdarn second! – may have been his devious plan along…. –
”A DRAGON IS NOT A SLAVE”
As Ned Stark’s headless corpse can attest, being a good guy doesn’t get you far in the game of thrones. Daenerys had no money to buy an army, but in Astapor, she was promised 8,000 of the best soldiers in the world in exchange for one of her three dragons.
It seemed like something straight out of Aesop’s fables: having to sacrifice something you cherish dearly in order to get what you need. But instead, it was a classic bait and switch. Dragons are not like dogs, horses, or enslaved men. Holding it on a chain won’t make it come to heel. Dany ordered her dragons to torch the city, engulfing Astapor in flames while she took her new army and marched on the next city.
The closing shot, showing column upon column of soldiers marching behind her, the three dragons soaring through the sky screaming, was soundtracked by an ominous war drum thumping in the background. After a season of wandering around aimlessly, Daenerys Targaryan became a force to be reckoned with.
”THIS SHOULD HELP YOU TO REMEMBER!”
It’s not quite one of Game of Throne‘s infamous main character kill offs, but it’s not far off. Having given Locke a full throttle blast of the Jamie Lannister charm (which of course means offering him some money), his captor pretends to be convinced, unties him from his tree and takes him for some supper – where he promptly threatens him with a knife to the eye instead. In another wonderful example of the show messing with audience expectations, Locke then backs off and you think that is that. Nope – he cuts off Jamie’s bloody hand, doesn’t he, showing that main characters aren’t just under constant threat of death in GoT, but of being maimed, as well.
”CHAOS IS A LADDER”
The verbal sparring match between frienemies Littlefinger and Varys as they contemplate the Iron Throne is the closest either get to a duel, but it’s no less compelling for the lack of blood. As the craftiest men in King’s Landing pontificate on the nature of the realm and the “lies we tell ourselves”, LF’s final speech about ambition could double as a summary of the entire show.
”BRING ME HIS HEAD”
When audiences first sat down to watch the ninth episode of Game Of Thrones, those of us who hadn’t read the books remained unaware of just how sick George RR Martin actually is. In close-ups throughout the scene Sean Bean gives and acting masterclass, his facial twitches displaying first humility in confessing, then concern for his daughter Arya watching from the statue of Baelor, to shock and finally acceptance as his sentence is passed.
Ned’s execution threw all of the rules out of the window and scattered the Stark children to the far corners of Westeros. It was the catalyst for Robb to declare himself “King in the North” and eventually led to The Red Wedding. It also showed for the first time that no one, no matter how big, is safe in Game of Thrones.
”BRING ME ONE OF THOSE CHICKENS”
Reminiscent of the slow-burn bar shoot-out in Inglorious Basterds, this scene is all about the build-up as a group of Lannister soldiers try and recruit Sandor Clegane to their pillaging spree. Sadly for them, The Hound has long since given up any allegiance to the King and just wants some chicken. “I understand that if any more words come pouring out your c**t mouth I’m going to have to eat every f*****g chicken in this room.”
A double-handed scene of great dialogue and gruesome deaths, it’s also important to keep an eye on Massie Williams. Initially unsure whether The Hound will give her up, she grows bolder as it becomes clear the Lannister men are about to die. As the scene progresses she delights in taking back her sword and killing side-by-side with The Hound, marking the beginning of the best double-act in Westeros.
”GOD’S HELP YOU THEON GREYJOY, NOW YOU ARE TRULY LOST”
We all remember being a scared little kid trying to fit in with the bigger boys. Unfortunately in Game of Thrones world, that means hacking someone’s head off. Having taken Winterfell, Theon tries to prove his worth as an Ironborn by executing Ser Rodrik, the man who helped raise him. It’s a relentlessly grim scene, as the rain pours down and Bran wails in the background, featuring some great acting by Alfie Allen. Rodrik’s last words are perfect, while Theon can’t even behead someone properly – he hacks away inexpertly, drawing a fantastic look of disdain from Ralph Ineson. Rodrik’s right: there’s no way back for Theon now.
”I WILL BE YOUR CHAMPION.”
One of the show’s specialties is the unsettling anecdote, whether it’s The Hound remembering his brother burning his face or Varys talking about his castration. When Prince Oberyn visits a condemned Tyrion in his prison cell, their faces half in shadow, we knew we were in for another corker. His tale of visiting the Lannisters as a child and watching Cersi abuse the baby Tyrion, who’d they’d been told was a ‘monster’, gets right to the heart of the siblings’ poisonous relationship.
As ever, it’s an acting masterclass from Dinklage, who faces registers a pain he’s known all his life as though it’s something his contemplating anew, while Pedro Pascal is no less compelling as a man mourning his sister. When the Prince announces that he’ll stand as Tyrion’s champion in the forthcoming trial by combat, it’s difficult not to do an air punch, even if you saw it coming from the moment he entered the cell.
” I’LL LAST LONGER THAN YOU.”
For much of Season Four the Hound / Arya double act was played for comic relief as they traipsed around the countryside swapping jibes and getting into bar brawls. It was never going to last. After Sandor was left bloody and dying following his brutal battle with Brienne, the reluctant Father figure had one last moment with his apprentice, resulting in one of the most subtle and tender Game of Thrones scenes to date.
In a virtuoso farewell performance, Rory McCann captures all the emotions of man raging against the dying light. His voices cracks when he says “You’re the real killer, with your water dancing …and your needle”, the last line betraying the affection he’s developed for his protege. Later, as he tried to provoke Arya into killing him, he says he should have raped her sister to have “at least one happy memory”, the pitiful last wish of a joyless life. All the while the excellent Maisie Williams sits visibly hardening to the world that has dealt her yet another blow, until she stands up and walks away without granting mercy – an epic point in her story that leaves you wondering what kind of an adult she is going to become.
”MY KING HAS MARRIED AND I OWE MY NEW QUEEN A WEDDING GIFT”
One of the most heartbreaking, brutal and disturbing moments in television history, the nuptials that would eventually be known as The Red Wedding are an initially dull affair. The Freys live in an old, weary looking castle, the countless members of the ever-populating family are all misshapen and ugly in their own unique way.
Walder Frey is biting and sour throughout the ceremony between Catelyn’s brother Edmure and his young wife Roslin. It’s tense and foreboding, full of silences that prickle like sunburn.
When Catelyn notices her bannerman Roose Bolton is wearing chainmail, and the doors to the castle are firmly shut, she clicks and she panics. But it’s too late. Robb’s pregnant wife Talisa is knifed repeatedly in her stomach. Robb is shot by a crossbow from behind.
All the Stark supporters are carefully picked off in a vicious massacre and all you know for eight minutes is shock, agony and a sense of betrayal.
Not only was the Red Wedding exceptionally shot, zeroing in on every scream, wail and splatter, but thematically the Starks acted as the moral compass of the show. They built an army following Ned’s death, they were the remedy to the cold, calculating players of the game. They were the only good guys in a world full of wrong ‘uns.
But Westeros has no time for heroes, no time for people naïve enough to trust anyone. The episode’s agonising closing moments sees Catelyn’s throat slashed, spilling blood all over the floor. You want it to end, but it lingers for several more seconds. There’s nothing but the sound of blood gushing. And then she – and we – collapses to the floor.
”YOU RAPED HER! YOU MURDERED HER! YOU KILLED HER CHILDREN!”
In one corner, the handsome, charming, righteous Prince Oberyn, there to avenge his sister’s death. In the other, Gregor Clegane, the embodiment of brutality and hate known at The Mountain. Decades of cinema and television convention had conditioned us to believe there could only be one outcome in this dance between good and evil. Even by this show’s standards, the reversal of that expectation was both stunning and sickening.
Everything director Alex Graves did was right. King’s Landing, exquisite in the early dusk, was the setting for a fight of unbearable tension. There were a dozen tiny moments of magic along the way, from Jamie’s palpable joy – derived half from relief, half from awe at the fighting on display – to the look of pride Oberyn shoots Ellaria, his final, fatal act of hubris, to the look on Tyrion’s face as his luck finally runs out.
The Viper vs The Mountain takes the top spot because it encapsulates everything that is great and awful about watching Game of Thrones, a scene as artful as Oberyn’s swirling spear and as shocking as a blow from Clegane’s broadsword. Even in a world of Netflix and catch up, it became a moment of event television, the biggest TV water cooler moment of the year. YouTube compilations of people reacting to the sight of Oberyn’s head exploding went viral. Twitter melted as millions of people struggled to find the words to express what they had just seen. Ned’s beheading and the Red Wedding set the template, but this was scene when Game of Thrones truly entered the pantheon of great TV drama.