For nearly a decade, “Game of Thrones” dominated television sets across the world, sparked a wave of Westerosi baby names and transformed on-screen storytelling. The pop culture phenomenon based on George R.R. Martin’s book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” stole the hearts of die-hard book fans and fantasy skeptics alike. The show’s massive fictional world featured dragons, White Walkers and magic; love, war and religion; and heroes, villains and everyone in between. As “GoT” turns 10 years old, Variety looked back to rank the seasons from good to greatest.
Plagued with the impossible task of writing television’s most anticipated final season, Benioff and Weiss failed to live up to “GoT” fans’ towering expectations. Abandoning the show’s core principles in favor of fan service ironically angered fans who had gotten used to “GoT”’s cruel realism that set it apart from rivaling fantasy series. Storylines that developed for seven seasons were either ignored, rushed or glossed over, and some of the show’s best characters didn’t get the justice they deserved. Though hinted at throughout the series, Daenerys’ descent into madness was smushed into two episodes, arguably ruining the character arc of the Mother of Dragons. Jon’s parentage and claim to the throne, which became one of the primary plotlines of the back half of the series, was never adequately addressed. And Cersei, one of TV’s greatest villains, spent all season staring out her window. Still, even the worst season of “Game of Thrones” is captivating and has its virtues, like Arya claiming her most important kill in the series — a moment that will be YouTubed for eternity. While not entirely bad, Season 8 was ultimately too rushed and devoid of many of the things that made fans fall in love with “Game of Thrones” in the first place.
Daenerys spends the first six seasons traveling to Westeros, and in Season 7, she zooms back and forth across the continent within a couple episodes. For a show that meticulously mapped out its made-up world and spread out storylines across multiple seasons, “Game of Thrones” completely abandoned the concepts of space and time in its seventh season. Still, Season 7 takes on the tall task of consolidating the biggest show on television, narrowing “GoT”’s countless storylines into two major conflicts and bringing together the show’s most beloved characters in two major locations. Arya reunites with Sansa. Jon meets (and sleeps with) Daenerys. Cersei meets a wight. Nearly all the major characters come face to face, and the “great game” truly begins. Despite its issues with pacing, Season 7 does have some of the show’s most iconic scenes. The loot train attack in “The Spoils of War” is electrifying, Littlefinger’s death is oh-so satisfying and the White Walkers claiming one of Dany’s dragons is one of “GoT’s” best “holy shit” moments.
Sandwiched between two of the show’s most exciting seasons, Season 5 is just a bit stuck in place. Daenerys’ struggles in Meereen drag on, Arya’s training in Braavos gets boring and the High Sparrow’s crusade of King’s Landing is frustrating. However, all three of these storylines have great payoffs. Jorah returns and Drogon saves Dany in the fighting pits. A faceless Arya shucks Meryn Trant’s eyes out like oysters. And Cersei embarks on the walk of shame, brilliantly setting up the explosive events of Season 6.
Jaime and Bronn’s venture into Dorne is underwhelming, despite the emotional scene between Myrcella and her uncle-dad on her fatal trip home, and Sansa endures more unnecessary manipulation and torture from Littlefinger and Ramsay. But despite its low points, Season 5 is important in its escalation of the show’s overall plot. Stannis kills his own daughter to become King, but instead loses everything. Members of the Night’s Watch kill Jon, causing millions of viewers to scream at the TV. And the epic battle between the living and the dead in “Hardhome” turns the stakes up to 11 and sends shivers down any warmblooded person’s spine.
While it mainly serves as a prologue, setting up the players and events that precede the titular game of thrones, Season 1 manages to introduce a boatload of fictional locations, religions, languages, characters and histories without being too overwhelming. The downfall of Ned Stark is masterfully portrayed, and “Game of Thrones” brutally killing off its main character both shocked viewers and twisted the bounds of on-screen storytelling.
It’s easier to appreciate Season 1 after seeing the rest of the series, as moments like Jaime pushing Bran out the window and Danaerys giving birth to three dragons become the pillars upon which “Game of Thrones” is built. While slower-paced and less significant than later seasons, Season 1 carefully lays the foundation for what would become the greatest show on TV.
In a post-Ned Stark Westeros, Season 2 is when “Game of Thrones” truly reveals itself, and those who didn’t read the books start finding their bearings. The world of “GoT” expands, as we meet Stannis, Ser Davos, Melisandre, Brienne, Margaery and all the short-lived weirdos in Qarth. Arya hangs out with Tywin, Jon falls in love with Ygritte and The Red Woman gives birth to a shadow baby. Vying for the throne, Robb Stark gains momentum as the “King in the North,” and Stannis embraces the Lord of Light. Most notably, Season 2 builds up to “GoT”’s first blockbuster fight sequence at the Battle of Blackwater — in which Tyrion becomes a hero — and ends with a chilling glimpse of the White Walker army, once again reminding us that the show is about something even bigger than armies, politics and dragons.
While this season is often marked by the gut-wrenching Red Wedding — a scene that somehow outdoes the shock and devastation of Ned Stark’s beheading — “GoT’s” third season, largely focused around Jaime Lannister, is a masterclass in character development. Only “Game of Thrones” could turn an incestuous attempted child-murderer into a sympathetic one-handed savior, and the scene where Jaime confesses to Brienne why he killed the Mad King serves as a subtle turning point in the series. Other highlights include Jon losing his virginity, Dany acquiring the Unsullied and the epic wall-climbing sequence bookending Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech. While we could have done without so much Theon torture, there’s little to complain about in Season 3.
Coming off the heels of the infamous Red Wedding, Season 4 leads with Joffrey’s face turning purple and ends with Tyrion shooting arrows at his toilet-strapped father. Throughout the season, Peter Dinklage shines as Tyrion unravels on trial and in jail for Joffrey’s murder, delivering one of the show’s greatest monologues and solidifying the youngest Lannister sibling as an all-time TV icon.
Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell steals our hearts and then, in classic “Game of Thrones” fashion, gets his eyes gouged out in what remains one of the show’s most devastatingly horrifying sequences. So much happens at King’s Landing that it’s almost easy to forget about Arya and The Hound — the best buddy-cop duo in Westeros — and the conflict in the North between the Night’s Watch and the Free Folk, which results in Jon Snow holding his star-crossed lover in his arms after an epic battle at Castle Black.
Above all else, “Game of Thrones” is a show about payoffs. Season 6 is when it all comes together, and the series’ most anticipated, unexpected and rewarding moments play out continuously throughout 10 of “GoT’s” most exciting episodes. Jon wakes up and reunites with Sansa. Hodor holds the door. The Hound returns. Daenerys torches the khals. Arya serves her sweetest revenge on Walder Frey. Sansa feeds the hounds. And fueled by two seasons of humiliation from the High Septon, Cersei pulls off the most explosive scheme of the series and eliminates a handful of her enemies in one big, green kaboom.
If that wasn’t enough, Jon’s true parentage is also revealed, introducing a flurry of new conflicts to be dealt with in later seasons, and Daenerys finally sails toward Westeros, a story arc 60 episodes in the making. Quick in pace, Season 6 manages to maintain the brilliance of the slow-burning earlier seasons while delivering “GoT’s” greatest one-two punch with “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter.” The perfect balance between human and supernatural, personal and political, Season 6 is no doubt the climax of the entire series.