This post contains a multitude of spoilers for all seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Otherwise, it would be very short.
Ahh, “Game of Thrones,” everyone’s favorite lusty rom-com punctuated by enormous, bloody battle scenes. We were treated to another one of its silver screen-esque productions with Sunday’s (nearly) showstopping Battle of Winterfell.
But how does it stack up? Here are the six most intense battles of the series, ranked from worst to best.
6. The Battle of Castle Black (Season 4, Episode 9)
The less said about this battle, the better. The Wall is a visually stunning place, but battles set there can feel a little one note. This one is no different. The wildlings, led by Mance Rayder, attack the Night’s Watch. It’s fairly standard fare for “Game of Thrones” from there, with a few exceptions, such as a few giants and a woolly mammoth-like creature trying to tear away the gate at the bottom of the Wall. Luckily, “fairly standard fare” is still entertaining.
The reason the battle makes the list, though, is one specific, touching moment. Ygritte, thinking Jon Snow had betrayed her, has Jon in her sights. One flick of the wrist, and the hero’s journey would come to an end. But the two had shared a tender romance, tender enough for her to hesitate — and get shot in the back by little Olly. She then dies in Jon’s arms, as the two flash back to the cave where they consummated their relationship.
5. Battle of Winterfell (Season 8, Episode 3)
The most recent — and, by far, longest — battle on “Game of Thrones” was as epic as promised, but it ran into troubles almost immediately. The Night King has the advantage of being able to navigate the dark, so it’s logical that that’s when he would attack Winterfell. That choice led to breathtaking moments for viewers, such as when the Dothraki’s flaming swords were snuffed out in seconds.
For the most part, though, it made the action nearly unintelligible, which might be an effective way to showcase the disorienting nature of battle for a few moments, but became a drag when stretched to 82 minutes.
Though it had its fair share of ridiculous moments, the fight was emotionally effective for bringing both Arya Stark’s and Theon’s story arcs to a fitting conclusion (or, in Arya’s case, near conclusion). By the end of the battle, the Night King and his army of the undead are finally felled, though not at the hands of Jon Snow or Daenerys’s dragons.
No, it was Arya, after having spent years training in the House of Black and White to become a skilled assassin, who takes him out. Meanwhile, Theon is kind of redeemed when he holds off the White Walkers until he runs out of arrows — and keeps going even then.
But in the great ranking of battles, others inspired more awe and offered greater character development.
4. The Loot Train Attack (Season 7, Episode 4)
Compared with the show’s other great battles, the loot train attack is relatively brief, taking place at the end of an episode. Regardless, it’s an impressive spectacle, because it’s one of the first times we really see what the dragons can do in a fight. As the Dothraki attack the Lannister caravan, Daenerys flies in on Drogon, blasting soldiers and supplies with great gales of fire.
Tyrion watches in awe. Jaime and Bronn watch in terror.
As important as the episode is for showing us the full power of dragons, especially as tools of war, another emotion accompanies their attack: fear. We also learn the dragons are vulnerable when Bronn uses Qyburn’s scorpion (a piece of artillery) to shoot Drogon, grounding the beast just long enough for Jaime to attempt to attack him with . . . a sword. Maybe stick to kingslaying, Jaime.
The battle’s conclusion showcased a different, more ruthless side of Daenerys. She chose to execute the Tarlys after they surrendered, simply because they wouldn’t bend the knee, a moment that made characters, and viewers, wonder: Is she turning into her father, the Mad King?
3. Battle of Hardhome (Season 5, Episode 8)
Many of the battles in this list are (for the most part) between humans. Human lives disappear into the ether at the hands of other humans who, by Season 8, find themselves needing as many living human bodies as possible. It’s the depressing yet urgent thesis of “Game of Thrones”: We’re all busy killing one another (thus weakening ourselves) as the true threat grows.
The Battle of Hardhome is the first time we truly meet that threat, and there is no better word for it than “horror.” The battle comes just after Tormund kills the Lord of Bones, who has been acting as the leader of the wildlings. Soon thereafter, hordes of wights and White Walkers flood Hardhome, a free-folk settlement, bringing about the first on-screen battle between the dead and the living — including Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch. Shot as chaotically as the characters probably feel during the fight, it is the moment that we know the Iron Throne could not matter less.
Horror is approaching, and now we’ve seen it.
2. Battle of the Blackwater (Season 2, Episode 9)
Coming at the end of Season 2, “Blackwater” signaled a slight shift in “Game of Thrones.” For the first time, an entire episode revolved around one battle, which was revolutionary for television. This one also moves the story along tremendously.
It begins with Ser Davos leading Stannis Baratheon’s fleet into Blackwater Bay to attack King’s Landing. By all accounts, the fleet should have easily overtaken the city, but Tyrion Lannister (then the hand of the king) showcases his intellect by defending King’s Landing. His main tactic involves the usage of wildfire, a substance that burns with green flames on any surface — including water. The moment foreshadows Cersei’s usage of the stuff to later destroy the Great Sept of Baelor.
The episode also showcases Tyrion’s natural leadership skills and intellect — two things that have slipped away as of late — as well as his bravery. Though physically smaller than most men, Tyrion fights alongside the soldiers he’s commanding, earning a nasty slash on the face. It’s the moment that he transformed, in the audience’s eyes, from a funny, womanizing drunk to a true leader who might affect the endgame.
That said, King’s Landing might still have lost the battle if Tyrion’s father, Tywin, hadn’t arrived with a surprise cavalry force. Ironically, Tyrion would later kill his father while the old man was on the can.
1. Battle of the Bastards (Season 6, Episode 9)
The Battle of the Bastards is among the finest war filmmaking ever created — including on the silver screen. The battle itself takes up most of the episode’s hour-long running time, which allows plenty of time for hundreds if not thousands of bodies to pile up in a writhing hill of death. The whole shebang is shot with a first-person point of view, meaning the camera wanders through the battle as if viewers are actually there, rather than watching from the sidelines.
But these cinematic qualities aren’t what makes it the show’s most engrossing battle. It’s the character-building embedded throughout, such as watching Ramsay’s last cruel deed — making Rickon run to Jon Snow while shooting arrows at the boy, eventually killing him. Jon, meanwhile, fights in the thick of everything with a look on his face that suggests he’s simply begging to be killed, a sign that hints at his struggle to embrace leadership and heroism. After all, he told Melisandre not to resurrect him if he does die. Finally, Sansa shows herself to be a true leader by tapping Littlefinger to gather backup after Jon ignored her criticism that his army wasn’t large enough.
The battle ends with what might be the most satisfying death in all of televised fiction: that of Ramsay Bolton by Sansa’s own hands — well, with the help of some hungry puppers.
Aside from Sansa showing how ruthless she’s become by enduring years of horror, it’s a moment of great political and military strategy from the young woman who went from dreaming of marrying a prince to becoming a powerful contender for the Iron Throne.
This is why we watch “Game of Thrones.”