Throne in at the deep end
Game Of Thrones has had a huge impact on TV since it first aired back in April 2011. It's the show everyone talks about, and the hottest ticket for aspiring small-screen actors. Now, merely four years on, the fifth season is looming large; preparing to hoover up our spare time as we diligently tune in to witness each episode before hastily discussing it with friends and colleagues. And spoil it utterly for anyone who follows us on Twitter...
What follows here is a run-down of our favourite episodes. These are the individual slices of TV that have had the biggest impact, that have shocked and surprised the most. Obviously, they're full of plot details so if you haven't seen ALL episodes of Game Of Thrones to date... beware the spoilers. As ever, if your fave isn't here, leave us a comment below.
Seriously, there are some epic SPOILERS here. With massive, day-ruining teeth. You have been warned.
Read more about the fifth season in the current issue of SFX. Game Of Thrones returns to US screens on HBO on Sunday 12 April, and UK screens on Sky Atlantic on Monday 13 April.
The one where... Tyrion escapes the eerie via trial by combat (S1.6 - A Golden Crown)
Although the first season of GOT is considered a seminal moment in modern TV, it has few truly outstanding episodes. The opening show ends with the shocking scene where Jamie Lannister shoves Brandon Stark out of a window because he chances on their session of royal incest, but aside from that it's mostly scene-setting. The series only really gets going in A Golden Crown, which has two high-points.
The first sees Tyrion trick his way into court while imprisoned at the Eyrie. He makes a mockery of the charges, demands trial by combat, and dangles enough wealth for Bronn to step up and murder the Eerie champion. It's one of the first moments where you realise GOT doesn't fall back on traditional notions of justice, and it's a bold statement about the way power works in Westeros. The second high-point? The golden crown itself. There are few more shocking and delightfully creative deaths on TV.
The one where... Ned Stark loses his head (S1.9 - Baelor)
Given the shocks and twists that follow, this scene loses some of its sting on a rewatch. Still, as 'important moments' go, it's a biggie. In the run up to the execution, everything seems to be stabilising for the Starks. Sanza still holds a candle for Joffrey, Arya is free if starving, and Robb is starting to win battles.
The fact that Ned publicly admits his 'treason' is shocking enough, given how staunchly he's stuck to his sense of what's right and proper. This is his first attempt to truly 'play the game of thrones', throwing himself at Joffrey's mercy for the sake of his family. So it's all the more surprising when Joffrey openly enforces the death penalty, essentially rendering Ned Stark's gesture futile. It hammers home the message that there really is no place for weakness in GOT, and that no-one is safe from the sword.
The one where... Joffrey has Robert's bastards killed (S2.1 - The North Remembers)
This one starts off as a relatively gentle opener to season two, but quickly escalates when Joffrey starts to grasp the extent of his power as king. Following an argument with Cersei about Robert's whores, where the mother slaps her son, there's a moment where the balance of power subtly shifts. Joffrey may be her son, but he's still Cersei's king, and that puts him in ultimate control.
The episode really hits home right at the end, though, when a seemingly innocuous whore house scene ends with Kings Guard soldiers tearing a baby from its mother's arms and slitting its throat in view of everyone. It's followed by a montage of all Robert's other bastards (Gendry aside) being brutally put to the sword in one of the most shocking segments of the entire show.
The one where... Stannis tries to take Kings Landing (S2.9 - Blackwater)
This is the first full-scale battle episode, and the GOT debut for Neil Marshall, who does brutal combat with a panache few other directors can match. There are few emotionally significant moments, but several scenes notably shift the balance of power between characters. The most obvious is the fact that Stannis literally fails in his attempt to take Kings Landing, leaving him - for the moment - out of the running for the Iron Throne. The scene were Bronn ignites the Wildfire is undeniably spectacular.
More importantly, this episode properly establishes Tyrion as a major player (something that season two spends time building up to). When Joffrey's cowardice is fully exposed by his unwillingness to fight (and he retreats to the Red Keep, demoralising the Lannister army), defence of the city falls to the little man. His courage on the beech is inspiring, but it's the supporting moments - like the bravery of Podrick, and the arrival of Tywin - that make this the first episodes where people actually cheer for the Lannisters...
The one where... Daenerys frees the Unsullied (S3.4 - And Now His Watch is Ended)
There are a couple of stand-out shows. This one carries weight because it finally sees Daenerys realise the power that owning three dragons brings. After being insulted during her negotiations with Kraznys for the Unsullied army (the put-downs unwisely thrown at her in Valyrian), Daenerys' first move is to have her dragon roast her opponent alive. Quite a statement.
Secondly, she orders her new army to kill all the masters in Astapor, freeing all slaves with the invitation to serve her as freemen/women. Another bold move. It's a big moment; one that finally cements Daenerys as a proper contender for the iron throne. Oh, and it's also the show where Craster finally gets his end, Sam escapes with Gilly, and Theon... well, he just can't catch a break.
The one where... the Red Wedding happens (S3.9 - The Rains of Castamere)
So, yeah, this is the episode everyone talks about. Even on a second or third watch, the final scenes where Cat Stark notices the guests wearing chainmail, and the doors of the wedding hall slam shut... it sends shudders down the spine. Wiping out so many of the main players in one sweeping scene is such a bold move, and the swift brutality of the executions only heightens the core message: no-one is safe in this show, and they can depart so, so suddenly.
It's made that bit more heart-breaking by the fact that Arya is within meters of being reunited with her family when they're murdered. Sure, she avoids death herself, and there's a begrudgingly tender moment between her and the Hound, but it feels like the cherry on top of Arya's increasingly unfortunate life, following Ned Stark's imprisonment. Powerful stuff.
The one where... Joffrey dies (S4.2 - The Lion and the Rose)
Let's face it - this is the moment everyone was waiting for since the very first episode. Joffrey is a world-class shit, so when he's finally poisoned at the peak of his prickishness it feels like one of the most satisfying victories to date. In classic GOT fashion, the poisoning itself is wonderfully brutal, with the camera settling on Joffrey's bloody, twisted face when he breathes his last. It's basically revenge porn.
The poisoning comes at exactly the right moment too, as Joffrey and Tyrion reach an almost unresolvable stand-off. It simply has to end in someone's death. The fact that Tyrion is then arrested for the murder, and Sansa smuggled out of the city, sets the tone for the rest of the season. Which is a belter.
The one where... Prince Oberon fights the Mountain (S4.8 - The Mountain and the Viper)
While many cite the Red Wedding as the biggest 'moment' in GOT to date, The Mountain and the Viper is arguably the finest, most complete episode. The duel that concludes this show is both beautifully shot, and shockingly savage. There's an inevitability to Prince Oberyn's death, magnified by the seeming ease with which he downs The Mountain. But when Gregor Clegaine knocks him to the floor, and crushes his skull to a pulp while finally giving Oberyn the confession he seeks... it's a scene that physically makes you slack-jawed with surprise. And a little queasy.
However, even before that, we're shown one of the most enduring scenes in the whole series; the whole show. Tyrion has a tender moment of reflection with Jamie, remembering their simple cousin Orson, who spent his days crushing beetles. It's a wonderfully intimate sequence which ultimately reflects on the savage nature of man, foreshadowing the brutal fight that comes at the end. You almost forget that this is the same episode where Jorah - after almost four seasons - is separated from Daenerys when she learns he was a spy.
The one where... Mance Rayder tries to take the Wall (S4.9 - The Watchers on the Wall)
Following the sickening end of The Mountain and the Viper, Game Of Thrones breaks tradition and dedicates an entire episode to one plot-thread. Oh, and it gets Neil Marshall back to direct. The result is a ferocious, hour-long battle that works on both large and small scales. While it's impressive to see the fight sequences raging along the wall, it's the personal rivalries that really make it.
The highlight comes when Ygritte dies in John Snow's arms, after taking an arrow from the youngest member of the Nights Watch. Love stories don't end well in Game Of Thrones, but that rarely matters because there are few examples of 'likeable relationships'. Ygritte's demise has added emotional weight because both she and John are fan-favourites. The tragedy is only offset by the uttering of the now-legendary line You know nothing, John Snow...