The Best Moments from Game of Thrones Seasons 1 - 5
As HBO's fantasy behemoth reaches the end of its published source material we look back on its most memorable sequences so far. Spoilers ahead...
Another chapter of Game of Thrones is now done and dusted. The conclusion last night of season five, majestic and divisive in equal measures, is already being seen as a new dawn for this era’s defining televisual juggernaut.
The public appetite is already building for next year and so, to review the past five seasons of Northern Ireland’s most famous export, Culture NI presents a spoiler-filled list of those moments that have distinguished the struggle for the Iron Throne.
Season One: The Death of Eddard Stark
When Game of Thrones first appeared on our screens, it seemed a strange beast. It was a fantasy series based on a collection of weighty (if, at that stage, somewhat cult) books — George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga — that featured little actual fantasy (save for some crucial strands), ambiguous characters and minimal action.
Yet, with its brooding tone, slippery politics and fully realised world of Westeros, audiences rightly discerned something special at its core. It was only at the tail end of season one, however, that HBO’s behemoth declared itself above and beyond the rote conventions of popular entertainment.
As the show’s notional centre and most recognisably heroic figure Sean Bean perfectly captured the essence of Lord Eddard Stark, patriarch of one of the land’s mightiest families and a man whose sad, tortured honesty made him an ill fit for the scheming machinations of the world into which he was drawn by his King and old friend Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy).
Upon discovering the rather obvious truth that the King’s children were not his own, Stark is arrested and imprisoned by the Queen, Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady), who has just had her husband bumped off in a ‘hunting accident’.
At the end of 'Baelor', the penultimate episode in the series, with his two daughters watching on, Stark — expecting mercy and a life in exile — is dragged before a baying crowd and at the direction of child king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), Robert’s demonic heir, he is promptly decapitated.
Shocking, audacious and largely unimagined (Martin’s novels have only crept up required-reading lists in the years since), the scene remains, arguably, Game of Thrones’s seminal incident. Stark’s brutal demise proved the inescapable reality of the Game of Thrones: you win or you die.
Season 2: The Shadow Baby
In the post-beheading chaos of the second season, as death and war consumed Game of Thrones’s previously simmering tone, a bevy of new characters appeared to expand the world. Chief among them was Stannis Baratheon (a wonderful Stephen Dillane), the iron-hearted brother of the deceased Robert and, due to the fact that none of Robert’s royal children are actually his own, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Flint-eyed and bearing a grimace carved from stone, Stannis wants to be king because that is the natural order of things. And he is nothing if not orderly: completely, unshakeably disciplined.
Apart from when it comes to his religious beliefs, that is. Bewitched by the exotic teachings of the Lord of Light and his prophet Melisandre — played with unsettling zeal by the deliberately exquisite Carice van Houten — Stannis bows to her every tactic if his route is blocked by the ambitions of others. Murder is never far down that list.
When Stannis’s younger and more charismatic brother Renly (Gethin Anthony) makes his own play to rule, Stannis severs their relationship. He connives with Melisandre to bring about his sibling’s downfall.
Thus, in the dying minutes of 'Garden of Bones', the fourth instalment of this season, Melisandre and humble, but shrewd, smuggler-turned-emissary Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) make their way into the catacombs beneath Renly’s camp. Filmed in the seaside caves at Cushendun, the scene is ripe with an air of gothic foreboding, one that grows considerably when Melisandre removes her cloak to reveal a naked body, pregnant to the point of bursting.
To Seaworth’s horror, she lies on the cold rocks and pushes out a dark, jagged and squalling shadow that comes forth to consume the light and life before it. In the next episode, this same entity steals into Renly’s tent and swiftly slaughters him.
The emergence of the ‘shadow baby’ was so spectacular because it made us readjust, once again, our expectations for Thrones. Until that point, its fantastical elements were things either to be defeated (the White Walkers) or nurtured (dragons). This grubby communion of murder and disposable black magic showed that the series was unafraid to disturb its viewers’ minds — does this not poke at the male fear of childbirth, after all? — while still establishing itself as event television.
Season 3: The Red Wedding
Anyone who has ever read all or parts of A Song of Ice and Fire will know that it is bloodthirsty stuff. Another truism is that Martin shields very few characters from the spectre of violent death, regardless of how important he or she might appear in the grand scheme.
It is an approach that has garnered many critics from within his own fanbase yet it also sets the reader on edge — no doubt a desirable response for an author — knowing that almost nobody is safe.
When the bloodbath known as ‘the Red Wedding’ first appeared on the page back in 2000, it came as an unwelcome surprise, a gut-churning slice of depravity that few saw coming. For fans of the saga, it is perhaps the signature moment in Martin’s sprawling, twisted mythology.
The effect, and significance, is no different on screen and for those who didn’t anticipate the betrayal, then butchering, of Robb Stark (Richard Madden), his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), wife Tulisa (Oonagh Chaplin) and their unborn child at the hands of the snivelling Lord Walder Frey (David Bradley) and Roose Bolton — inhabited, with true elegance, by an ice-blooded Michael McElhatton — the impact was largely devastating.
The Starks were the last undoubtedly noble major players. Their upright integrity and devotion to family led them onto the battlefield to avenge Robb’s late father, Eddard, and of all the competing claims, all the justness of causes populating the vast canvas, theirs was the truest. To see them dispatched like cattle (certain members of the house do remain breathing, even now) underlined the notion that Game of Thrones holds no love for anything except its own rules.
Season Four: The Battle of Castle Black
For a drama preoccupied with conflict between great armies, Thrones has always been a show heavier with the happenings at the back of the line rather than the front. Understandable budgetary constraints and its creator’s own unwillingness to pepper his narrative with a series of great battles means that fans were drawn in thanks to storytelling over action.
Season two’s 'Blackwater' did depict an all-out assault by Stannis on the capital, King's Landing, but, for all its style, this felt somewhat limited and lacking the scale conjured by Martin.
In an attempt to up the ante in season four, however, showrunners David Benioff, DB Weiss and director Neil Marshall unleashed a blitzkrieg of utter mayhem with 'The Watchers on the Wall'. An episode that takes place entirely around the lonely home of the equally desolate Night’s Watch, it features a stunning confluence of those fundamental elements that make Thrones great: excitement, tension, opera and tragedy.
In it, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), bastard offspring of the Starks and loyal brother of the grim guardsmen at the edge of the realm, leads the defence of Castle Black against a relentless mob of wildlings (marshalled by Ciarán Hinds’s Mance Rayder).
We’ve seen countless sieges depicted before but this, featuring charging giants, a massive wall of ice, a catalogue of cruel weapons — including the great chain that the budget wouldn’t stretch to for 'Blackwater' — and as much outright savagery as anything glimpsed to that point, was conveyed with both real style and a clear-eyed sense of purpose.
In taking the outline provided by Martin and crafting it into something both unique and genuinely thrilling, the writers and director produced the year’s best piece of television, its greatness becoming evident as the pace was set to maximum speed.
Season Five: The Massacre at Hardhome
The showrunners had long warned fans that Thrones’s fifth season would follow its own path, unrestricted by the plot lines of Martin’s material. However distressing that sounded to devotees, it was an inevitable step given the fact that the author has published no new volumes since 2011 and the television arc has now, essentially, caught up with those parts of the literary tale that it has resolved to cover.
Not all of the new angles have been welcome. There has been child sacrifice and yet more rape, elements injecting the series with a darkness that was not entirely necessary.
It is arguable then that much of this uncertainty can be offset by the magnificent finale to Hardhome, the eighth episode of season five. Once again departing from the Martin canon, Benioff and Weiss relocate to the eponymous fishing village far beyond the Wall, where Snow has come to persuade the thousands of Free Folk remaining there to flee south, away from the threat bearing down on them.
That threat is personified by the White Walkers, a race of clearly wicked magical beings intent on world domination (of course) who have haunted Game of Thrones since their appearance in the chilling prologue of the first ever episode (a direct lift from book one). Unlike Martin, who has barely bothered with the characters since, HBO placed them front and centre here as they and their hordes of zombies — a concept far less exciting than the Walkers themselves — attack Hardhome and massacre all they come across.
As Snow barely escapes with his life, he stares back towards the shore and meets the cold glare of the Walkers’ chief evildoer standing on the dock. With a casual lift of his outstretched hands — part defiant gesture, part demonstration of intent — the faerie raises an army of the dead from the countless corpses on the frigid beach. The howl of the wind and the lapping of the waves are the only soundtrack.
It is a swaggeringly cinematic sequence rippling with the confidence that now courses through the show and proof that the network can be trusted to stick closely to the spirit of its source. What qualms there were about the effectiveness of the new approach dissipated in that instant.
Game of Thrones will return to Sky Atlantic in 2016.