Eight years ago, we watched a small crew of men in black cloaks venture north of a magic wall. Grotesque ice monsters killed most of them, but one got away. He managed to make his way to the woods of a northern castle, but he was captured and executed for deserting his post.
That’s where millions of people met Ned Stark for the first time, and since then Game of Thrones has been a fixture in the lives of millions more around the world. Starting in 2011, we’ve watched eight seasons of epic-fantasy drama, spread over 76 episodes and over 50 hours.
Dragons, White Walkers, magic walls and red witches aren’t for everyone, butwere treated to a rich, deeply satisfying world, all based on George R.R. Martins yet-to-be-completed Song of Fire and Ice novels.
Now the Game of Thrones has been played, as the last-ever episode,, aired on Sunday. (Fret not, Maesters, a .) Now, with the story finally completed, we can go back and analyze which of its chapters were the best, and which were the worst.
A note: Somebody has to come last in every race. Most of the criticisms below come from holding the show to a high standard and comparing Game of Thrones against itself. Game of Thrones is pretty darn great even at the worst of times.
8. Season 7
A bad Game of Thrones season is still good TV. Season 7, broadcast a whole lifetime ago in 2017, had some of the terrific moments. The problem is the whole season was essentially one moment after another. Tent poles with no tent.
The season is notorious for playing loose with time and space. Characters travel to and from Winterfell, Dragonstone, The Wall or King’s Landing in a scene or two, when previously such journeys would take at least an episode.
The pace is dizzying, and most of the plots relate to one key character interacting with another key character (Daenerys and Jon, Arya and Sansa, and so on). The effect on storytelling is that the world feels smaller. King’s Landing doesn’t feel like a city anymore, it’s just where Cersei Lannister lives. The point of season 7 is to drive home that the world is in grave danger, so it’s ironic the world feels like less of a character than ever.
There’s a lot to love, though. Arya Stark’s Winterfell return, the death of Littlefinger and Jon meeting Daenerys for the first time are scenes to be YouTubed for years to come. Jon’s exoneration of Theon Greyjoy and the Stark sisters’ commemorating Ned Stark were inspiring, and the whole White Walker dragon thing set the stakes high. Plus, there was the anticipated return of Hot Pie.
Best bits: Arya comes home, Littlefinger dies, Jon meets Daenerys, Jon and Theon, Jaime Lannister finally bails on Cersei. Hot Pie.
7. Season 8
Season 8 is possibly the most polarizing season in all of Game of Thrones. Over a million peopleto have it remade, but maybe that was inevitable for a season that was designed to wrap up the show’s most significant plot lines.
The final season was like structurally like season 7, in that it was predominantly injured by its pace and kept alive by its key moments. It ranks above season 7, though, because the pace generally isn’t as discombobulating and its key moments generally more satisfying. (Again, generally.)
Brienne becoming Ser Brienne, the last 10 minutes of The Battle of Winterfell,and the death of Daenerys were all standout, truly great Game of Thrones moments.
Yet there were issues that were conspicuous to say the least. Jaime going back to Cersei despite Cersei sending Bronn to kill him and Daenerys’ abrupt descent into the Mad Queen were both massive eyebrow raisers. And both were self-inflicted wounds, in that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff’s decision to curtail season 7 and 8 necessitated the pacing that hamstrung these stories.
How do you end sprawling, high-pedigree show like Game of Thrones? That’s a tough task. Season 8’s problems were significant, but it did enough right to remain deeply engaging TV.
Best bits: The absurdly-good final 10 minutes of The Battle of Winterfell, Ser Brienne, Daenerys’ death, Jaime and Tyrion say goodbye, Cleganebowl.
6. Season 5
This season came in hot, as the prior one ended with Tyrion Lannister murdering his father, Tywin. However, despite some highlights like the battle of Hardhome, it didn’t truly capitalize on the momentum of the excellent fourth season. It was more plodding plot than substantial storytelling. (For Game of Thrones, at least.)
Tyrion ends up counseling Daenerys, but the road to getting there isn’t particularly gratifying. Daenerys’ exploits in Essos, as with most seasons, are a low point here with the Sons of the Harpy subplot. It’s actually an above average Daenerys plot, thanks largely to the tense battle that leaves Grey Worm injured and Ser Barristan Selmy dead. But Daenerys’ destiny is in Westeros, so Essos monkey business ultimately feels inconsequential, particularly this late in the game.
The same can be said for the King’s Landing plot, which has the High Sparrow and his religious cult take over the city. The High Sparrow is a compelling character, but we ultimately know he’s a diversion. Cersei’s shaming is legendary at this point, but she was always going to win in the end; the High Sparrow story was hard to get truly invested in because it felt more like a mere roadblock for Cersei. A thoughtful roadblock, but a roadblock nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Jaime and Bronn being buds in Dorne was fun, and Marcella’s death scene, including Jaime’s revelation, was an emotional moment, even if it was hastily built. The rest of the Dornish adventure was a letdown to many fans, however. Arya Stark’s training to become a Faceless Man, mostly consisting of her mopping floors, was OK at best.
As we would see though, that training would pay off in the most spectacular of ways.
Best bits: Tyrion meets Daenerys, Jon gets named Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon gets murdered by the Night’s Watch, Jaime and Bronn hang out.
5. Season 2
Season 2, like season 5, had a tough act to follow. Game of Thrones lost its leading man, or what we thought was its leading man, in the first season. We were left with the petulant, psychopathic Joffrey and no hero to truly counterbalance him. Rob Stark is cool, but it was hard to bank on a Stark after season 1.
Joffrey Baratheon really is a true villain, though. They say the best antagonists are ones with a legitimate axe to grind, but Joffrey is the exception to that rule. It’s impossible not to hate him. You just can’t wait for him to die. A truly effective bad guy.
The way he interacts with Tyrion, who takes over as Hand of the King, is terrific. Particularly memorable is the scene in which Tyrion protects Sansa from a public beating. And of course, Tyrion’s shining moment was the epic Battle of Blackwater Bay.
Another series highlight is Tywin Lannister using Arya as his cupbearer. Game of Thrones is at its best when it spotlights how life and the people in it are gray, not black-and-white. Even though Arya desperately wanted to kill Tywin, you get the sense these two could have been great buds in another dimension. Speaking of happy alternative realities, season two is part one of the tragedy that is Jon and Ygritte.
But the season has its drawbacks. Namely, Daenerys’ time in Qarth is a routine buzzkill. The jostling between Stannis and Renly Baratheon is OK, but at this point we’re not invested in either character. Theon’s betrayal of the Starks becomes a key element of the Thrones tale later, but it’s chaotic here.
And that’s really the issue with season two. It’s still quality TV, and there are many stellar elements. Furthermore, watching it back in retrospect, knowing where everyone ends up, does improve it. But it’s frenetic, bordering on disorientating. It’s something of a sacrificial lamb in that regard, setting up future seasons for success.
Best bits: Joffrey’s astonishing dislikability. Arya hangs out with Tywin. Tyrion as Hand of the King. Battle of Blackwater Bay. Jon meets Ygritte.