Any one person could identify any number of reasons why Game Of Thrones has remained one of television’s most acclaimed dramas and something that manages to demand our full attention the instant its available. But as we head toward the final season this weekend, I keep thinking about the show’s ability to carry multiple narrative threads across an epic show world with an army of a cast that, at times, swells and shrinks to suit the story. It’s really something when so many other shows lose their way and their connection to the audience when they lose characters. Game Of Thrones draws so much value out of each character’s death, prompting celebration, emotional devastation, and consequences that can stretch miles and years.
We wanted to honor that specific skill by ranking the best death scenes on the show, but how do you define what is “best?” In this case, satisfaction and import to the overall story carry more weight. Though, I admit, that I’m a sucker for an amazing visual too, and that may have nudged one or two up in the ranking (looking at you, Viper vs. The Mountain). Regardless, all lists are subjective, and this is merely my take. Half the fun is seeing how you respond and which ones I missed or got way wrong. So, let’s get started.
16. Jon Snow Gets Stabbed A Lot (Season 5, Episode 10)
Led to an unfriendly assemblage of Night’s Watch members who weren’t super keen on his soft spot for wildlings, Jon Snow gets stabbed repeatedly (prompting a chorus of loud and moist puncture sound effects). Olly deals the final blow. But while it sure felt impactful between seasons, we all quickly learned that none of it really mattered since Jon quickly returned from the dead to exact his revenge and hang the lot of his executioners. Especially Olly.
15. Tommen Dies So That A Meme Can Live (Season 6, Episode 10)
The unintended consequence of Cersei blowing up the Sept comes when her son, the sorta king, decides to bail on existence in the aftermath of seeing both his wife go up in green smoke and the lengths that his mother will go to.
A character who was more pawn than player, Tommen’s exit lives on in GIF form even if near everything else he did on Game Of Thrones was pretty forgettable.
14. Shireen Baratheon Pays The Price For Her Father’s Power Lust (Season 5, Episode 9)
The madness of Lord of Light true believers and the Baratheon army’s desperation combine to create a moment that is truly dark and full of terrors as Stannis and Selyse Baratheon go along with Melisandre’s plan to find the way forward by burning their daughter, Shireen, at the stake while she unsuccessfully begs for her parents to save her.
It’s one of the more shocking moments in the history of Game Of Thrones, but it’s perhaps necessary to demonstrate the pull of power and how far Baratheon would go. Still, while it’s technically well done, it’s also one of the more bleak moments in a show chock full of them, and I just couldn’t go any higher on it with that in mind.
13. Hodor (Season 6, Episode 5)
Ever the ready servant to Bran and House Stark, Hodor makes the ultimate sacrifice while standing as a blockade between a horde of White Walkers and Bran as the boy/Warg is led away into the cold night.
The reality of Hodor’s end is tough to swallow, but its impact is made even more immense by the way his backstory ties to that moment, revealing just how much he’s sacrificed across his life.
12. The Night King’s Golden Arm Takes Down Viserion (Season 7, Episode 6)
Daenerys’ heroic rescue of Jon Snow, Jorah Mormont, and company from certain death at the hands of the White Walker army takes a sad turn when the Night King shows off a plus-plus arm, hitting Viserion (one of Dany’s three fire-breathing dragon babies) right in the numbers.
This scene is both a tremendous example of the Game Of Thrones team’s technical abilities and our surprising emotional connection to a CGI dragon and its distraught siblings (which, of course ties to that technical mastery). It’s also a moment that precedes the resurrection of Viserion and all the chaos that that unlocks now that the Night King has an ice dragon. I wanted to rank this higher.
11. Littlefinger Is Finally Silenced (Season 7, Episode 7)
Littlefinger plotted his way out of trouble and into power across the first seven seasons of Game Of Thrones, directly or indirectly murdering those who stood in his way or whose absences would help set his larger plans in motion. A master manipulator unlike any other, he ran out of luck when his plot to pit Sansa and Arya Stark against each other came undone.
Though he professed love and fealty to various members of the Stark clan, this swift end (rendered by Arya’s blade after a few feeble attempts to weasel free from Sansa’s clear judgement) freed the family from what might have been its greatest plague. Unfortunately, it also freed the show from one of its best characters/villains.
10. Ygritte (Season 4, Episode 9)
Jon Snow’s relationship with Ygritte comes to a full end during The Battle Of Castle Black when she pauses in the heart of battle with him in her sights and Olly, seeing an opening, fires an arrow through her heart, unwittingly ending the awkward reunion.
In a sense, Jon and Ygritte’s relationship was doomed from the start, what with them coming from very different worlds and carrying very different loyalties. Ygritte’s last line to Jon (about how they should have stayed in the cave) reflects that sad reality and serves as a reminder that love is pure but susceptible to the toxic environment it’s often born into. The tragedy of it all is why this ranks so high.
9. The Golden Crown (Season 1, Episode 6)
Remember when Daenerys was a bargaining chip sold off by her power thirsty brother, Viserys, to the Dothraki? It’s been such a long journey for the Mother Of Dragons that it can be easy to forget those beginnings and that whiny and entitled brother. The sound of the thud made by Viserys when his head hit the ground after he screamed himself to death following Khal Drago’s inventive means of giving him the golden crown he craved? Pretty unforgettable.
8. Ramsay Bolton Becomes A Feast (Season 6, Episode 9)
After getting pounded like veal by Jon Snow’s furious fists at the culmination of The Battle Of The Bastards, Ramsay Bolton sits confident that he’ll spend the rest of his life in a dungeon. But Sansa Stark has other plans, allowing his once loyal but now starving hounds to gnaw the smirk right off their bloodied master’s face.
The audience is spared most (MOST) of the gory bits and bites here, but while Sansa initially starts to turn away once feeding time begins, she briefly shifts back to take it all in for a well-deserved second glance, giving us all just a little bit more satisfaction considering all Ramsay took from her.
7. Arya’s Revenge On House Frey (Season 6, Episode 10 and Season 7, Episode 1)
This is cheating, but these two moments obviously connect in such a way that it’d be odd to not discuss them together. Arya’s entire journey from precocious child to cold-blooded assassin has been fueled by her want for revenge. Along the way, she’s taken bits and pieces, nourishing her hate for all that have wronged her and her family. But with The Red Wedding standing as such a monumental tragedy for her family, you just knew she’d concoct a special torture for House Frey that expanded beyond Sir Walder Frey, whose throat she slit after serving him a meat pie made from his two sons in the season 6 finale. That’s why when we saw Frey, again, at the start of season 7, we knew Arya was about to do something epic to a nameless group of Frey soldiers who had, nevertheless, played a role in the massacre of Robb and Catelyn Stark. And she didn’t disappoint, poisoning the entire hall with spiked wine and then gingerly stepping over their bodies after pulling off the face of Frey to reveal her identity. Another strike on a list that still has a few names on it. Another epically satisfying payoff and one that matched, in its scale, the immensely important Red Wedding.
6. Tywin On The Toilet With A Crossbow (Season 4, Episode 10)
While on his way out of King’s Landing to escape his looming execution, Tyrion discovers that Shae, his former lover (who had previously betrayed him during his trial), has taken up with his father, Tywin. In a struggle, he tearfully strangles her before going on a hunt for his father with a crossbow. This leads to the toilet where Tywin is defenseless, save for his wit. Head games and dangling the fruit of acceptance in front of Tyrion don’t work, however, and the son puts two bolts into the father’s chest, proving that the ultimate power player was out of moves.
Another sad loss in terms of a character that was delightfully dastardly, Tywin’s death stands out as important for how it freed Tyrion, Jamie, and Cersei to change and/or mutate in interesting ways.
5. Ned Stark And The Birth Of Everything (Season 1, Episode 9)
So much ties back to the moment when an impudent King Joffrey went back on his word and against wiser council to call for the head of the beloved King Of The North, Eddard “Ned” Stark. But rather than think about that when rewatching that pivotal scene, pay close attention to the hint of relief in Ned’s eyes when he sees that his daughter, Arya, is no longer in a position to see the horror that is about to befall him. That’s peace, a luxury now with seemingly every character exposed to or consumed by endless war and quests for vengeance and power; and all the bloodshed and atrocities that come attached.
4. The Viper And The Curse Of Showmanship (Season 4, Episode 8)
Oberyn Martell (The Viper) is propelled by a righteous desire for revenge when he steps forward to stand as Tyrion’s champion against The Mountain in his trial by combat for Joffrey’s death (The Mountain raped Oberyn’s sister, murdered her, and killed her two children). Unfortunately, that passion (and his showman’s flare) allow for a wounded Mountain to rally and dole out a gruesome and emphatic defeat. A bloody end to one of the show’s more electric characters and a reminder that you don’t start dancing on the five-yard line.
3. Cersei Makes A Big Move (Season 6, Episode 10)
Cersei goes full Michael Corleone and settles all (well, not all) family business by blowing up the Sept Of Baelor on the day of her trial, killing a whole mess of people (Margaery, the High Sparrow, a rando who got hit by a flying bell, etc). The scope of Cersei’s terroristic action is still stunning in reflection. But her satisfied look as she is ever so lightly touched by the breeze of death and destruction (metaphors!) before tossing back some wine still sticks in the mind. Also, to carry the Godfather reference a little farther and tie back to Tywin’s death, remember that Michael didn’t move against his enemies in that sweeping and sudden way until after his father’s death freed him to truly take the reins.
2. The Red Wedding (Season 3, Episode 9)
The Stark army braintrust, led by Robb and Catelyn, go to The Twins with news that Robb has broken his vow to marry Walder Frey’s daughter; a vow broken due to his love for Talisa, who is pregnant. Frey accepts a peace offering in the form of a substitute groom, but Catelyn’s instincts give her a nudge a blink after she watches Robb and Talisa basking in the idea of naming their first child after Eddard: something terrible is about to unfold.
There’s a creepy momentum that you can feel in your throat as a door slowly shuts and music starts to play. Then, suddenly, an all out massacre cuts through the Starks in a blink. The look on Catelyn’s face after she kills Frey’s childbride as hollow retribution for Robb’s death (doled out with a a dagger by Roose Bolton and a message from the Lannisters) is one of resignation and despair. The camera lingers on her for a moment before some random soldier slits her throat and ends her pain. The scope and ramifications of this scene make it stand out, of course. But the artistry is in the pacing.
1. Joffrey Chokes At The Purple Wedding (Season 4, Episode 2)
Joffrey’s reign as the twisted brat king comes to a fist-pump inducing end as he grows purple and airless from poison after humiliating Tyrion, who promptly takes the fall for what we later found out was Littlefinger and Lady Olenna Tyrell’s handiwork.
A rich kid who embraced villainy with verve and inflicted himself on everyone he encountered, Joffrey’s messy, flopping death may be one of the most enjoyable in TV history for how far down it drags the little prick and, as with many others on this list, the havoc it inspired. Of course Joffrey’s death ranks at the top of this list. Here, see it in living color. Over and over again.
Will Joffrey’s death maintain its top ranking once Game Of Thrones comes to its end? We’ll be sure to update this ranking after we sift through the bodies at the end of season 8.