Game of Thrones Season 5 saw HBO’s fantasy epic depart from the books for the first time, and that decision to abbreviate, omit or introduce brand new elements worked both for and against the programme. Accelerating its momentum by stripping out subplots, Season 5 was one of the most exciting of all seasons when it got going, bringing characters together in violent collisions, each one designed to thin out the ensemble of remaining characters.
The departures included some bad decisions, including the assault of Sansa by her newly wedded husband, Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), which was an unnecessary and unpleasant addition, and a subplot involving Tyrion and Ser Jorah travelling through dangerous stone men territory that mostly felt like padding, but they were balanced out by the impressive introduction of the High Sparrow and one of the most shocking season cliffhangers in recent memory.
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.
1. Daenerys meets Tyrion
With the endgame coming into sight, Game of Thrones is in dire need of momentum, and it gets it from the opening few episodes, as Tyrion Lannister (freshly escaped from Kings Landing after killing daddy Tywin) and Varis head for Meereen to meet the Mother of Dragons, the only ruler who hasn’t so far displayed worrying, tyrannical tendencies. To help Tyrion on his way, Ser Jorah Mormont turns up and kidnaps him, hoping to win back Daenerys’ favour – but mostly just wins the show a laborious bit of padding – but it helps hasten the crossover of the two families, as Tyrion sees dragons for the first time, Daenerys trades barbs with him as she accepts him as her adviser, and Jorah gets to hit lots of people with swords. For the first time, you can start to guess where Game of Thrones is headed.
2. The High Sparrow flies in
How do you make an excellent TV show better? Add Jonathan Pryce. He’s impeccable as the High Sparrow, leader of an extremist, puritanical religious movement that brings punishment and justice to all in the name of the Seven Gods – including Ser Loras for his homosexual relations. Enter Dame Diana Rigg, who goes toe to toe with the Sparrow as Lady Olenna Tyrell demands her nephew be set free. The result is one of the most lip-smackingly glorious exchanges in Game of Thrones.
3. Jaime and Myrcella
Jaime and Bronn head to Dorne to bring back Myrcella – previously sent off to marry Prince Trystane – after The Sand Snakes (led by Ellaria Sand) send a threatenng parcel to Kings Landing. While that subplot ultimately doesn’t go anywhere, it does give Jaime a Myrcella a chance to talk, and, for the first time, he’s open with someone who isn’t Cersei about being Myrcella’s father. It’s a weird moment, if you think about, but a touching one too, and Nell Tiger Free and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau knock it out of the park, building on the sympathy we’ve already started to feel for him in Season 3 and 4. Just look at the way Jaime gazes at the Isle of Tarth, post-Brienne. Or the way he mournfully, but peacefully, rocks up to the shore of Kings Landing with Myrcella’s body on a boat, after Ellaria poisoned her ahead of their voyage home.
4. Grey Worm almost gets it
Meereen may not always feel like the most relevant part of the Westeros narrative, but Season 5 sees Game of Thrones waste no time getting down to business, with a thrilling uprising from the Sons of the Harpy that almost wipes out Daenerys and her crew – not least Grey Worm, who almost gets it in a tense corridor showdown. Spare a thought for Ser Barristan who isn’t so lucky.
5. Arya goes No-Name on Ser Meryn
Arya’s journey to Braavos is one of the most intriguing elements of Game of Thrones’ fifth season, as it gives us a dark, disturbing counterpoint to the journey of the other surviving Stark, Sansa. The House of Black and White opens its doors to wee Arya, and leaves her struggling to follow the Faceless Men in their service of the Many-Faced God, as she fails to leave behind her own identity and history. On the plus side, that means she gets the benefit of using someone else’s face to sneak into the presence of Ser Meryn Trant and stab him brutally to death – one of the most shocking moments in the whole series. On the down side, she goes blind as a result – one of the creepiest moments in the whole series. In a tale of familial revenge and constant paybacks writ large across seven kingdoms, Arya’s is a fascinating study of how hard it is to overcome a grudge.
6. Stannis crosses a line
The nastiest moment of Season 5? Unnecessary mistreatment of Sansa aside, that may well go to Stannis, who took the horrifying step of sacrificing his sweet daughter Shireen to the Lord of Light. We don’t see the actual burning, but it’s a crucial moment in Stannis’ story, cementing it as one of tragedy, as his ambition propels him into committing unthinkable deeds.
7. Cersei’s shame
In the Lannister family, nothing’s unthinkable, thanks to Cersei and Jaime’s barely denied affair, but for Cersei and Jaime, loyalty to anyone else but each becomes the most unthinkable thing – and Cersei’s disregard for what other people think only pays just desserts, as the High Sparrow sends her naked through the streets of Kings Landing to atone for her sins, lies and more sins. It’s a moment that, combined with a glimpse of a prophecy of tragedy told to her as a child, gives us a shred of sympathy for the Queen Regent… until it just drives her even further towards getting her violent revenge on everyone around her. The instantly meme-able bell-ringing by Hannah Waddingham as pious nun Septa Unella seals this as one of the most memorable scenes in Game of Thrones history.
8. Dany lifts off
Yet again, the season draws to a close with Dany rising above others in a display of hope, as she hops on a dragon to escape the fighting pits, after the Sons of the Harpy unleash another attack. You can read an interesting piece on Game of Thrones and race here, but this is a striking moment of a female ruler showcasing her power, and an even more striking reminder of how good the show’s effects can be.
Speaking of which, who can forget Hardhome? One of the most unexpected confrontations in Thrones to date, it sees Jon Snow head to the stronghold to bring back wildlings to Castle Black, only for the Night King to lay siege to it with a horde of White Walkers. It’s a jaw-dropping display of the stakes at hand and the scale of the walkers’ army – our first glimpse of the Night King himself (“Come at me, bro”), a chilling snapshot of slaughtered good guys (and gals – hello to the brilliant Birgitte Sørensen) coming back to life and joining the dark side of the battle. All that just as Jon and co. lose their stash of Dragon Glass? Winter is coming – and it’s looking grim.
10. Jon’s Snow more
Not since the death of Ned Stark has Game of Thrones delivered a more gut-wrenching blow than with the death of Jon Snow, as the Lord Commander taken out by the Night’s Watch one by one, in a death-by-a-million-cuts sequence that’s still upsetting to witness – especially because the final blow comes from ickle Olly. Even if you don’t know nothing about what happens next, this is the kind of season finale that leaves you desperate to rush straight to the next season.
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.