Game of Thrones is by all accounts the biggest show on TV and in anticipation of the seventh season premiere, I’m taking a look back at six moments that have defined GoT over the course of its run. Spoilers for seasons 1-6 of Game of Thrones follow.
Every TV show has big moments that shape its narrative and become touchstones for the show’s legacy. These moments come to define a show and are often what viewers remember first when looking back on it. In the case of Game of Thrones, each season has at least one key moment that either advances the story in shocking ways, gives the viewers a massive spectacle or in the best instances, both.
With the seventh season premiere of GoT on July 16 rapid approaching, I decided to take a look back at the previous seasons and find six moments that have shaped both GoT‘s narrative and it’s place in pop culture, starting with a few honorable mentions.
Honorable Mention: The Battle of the Bastards (Season 6) and The Watchers on the Wall (Season 4)
These two episodes represent the biggest battles Thrones has thus far brought to life. It’s astounding to see battles this huge on TV. No other show is capable (or has the budget) to pull off what they did.
While the spectacle is certainly there, I found both of these battles never really hooked me the way other big Thrones moments have.
In the case of “The Watchers on The Wall,” I didn’t much care for any of the characters present at the Battle for Castle Black so it was largely devoid of tension for me. While the direction by Neil Marshall showcases some crazy moments (a giant ice scythe and a super cool tracking shot around Castle Black), I wasn’t invested in the outcome. Yes, Jon Snow and Sam were there but there was never any question of their survival. For a battle to be thrilling, I absolutely enjoyed this episode but not quite enough to name it a “defining” moment of Game of Thrones.
Season six’s penultimate episode, “The Battle of the Bastards”, has a similar problem. The episode is packed with outstanding direction from Miquel Sapochnik and breathless action throughout but somehow lacks a great deal of tension. It comes at a necessary point in the story and does what it has to do (return Winterfell to the Starks) but as with “The Watchers on The Wall,” lacks an emotional core. I never questioned that Jon would survive and I had grown tired of Ramsey Bolton’s stale brand of villany. Top that all off with Sansa’s stupid decision to not tell Jon about the Knights of the Vale and you’ve knocked this episode of the main list.
One small caveat, I was worried either Davos (Liam Cunningham) or Tormund (actor name) would bite the dust but thankfully they didn’t.
6. The Battle of Blackwater Bay (Season 2)
Season two’s “Blackwater” was the first time Game of Thrones attempted a large-scale battle during it’s run and it did not disappoint. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss convinced HBO to give them a little extra money (at a time when their budget wasn’t quite as high as it is now) to pull of this pivotal episode and it shows.
What makes “Blackwater” so special is that it’s one of two Thrones episodes to take place entirely in one location (the other being “The Watchers on the Wall”). By focusing solely on the siege of King’s Landing, the episode avoids the travelogue narrative that most Thrones episodes have to deal with.
It also helps that the battle is anchored by Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), one of the best characters on the show. In general, season two was a great year for Tyrion and this episode felt like a nice cap to his journey. With great moments like Tyrion’s speech before the Vanguard charges and the wildfire explosion, “Blackwater” easily earns a spot on this list.
5. The Mountain vs. The Viper (Season 4)
For much of season four, Tyrion was on trial for his alleged murder of his nephew Joffrey. That trial culminated in a trial by combat where Ser Gregor Clegane (The Mountain) faced off against Oberyn Martell (The Viper), the latter of which volunteered to fight on Tyrion’s behalf.
At the episode’s end, we’re treated to an excellently choreographed fight where for just a moment, it seems like Oberyn will win and Tyrion will be exonerated. Unfortunately, this is Game of Thrones and things rarely work out for the people we like. Oberyn’s desire to hear The Mountain confess to the murder of his sister allows Ser Gregor to catch him off guard and crush his head in a spectacularly gruesome death.
The fight was thrilling and served to propel several character’s storylines toward the end of the season. Unlike some of Thrones’ larger battles, the stakes in this fight were much easier to latch onto. It also helps that we were rooting for the coolest character ever to win.
RIP Oberyn, you were too good for King’s Landing anyway.
4. The Destruction of the Sept of Baelor (Season 6)
The season six finale, “The Winds of Winter,” begins with a practically wordless, 20-minute montage where several characters in King’s Landing prepare for Cersei’s trial at the Sept of Baelor. The music builds slowly over the course of the sequence as the tension rises and rises until it reaches a fever pitch.
You know something bad is going to happen, you just don’t know when. As everyone gathers in the Sept, Margaery (Natalie Dormer) begins to realize something is up. At the last moment, she figures out why Cersei isn’t coming to her trial.
Then the Sept blows up.
With masterful direction by Miquel Sapochnik (who also directed “The Battle of the Bastards”) and scoring by series composer Ramin Djawadi, the opening to the “The Winds of Winter” is one of the best sequences Game of Thrones has ever done. The sense of foreboding is palpable throughout and once it’s over, everything has changed as the series prepares for its endgame.
3. Hardhome (Season 5)
For much of Game of Thrones, the White Walkers get talked about a lot but are rarely seen outside of a few instances and never in great number. “Hardhome” changes all of that.
As Jon Snow ventures north of the wall to bring stranded wildlings to safety, all goes horribly wrong as a massive force of White Walkers and their undead wights storm the wilding settlement of Hardhome. As the threat of the White Walkers takes center stage, we are treated to another expertly directed and thrilling battle sequence as Jon, Tormund, and others fight stay alive and save as many people as they can.
It all ends with a stare-down between Jon and The Night’s King as the former watches all those killed by the Walkers come back to life. After constantly mentioning how serious the threat of the White Walkers is, the show picked an excellent time to finally show the audience what is coming for those south of the wall.
2. The Red Wedding (Season 3)
The Red Wedding stands, to this day, as one of the most upsetting and tragic moments in GoT history. Yes, this horrible tragedy spawned all those youtube reaction videos you watched back in 2013 (I must admit, they were amusing). But even knowing what’s coming won’t prepare you for how awful this moment is.
As Robb Stark and his army gather for the wedding of Edmure Tully to one of Walder Frey’s daughters, they anticipated the strengthing of an alliance that would allow Robb to continue his war with the Lannisters. Instead, him, his wife, mother, and countless others are killed in a stunning betrayal orchestrated by the Freys and Roose Bolton. It’s heartbreaking as one by one the characters we’d rooted for the most fell because they trusted someone they shouldn’t have.
The Red Wedding feels like Game of Thrones at its most nihilistic. The good guys never win and there’s never any hope. I can’t blame anyone for feeling that way after this episode but that’s the point of it. I would argue that we have to see the lows to appreciate the inevitable Stark comeback, one that has already begun on the show.
The Red Wedding left audiences aghast once the dust had settled and cemented its place as one of Game of Thornes’ defining moments.
1. The Death of Ned Stark (Season 1)
The death of Ned Stark blindsided everyone. Whether you had read it in the books or watched it on the screen you did not see this coming.
Ned Stark, played with such warmth of intensity by Sean Bean, was our hero during season one. He was the anchor that drove the plot forward and gave us a central character to root for. How could he be taken away so early in the show? The answer, because this is Game of Thrones and the good guys don’t always win. Ned died because of his honor because he didn’t seize power from Cersei when he had the chance and it cost him dearly.
Fans of the series learned quickly that this story would not play by the rules (at least not at first). Like so many moments in Game of Thrones, it was heartbreaking, jaw dropping and dramatically altered the story all at the same time. No other moment in the show’s run has defined GoT and its place in pop culture like Ned’s death.
It is THE Game of Thrones moment.
There you have it, six (ok, eight really) of the most defining moments from the first six seasons of Game of Thrones. I have no doubt that seasons seven and eight will be packed with shocking revelations and twists but they’ve got a lot to live up to.
Season seven of Game of Thrones premieres Sunday, July 16 at 8 P.M. on HBO. Don’t miss out.