Sunday night’s stunning Loot Train Battle was certainly one of the standout scenes during seven seasons of “Game of Thrones.” But was it the very best of the major battles that we’ve witnessed? Using some combination of visual spectacle, emotional investment, story-line payoff and various other factors, here’s the definitive ranking of the major GoT battles thus far.
1. Battle of the Bastards (Season 6, Episode 9)
Unlike the next three battles on the list, this one wasn’t heavily reliant on something supernatural (dragons, wildfire, White Walkers — giants don’t count, okay?), which makes it the purest of all the major GoT clashes. It also takes the top spot because there really was a full emotional journey from start to finish, and there was a clear rooting interest. And, just as important, a rooting against interest, with — obviously — Ramsay Bolton. Sure, we wanted the living to defeat the dead at Hardhome, but it’s not like we had worked up years of disgust and hatred at the Night King like we had with Ramsay.
The Battle of the Bastards had a tense buildup, with Ramsay letting Rickon run free across the field, toying with him before killing him with an arrow through his heart, just yards before he reached Jon Snow. (Run in zigzag, Rickon, you dolt!) From the very start, it was one striking moment after another: Jon charging into the field on his own; Jon taking his sword to face down the massive Bolton army; the violent crunching of the battalions meeting in the middle of the field; the arrowhead-POV shots of the weapons finding their target; Jon slashing and stabbing his way through soldier after soldier, his face getting more caked in blood with each passing moment; all the bodies piling up in mounds as hundreds of men from both camps meet their end; the panic-attack-inducing time when it seemed as if Jon might suffocate to death at the bottom of one of those piles.
The Bolton army’s Pincer movement to trap the Stark forces was also expertly done in terms of ratcheting up the tension. The Knights of the Vale riding in to save the day was a genuine surprise, and seeing Sansa as the one responsible for the battle-winning decision served as a new peak for her character.
So it was beautifully filmed and suspenseful, and the bad guy — the very worst guy — got it in the end. Ramsay Bolton was the one character everyone wanted to see meet a grisly demise, and the fact that that is exactly what happened after one of the most intense scenes of the show’s entire run was perfect catharsis.
2. Loot Train Battle (Season 7, Episode 4)
Maybe there’s recency bias at play, but this really was something to behold. Drogon, with Dany on his back, incinerating the Lannister men and entire swaths of land made for some of the show’s most memorable images. That was the full might of a massive GoT budget at work.
In terms of story, this battle gets bonus points because of how unexpected it was. For most of the other major battles, we knew that they were coming and that they would be the focus of the episode; this one just kind of materialized out of nowhere, making it more thrilling. In terms of rooting interests, this one isn’t as cut and dry as the Battle of the Bastards. In theory, we’re pulling for Dany and Drogon, but nobody wants to see Jaime and Bronn die. That internal conflict is embodied by Tyrion watching from a distance. (There are always observers watching from the distance.)
Speaking of Bronn, his direct hit on Drogon via the Bow and Arrow But Bigger (a.k.a. the Scorpion) is a nice callback to his bow-and-arrow heroics at the Battle of the Blackwater, when his expert shot ignited the wildfire that decimated Stannis Baratheon’s army. Which brings us to …
3. Battle of the Blackwater (Season 2, Episode 9)
This was the first time we experienced GoT at its big-budget best. The show already proved it could shock us, with the death of Ned Stark and other various misdeeds of Joffrey. But in terms of depicting major battles, we often saw just a glimpse and mostly it was the aftermath — Robb Stark surveying the dead on the battlefield.
When Bronn’s arrow set Blackwater Bay aflame and sent poor Matthos Seaworth and hundreds of other men loyal to Stannis Baratheon (who, it should be noted, had the most legitimate claim to the crown — I will never back down from this) to their fiery deaths, it was a true “whoa!” moment. This battle also allowed us to see Joffrey and Tyrion for who they truly were — Joffrey shirking from the task at hand and abandoning the battle at a crucial time, while Tyrion delivers a rousing speech to lead the king’s forces against the invaders.
Similar to the Battle of the Bastards four seasons later, the battle was tilted by the surprise arrival of an outside force, with the Lannisters and Tyrells teaming to defeat Stannis’s army. Tywin and Loras proudly riding into the great hall moments before Cersei was about to mercy-kill her own son was a rousing moment.
But it wasn’t so clear whom we should have wanted to win. If you weren’t rooting for Stannis (and why weren’t you?), does that mean you were rooting for Joffrey? If you were rooting for Tyrion, that means you were rooting for Joffrey, as well. The fact that this battle was for the Iron Throne keeps it safely above the last two on this list, since that’s the story line we’ve been most invested in from the beginning of the show.
4. Battle at Hardhome (Season 5, Episode 8)
If the list was for best single image, then the Night King raising the dead at the conclusion of this battle would certainly be at the top. But we’re ranking battles, and if I wanted to watch “The Walking Dead,” I’d just watch “The Walking Dead.” (I do not want to watch “The Walking Dead.”)
Certainly it looked cool — those wights can move — and had its share of memorable moments that revealed some crucial info: Jon’s Valyrian steel sword proving to be indestructible at the hands of a White Walker; the Night King in the role of Observer in the Distance, watching his new nemesis Jon in battle; Wun Wun fending off wights with a giant fire log.
But the stakes just weren’t high enough for this one. Besides Jon (and arguably Tormund), there weren’t any characters we really cared about. In fact, they had to introduce a brand new character, Karsi — the random wildling we were supposed to feel sad about when she got killed by wights — just to get some emotional heft. We can all admit that the silent ending with Jon and his men sailing away while staring at the resurrected army of undead at the command of the Night King was something else. But as with everything White Walker-related, you always have to wait so long to hear from them again that it’s hard to get too invested.
5. The Battle of Castle Black (Season 4, Episode 9)
We all have our favorite characters and locales, which means we also have our least favorite. And anything to do with The Wall was always at the bottom of my list. Simple as that.
As always, there were plenty of cool visual moments — there was a damn giant running after a damn mammoth that was on fire, Jon basically split a Thenn’s head in two with a hammer, Ghost materialized to kill a Thenn — but this was one of the darkest battles in the show. Like, quite literally. It was hard to see what was going on. The Loot Train Battle took place in full, glorious daylight.
Also, Olly killed Ygritte, which was absolutely depressing.
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