In honor of the faith of the Seven, and to pass the interminable wait for the conclusive episodes of Game Of Thrones, and not at all to scratch a compulsive itch that wouldn't go away once the idea occurred to me, I have decided to list my seven favorite moments from each of the first seven seasons. Videos will be embedded in the headings. Anyway, without further ado...
Tormund’s immediate, childlike crush on Brienne was one of those delightful little surprises that a show this sprawling can spring upon even its most faithful fans. A thing so small that you don’t give the potential any thought, but feels wholly appropriate, even obvious, when it pops up. And Kristofer Hivju and Gwendoline Christie play the little, mostly silent bits for all they are worth.
Bran’s storyline has never been my favorite, because, like Dany’s, it has been constrained by it’s centrality to the mythology guaranteeing that whatever setbacks he experiences can’t be too final. It's not that it has been predictable exactly, but the threat of death that hangs over all the scenes on the show feels more hollow for those two characters than any of the rest.
So if these storylines are to shock or thrill us, it is down to the individual execution of scenes to do it, and for supporting characters to be the targets of any threats we are supposed to take seriously. Bran’s story managed it most wrenchingly with the combination of exit and origin story for the simpleminded giant Hodor. Due to his supporting status, we had not had much cause to mull over how his impediments might be illuminated by Bran’s mystical abilities. The show had certainly delivered comparably sad deaths before, but the way it diverted into sci-fi territory with the time travel aspect upped the shock factor and made the gutpunch land all the harder. Hodor’s trademark diction was not a mystery we felt really needed to be solved, but that is precisely why it was such a satisfying surprise when it came. And as other entries in this post will bear out, when the show can find genuinely new things to show us after so long, or ways to show them, it makes a big impression.
This is the second time Ser Gregor Clegane has appeared on one of these lists, specifically for annihilating someone’s head with his bare hands. So it goes.
The titular battle is full of fantastic moments, as intense and well-rendered a medieval battle sequence as I’ve seen on screens of any size. Deciding what moment to highlight from such a bravura sequence was a challenge – Jon facing down a cavalry charge alone? Wun Wun breaking down the gate? Jon nearly getting crushed at the base of the mountain of corpses? But ultimately, I find that the battle is a strange case, one that works on the micro level of those fantastically executed moments, and the macro level in that I buy the general course of events (Jon rallies a smaller force to challenge the Boltons and triumphs thanks to Sansa calling in the knights of the Vale). But in between the bird’s eye view and the immediacy of the filmmaking - a space where most of the experience of actually watching the show falls - it is marred by the out-of-character stupidity of Sansa hiding the existence of an entire friendly army from her own generals for no discernible reason.
Because I buy the basic set up of the conflict and its resolution, the abject pointlessness of that decision only serves to distract me from the battle itself, and I pretty much snap back to attention for the aftermath. So I chose to highlight Ramsay’s highly appropriate end, as Sansa turns his own dogs, the instruments of so much of his cruelty, into his executioners. A brutal end, but no fictional character has ever deserved it more. And in addition to the satisfaction of seeing Sansa realize her vengeance, there was also simple relief. While I knew that the Starks had to succeed in retaking Winterfell, I'd half expected Ramsay himself to somehow slither away and cause trouble another day. Thankfully, that was not to be, and we got to enter the final stretch without the constant threat of every episode grinding to a halt to watch him play repetitively sadistic games with people who can’t clap back. And Sansa got to have the last word with her most brutal tormentor.
For better or worse, the visual style of a television series is generally set by the first episode. And that is usually worse, because the occasional LOST or Walking Dead aside, pilot episodes tend to be unpolished and underfunded compared to what that show can manage after success has afforded them more time and money to put in service of big spectacle. Game Of Thrones is an object lesson in this regard; the first season elided big battle scenes, opting for what could charitably be described as a Shakespearean approach, i.e. having someone enter stage left and inform another character of the outcome rather than actually showing the battle. Even “Blackwater”, while focused entirely on depicting a battle, confined all its fighting to a small, nondescript patch of dirt and a small, nondescript patch of battlement. That episode makes up with narrative craft what it lacks in filmmaking verve, but the point of this is that GOT early on established a visual palette that was very much not flashy. And that actually does fit in with the overall ethos of a series that is so defined by its deglamorization of standard fantasy settings and tropes; if the filmmaking was consistently hyper-stylized, you would be courting the vague dissonance that permeates Zach Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation (where the director’s high-gloss visual style undermines the story’s focus on deglamorizing superhero fantasy).
But after 6 years, the series has earned the right to showboat a bit, and when it does go for a full Godfather-style montage (with just a dash of Children Of The Corn, for flavor), it really stands out. Ramin Djawadi’s most elaborate musical composition to date, and the years of familiarity we have built up with the multitude of characters, settings and bits of lore that play into the sequence, allow it to carry us through nearly ten minutes and the violent deaths of a half dozen regular or recurring characters with minimal dialogue. Even though all of us obsessives had sussed out Cersei’s plan from the first hint a few weeks prior, the presentation was so strikingly, surprisingly stylish that it blew us away anyhow. This is a standout sequence precisely because it is such a departure from the show’s general MO, but it also wouldn’t work as well if the “regular” version of the show hadn’t grounded us so thoroughly in the contours and cultures of this strange fictional world.
Season 6 was, for the most part, an odd mix of unusually accelerated and thinly-sketched plotting (the abrupt ends of Doran, Balon and Roose, Sam and Jaime and the Greyjoys bopping across the world in a single scene where once people spent entire seasons traveling such distances) and the belaboring of inevitabilities (taking over half a season to get Jon back to life and out of Castle Black, Cersei and the Tyrells remaining imprisoned until the very end, the slavers finally self-owning themselves out of the picture entirely, Arya working her way into and out of the graces of the Faceless again). But it all came together magnificently in the end, with the Battle Of The Bastards, Cersei’s fiery purge of King’s Landing, and Dany finally, finally leaving the tutorial level of Essos to join the fray for realsies.
And while I could have chosen that final image of her at the head of the fleet, I want to highlight this scene instead. For one, it features a vengeful Olenna turning her sharp tongue on the Sand Snakes, and Olenna is awesome. But for another, it highlights how for all the frustrations that the wonkier timelines of the latter seasons cause (don’t get me started on that whole frozen lake sequence), that fuzziness can also be used to disarm the audience to powerful dramatic effect. As we have become more accustomed to the series’s narrative habits and tricks, it becomes harder to drop our jaws as consistently as those early seasons did. But this scene moves us forward so quickly that it took me by surprise even though it represented an entirely logical progression of the story threads. When you think about it, the scene must take place weeks after the destruction of the sept, for Olenna to have made a trip to Dorne to discuss it. The throughline from one event to the other is clear enough that we don’t have any trouble following it, but we are so unused to an episode making that sort of leap forward from scene to scene that we are immediately off balance. And the notable absence of the Dornish women since their coup in the premiere, while wonky in its own right, did also contribute to their sudden reappearance feeling surprising rather than inevitable.
The point is, while it seems logical that Olenna would make common cause with the other sworn enemies of the Lannisters after Cersei literally blew up their alliance, we simply hadn’t yet had enough time to process that event and parse out these implications. And the scene moves along so quickly that we certainly haven’t had time to thread the implications of this new alliance over to Dany’s storyline, so when Varys comes out to drop the mic, it’s even more surprising. And doubly exciting, because while various players have made their way from Westeros over to her in seasons past, this is the first time that her storyline has actively imposed itself onto the primary political arena. I have frequently identified Dany’s storyline as being the source of the most frustration on the show, because it is so clearly treading water. But this one line feels like 6 years of patience is finally paying off.
I think about this moment when GOT is referenced as a nihilistic parade of sadism. I don’t think that the series is nihilistic, or even entirely cynical. The wicked in Westeros always seem to get what’s coming to them. Eventually. And the good, at least those that survive, do eventually triumph. There is a moral arc in this world, but it moves slower than its years-long seasons. And to be able to see that requires much more patience, and a much stronger stomach, than about any other narrative I can think of. Fantasy or otherwise. And like another world I can think of, the victories for the good people are so rare and difficult to get to that they must be savored when they come.