Game of Thrones is an insanely popular show but it is also an insanely demanding one. It takes devoted watching to truly understand every nook and cranny of HBO’s grand fantasy epic. It can be intimidating for a new fan to get into Game of Thrones or even for a casual fan to fully understand the series. So we have come up with a list of seven essential Game of Thrones episodes that you need to watch. Whether you are a brand new fan or someone looking for a refresher course before season 7 hits in summer 2017, these seven episodes should make you an expert on the Seven Kingdoms.
“Baelor” – Season 1, Episode 9
The Game of Thrones pilot, “Winter is Coming,” might be good one to get the names and relations of a lot of the big characters. Another season 1 episode, though, the penultimate one, tells you more about Game of Thrones as a whole. “Baelor” is the episode that tuned viewers into the fact that the series would not be a standard fantasy story. Sean Bean’s Ned Stark was the main character of the show. He was on all the posters, heavily featured in all the PR material and he was the name star in a cast full of virtual unknowns (at least to American audiences.) This is what made Ned’s brutal beheading at the end of “Baelor” such a shock and told audiences that anyone could and probably will die on the show.
Ned’s death also really serves as the launching point for the series. It is the reason Arya and Sansa get separated from their family. It is the reason that Robb goes to war. It is the reason that people hate the Lannisters and Joffrey so much. It is the reason that the Seven Kingdoms have been at war for almost the series’ entire run. Without Ned’s death, Game of Thrones does not happen.
Ned’s death is the marquee event but elsewhere in the episode Tyrion meets Shae for the first time. Over a drinking game Tyrion also tells Shae and Bronn about the the tragic tale of his first marriage where he was tricked into thinking a prostitute was a commoner girl who actually wanted to marry him. This sets up all of the complicated and messy relationships Tyrion will have with his family for the rest of the series. It also exposes Tyrion as an incredibly tragic character, not that brash comic relief he had been until that point.
“And Now His Watch Has Ended” – Season 3, Episode 4
The important thing to remember on Game of Thrones is while most of the action is happening on the main continent of Westeros, there is a whole other story developing across the sea in Essos. Daenerys might not have landed in Westeros just yet but she is coming and there is no episode that explains who Dany is better than “And Now His Watch Has Ended.”
In the final moments of the episode Dany receives an army of highly trained Unsullied warriors without having to pay a penny, providing the finale to a plan that has been episodes in the making. It is such a strong and powerful scene for the possible future queen of Westeros that she has basically been doing variations on it ever since. Dany has a formula — make a big speech, do something cool and then stand there as everyone worships her — and it all started here.
“And Now His Watch Has Ended” is important for more than Dany’s closing victory. It also sees the first mutiny of the Night’s Watch, and the organization has been paying for that betrayal ever since. Olenna Tyrell and Cersei Lannister have one of their first exchanges trading (very) thinly veiled insults at one another. Jaime shows the first signs that he is actually a decent human being by helping Brienne. Maybe most importantly, we meet Beric Dondarrion and get introduced to the idea of the Lord of Light bringing back people from the dead.
“The Rains of Castamere” – Season 3, Episode 9
There are multiple big events in Westeros between Ned’s death and the infamous Red Wedding, but Robb and Catelyn Stark’s demise is certainly the next HUGE event following Ned’s murder. If fans were getting used to the idea that Ned had to die to continue the story but Robb would succeed where his father had failed, “The Rains of Castamere” harshly ruined that notion. Robb getting murdered at his uncle’s wedding drove home the point that anyone can die and introduced the idea that all actions have consequences. It was the relatively small and smoothed-over plot point of Robb getting married to a different woman that caused his death.
The bulk of the episode does take place at the horrible wedding but there other good bits too. We see another near Stark reunion between Bran and Jon as Bran watches Jon escape from the wildlings he has been with all season. Dany also wins another huge victory by taking the city of Yunkai, which would eventually lead to her sacking Meereen and setting up a mini kingdom there for several seasons.
“Mockingbird” – Season 4, Episode 7
All of these episodes have focused on characters who are probably from the three biggest families on Game of Thrones; the Starks, the Lannisters and the Targaryens. There is one “little” guy that has been overlooked in all this and that is Littlefinger. “Mockingbird” is the episode where we truly begin to understand how many strings Petyr Baelish has been pulling the entire series and how many he will continue to pull. It is revealed that Littlefinger is behind the death of Jon Arryn, which sent Ned to King’s Landing (and his death.) Littlefinger also expresses designs on the throne with Sansa sitting by his side as queen.
“Mockingbird” also focuses on Tyrion, who has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. We see Tyrion interact with several big characters in his life, including Bronn and Tyrion’s brother Jaime. Each interaction sort of functions as goodbye scene, explaining their relationship, which is both helpful and heartbreaking. It is Tyrion at his weakest and most desperate, which are some of the best Tyrion moments. Oberyn Martell also pledges to fight for Tyrion in a trial by combat, which will eventually lead to Tyrion killing his own father and fleeing Westeros.
“Hardhome” – Season 5, Episode 8
While all these politics are well and good, there is also a literal army of zombies coming to kill everyone on Game of Thrones. “Hardhome” is the first and most extravagant battle between the armies of men and the White Walkers. Jon Snow becomes a true action hero as he faces down a White Walker and kills him, confirming dragon glass can kill these horrible zombies, and saves as many wildlings as he can manage. “Hardhome” is also the first glance we get of the ultimate Game of Thrones baddie, the White Walkers’ leader, The Night’s King.
Down south in Essos, the dream team of the series is formed as Tyrion meets and joins Dany and her forces in Meereen. Their union is short-lived as in the very next episode she will be whisked away on a dragon’s back after an assassination attempt. Yet the meeting of two fan-favorite characters who decide to team up and take revenge on Westeros is just too awesome to miss.
“The Door” – Season 6, Episode 5
“Hardhome” is a great episode to understand the power and magnitude of the White Walkers. “The Door,” meanwhile, gives us their origins and even more shockingly makes Bran Stark more than a rapidly growing teenage plot device who has been literally dragged around for years. “The Door” has Bran use his seer powers to actually benefit the plot and expose the origin of the White Walkers and the Night’s King. We also learn how Hodor became Hodor in a heartbreaking flashback/time-travel/escape sequence that ends the episode. It is as confusing as it is depressing.
Even if all the mythological stuff is boring, down South in Braavos Arya attends a play which recaps the events of the entire King’s Landing plot for the first five seasons. It is incredibly biased to the Lannister perspective, not to mention incredibly incorrect. It is still a pretty economic and hilarious way of catching you up on what has happened so far and how much Arya has strayed from her original storyline.
“Winds of Winter” – Season 6, Episode 10
Game of Thrones season finales have typically been about wrapping things up and maybe introducing a bit of the next season’s plot. It is very rare that anything big happens in them. This is not the case with the season 6 finale “Winds of Winter” as pretty much everything that has had years of build-up comes to a head in quick succession. Tyrion and Dany are reunited and set sail for Westeros. The true identity of Jon Snow’s mother (and father) is revealed. Jon becomes the new King of the North. Sansa finally does something useful only to be ignored once again. Arya finally kills a name on her murder list, Walder Frey.
The only thing that is new (or at least new to the season) but still important is Cersei killing all her enemies in one fiery blast. This leads to Tommen, the last remaining Lannister child, killing himself and Olenna swearing revenge on her family’s murders by aligning with Dany and the Martells. “Winds of Winter” really takes the entire series worth of development up until that point and condenses it into one action-packed but incredibly easy to understand installment.
(Images courtesy of HBO)