Game of Thrones, the internet’s favorite show, returns this Sunday for a highly anticipated seventh season. That means, if you’re a fan, that it’s very possible that you’ve already binged all of the previous six seasons and you’re now so re-immersed in Westeros that you’ve started doing Jon Snow’s accent in public. However, there’s also a chance you haven’t had time. Life is short, you have work, and all of those episodes of Saved By The Bell ain’t gonna rewatch themselves. So, you might need more of a crash course to prepare you for re-entry.
But what to watch and how much? Which episodes are key to understanding the plot to come, where the characters came from and where they’re headed? We could debate that endlessly, of course, but these 10 hours are a good place to start. Before Season 7 hits on Sunday, revisit these 10 essential Game of Thrones episodes.
SPOILERS AHEAD, of course
“BLACKWATER” (Season 2, Episode 9)
It’s a bit of a Thrones tradition that the penultimate episode of each season is a pull-out-all-the-stops jaw-dropper of an hour. “Blackwater” is one of the best examples of that. The first truly epic battle sequence of the series was given almost the full runtime of this installment to unfold, as Stannis Baratheon made a play for King’s Landing and very nearly won. It’s got Tyrion’s amazing battle speech, Joffrey being the little shit we loved to hate and that amazing Wildfire explosion. It felt like the stakes were raised tremendously in this episode and it remains a series highlight. So, why’s it on this list? Well, it seems increasingly likely that we’ll see another battle at the gates of Westeros’ capital soon. This episode serves to underline, again, that it’s not an easy city to take.
“THE RAINS OF CASTAMERE” (Season 3, Episode 9)
Another big penultimate episode and the one you probably saw coming the moment you clicked on this article. Also known simply as “The Red Wedding Episode,” this hour is essential for remembering just how far Game of Thrones will go to assert the brutality of its world. Yeah, no one is safe in Westeros, but surely that excludes women and unborn children and attendants just doing their jobs, right? Not if you’re Tywin Lannister and you want to end a war with a medieval mic drop. The ripples this episode sent out are still being felt (see Arya’s vengenace last season) and the climactic slaughter has become shorthand for “shocking death” when discussing virtually any other show. Also, if you somehow still know someone who doesn’t know it’s coming, watch it with them and savor the schadenfreude.
“THE MOUNTAIN AND THE VIPER” (Season 4, Episode 8)
If you’re looking for the top Thrones duel, this is it. Oberyn Martell (played by the incomparable Pedro Pascal) showed up in Season 4 and captivated fans with charisma, grace and pure sex appeal. Then, his character was snuffed out at the end of the most visually elegant fight scene the show has produced. His death might not be the most shocking we’ve ever seen (hello, Ned Stark) but it was almost inarguably the most brutal. By the time his head was reduced to a pile of red goo, the show had re-established its reputation for always destroying the things we love. It’s about more than a shocking death, though. Without this episode and its outcome, Tyrion never flees to the East and becomes Daenerys’ ally, The Mountain never evolves into a terrifying armor-zombie and Dorne never rises up in full revolt against the Lannisters. It’s a classic packed with plot.
“HARDHOME” (Season 5, Episode 8)
For a very long time, “Blackwater” was the best battle sequence Game of Thrones has given us. It was one full hour of tension, carnage and great character moments. Three years later, “Hardhome” topped it. The episode does diverge into other plotlines which make it very important. Cersei moves closer to the infamous “Shame” sequence, Dany and Tyrion meet for the first time and Ramsay makes a move on Stannis Baratheon, among other things. Still, the battle sequence at the titular Wildling village dominates the hour. At this point we’d been hearing about the threat of the White Walkers for five years. It’s a fear that the entire series led off with and we’d heard both Jon and Sam constantly lecture about it. We’d even seem some casualties. What we hadn’t seen was the full breadth of the terror to come. When the Night King raises his arms and seems to replenish his army with a single thought, it’s clear. This is the Fight to End All Fights on this show. Now, with the Season 7 tagline “Winter Is Here,” we’re about to see the fruits of this set-up.
“MOTHER’S MERCY” (Season 5, Episode 10)
Lena Headey’s gobsmacking performance in the “Shame!” scene makes this episode a classic. This episode is not only knockout work for her but the culmination of five years of acting. Cersei Lannister is the show’s most complex villain, to the point that you spend huge swaths of the show wondering if she’s a villain at all. “The Winds of Winter” (more on that later) illustrates how ruthless she is but this episode illustrates just how far she’s willing to go personally for victory. She will sacrifice morality, privacy and even dignity but eventually She Will Beat You. It’s important to remember that as the show heads into its final act. Oh, and the rest of the episode’s pretty great too.
“BATTLE OF THE BASTARDS” (Season 6, Episode 9)
When discussing “essential” Thrones episodes to revisit before its return, you obviously think about the most recent season a lot. Obviously it’s important because it’s what just happened, but which episode is the most relevant? “The Winds of Winter” might be the most obvious choice because the season finale will always set the stage for the next season’s premiere, but “Battle of the Bastards” is Just. So. Good. It somehow surpassed “Hardhome” to become the best battle episode of the series yet and it’s packed with amazing character moments despite only really carrying two plotlines. Dany and Yara’s alliance sparked a million fanfiction stories, Jon’s stand against the Bolton cavalry is his best moment on the show (Yeah, you heard me.) and Sansa gets to finally be a little naughty after years of abuse. Remember that last moment in particular. Sansa is not done by a long shot.
HONORABLE MENTION Game of Thrones is…well, it’s a lot. Which means narrowing this list down was hard. If you can only hit the episodes above before Sunday, fine. If you want more, this is where you should look.
“The Winds of Winter” (Season 6, Episode 10)
It’s last season’s finale and it’s got plot on plot on plot you need to remember.
“Oathbreaker” (Season 6, Episode 3)
Fans had been waiting years for the Ned Stark flashback.
“Baelor” (Season 1, Episode 9)
The original Shocking Death episode and quite possibly the most jaw-dropping the show’s ever been, Red Wedding and all. Ned Stark’s beheading is still echoing through the series.
“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Because you never count out Brienne of Tarth.
Game of Thrones returns Sunday on HBO.