It’s the tenth anniversary of HBO’s Game Of Thrones this year. The first episode, ‘Winter is Coming’, aired on April 17th 2011. I dunno about you, but it does funny things to my brain to ponder that.
A few years ago I wrote a piece about how strange it was to consider all the world events that had taken place during the show’s run. At the time, it had this discombobulating effect because the show was very much still a part of our lives. Like a lot of entities that become embedded in your life, it was hard to imagine it never having not been there, even while remaining conscious of its relatively new status in the grand scheme of things. Back then, Game Of Thrones occupied our minds decisively. Even during the gaps between seasons, it was an ever-present entity. We thought about it, wrote about it, read about it. We loved it.
We all know what happened after that. Game Of Thrones’ dismal final season resulted in one of the quickest transformations from cultural behemoth to total irrelevance ever seen. Usually you have to wait decades for something to fade into the fog outside of collective memory, but season 8 of Game Of Thrones was so bad it simulated a century passing in just a few weeks. It went from taking up about 90% of all internet discourse to pretty much 0% in the blink of an eye. It was an act of self-immolation so ruthless and efficient that it made it impossible to enjoy even the undeniably great television show that it once was, Benioff and Weiss’ ultimate defenestration of their show reaching back through time and dragging everything else out of the window with it. Before season 8, I would routinely go back and watch clips from the show, feeling the same thrill they engendered the first time round. After season 8, that became impossible. Somehow, the knowledge of what was to come robbed all the joy from what came before. It wasn’t like it could deprive the scenes themselves of the quality they so obviously possessed, but the context soured the experience too much. It was like trying to enjoy a bowl full of sweets while knowing that the bottom of the bowl and the final layer of sweets is smeared in vomit.
Now on the tenth anniversary of the premiere of Game Of Thrones, and with a bunch of new related projects in the pipeline, HBO are hoping we forget the vomit-stained end of the road and we instead just think about the great times that came before it. Far be it from me to align myself with the interests of a corporate juggernaut like HBO, but coincidentally it just so happens that I’ve been turning over the following thought in my head over the past few weeks: Is it possible to enjoy any of the old scenes of Game Of Thrones, now, almost two years after Benioff and Weiss shat on our doorstep and expected us to be grateful? I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking over clips of the show, and the short answer is: No. Urgh. The stench of the dungheap around the corner proves too much to ignore. But the long answer is: Yes, occasionally, very occasionally, and here are those occasions.
These are 12 moments from Game Of Thrones that I can just about get into and enjoy, and forget for a blissful few minutes what a rotten, cynical, creatively bankrupt meltdown would be the end point of it all.
DA KING IN DA NORF
God, do you remember how exciting this was? How strongly we all felt about these fictional events? I remember going to a metal festival the summer after this episode aired, and for three days and nights you couldn’t go more than a few minutes without hearing someone screaming THE KING IN DA NORF somewhere. It would go on all through the night. At some point you’d be finally lying in your tent, exhausted, the day’s festivities behind, oblivion rushing in to claim you, and still you’d hear it, pinging its way along the campsite and across the field as one person took up the cry from another: THE KING IN DA NORF!
This might remain the most meme-worthy and memorable moment from the whole show. But it’s got real heart too. Young Robb Stark, taking up arms against those treacherous Southerners who had betrayed his father, the North rising up organically to rally to his side, a bunch of big, burly beards with bodies bellowing their allegiance around a campfire. This was the real shit. This got the blood pumping. This was when we were so completely entranced by the show’s magic that we would follow it anywhere.
Tower of Joy + DA KING IN DA NORF redux
The long-running mystery of Jon Snow’s heritage was a powerful narrative hook. As someone who hasn’t read the books, I wasn’t subject to it for nearly as long, but it was still a compelling device. The trickle of hints and clues dropped over the years all culminated in these two linked sequences. Even before the disaster that was season 8, the last few seasons of the show were notably weaker than the series’ high point, but it still had its moments. This was one of them, combining rousing spectacle and decades-spanning intrigue with genuine feeling. The sight of another group of gruff lords pledging themselves to another young Stark (sort of), this time while the threat hanging over them isn’t just some regional dispute but an existential struggle against death incarnate—and all infused with the now suddenly multiplied weight of decades on Jon Snow’s shoulders—proved as rousing as when we were around the campfire with Robb. Ramin Djawadi’s score and Bella Ramsey’s performance as Lyanna Mormont take things over the top.
Barristan Selmy Quits Like a Boss
At one point, in the earlier stages of its run, Game Of Thrones had a ludicrously intriguing cast of characters. Even relatively minor roles made your imagination run wild. The world and its lore was rich, dramatic histories and legendary feats hinted at constantly through dialogue and characters’ reactions to one another. Syrio Forell, Jeor Mormont, Lyanna Mormont—these weren’t main characters by any means, but even in their relatively spare screen time they were invested with a lot of history, and were living testaments to their place in Westeros.
Ser Barristan Selmy, commander of the Kingsguard when we first meet him, was a prime example of how rich the characterisation in Game Of Thrones was at its height. He wasn’t a main character by any means, but he was such a pleasure to watch (until, that is, his stupid, stupid death, but we’ll leave that this time)—as were other characters’ reactions to him. Widely acknowledged as the most accomplished sword fighter in the Seven Kingdoms, Selmy wasn’t someone who threw his weight around or shoved his skill in people’s faces. Sure he could step in and deal quick and efficient death when needed, but he was more concerned with duty and dispensing wise advice. Which is why this moment is so satisfying. Finally losing his cool with the Lannister’s bullshit, his delivery of ‘Even now I could cut through the five of you like carving a cake’ is absolutely perfect. In that moment, none of that statement is an exaggeration. It’s barely a threat. It’s just a statement of fact. And if you look at the reactions to Selmy drawing his sword then you can tell immediately that everyone in that room knows it. Even the Hound, behind a wall of guards, tenses up.
Jaqen H’ghar’s Early Hits
Man, do you remember the mystery this show had once? The f*cking bucketloads of mystery and possibility that came with every new location and every strange character who wandered into view? Hearing tales of Braavos, seeing the symbols left behind by White Walkers, or witnessing the power of the lord of light for the first time—these things left you buzzing with excitement, thrilled to be taking a glimpse at yet another hidden corner of this magical world, imagination humming at the thought of what it could all mean. Jaqen H’ghar’s initial scenes with Arya in Harrenhal represent this mystery perfectly. Who was this man? How was he managing these impressive feats of murder? And what did all those references to the ‘Many-Faced God’ mean? Jaqen worked here so well not only because of the mystery that he brought with him, but also because he embodied the show’s treatment of consequence so well: He wouldn’t be in the position he is in Harrehnal if Arya hadn’t unlocked the prison cart in which he was trapped during the Lannister attack two episodes earlier. Watching Arya realise who he is when she meets him in Harrenhal is great fun. Being confronted with the mystery of how he went from fugitive to apparently serving as a member of the Lannister guard is even better.
The Arya and Tywin Show
At the show’s height, its most powerful moments were just as often the bits of quiet dialogue between well written, stupendously acted characters, as the bombastic sequences of fantasy spectacle. While wars raged and ice zombies marched relentlessly towards the realm of the living, Game Of Thrones was frequently at its most thrilling when it paired off characters and just had them shoot the sh*t. Brienne and Jaime. Arya and the Hound. Bronn and Tyrion (early on). These interactions continuously delivered funny, grounded moments, rich in character, humour, and tension. Maybe the most inspiring pairing of all was Tywin and Arya. The power dynamics here are pure gold. Arya is a prisoner, Tywin one of the most powerful people in all of Westeros. She is perfectly aware of who he is, but he doesn’t know that the servant girl is actually the daughter of the family he is at war with. Both are fiercely intelligent, and Tywin can sense that not everything is as it appears. Away from the battlefield and the official animosity between their families, a sort of rapport builds between the two in their scenes together too, though Arya still tries to gauge whether she could plunge a knife in Tywin’s neck of course. Every second of the Arya and Tywin show is pure dramatic dynamite.
Clegane Fried Chicken
Before she became a flexibly superpowered, knife wound-absorbing killing machine, Arya was one of the show’s best characters. Tragic, determined, sympathetic—and absolutely brimming with top quality murder-banter. Especially when paired up with the Hound. But no, that’s unfair and reductive. Murder may well have been a common refrain, but Arya and Sandor’s bond was one of the very best on the whole show, a roiling and evolving sea of antagonism, respect, and shared worldview. The fight scene where Arya leaves him for dead is one of the most powerful scenes the two ever had together, but for my money it’s this moment that stands out above all others. It’s just such a sublime mix of comedy, tension, action, and revealing character moments. I love everything about it. The way it builds, the way the actors play it, the Hound being the best version of the Hound (before he was Flanderized by later seasons), and Arya’s dark and disturbing execution of that rotten little geezer. All happening at some dusty and forgotten corner of the Seven Kingdoms, far away from the machinations of queens and kings and great lords. That’s where the show really shone, once upon a time.
Jaime ‘The Kingslayer’ Lannister
I wanted to include this scene here. I really did. It was so raw and powerful and affecting at the time. I’m listing it here, but I’m not actually including it in the roundup of scenes that I can still watch and enjoy to this day. Why not? Because I can’t enjoy it. Because it illustrates perfectly the pyroclastic flow of fu*kery that was D&D’s ending of the show. Jaime’s arc could have been one of the most poetic and well executed of all. Season 8 said: ‘Nah! [Blows raspberry]’
Dany Frees the Unsullied and Fries the Arrogant
Game Of Thrones wasn’t exactly subtle with the whole ‘white saviour’ thing it did with Daenerys Targaryen. Once it went full ‘mhysa’ it was hard to see her arc in Slaver’s Bay as anything but a hamfisted version of an otherwise well-intentioned trope. But before that, it had some power. I mean, here was Dany, herself sold by her own family into bondage, toiling through the desert, betrayed, half-dead, almost totally abandoned—her feeling for the slaves she encountered and the desire to set them free didn’t just seem genuine, it felt as if she was coming from a place of real empathy. Which is why this scene is so powerful. It’s a point at which her inner and outer journeys coalesce. All her life she had been mistreated, undervalued, dismissed, and now here she stands, with yet another man taking brazen advantage of her. And a slaver at that, taking advantage of thousands of others. Even after the whole ‘mhysa’ moment, Dany was a very sympathetic character. Free from the morass of the royal machinations of Westeros, she didn’t see things as cynically as most of the scheming ladies and lords in the land of her birth. It could be argued that there was a degree of naivete in Dany’s plans for Westeros, and her occasional tyrannical tendencies—born often out of frustration more than anything else—couldn’t be dismissed, but at the best of times she seemed to be coming from a far better place than many who wished to rule. There’s no denying the fist-pumping revolutionary power of her mission statement: ‘Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell - they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.’ That’s some grade-A rhetoric. Hook that sh* to my veins. Dany freeing the Unsullied has lost none of its power since it aired. Watch her face throughout as she gets the better of this arrogant man without him even knowing it until it’s way too late. Delicious.
The Loot Train Attack
There was something hugely thrilling about the promise of Dany overthrowing the established power structures in Westeros. The whole ‘breaking the wheel’ thing was so potent an image not just because we’d been witness to the corrupt politics at play in the Seven Kingdoms and yearned for things to change, but because we had seen the person who was promising to change them struggle through so much. We might have been watchful for any signs of her notorious pyromaniac father’s more unstable tendencies, and we may not have agreed with all of her decisions, but dammit, overall we were on Dany’s side! The loot train attack sequence came late in the show’s run. It was the penultimate season. Which means two things: 1) It was one of the last great moments before it sunk beneath the waves of laziness and greed, and 2) There was a whole lot of build-up and dramatic groundwork laid for it beforehand, which made it hit about as hard as Drogon’s fire-punch smashes through armed Lannisters. The loot train attack was the moment that the game-changing power of having a literal dragon on your side in a war was finally made crystal clear. Yes, Dany had used the tank Drogon and the APCs Rhaegar and Viserion to great effect prior to this, decisively dealing with a number of battles in Essos. But until we saw Drogon burst out of the thunder of Dothraki hooves to absolutely tear apart the best equipped, most organised army in all the land without breaking a single bead of dragon sweat it wasn’t fully hammered home just how much of a game changer this would be. By rights, Dany should have taken the continent within a few weeks after this ‘battle’. But that would have required her universe to be governed by sense, instead of a duo of frivolous, indolent showrunners that ruined her story as well as everyone else’s.
The Red Viper Vs. The Mountain, AKA. Why Do You Hate Me, Game Of Thrones? [CLIP/REMINDER NOT NEEDED, THANK YOU VERY MUCH]
I almost checked out of the show after this. From the start, Game Of Thrones made a name for itself by being unsparing in its seeming disregard for plot armour. Ned Stark’s fate hammered this point home brutally: In this universe, no one was safe. Just because you were an important character—hell, in the case of Ned, pretty much the main protagonist—that didn’t mean that you wouldn’t be mercilessly removed from the picture if the internal logic of the plot led to that conclusion. At the time, it felt like a shot of adrenaline injected straight into popular storytelling. It blasted the stakes straight through the roof. Crucially, though, most of the time the deaths did feel earned. Thematically consistent. That’s not to say that Oberyn’s death at the hands of Gregor Clegane didn’t. It did. But, Jesus Christ, did it hurt.
A season earlier, The Red Wedding traumatised millions of viewers in one of the most unsparing moments ever seen on television. At the time, staring dead eyed at the rolling credits, I thought, ‘Well, at least it can’t get any fu*king worse than that. Surely.’ Ellaria Sand’s anguished scream in the fourth season proved me wrong. Sure, the body count may have been higher at the Red Wedding, but Oberyn’s death really brought me to the precipice. All I could think was, ‘Why the hell am I even watching this show? There’s no joy here. No fun, even, it feels like at this point. This is just masochism.’ Game Of Thrones had introduced this amazing character, played to magnetic perfection by Pedro Pascal, made us fall in love with him and believe in the righteousness of his quest—as well as the possibility that even in this cruel, twisted universe, some justice might be done for once—and then it snuffed him out in the most gruesome way imaginable. Again: It made sense, it worked dramatically, but it could also fu*k all the way off. It might seem funny then to include it on a list of clips I can still rewatch. I can’t even bring myself to embed the clip here. And that is a fair point, but I have gone back and rewatched it since the show ended, and for all its horror and anguish it really is just a spellbinding bit of telly that makes you forget completely about how the show would end up.
This perfect sequence asks the question: What if Game Of Thrones was a horror movie? The main subject of the massacre at Hardome—the White Walkers—is linked to strongly to the show’s eventual disappointments, but the technical mastery on display here is so strong that watching it makes you forget about anything other than the desperate situation of Jon and the Wildlings, trapped between icy waves and hordes of the undead.
It Doesn’t Get Much Better Than This
This sequence. Man, this fu**ing sequence. Our own part time swine herder and full time reprobate poet Lord Castleton wrote about this moment in one of his inimitable Game Of Thrones recaps. The saddest thing about the show being gone is that I don’t get to read any more of those. He describes the moment Cersei Lannister made her biggest power move in a way which is as electric to read as the sequence is to watch. And it really is an intimidatingly well made bit of entertainment. Everything from the music to the rhythm of the editing to the atmosphere and rising tension—this must be one of the best crafted sequences in modern television. Margaery’s slow realisation that something is amiss in the Sept of Baelor sends shivers down my spine every single time I rewatch this clip. And that is often. The entries in this piece aren’t ranked. I don’t keep track of how many times I’ve rewatched a certain scene. Except, that is, for this one, and the final one coming up. I know I’ve seen these more than any other. If it wasn’t for the overwhelming dominance of the next entry, Cersei and the Sept of Baelor would have been a clear number one.
Grenn Came From a Farm
Well, this is it. This is the single greatest moment in Game Of Thrones history, and the one moment I have come back to rewatch more than any other over the years. it’s only a minute long but nothing else compares to the ragtag group of criminals and outcasts in the tunnel beneath the Wall, holding back horror the likes of which they’ve only ever heard of in stories. Six members of the Night’s Watch facing down a charging giant capable of ripping them limb from limb. They say courage isn’t the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something else is more important than that fear. To Grenn, Jon Snow’s friend and loyal lieutenant, that thing is holding the tunnel. No matter what. As his fellow member of the Watch are (entirely justifiably) about to scatter and run at the sight of the giant coming at them, Grenn performs what is probably one of the single greatest acts of bravery in the whole show, rallying not only himself, but the others too. ‘Mother save me! Father save me!’ prays one of Grenn’s men, quaking in fear. To which Grenn, without missing a beat: ‘The gods aren’t down here. It’s the six of us, you hear me?’ The frightened Watchman begins to break and run, but Grenn grabs him and starts to recite the oath of the Watch, his conviction so strong so as to root his men to the spot. As the giant picks up speed and barrels towards them they take up his chant and draw their swords together. Never mind the fact that they’re standing so close to the gate that the giant would probably knock it down right on top of them and that would be the end of that, this is the most badass sh*t that’s ever happened in the Seven Kingdoms! Chills. Chills every time. Season 8 vomit-obliterating chills!
Mance Rayder: ‘One of our giants went into your tunnel and never came out again. Mag the Mighty.’ Jon Snow: ‘He’s dead. He killed my friend, Grenn.’ Mance Rayder: ‘He was their king. The last of a blood line that stretches back before the First Men.’ Jon Snow: ‘Grenn came from a farm.’