If you aren’t caught up on HBO’s Game of Thrones, watch it before reading this. Spoilers for seasons one through five are coming.
Game of Thrones begins its sixth season this Sunday (April 24) and it will mark the first time that the show’s plotlines move past George R.R. Martin’s five novels. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have added, removed, and rearranged scenes from the novels, but now we will see scenes based only on the details Martin has passed to the duo. As the series has grown in popularity, every “big” moment has been analyzed, inspiring countless comments and think-pieces.
I recently rewatched the entire series in anticipation of the new season which, unsurprisingly, adds a new perspective to the early seasons because Game of Thrones is extremely dense with backstory, characters changing their allegiances and the ensuing betrayals that follow. Those moments still hold their original weight, but hindsight gives them more defined context. Over the course of the daunting 50+ hour experience, I found there are a handful of such developments in every season. Below are those moments that defined each of the five seasons thus far.
** The moment we all ignored that is more important than we realize: The pilot episode, particularly everything after King Robert Baratheon arrives in Winterfell, is dense with character exposition. Immediately following the King’s arrival, Ned Stark and King Robert visit the grave of Lyanna Stark. It’s there we learned that Robert was originally betrothed to Ned’s younger sister. As we have grown to question Jon Snow’s — Ned’s bastard son — parentage, it looks more and more like this information is connected to his aunt, in some way. The internet is wild with fan theories and I’ll leave those for you to find, at risk of spoiling the show.
** The moment which justified buying that home theater system: Without a great battle in season one, I’m going to cheat a bit here and give this to the entire season. It’s still a wonder this show was ever made, even on HBO. Forget that it’s based on a series of dense, high-fantasy novels that tease us with well-known good vs. evil plot lines, only to rip them away. It’s also shot on location in Ireland, Croatia, Morocco and Iceland, making it one of the most expensive shows on TV. This series’ locales are stunning on a large set, particularly when viewed on Blu-ray which outshines any streaming and on demand versions.
** The moment that made us question why we watch the show: In retrospect, the Game of Thrones pilot acts as a filter separating fans from everyone else. Whether it’s the aforementioned exposition dump or the fact that a man pushes a child out of a tower window after he’s caught having sex with his twin sister (who also happens to be the queen), there are a lot of reasons to step away from the show after the pilot. While these are either the burden of a pilot episode or used to set the drama in motion, one scene is tougher to watch than the rest. I’m, of course, talking about Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo’s wedding night where she’s raped by her newly arranged husband. Arranged marriages are commonplace in fantasy, as well as a number of contemporary cultures, but we rarely see this aspect of them. Credit to Emilia Clarke’s performance, but watching the worst of her role as a pawn in her brother’s quest to reclaim his throne is a painful experience that establishes a woman’s social standing in Westeros.
** The character pairing that led to the most enjoyable moments: Subsequent seasons mined the value of unlikely character pairings, but one of the earliest is Tyrion Lannister and the sellsword, Bronn. Bronn originally accompanied Catelyn Stark on her journey to take Tyrion to Lysa Arryn for the accusation that he murdered Jon Arryn and hired a man to do the same to Bran Stark. However, Bronn altered his allegiance when he volunteered as Tyrion’s champion in a trial by combat. Until they parted ways in the fourth season, the pair shared many a funny scene that included an intoxicated game of “Truth or Dare” with Shae. It’s a shame they likely won’t be allies again.
** The moment that changed the show’s dynamic: Two come to mind for this category. The first being the last shot of the series which shows Daenerys rising from the ashes with three baby dragons, a species that hasn’t existed for thousands of years. The other, of course, is the death of Ned Stark. It was Joffrey’s order that not only started the multiple-season civil war at the show’s center, but also revealed the series’ true nature. It was there we learned that no one is safe from death, especially those with honorable intentions.
** The big question we still have after this season: Where is Benjen Stark? It’s easy to forget that Ned Stark’s brother was a pivotal part of Jon Snow’s decision to join the Night’s Watch. He was eventually used as bait in the Watch’s betrayal of Jon Snow. Benjen went missing after venturing beyond the wall in the season’s third episode. When the Night’s Watch left Castle Black in the season finale, it was to find Benjen, but instead Jon goes undercover as a Wildling. We know that Benjen is likely dead after his horse returned to Castle Black. His accompanying rangers were found dead during the season, but in a show where no one is dead until we see a body, we can’t help but wonder about the whereabouts of one of the few remaining Starks.
** The moment we all ignored that is more important than we realize: We already saw the results of this scene, but the discussion between Robb Stark and Roose Bolton, before the Red Wedding, was integral in explaining Theon’s fate after taking over Winterfell. In the episode “The Old Gods and the New,” Robb tells Roose they need to march back to Winterfell, to take back the city. Roose counters there is still a war to win and he will send his bastard, Ramsay Snow, to take the city. This eventually led to Winterfell moving to the Boltons’ possession after Roose betrayed Robb and Catelyn at the Red Wedding.
** The moment which justified buying that home theater system: In the series‘ first season, Tyrion leads an army of Lannister soldiers and sell-swords against Stark bannermen. That is, until he was accidentally knocked unconscious following a rousing speech. Many link this to the likelihood that the show didn’t have the budget to stage a massive battle. That changed for the second season with The Battle of Blackwater, the series’ first full-length episode dedicated to one event. Directed by Neil Marshall of Centurion fame, the episode cemented that the series could provide the in-depth character and plot development of television while also having the spectacle of a Hollywood blockbuster.
** The moment that made us question why we watch the show: While The Red Wedding is the quintessential example of the series pushing how bad life could be for anyone connected to the Starks. Theon Greyjoy’s siege of Winterfell has one particularly cringe-worthy moment. Early after taking over the city, Theon poorly beheads Ser Rodrick Cassel with many more strikes than expected. It’s a far cry from the swift beheading Ned Stark carried out in the series’ premiere or Jon beheading Janos Slynt in season five.
** The character pairing that led to the most enjoyable moments: Full of dispersed characters, some of the most exciting moments of the series is when characters finally meet, resulting in some unlikely pairings that are the most fun to watch. One of the most notable is in the destroyed city of Harenhal where Arya Stark served as cupbearer to Tywin Lannister, who was ignorant of her true identity. The fear and tension that Tywin would discover the missing Stark daughter in his midst as he learned she was smarter than the average cupbearer was palpable, to say the least. This rose exponentially when Littlefinger had a meeting with the richest patriarch in the realm, unable to get a definitive look at her. The key line comes when Tywin asks Arya if she believes Robb Stark can’t be killed to which she replies, “Anyone can be killed,” staring straight into his eyes.
** The moment that changed the show’s dynamic: This season belonged to Tyrion Lannister. Not only did Peter Dinklage’s performance stand out, but the character finally came into his own as the King’s Hand. We always knew that Tyrion was the regret of Tywin and Cersei Lannister because his mother died while giving birth to him. However, when Ser Mandon Moore attempts to murder Tyrion, only to be skewered by Tyrion’s squire, Podrick Payne, we learned just how far members of the family would go to get rid of him. We would see this again when Tyrion is wrongfully put on trial for Joffrey’s murder in the fourth season, but this was the first sign that life would get worse for Tyrion before it got better.
** The big question we still have after this season: There were glimpses of the Iron Islands in later seasons, including a pretty rescue attempt by Theon’s sister, Yara. However, it’s been a while since we’ve seen what’s going on in The Iron Islands after Theon left. This could be a minor point in the series’ much grander story or it could end up being a late wild card, changing everything as they still have to contend with the Boltons, who control the North.
** The moment we all ignored that is more important than we realize: While the third season dedicated a fair amount of time to the Brotherhood Without Banners, the group disappeared pretty quickly. What stands out about them is that their leader, Lord Beric Dondarrion, has been healed from fatal injuries multiple times. At one point, he’s brought back to life after losing to Sandor Clegane in a trial-by-combat. The brotherhood attributes their ability to bring back the near-dead to the Lord of Light, which is also the god worshiped by Stannis Baratheon’s army. This implies the god that led Stannis to his death in season five is very real. As religion plays a greater part in the series, with the Faith Militant governing justice in King’s Landing, knowing there’s a god with real-world effects is extremely significant.
** The moment which justified buying that home theater system: While we saw Daenerys’ dragons light someone on fire in the season two finale, we didn’t grasp their full utility in battle until she sacked Astapor, after buying the Unsullied army and setting them free. This was the first hint of the advantage of “having dragons” that we wouldn’t see until the fifth season in the Meereen fighting pits. It’s the moment where the mother of dragons also made it her mission to liberate slaves which would follow her throughout the next two seasons.
** The character pairing that led to the most enjoyable moments: No one would ever mistake Game of Thrones as rom-com. In fact, the series’ two most successful, still-running relationships — Sam/Gilly, Jamie/Cersei — are connected to incest. The closest the show may ever come to the genre was when Brienne escorted Jamie back to King’s Landing. I can picture the plot description now. “Brienne is a no-nonsense soldier who has worked her whole life to prove herself in a man’s world. Jamie is a handsome knight, from the wealthiest family in the realm. When he becomes her prisoner on a journey back to his family, they will learn they have more in common than they realize.” In all seriousness, it was a joy to watch the pair grow a respect for one another that ended with Jamie saving her from a literal bear fight.
** The moment that changed the show’s dynamic/ The moment that made us question why we watch the show: Yes, this is a bit of a cheat but could there be anything other than The Red Wedding here? Up to this point, the show established the world view that those with integrity and good intentions must work harder if they want to face off against the less-noble, following Ned Starks’ beheading. That also set up the perfect story for the series, in which Ned’s offspring avenged their father’s death. Of course, that plot was stabbed to death when Robb, Catelyn, and Robb’s newly pregnant wife visited Walder Frey to ask for military support. Lord Frey was still sore about Robb betraying his vow to marry one of his many daughters. After this episode, we were left with an unclear course for the next season’s plot — which was disheartening, but also exciting. While this certainly changed the show’s direction, it also forced the faithful to decide if this was a path they still wanted to follow.
** The big question we still have after this season: From the first season, it looked like Gendry — King Robert’s bastard, who both Jon Arryn and Ned Stark discovered while serving as Hand of the King — would be an important part of the show. However, Martin, Benioff and Weiss also proved that this show is all about planting seeds of expectation, only to pour salt on those seeds. We still have to wonder, though: Where is Gendry? Last we saw him, Ser Davos Seaworth placed him on a boat to escape from Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre, the red priestess who has taken advantage of her position as Stannis’ religious advisor. Is Gendry still on that rowboat? Will he resurface, now that Stannis is dead? Maybe he rejoined the Brothers Without Banners, with whom he planned to join before they sold him to Melisandre? Hopefully, season six offers an answer.