Tits and dragons. That’s how Ian McShane famously described Game of Thrones, but while both of those are absolutely true, HBO’s fantasy epic has much more going on, enough to make it the biggest TV show of the modern era – a titan of dizzying scale, expensive effects, compelling characters, labyrinthine politics, violent revenge, and, yes, tits and dragons. The gratuitous physical content has since been (welcomely) toned down, while the dragons have been (impressively) dialled up, but the show’s growing presence in living rooms across the country has been building ever since its very first episodes, with Season 2 adding to the layers of politics, revenge and foreshadowing for what was to come.
With the eighth and final season coming this April, and with all seven seasons available on Sky and NOW TV as box sets, we count down by looking back at some of the show’s best bits (in no particular order), season by season. The re-watch is dark and full of memorable moments.
“The night is dark and full of terrors”
There are a few lines in Game of Thrones that have become iconic, repeated time and time again by fans and characters alike. If Season 1 gave us “Winter is coming”, Season 2 gives us this chilling gem, delivered with ominous relish by Carice van Houten’s Melisandre. The Red Priestess evangelises on behalf of the Lord of Light, convincing Stannis Baratheon, Rob’s brother, to devote himself to this sinister deity as part of his claim for the Iron Throne – much the doubting skepticism of loyal pirate sidekick Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham). Before we, like him, dismiss the whole thing, though, Melisandre reveals that she’s pregnant by Stannis, and gives birth to a creature of smoke who goes on to kill Renly Baratheon. It’s a horrifying, nasty sequence, one that makes it undoubtedly clear that magic does exist in this universe, and that it’s not afraid to do some very bad things.
“Most girls are idiots”
Season 1 left us, and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in shock at the loss of Ned Stark, and so it’s with some pleasure that one of Season 2’s highlights is the way it turns into a story of recovery for one of the youngest Stark descendants, as she heads back to Winterfell under cover of being a boy headed to join the Night’s Watch. Along the way, as well as make friends with people like Hot Pie and Jaqen H’ghar (paving the way for her trip to Braavos), she is taken under the wing of Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), who employs her as his cup bearer. He doesn’t know who she is, but he can tell she’s more than she claims, and Williams’ performance is a perfect balance of innocence and naivety and whip-smart sass: seeing Dance’s glowering menace go up against her unwavering attitude is an utter delight, as they trade barbed conversations every episode. The result is both tense and, oddly, almost tender – and yet her cunning deceit only serves to pave the way for her transformation into a revenge-driven killer.
The survival of Jaime Lannister
Equally good at staying alive is Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who finds himself a prisoner of war, after clashing with Robb Stark. In a cage with his distant cousin, it would be easy to write the Kingslayer off, but he proves it unwise not to do that, as he chats with his cousin kindly – and ultimately accepts that he’s only good at killing people, so he strangles him to cause enough chaos to enable his access. It’s a revealing moment that shows us just how powerful and dangerous the pretty Jaime is: he’s a Lannister, after all, and he doesn’t need to be in the same room as Cersei (Lena Headey) to be a threat.
The fall of Theon
Like Arya’s growth into a murderer, Season 2 tees off one of Game of Thrones other long-running arcs: the fall of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). Taken and raised by the Starks, he proposes to Robb that he return to his home of the Iron Islands and get them to unite with the Winterfell family to defeat their common enemy: the Lannisers. That brings him into contact with his disapproving father, and his hilariously no-nonsense sister, Yara (Gemma Whelan), and they manipulate him into betraying the Starks. He starts to warn Robb that the Greyjoys will go behind them to invade Winterfell and seize the North, then burns the letter instead – and that sets in motion the tragic descent of a man who doesn’t know who he is, keeps trying to be things other people expect him to be, and ultimately ends up killing several people in Winterfell, all in the hope of proving his manliness. Needless to say, it doesn’t work – and that’s clear just in the moment he tries to do what Ned did, and deliver a noble decapitation to an enemy. Unlike Ned, though, it takes him multiple swings of a sword, splashing blood everywhere. (Fortunately, Bran, Osha, Rickon and Hodor all escape, as Wildling Osha (Natalie Tena) tricks him into letting them get away.)
The rise of Tyrion
If Season 2 gives us the fall of Theon, it also gives us the rise of Tyrion. With Ned out of the picture, Peter Dinklage effectively becomes the show’s lead character, and it’s a joy to see how much his character develops this season, becoming Hand of the King for Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and wasting no time in slapping some sense into his nephew. “We’ve had vicious kings and we’ve had idiot kings, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious idiot king!” he says, hitting Joffrey in the face, after a riot breaks out in Kings Landing.
“You know nothing, Jon Snow”
It’s 17 minutes and 46 seconds into Episode 7 when Game of Thrones Season 2 gives us the next iconic catchphrase. This one comes from Ygritte (Rose Leslie), as she torments Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), after he ends up captured North of the Wall. The more they argue and bicker, though, the more the chemistry heats up – and by the time Jon Snow has had to kill his old friend in the Night’s Watch to convince his Wildling captors that he can be trusted, they’re practically getting married. The nights don’t have to be dark and full of terrors, after all.
Sam falls in love
It’s not just Jon: Season 2 becomes the season in which everyone seems to find themselves some romance, and top of the adorable pile is Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), who falls head over heels for Gilly, a wife and daughter of Craster, leader of the Free Folk North of the Wall. She runs off with him, and their endearing bond is almost sickeningly cute, as Bradley goes from too soft for battle to practically made of marshmallow. Awwwww.
Robb finds a wife
Before you can say “love is in the air”, Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has found himself a better half too, and it’s telling that she’s not a high-born suitor, but a nurse who helps his men out after battle. Played by Oona Chaplin, Talisa is smart, resilient, resourceful and, most of all, compassionate – the antidote to everything wrong in the Seven Kingdoms. But, of course, part of the tragedy is that their union means that Robb has broken the promised betrothal agreed by his mother to one of the Frey daughters – and we all know what that will lead too…
Any scene involving Tyrion and Shae
Tyrion’s arc as the show’s new lead hero wouldn’t be complete with his own romance, and he also finds himself in love with someone who’s at odds with the dominant motivations of this world. Shae, smuggled by Tyrion into the Lannister house as a handmaiden for Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), is, on the surface, a sex worker with a tough life, but a quick game of truth-and-date with lots of win, makes it clear that half of Tyrion’s assumptions about her life, experiences and ambitions are all wide of the mark. She’s every bit his equal, and every bit a survivor too.
Joffrey dumps Sansa
Natalie Dormer steals every scene going from the moment she appears as Margaery Tyrell, a driven social climber who moves from being the partner of Renly Baratheon to the new fiancee for Joffrey – as she puts it, she wants to be The Queen, not a queen. And the moment we see Joffrey, encouraged by Cersei in front of a hall room of people, decide to dump Sansa for Margaery is one of Season 2’s most pivotal scenes. It not only confirms Joffrey as the worst human alive, but also highlights Margaery as a threat to be wary of, and gives us a glimpse of Sansa being free, before reminding us all that she’s destined to be stuck there – unless Lord Baelish can pull some strings. By the end of the season, the only one who doesn’t seem like he’ll hurt Sansa is, perplexingly, The Hound, who stops off at Sansa’s room on his way to Winterfell to see if she wants to go with him.
Gwendoline Christie: Ronin
While everyone else is shacking up with long-term partners, spare a thought for Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne of Tarth, who swears fealty to Renly Baratheon, then finds herself without a master. And so she switches allegiance to Catelyn Stark – but even then, as she wanders from place to place, with Jaime in tow as a prisoner, it’s clear that she’s become a Ronin, wandering, lost, without purpose. It feels like a stray tangent at first, but it’s the beginning of what will become one of the show’s most intriguing, unique character arcs.
“There are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them.”
Forget characer arcs, though: Season 2’s defining moment is without question the Battle of Blackwater, which sees Stannis and his ships descend upon Kings Landing to take the Iron Throne. In defence? Tyrion, of course, and (with the help of Jerome Flynn’s MVP Bronn) he steps up to become the saviour of the city, delivering one of the small screen’s most memorable battle speeches. He does so shortly after his plan to use Wildfire to burn Stannis’ ships down – a sequence that’s one of the most jaw-dropping, and most fatal, in the entire show’s history. Scale, stunning colour and an immediate sideswipe to the saga’s epic ensemble cast, it announces Game of Thrones as one of TV’s biggest shows.
While the Battle of Blackwater rages on, Game of Thrones excels by taking us into a small moment: inside the Keep, where the women and children hunker down to stay safe behind locked doors. It’s a shifting, claustrophobic place, with rippling social dynamics and unsettled power balances, and at the heart of it is Sansa and Cersei. The former rallies the room with a song, while the latter gets increasingly drunk at the prospect of losing everything to Stannis, and Lena Headey’s intoxicated rambling gives us a new insight into the unexpectedly gentle side to the imperious Queen Regent.
While we’re still recovering from Blackwater, Game of Thrones ups the ante even further by taking us back beyond The Wall, where Sam and the Night’s Watch find themselves hearing three blasts on a horn – the signal for White Walkers, something that hasn’t been heard for centuries. And, before we can doubt their existence, up their pop for the first time in full, stalking slowly through the snow past Sam. Good thing he found that pile of Dragon Glass daggers…
After Season 1 saw Daenerys emerge from flames with real life dragons, Season 2 takes her and her Dothraki horde on a wayward trip via the city of Qarth that feels a little too much like a detour. But it pays off handsomely, as she ends up in a House of the Undying, trapped by a Warlock, and finally frees herself by using her dragons for the first time. “Dracarys,” she orders, and they begin to breathe fire on the Warlock, killing him. Season 2 gives us the first look at the ice on its way to Westeros – but not without serving up some fire too. Winter’s coming, and the Mother of Dragons is ready.
Game of Thrones Season 8 premieres on Monday 15th April at 2am on Sky Atlantic. Season 1 to 7 is available on-demand on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also watch Game of Thrones online legally in the UK with NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial for new customers.