I’ll admit it: I was pessimistic about all things Game of Thrones after the disastrous eighth and final season of the original series. It took the wind out of my sails, so to speak, and made it hard to really allow myself to get excited about anything and everything in the World of Ice and Fire.
In the nearly four years since GoT ended, it feels like every big budget premium cable show has been dubbed “The Next Game of Thrones,” only to fizzle out and descend into the abyss of content. And then it happened. We actually did get “The Next Game of Thrones,” and ironically enough, the only show worthy of holding that title was another Game of Thrones.
We’ve had six months now to sit back and revel in the glory that was HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. And if you, like me, have read George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood book on which it’s based, you know that this first season was just the tip of the Valyrian steel sword.
As we await House of the Dragon season two, and pray to the Old Gods for the eventual release of Martin’s next book The Winds of Winter which has been rumored to be arriving every year since the Clinton administration, there’s no better time to re-examine the highs and lows of the O.G. series that started our excitement (and then proceeded to destroy our faith in it). So, what was the best season of Game of Thrones? And, since we’re going there, which was the worst season? Here, we revisit and rank the eight seasons we watched and sometimes hate-watched with an attention and enthusiasm that could only be captured by GoT.
Macall B. Polay/HBO
8. Season 8
It will come as no surprise to any of you that the last season of Game of Thrones comes in last place here. I’m clenching my teeth as I write this, trying not to break my laptop as I think about it. There’s one GIF that captures all of our collective feelings about the final season:
This last season of GoT should serve as a Master Class for future generations of showrunners: When you have the most popular show in the history of television, don’t take that for granted. Don’t sprint to an ill-thought-out finale so you can move on to the next sure-fire hit you’ve got up your sleeve, because nothing is a sure-fire-hit until it’s a hit. Show respect to the audience and characters that got you where you are.
The complaints about the actual storytelling of the final season are so vast, I dare not even try to talk about them all. But one word that captures the larger problem is “pointless.” Whether it was the White Walkers we established as the primary antagonists for 10 years or the character development we saw in characters like Jaime Lannister, in the end it was all rendered pointless. What’s the point of a character’s redemption story if the character merely throws it all away on a whim? What’s the point of establishing a major threat only to have it vanquished at the first major conflict it encounters? The nuance that made the show so popular amongst an audience of people that included fantasy nerds and non-fantasy nerds alike was entirely lost in this shortened season that seemed hell-bent on one thing and one thing only: ending the story.
7. Season 5
This is a tricky one, because season five has one of the single best episodes of the entire series in it, “Hardhome.” You’ll remember this as the episode with the best White Walker fight sequence in the show’s run which ended with this incredibly memeable moment:
And Jon Snow’s entire storyline in this season is really incredible. It’s the season in which he establishes himself as the empathetic hero of the story, befriending and trusting the Wildlings to such an extent that eventually his Brothers of the Night’s Watch murder him for it.
The problem with this season, and the reason it falls so low on this list, is that the majority of our time is spent with Cersei and the High Sparrow. It’s a very laborious and time-consuming plotline that, while necessary in pushing the story forward and laying the groundwork for the conflict to come in King’s Landing, just feels like homework for the viewer. We’re never really given a proper understanding of who the High Sparrow is, what his motives are or why we should be rooting for him in his quest to take down Cersei Lannister. Is he just an overly pious man? Does he have some reason to harbor resentment for all people of noble birth? Is he a psychopath like her trying to seize power for himself under the guise of faith? We never really know, and so this whole conflict feels like it lacks stakes.
Over in Essos, we have Daenerys just sort of sitting and waiting in Meereen, learning about the difficulties of ruling, which (like Cersei’s plotline) is necessary, but not a whole lot of fun to watch.
All in all, season five is really a bridge season between two of the best GoT has and in many ways it feels that way. It’s setting things up, laying the groundwork for what’s to come, which we can respect but not always enjoy watching.
6. Season 2
At this point, in my opinion, we’re talking about levels of greatness. Season two is a great season of television. It gives us the aftermath and fallout from one of the most shocking occurrences we’d ever seen on television: the execution of the hero of the show, Ned Stark. It’s a season that leads us all across the map of Westeros as the “War of the Five Kings” truly kicks off. Joffrey has ascended the throne in King’s Landing, Robb Stark declares himself “King in the North,” Stannis and Renly Baratheon are both claiming their right to the Iron Throne and Balon Greyjoy is seeking independence for the Iron Islands. This launches the character development of Jaime Lannister and introduces us to a bevy of characters who will play important roles throughout the series: Margaery Tyrell, Brienne of Tarth, Stannis Baratheon, Ser Davos Seaworth, Jaqen H’ghar, Podrick Payne and Melisandre.
The major criticism of this season is more a logistical one than anything else. At this point in the story, we have so many characters alive and separated from one another that it becomes stretched a bit thin, with not enough time to truly dedicate to each plotline. Jon Snow starts his quest north of the Wall which introduces us to Gilly, Craster and Ygritte, Daenerys spends the season in Qarth surrounded by wizards and prophecies, Robb meets Walder Frey and his soon-to-be wife (who will both prove to be the downfall of House Stark) and this season starts the recurring theme of a major battle sequence in the penultimate episode of each season with the epic “Battle of the Blackwater.”
It’s a solid season, but it’s literally and thematically all over the place which is why it ranks where it does on this list.
Courtesy of HBO
5. Season 7
There’s a popular theory about David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of Game of Thrones. They’re great at adapting the books into TV, but terrible at creating new story on their own. People use this theory to explain how terrible season eight was, but the truth is the books only take us through season five of the show. So for this theory to be true, seasons six through eight would all have to be a mess… And, spoiler alert, they aren’t.
I may be in the minority here, but I think season seven is good. Is it perfect? No. Are there errors made in the pacing of it? Sure. But this is the season with plenty of payoff moments: Jon and Daenerys meeting, Daenerys on a dragon fighting the Lannister army, Arya and Sansa being reunited, Gendry and Jon meeting one another, The Mountain and The Hound coming face to face, etc. It’s a season of plotlines and characters coming together, some for the first time, some for the first time since season one.
It’s also inarguably fun to watch and, for the most part, very well done. The excursion north of the Wall brings a lot of our favorite warriors together for the first time, and getting to see their faces as they witness the White Walkers is cathartic, as is the moment the wight they capture is presented to the dragonpit of onlookers in the season finale. Jon Snow has been getting gaslit by everyone in Westeros whenever he brings up the “real threat,” and seeing him redeemed is as gratifying as anything. Sure, it’s strange how quickly Daenerys is able to fly north of the Wall to save everyone, and begs the question of why didn’t she just fly up one afternoon earlier in the season to see if Jon was telling the truth. But in the end, it surprises me how often I choose to rewatch the moment she meets Jon in the hall of Dragonstone, or the moment Arya and Brienne go toe-to-toe in Winterfell. There’s a sense that we’ve come full circle with this season, and it’s nice to watch these episodes and imagine what that final season had the potential to be.
4. Season 1
There’s not much that needs to be said for season one. It’s the start of everything. It introduces everyone and everything about this massive world filled with nuance in such a concise and clear way. It truly is the benchmark for all fantasy series to be judged against. It creates a tone beyond that Wall that is more ominous than anything we see throughout the rest of the series, and I kind of wish they’d stuck to this interpretation because it has a bigness to it that feels almost suffocating (in a good way).
It’s a season that is so easy to follow because, unlike season two, most of our characters are together in large groups throughout it. We really only have four storylines to follow: The Starks and Lannisters traveling to King’s Landing, the Starks left behind in Winterfell, Daenerys and Viserys in Essos and Jon and Tyrion at the Wall. We’re also gifted the incredible performances of Sean Bean as Ned Stark and Mark Addy as Robert Baratheon, two characters we take for granted while watching because we have no idea how short lived their performances will turn out to be.
Season one creates the template of shock, surprise and subverted expectations that will come to define this show.
3. Season 3
We’re now entering juggernaut territory. Season three remains to this day one of the most impactful seasons in the history of the show, marked most notably by the “Red Wedding.” But this is also the season of the Wildlings. Jon is captured north of the Wall and we’re introduced to Mance Rayder, Tormund Giantsbane and, of course, Ygritte. To me, season three’s Jon Snow plotline is one of the single best arcs we get from the show, and that alone propels season three into the upper echelon.
Then factor in the masterful gamesmanship of Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell, each setting their shocking, masterful plans into action, with the unexpected but incredible odd-couples of The Hound and Arya and Jaime and Brienne, and there really isn’t much wasted time in the entire season.
The one gripe some have is the brutal (and belabored) torturing of Theon, but to play devil’s advocate, this is our introduction to Ramsay who will turn out to be the most pure villain the show will ever have, so you kinda have to go big on establishing his malevolence. Which brings us to “The Red Wedding,” the single biggest “holy shit” moment since Ned’s beheading. It shocked all those who hadn’t read the books and yet again proved that nothing was out of bounds for this show.
2. Season 4
Season four follows up the Red Wedding (which left so many people in tears) with the “Purple Wedding,” where we see the hated Joffrey Baratheon poisoned by a yet unknown culprit; the yin to the Red Wedding’s yang so to speak. It’s simultaneously great to finally get the satisfaction of seeing one of the show’s antagonists get what is coming to him, and great to see Sansa freed to really become a three-dimensional character.
Season four is also where Tywin and Tyrion Lannister truly shine, taking a much larger role in the overarching narrative as we see Tyrion accused of Joffrey’s murder and put on trial with his father serving as the judge. This is the season that also introduces us to our neighbors of the south: the Dornish. While subsequent seasons don’t really do justice to Dorne, this season we meet one of the best single season characters of all time, Oberyn Martell, who nobly goes toe-to-toe with the Lannisters and The Mountain before…
In comparison to others, season four can almost be viewed as a capsule season, with storylines popping up and resolving themselves in ways that normally tend to linger a bit longer. Jon and Ygritte form a relationship that comes to an end, Oberyn Martell comes to King’s Landing and exits in gloriously gruesome fashion. The Tyrion vs. Tywin battle reaches its peak and conclusion with Tyrion then leaving to join forces with a new Queen in Essos. This season is both literally and figuratively the perfect mid-way point in the series; the curtain closes and we all break for intermission and talk about how great this show is and how we hope the second act is as good as the first.
Macall B. Polay/HBO
1. Season 6
When putting lists like this together there are a lot of completely subjective choices that have to be made. Am I going to fight with someone who thinks season two is better than season one, or season three is better than season four? No. We’re truly splitting hairs there. But when it comes to the question of “what’s the best single season of Game of Thrones,” there is no argument needed. No hairs need be split. That question has a definitive answer: season six.
It masterfully provides us with the answers and payoffs to plotlines we’ve been following for years, while simultaneously propelling the story forward. There’s the coup at the Wall and Jon Snow being brought back to life by Melisandre, a new man. He’s much more sullen, more aware of his own mortality, but also a bit more reckless in his pursuit of what he believes in. Arya finally graduates from her Faceless Man school in Braavos a more dangerous threat to the realm than anyone could have anticipated. Daenerys finishes her seasons-long quest of conquering Slaver’s Bay and finally turns her attention westward towards the Iron Throne.
This season is thematically one of graduations. Each character evolves into their final form in many ways. Bran becomes the Three Eyed Raven giving the fans answers to the long-anticipated question of Jon’s parentage through flashbacks. Sansa is brutalized by Ramsay turning her into the hardened leader incapable of trusting outsiders from this point forward. Her escape from Winterfell is fueled by Theon, who finally starts amending for his sins of the past and turns into a man dead set on redemption. The Hound is revealed to be alive and living a new life also fueled by redemption—this hardened warrior with no heart, now determined to help others in ways that in season one would have been impossible to believe.
And of course we can’t talk about this season without discussing the final two episodes: “The Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter,” the best one-two-punch of any season of Thrones. The Battle of the Bastards delivers on bringing the brutality of war to the screen in ways never before seen on television. It cements Jon’s legend in the North as a ferocious warrior willing to fight for what is right no matter the odds, which in turn forces all the noble houses in the North to beg his forgiveness and anoint him “King in the North” in maybe the most goosebump-inducing scene in the show’s history. How can you possibly follow the Battle of the Bastards up satisfyingly? That’s what we were all wondering before the finale of season six, but leave it to Cersei to have an answer. She had been reduced to a caged lion in season five, and she, like the rest of our characters, finds her footing before the season ends, evolving into a sociopathic mass murderer who puts a definitive end to her feud with Margaery Tyrell, and in the end becomes the queen she’s always wanted to be.
Season six is everything Game of Thrones could be and should be, executed at the highest level. And what people forget is that this was Benioff & Weiss operating without a book to hold themselves to. They’d surpassed George R.R. Martin’s source material with this season, and not only did they succeed, they blew everything else they’d done to this point out of the water.