It’s undeniable: Game Of Thrones changed TV forever. Few would have predicted that HBO’s epic fantasy show, adapted from George RR Martin’s epic novel series A Song Of Ice And Fire, would become one of the biggest TV shows of all time – but with equal parts political intrigue, massive dragons, and unashamed sex and gore, it conquered the world more quickly than a pissed-off Daenerys Targaryen. With Season 8, the show’s final run, at an end, Empire recounts the saga's greatest ever moments – with a little help from the cast and filmmakers who brought it to the big screen.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON 8
34) Tub Talk (Season 3, ‘Kissed By Fire’)
Are Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in love? Many fans (and Coster-Waldau) say yes; others insist it’s platonic. Either way, there’s no denying they make for a golden double act and their finest moment comes with this conversation in a large bath at Riverrun. After stripping off their clothes, they also let down their guards, with Jaime relating how he killed Aerys Targaryan, the moment that disgraced him. It’s intimate, tender and totally changes how we see this particular lion.
by Nick de Semlyen
33) The Shite King (Season 7, ‘Dragonstone’)
While the rest of the cast were swanning around on the red carpet of the 2016 Emmys, John Bradley (Samwell Tarly) was in Belfast, repeatedly sluicing poo out of a bed pan. Comic scenes in Game Of Thrones are few and far between, but one of the finest is in the Season 7 premiere, showing Sam’s monotonous life at the Citadel. He washes chamber pots, serves stew and sorts books, over and over and over.
“That sequence took two-and-a-half weeks,” says Bradley. “We were shooting these tiny ten-second chunks and I had no idea what it would look like when it was all put together.” It was filmed at the start of production, before anyone else had returned to set. “It was very isolating, actually… But one of the things I love about it is that it’s so surprising. Surprises in Game Of Thrones don’t have to be characters dying or big battles… the show can surprise you in quirky ways, with a silent comedy montage.”
Bradley may have missed the Emmys, but he got a moment to make up for it, thanks to all those soiled pots. “The first time I saw the sequence [put together] was at [Walt Disney Concert Hall] in LA, where we screened that first episode. To hear the reaction of the audience and see the sequence build to its crescendo was really affecting. It’s probably one of my proudest moments on the show.”
In case you’re wondering, all those turds were “soaking wet fruitcake”, which is apparently about as whiffy as the real thing after a day under the lights.
by Olly Richards
32) Chaos Is A Ladder (Season 3, ‘The Climb’)
Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) and Varys (Conleth Hill) are two of a kind: masters of intrigue who speak in veiled threats and shadowy allusions. They never got a scene together alone in the books, but the show corrected that, with the cracker of a conversation in which, standing before the Iron Throne, they discuss Westeros realpolitik — plus Varys’ dearth of testicles. “The writing for these guys was very smart and witty,” says Gillen. “They delight in running rings around each other.”
The scene was written for Season 1, but couldn’t be squeezed in. Two years later, it was dug out of a drawer and enhanced. But it wasn’t until post-production that it came together in its existing form. “When we shot it the dialogue was whispered,” Gillen recalls, “and we decided to amp it up. So in the ADR session we were able to segue from a conversational tone into something more epic, as I got into Littlefinger’s speech.”
That monologue’s apex, the immortal line, “Chaos isn’t a pit; chaos is a ladder,” has inspired T-shirts, mugs and memes, with the words plastered over photos of the likes of Trump and Putin. Gillen, who based the character’s body language on Peter Mandelson, still gets asked to scrawl it on Littlefinger Funko boxes. “It’s funny how these things come about,” he says. “It encapsulates his philosophy in a very succinct and powerful way. And it’s an apt phrase for the times we’re living in now. Chaos is a ladder.”
by Nick de Semylen
31) The Clanging Chimes Of Doom (Season 8, ‘The Bells’)
Even by Game Of Thrones standards, this was controversial. With the war against the dead won, Daenerys Targaryen’s eyes were set firmly on conquering King’s Landing – and she really wasn’t kidding about the whole ‘fire and blood’ thing. Her siege on the city started ferociously enough, to the point that Cersei Lannister actually surrendered, ringing the bells that call for an end to the violence. But it was too late – Dany had gone full Mad Queen, blasting the streets of the city to smithereens, burning innocents to a crisp, and turning whole swathes of the Red Keep to rubble.
It’s easy to see why fans were so split – on the one hand, the hints had been there all along that Dany had more than a mere ruthless streak in her. And Thrones’ outlook has always been that power – and the desire for it – corrupts and destroys without mercy. And yet it was also a lot to take, having followed the Khaleesi’s glorious journey of self-empowerment for so long, cheering on as she destroyed villainous men and freed innocent citizens and slaves. Here, she seemed content to watch them burn, seemingly without remorse or internal conflict.
Still, it’s undeniable that watching Drogon rain fire on the streets of King’s Landing is as epic as the show gets – after all those years imagining how it would play out when a full-strength Daenerys, dragons in tow, would make her bid for the Iron Throne, seeing it play out was all kinds of thrilling. Deeply harrowing too, with searing imagery ripped straight from Hiroshima and Pompeii, fiery blasts funnelling through the streets leaving no way out, ash raining from the sky. From a storytelling and character perspective? Flawed. As a disturbing sequence of devastating spectacle? Astonishing.
by Ben Travis
30) R+L=J (Season 7, ‘Eastwatch’)
It was the biggest secret in Westeros lore for years. And in the end, the reveal was almost obscured by a joke about the loo. While reciting facts to Sam from High Septon Maynard’s journal (where he also records details on his bowel movements), former wildling Gilly inadvertently divulges Jon Snow’s true Targaryen parentage. It confirmed the long-held fan theory ‘R+L=J’: Rhaegar Targaryen plus Lyanna Stark equals Jon Snow.
“I was very surprised I got given that piece of information to reveal,” says Hannah Murray, who plays Gilly. “She and Sam are kind of outside of the politics but sometimes they do earth-shatteringly important things.” Well, quite. The revelation that Ned Stark’s bastard was actually the trueborn heir to the Iron Throne and that Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie shattered parts of the internet, with hundreds of YouTube videos showing viewers’ ecstatic reactions to what became known as the ‘Gillybomb’.
“The reaction to it blew me away,” admits Murray. “I didn’t expect it to be as big.” But it is big — perhaps “one of the most important moments in the history of the show,” says John Bradley. “You don’t have time to process it before Sam launches into this tirade about how disenchanted he is with life at the Citadel.”
It’s a tirade that’s also proved a notorious example of Maester-mansplaining. “Yeah!” laughs Murray. “Justice for Gilly!”
by John Nugent
29) Fire Vs. Ice (Season 7, ‘Beyond The Wall’)
Even by Game Of Thrones standards, seven warriors versus thousands of undead wights makes for terrifying odds. “I’ve never seen so many stunt people running at me with sharp instruments. It’s pretty scary!” remembers Richard Dormer, aka Ser Beric Dondarrion, the Lightning Lord. “All you can hear is the snarling and screaming, so you’re really in it.”
Shot atop the Cave Hill in Belfast, the scene involved a hundred stunt performers and hundreds more extras, all assaulting the band of brothers on their tiny island refuge. The gang learned standard moves they could rotate against the oncoming hordes, with the stuntmen ready to react to any of them, and started fighting. The showiest among them courtesy of Beric and his flaming, wight-killing sword, stunning-looking on screen.
Alas, for Dormer the spectacular weapon proved terribly impractical. The sword burnt for only two minutes before the scene had to be reset, and used up so much oxygen in the air that swinging it around risked making Dormer giddy. Even worse, “I couldn’t go full-speed or the flame would go out,” he says. “So it’s almost 20 per cent slower than a normal sword. It was like working with an animal or a child. You never knew what it was going to do.”
The five-week shoot in miserable weather was tough going, but an esprit de corps developed. The septet sat with ukuleles and banjos between takes, serenading the crew with Tom Waits songs and joking together. “It was like a trench mentality,” says Dormer. “Gallows humour. Thank God: if we didn’t have a sense of humour it would have been the most miserable shoot.”
by Helen O'Hara
28) Lust And Leeches (Season 3, ‘Second Sons’)
“I think it’s one of the more interesting ways to lose your virginity,” deadpans Joe Dempsie, who plays Gendry, the illegitimate son of Robert Baratheon and by some accounts the man with the best claim to the Iron Throne. A humble blacksmith who escapes Joffrey’s massacre of bastards, Gendry’s royal ancestry goes largely disregarded until this wild Season 3 sex scene, which sees the priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten) tempt him into bed — before adding ropes, leeches and spells into the mix.
“When I first wanted to be an actor, that was exactly what I had in mind: dark magic and S&M,” laughs Dempsie. “It’s all in a day’s work on a show like Thrones... When I first read the scene, my mind started whirring: how are they going to do the leeches? Maybe they’ll CGI them in?” But no: real leeches were used, fed before filming so they wouldn’t suck Dempsie’s blood. “That just meant they slid off my torso. It was one of those once-in-a-career scenes.”
For Gendry, it ultimately meant exile to King’s Landing, and disappearing from the show for four years. As for the leeches, fat with royal blood and burned in the fire by Melisandre and Stannis Baratheon, it’s a ritual that perhaps had more effect on the show than is recognised. “The usurper Robb Stark, the usurper Balon Greyjoy, the usurper Joffrey Baratheon,” recites Stannis — prophesying deaths that all came to pass.
by John Nugent
27) Dragon Vs Wagons (Season 7, ‘The Spoils Of War’)
If a horde of Dothraki screamers wasn’t terrifying enough, the Lannister loot train, fresh from pillaging Highgarden, witnesses Daenerys’ dragons for the first time. With the Queen bestride him, Drogon descends upon the enemy, pouring streams of fire into their ranks, incinerating man and mount alike. The thunderstruck looks on Bronn and Jaime’s faces at the beast’s power are an apt reaction to the most fist-pumping moment of the show so far.
by James Dyer
26) Setting Sail (Season 6, ‘The Winds Of Winter’)
It’s fair to say that Game Of Thrones offers more build-up than pay-off. So when Daenerys finally quit faffing about in the desert, brought her unruly conquests into line and set sail for Westeros with her dragons to claim the birthright she’d banged on about ever since we met her, it was a huge moment. It’s also a satisfyingly big money shot, a Troy-meets-The-Hobbit crossover that promises sprawling battles ahead.
by Helen O'Hara
25) Knives Out (Season 5, ‘Mother’s Mercy’)
“OMG stamp stabbin Jon Snoooo,” tweeted Maisie Williams after the Season 5 finale. She spoke for all of us. In a show known for killing off the main characters, the murder of Jon Snow by his Night’s Watch brothers sent off a particular shockwave — and sparked a flurry of theorising about his actual fate. The fact that he came back to life just a couple of episodes later doesn’t undermine the trauma or tragedy of the moment.
by John Nugent
24) The Burning (Season 5, ‘The Dance Of Dragons’)
No child is safe in Westeros (remember all those babies despatched by Joffrey’s minions), but there’s still something especially shocking about the sequence in which the fanatical Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) sacrifices his young daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) to the Lord Of Light, watching as she is consumed by flames.
On screen, the sequence is so bleak it’s almost unwatchable, partly due to the disfigured girl’s heartrending screams. “It’s on my CV now: professional screamer,” jokes Ingram. “Before we did the scene my vocal coach took me to an empty car park in the middle of Belfast and had me scream my lungs out for about an hour. It was the only way I could practise without someone calling the police.”
It took three days to shoot, but the build-up was a lot longer, with Ingram learning her fate via phone call during a family outing to a trampoline park. “Obviously I had to tell my mum what was going on,” says the actor, who was only 15 at the time. “We both thought it was really exciting, because with Game Of Thrones getting a death that intense is a big honour. She was really happy for me. Though when it got to the actual days, I think she struggled a bit, having to listen to it and watch it.”
When the episode aired, her extended family gathered to watch her being burned alive: “My grandparents and aunties and stuff… They hadn’t seen the show before. We videoed their reaction and they were like, ‘How could you not tell us that? That was horrible!’” A few years on, she’s still proud of the sequence, though there’s one downside. “I’m not allowed to make heat jokes,” she laments. “I still can’t make those.”
by Nick de Semlyen
23) Theon Loses His Toy (Season 3, ‘The Bear And The Maiden Fair’)
Ramsay Snow, the Bastard Of The Dreadfort, never failed to live up to his title. Portrayed with sadistic zest by Iwan Rheon, he was such a deviously nasty character, he even made us feel sorry for snivelling turncoat Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). Never more so than during the shocking moment Ramsay takes a castration knife to the captive Theon’s nethers, delivering a squirmy crescendo to Season 3’s extended, episodic torture sequence.
Though Rheon wasn’t so shocked. He knew exactly what he was getting into. After all, he reveals, “That was my audition scene.” One he describes as “brilliantly written, because it was based on that twist where he’s been really nice to Theon” — specifically by first sending in two women to tenderly, shall we say, harden him up — “but actually just wants to fuck around with him. It’s a pretty fucked-up way of doing things, but… Ramsay had a fucked-up way of doing things!”
As he only reinforced three episodes later when he delivered a viciously dark punchline, eating a rather suspicious-looking sausage in front of the emasculated Greyjoy. (It wasn’t what we were thinking — “I’m not a savage!” exclaimed Ramsay.) Which is why, to this day, people will occasionally wave their Cumberlands or Gloucestershire Old Spots at the bemused Rheon in restaurants or cafés. “It’s kind of weird,” he says. “It was such a while ago, I forget about these things. It’s like, ‘Why are you waving a sausage at me?’ Oh riiiight. Yeah. Okay. I remember.’”
by Dan Jolin
22) The Knight Queen (Season 8, ‘A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms’)
By and large, the final season of Thrones had more time for spectacle than character – but one of its best episodes gave us an entire hour of build-up to the Battle of Winterfell, where everyone got to sit and talk, and one beloved character received the perfect pay-off: arise, Ser Brienne of Tarth. Ever since her introduction in Season 2, Brienne proved herself to be a formidable fighter, a loyal ally, and a total badass at every turn – and with Jaime Lannister in her corner, her gender wasn’t allowed to be a barrier to the knighthood she truly deserved. In the gloriously eloquent words of Tormund Giantsbane: “Fuck tradition.”
by Ben Travis
21) Tyrion On Trial (Season 4, ‘The Laws Of Gods And Men’)
For four seasons Tyrion had, largely, feigned nonchalance when attacked by his family. But his fury at their contempt finally exploded when he was tried for his nephew Joffrey’s murder. He spits bile at King’s Landing’s ungrateful nobles, denounces his sister and surprises even Tywin with his final demand, for trial by combat. It’s one of Peter Dinklage’s finest moments and a turning point for the show (watch the Viper perk up at the end).
by Helen O'Hara
20) Born In Flames (Season 1, ‘Fire And Blood’)
Away from all that Stark business, Thrones Season 1 is basically ‘Daenerys Targaryen: Origins’ — and in its final scene her transformation into the Mother Of Dragons truly begins. Her leadership style (burn stuff, make friends) is born here, and so is her trio of tiny dragons: Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal, hatched from the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre. They’re cute as hell — not that we’d say that to their faces these days.
by Ben Travis
19) Bastard Hard (Season 6, ‘Battle Of The Bastards’)
A bastard in every sense, Ramsay impales Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson) with an arrow as he runs across the battlefield towards his brother. Enraged, fellow bastard Jon Snow charges the enemy lines alone, his horse cut down by a volley of arrows, leaving him to stand, sword in hand, against the thundering hooves of the Bolton cavalry. As he prepares to go down swinging, the Stark army overtakes and the two forces collide in an explosion of splintering lances and rending horseflesh.
by James Dyer
18) Shame! (Season 5, ‘Mother’s Mercy’)
You know that dream where you’re in school naked? Imagine that, but you’re also being pelted with bodily fluids and rubbish, and there’s a demon nun behind you ringing a bell and calling out your “shame” until you could strangle her. Even cast-iron bitch Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) visibly struggles to maintain her composure in such a nightmare. Of course, a lion can’t change its, er, fur, and she takes solace in plotting a violent and comprehensive revenge.
by Helen O'Hara
17) To The Dogs (Season 6, ‘Battle Of The Bastards’)
All bad things come to an end. All bad people, too. To Iwan Rheon’s mind, Ramsay Bolton’s death came at the right time and happened in exactly the right way. “I thought he got a good, justified death,” he says, referring to the moment Sansa sets the Battle Of The Bastards loser’s own starving dogs on him. “I feel the character had its full swing. I don’t know what else they could have done with him. He’d got to the point where he really did need to get killed horribly.”
Rheon knew it was coming the moment showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff phoned him a few months before shooting on Season 6 started and said, “Congratulations! Ramsay’s made it to the Iron Throne!” He just laughed and replied, “I’m dead, aren’t I?”
The scene itself involved him, “covered in blood and gore, tied to a chair, doing a scene with Sophie Turner, pretending these dogs are around and eating my face”. Even in reality, those hounds “are actually quite aggressive”, so they had to be digitally added later. “You’re not allowed to talk to the dogs or look them in the eye,” he explains. “They only listen to their owner, so you have to be careful with them. Though it was my last scene, so maybe they could have really had the dog in my face like that. But they thought it better to save me, in case of reshoots.” (We think he’s joking.)
After multiple disheartening deaths and horrible-surprise terminations, it was good for viewers to finally see someone get what they deserved. “It was cheers all round,” laughs Rheon. “He had it coming. See: there is some justice in the world!”
by Dan Jolin
16) All Men Must Pie (Season 6, ‘The Winds Of Winter’)
“I think people thought it was pretty sick,” says Maisie Williams. “I did too. It’s always nice when Arya gets a name off her list.” Three seasons after Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley) ordered the slaughter of her mother, oldest brother, sister-in-law and unborn nephew, Arya Stark finally delivered her bloody retribution. Despite the horror of the details — killing Frey’s sons, then baking them in a pie which she feeds him, before slitting his throat — it is a moment of heroic climax for the youngest Stark daughter, coming after a long stretch of being on the run and training as a Braavosi assassin.
“That was a great death,” she says. “And it was a fun night’s shooting, too. That was the year I left school, so I was working adult hours. It was just the coolest day ever. We were on set really late and they ordered pizza. I just remember stuffing my face with pizza and then going on set and stabbing someone. It was really great fun.”
There was an extra sting in the tale, too, one where Arya received treatment no other Thrones character has. “Yeah, the season after, they had a cold open and they never do that. Walder was back and everyone was kind of confused. Then he reveals himself as Arya and she poisons the entire Frey army.” She giggles, rather disconcertingly. “Bish bash bosh, open of Season 7. Here we go!” Like Arya herself, Williams certainly seems to enjoy her work. Perhaps a little too much.
by Dan Jolin
15) Face Off (Season 6, ‘The Red Woman’)
Carice Van Houten’s reaction to seeing the ‘real’ Melisandre was much the same as viewers’: “It startled the shit out of me! It was pretty scary.” At the end of ‘The Red Woman’, the first episode of Season 6, Melisandre removes her necklace and reveals her true form, an ancient, hunched woman with sagging flesh and just a few stringy hairs clinging to her scalp. It was confirmation of something hinted at throughout the series: that Melisandre was far older than she appeared, and those years had taken their toll.
It actually is van Houten in that scene. At least, the head is hers. “I spent about six hours in make-up having prosthetics applied,” she says. “There was a woman [body double] who would do the same actions as me and then they combined them with CG. Those people are magicians.”
As much as that moment changed viewer perceptions of Melisandre, showing that the fearless image she presents the world was a mere mask, it also changed how van Houten would play her afterwards. “I always knew she was older than she [seemed], but I never knew what we were going to do with that,” says the actor. “When I knew this about her it gave her way more vulnerability and you realise that she’s seen way more than anyone else [in the show]. She is doing everything for the greater good. Her methods aren’t very nice, but she knows what she’s doing.” It’s one of the best moments in the show because it showed us that one of the story’s most formidable villains was, when nobody was looking, just another human.
by Olly Richards
14) Wiped Out (Season 4, ‘The Children’)
One of the best things about Game Of Thrones is that death respects nobody. Relatively minor characters can go out in a blaze of drama, while big, important characters can be dispatched in the most mundane ways. No character’s end was so undignified as that of Tywin Lannister. The man who always treated everyone in the Seven Kingdoms like crap was killed while taking a crap, shot with a crossbow by his loathed son Tyrion.
Not being a reader of the books, Charles Dance, who played Tywin, was not initially aware of how he’d die. “I remember someone [on set] saying, ‘You’ve got a great death scene,’” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh lovely,’ and went off to Waterstones to get a copy of the book and find out. I read and thought, ‘Wow… right… If you’re going to go, that’s a pretty good way to go.’”
He should be thankful the scene as filmed is not quite as graphic as in the book, because it hardly could be. “It wasn’t going to follow word-for-word what happens in the book,” says Dance. “There was no way I could fall off the lavatory and then open my bowels all over the place. But it was still pretty inelegant.”
Dramatically, it’s one of the show’s most powerful scenes, with Tyrion finally getting the upper hand with a father who has wanted him dead since birth. “You can see an element of regret in Tyrion,” says Dance, “about what he’s having to do.” Which is not to say it was dramatic for those involved. Chuckles Dance, “I was rather fighting the temptation to laugh.”
by Olly Richards
13) Fire Festival (Season 3, ‘And Now His Watch Is Ended’)
We’d already seen a baby dragon scorch a warlock in Qarth, but this was the moment that showcased the full power of the creatures and their ‘mother’. A slimy Astapor slave-trader has been insulting Daenerys to her face in Valyrian, unaware it’s her mother tongue, and smugly takes one of the lizards, Drogon, as trade for an army. When Daenerys intones, “Dracarys!” and Drogon roasts him alive, it’s as inspiring a moment as one involving a person being immolated can be.
by Nick de Semlyen
12) Incesticide (Season 8, ‘The Iron Throne’)
Ever since that turning point in ‘The Bells’, it became clear that Jon Snow – sorry, Aegon Targaryen – wouldn’t be able to stand by his Queen-lover-aunt, Daenerys and join her kill-it-all-rebuild-it-all new world. And so, with a heavy heart, the King in the North plunged a knife into her as they snuggled in the throne room.
The pair’s conversation in the run-up to Dany’s death is beautifully conflicted – the Starks have always been a moral compass in Westeros, the family who ultimately does the right thing, often to the point where it kills them. And here stands Jon Snow, having put all his eggs in the Dany basket, only for dragons to hatch out of them and burn everything. The thing that he thought was good – joining her side and living happily ever after – proved not to be. And the reality of what’s good – killing her and suffering the consequences – is not so clear-cut. It’s a moment of pure Shakespearean tragedy, as Dany unknowingly talks her nephew-lover (nope, still not ok) into killing her, her final moment not bathed in fire and glory, but gentle sorrow among the falling snow.
by Ben Travis
11) The Wall Falls (Season 7, ‘The Dragon And The Wolf’)
It’s taken seven years, but finally the army of the dead arrives at the Wall and they don’t come alone. As Tormund and Beric watch, the ranks of shambling corpses form below as an unearthly roar splits the air. The Night King astride him, the reanimated form of the dragon Viserion strafes the wall, belching gouts of blue fire, before a concentrated blast causes the structure, which has stood for 8,000 years, to come crashing down. As the dead pour through the breach into the North and the undead dragon wheels overhead, the battle for Westeros has finally begun.
by James Dyer
10) Peaky Blinder (Season 4, ‘The Mountain And The Viper’)
When Prince Oberyn Martell’s Inigo Montoya moment finally arrives — a showdown against Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane, the brute who raped and murdered his sister — there’s a glimmer of a happy ending. Except, Westeros doesn’t do those — just when everyone assumes the Red Viper (Pedro Pascal) has triumphed, the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) flips the script, gouging our hero’s eyes out and bursting his head wide open in an utterly horrifying spectacle. It’s perhaps Thrones’ single goriest moment — which really is saying something.
by Ben Travis
9) Green Inferno (Season 2, ‘Blackwater’)
“Piss on wildfire, and your cock burns off,” is an old sailor’s proverb in Westeros. But until the Battle Of The Blackwater, wildfire remains merely the stuff of proverbs. All that changes when Tyrion Lannister’s game-changing plan to see off Stannis Baratheon’s attack on King’s Landing succeeds in glorious, explosive fashion. In seven seasons, it remains among the best and most satisfying military strategies ever realised on the show, with the Baratheon fleet almost entirely destroyed by a single flaming arrow. It’s not just cocks that get burned off.
by John Nugent
8) Fall Bran (Season 1, ‘Winter Is Coming’)
“I think ten is quite a young age to be introduced to the idea [that someone wants you dead],” laughs Isaac Hempstead-Wright, aka Bran Stark. The first episode of Game Of Thrones established its ruthless tone with its shocking final scene, in which the heroic-looking knight in shining armour, Jaime Lannister, casually threw Bran out the window of a castle tower after the small boy witnessed Jaime shagging his sister. “The things I do for love”, indeed.
“I knew what was going on,” remembers Hempstead-Wright. “‘Alright, she’s having sex with her brother, oh dear. That’s bad.’ The main thing was making sure I didn’t see the actual sex scene. But it was contextualised within the story by my parents and by the other actors.” Far more exciting for Hempstead-Wright was the fact that he was on a wire (“the ultimate”), clambering up a medieval castle wall, though a stuntwoman did the main 30-foot fall.
As dark and horrifying as the moment is — Bran is crippled from this moment on, only walking again in his mystical dreams — by the time it was shot the young actor was already accustomed to the twisted tone of the show. After all, he’d been part of the scene in which Ned Stark executes a deserter from the Night Watch, with his children watching. “You see Sean Bean kicking a decapitated head around like a football, and it kind of demystifies all the drama and trauma about it,” says Hempstead-Wright. And with seven seasons of beheadings, incinerations and torture ahead of him, maybe it’s just as well Bran got his life lesson in early.
by Helen O'Hara
7) Raising The Dead (Season 5, ‘Hardhome’)
The climax of ‘Hardhome’ is Game Of Thrones at its most intense: a supernatural spin on Dunkirk as Jon Snow and panicking Wildling hordes flee the forces of eternal winter. The vibe is doomy, and the defining moment is that in which the Night King, the series’ rarely glimpsed Big Bad, raises his arms and resurrects every corpse on the battlefield, staring down Jon as he does so.
“I vividly remember lying on the couch reading that and thinking, ‘Jesus. Amazing,’” says the Night King himself, Richard Brake. It’s the first chilling demonstration of the character’s power, and Brake’s biggest challenge on the series, requiring six hours of make-up to transform him into Westeros’ premium ice-bastard. “The contact lenses were the biggest you can put in a human eye,” he reveals. “Absolutely agonising. I could only keep them in for four hours, and then they had to get three people to grab my head and jam them back in. But it was worth it.”
Brake skulked alone in a corner of the set. “I’m a big meditator, and I just stayed in this very dark place. It was easy to keep to myself, because I’m this strange-looking creature nobody wants to talk to anyway.” Then he and Kit Harington locked eyes, the forces of darkness and light face to face at last. Then, the pub.
Due to scheduling issues, Brake no longer plays the Night King. But thanks to this moment, he still gets approached by fans. And they’re an interesting bunch. “There are a lot of Night King tattoos out there,” Brake laughs. “People love him. I think a lot of them want him sitting on the throne. It’s kind of kooky, to say the least.”
by Nick de Semlyen
6) Joff Bumped Off (Season 4, ‘The Lion And The Rose’)
Westeros’ most cowardly, shrieking bully, gets a cowardly, shrieking death — poisoned at his own wedding, choking on his own snot. Schadenfreude is an understatement — Joffrey’s withering demise is perhaps the most freude you could possibly hope to get from someone’s schaden. And yet, once the light has extinguished from the little shit’s blood-streaked eyes, it’s surprisingly hard to cheer — despite his monumental awfulness, in his final moments, we’re reminded that Joffrey is just a spoiled child. Curse your pesky nuance, George R.R. Martin.
by Ben Travis
5) Game, Sept, Match (Season 6, ‘The Winds Of Winter’)
Set to a beautiful ten-minute piece of music from Ramin Djawadi, the build-up to Cersei’s fiery vengeance is a masterpiece of escalating tension. The piano (the only time one appears on a Game Of Thrones score) builds to a choir, which escalates to a frantic cello and finally a thundering church organ as Margaery’s pleas to the High Sparrow go unheeded and Lancel, bleeding, crawls towards the barrels of wildfire in the catacombs. Cersei watches from the Red Keep, glass of wine in hand, as the Great Sept of Baelor, along with all her enemies, is consumed in an eruption of jade fire.
by James Dyer
4) Ned Gets The Chop (Season 1, ‘Baelor’)
It is, arguably, Game Of Thrones’ defining moment. The point the show made clear that it wasn’t just bringing sexposition and extreme violence to the fantasy genre. It was also going to mercilessly kill its heroes, beginning with the lead character, Ned Stark, played by the cast’s biggest star, Sean Bean. He was Boromir, for fuck’s sake. And Sharpe! But there was no last-minute rescue for poor, noble Eddard, uncompromising former hand to the King and head of House Stark. No surprise reprieve. The sword fell, by King Joffrey’s command, and the head came off. In the presence of his two distraught daughters, too: Sansa on the stage at the Sept of Baelor, and little Arya in the crowd, looking like her world was ending.
“Well, I actually did all my stuff on a separate day,” Maisie Williams corrects Empire. “So really when Arya’s up on that statue looking out at the Sept, there’s no-one there. But I watch it back now and I think, ‘How the hell did I do that so convincingly?’” She laughs. “I genuinely think I was a better actor when I was 12. I couldn’t do that now. I’d be like, ‘I have no eyelines. I can’t do it.”
She confesses that the cultural import of the moment was lost on her at the time. “I hadn’t watched a lot of drama and didn’t realise how much of a big deal it was, how shocking. I thought, ‘Why don’t more shows do this? Like, no one’s expecting it, it would be amazing.’ But I guess that was the point.”
by Dan Jolin
3) The Real MVP (Season 8, ‘The Long Night’)
Everyone involved in the long-awaited Battle of Winterfell was absolutely shattered by its end – nobody more so than the Night King himself, who exploded into icicles after a swift stabbing by Arya ‘the real MVP’ Stark. It was a supremely Thronesian move to set up the White Walkers as the real endgame of the show, only to bump them all off three episodes from the end – even if the ‘kill the boss to destroy the army’ trope is far from original. The Night King’s sudden demise was a jaw-dropping, air-punching moment of unexpected triumph – and of course it had to be Arya striking the killing blow, incredible pay-off from her seemingly extraneous time in Essos learning to become a deadly assassin. The real cherry on top? A White Walker’s hair blowing softly in the breeze as Arya speeds past on her way to the kill.
by Ben Travis
2) Hold The Door (Season 6, ‘The Door’)
Game Of Thrones is, when you boil it down, a show about death. Much of it shocking. Some welcome. But only one death so far has really brought us to tears (unless you were upset about Sansa’s direwolf in the second episode). And that’s the heroic act of self-sacrifice committed by Hodor, aka Belfast house DJ Kristian Nairn, who pressed a door closed to hold off a horde of screeching, flesh-tearing wights, allowing the escape of Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright). Then they broke through and tore him apart, just as we learned the origin of his strange name (“Hold the door!”) and the true tragedy of his destiny.
It was as tough to shoot as it was to watch, taking place over a week which involved exterior night shoots at Magheramorne Quarry, near Belfast. “It’s brutal, exposed to the elements,” says Hempstead-Wright. “I can’t complain, I was lying down. But it was tough for Kristian.” Not only due to the harsh physical conditions. The final day was Nairn’s 40th birthday, and also his last-ever day of principal photography.
“It was emotional, man,” Nairn tells us. “Intensely emotional. It just felt very final, to be leaving this huge production having been very close to Isaac for so many years. He obviously feels like a little brother. Knowing that you’re always gonna be in touch with these people, but you’re not going to see them every day now, it was a tough scene to do.”
Empire asks if he kept a souvenir from the day. “PTSD,” he jokes. “No, I actually took a tiny piece of one of the broken doors. We had many doors, which were made out of balsa wood, and a tiny piece of one came off in my hand. I thought, ‘You know what? I’m gonna keep it.’” So even now, in a sense, Hodor is still holding that door.
by Dan Jolin
1) ’Til Death Do Us Part (Season 3, ‘The Rains Of Castamere’)
When David Nutter received his invitation to the Red Wedding, he had no idea what horrors lay in store. It was 2012, and the director was in the wilds of Iceland, shooting Jon Snow scenes for Season 2. Then co-showrunner D.B. Weiss took him to dinner in Reykjavík and, over a three-hour tasting menu, asked him if he would put together the penultimate episode of Season 3. “I had no idea what that really entailed,” admits Nutter, who hadn’t read the books and so was unaware of the significance of the sequence he was being entrusted with. “The closer I got to it, the more I realised how important it was. There was tons of pressure.”
The Red Wedding, of course, is an event so grim and gory that it makes the ending of Macbeth look like a lark. Two members of Game Of Thrones’ hero family, the Starks, are brutally murdered, in an ambush orchestrated by the treacherous Walder Frey. It’s almost unbearable on the page, so much so that George R.R. Martin skipped forward and finished writing the rest of the book it appears in (A Storm Of Swords) before going back to tackle it. Yet Weiss and David Benioff ratcheted up the anguish even more, with the addition of Robb Stark’s pregnant fiancée, Talisa (Oona Chaplin), being stabbed in the belly and Catelyn Stark being made to watch as her son dies. And before any of that goes down, there’s epic misdirection. “I wanted to create a sense of, ‘Ah, it’s so nice and sweet,’ to get the audience to let their guard down,” says Nutter, the misdirector. “Once you’ve done that, then you can shock the hell out of them.”
On the Belfast set, over the three days it took to film the slaughter, there was plenty of emotion too. “I remember when Robb crawls over to Talisa and is cradling her in his arms, seeing her life pass away, I was crouched down, whispering quite intimately to Richard Madden about relationships and love and all that kind of stuff,” Nutter says. “And I turned around and three or four of the make-up ladies had lost it. They were sobbing. It was that kind of situation for everyone.”
Michelle Fairley (Catelyn), whose primal scream of despair was the final thing to be shot, was left so traumatised that she went into seclusion for a week following the shoot, refusing to talk about the episode. But when it aired in June 2013, the rest of the world couldn’t stop talking about it. YouTube became filled with reaction videos of viewers melting down as they watched the last 15 minutes. Fans talked in forums about needing therapy to get over the carnage. And Rosie O’Donnell spoke for all of us when she tweeted, “HOLY SHIT BOPPERS!!!!!”
“When you’re directing television you rarely get that immediate response from people,” says Nutter. “So when I started to see all of that happening, I felt very good about how it all came out. People still tell me how it affected them the most.” And if you were wondering, he has not been invited to a single wedding since June 2013.
by Nick de Semylen