We rank every season of Game of Thrones: from least cruel to most
With no more new seasons of Game of Thrones to look forward to until 2019 (!), let's consider the trajectory of all seven seasons in a way befitting a show that's often as harsh and bleak as the bitterest winter winds. Because to be honest, there are no bad seasons of Game of Thrones. But there are some seasons which are far crueler than others. With the help of a few wise maesters, I hashed out as best I could the inexact method of measuring the cruelty of each season.
Here we go. From least cruel to cruelest.
7. Season 7
Not only was the latest season almost entirely free of tragic events, but it went out of its way to please longtime fans: Daenerys and Jon finally meeting; Daenerys kicking much ass, alive and undead, with her fully grown dragons; Jamie Lannister finally walking away from Cersei's bullshit; the Stark sisters teaming up to avenge their family, and more crazy White Walker action than ever before.
Not only were these moments and events sources of pleasure, they were crucial building blocks for this season's narrative. And at only 7 episodes long, there was little time for throat clearing and wheel-spinning. Barring episode 5, every episode contained plot points that previous seasons would take their time to build to.
When the most notable kill that occurred was that of a man who'd had it coming for years, you know that you're watching the least cruel season of Game of Thrones. Though snow descended in a final scene in King's Landing, season 7 had the giddy spirit of a sweet summer child.
6. Season 6
The first season to be comprised entirely of original story material, and so the first one where author George RR Martin's bloody-minded capriciousness is noticeably toned down.
The looming question hanging over the season: Was Jon Snow really dead? He was. But not for very long: By episode 3 he was not only alive and kicking, but killed the black brothers who betrayed him, and was conveniently completely free of the burdensome responsibility of being the Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. Not only that but we got our first Stark reunion in the form of a surprisingly emotional Jon and Sansa embrace. Together, they took back their home of Winterfell through a great, terrifically violent battle where none of our favourites died.
Back in King's Landing, the Lannisters and the Tyrells were still being terrorised by the fanatical Faith Militant and their Sparrow grunts. The Sparrows signified a fundamental shift in the political landscape; the greed and myopia of the royal houses had left Westeros in a corrupted state, and its citizenry eagerly dived into the rising tide of populist rage. Regardless of the festering ill-will toward the Crown that serves the high lords and crushes everyone else, Cersei wiped both her Tyrell rivals and the Sparrows off the face of the earth and re-affirmed the standing of the Lannisters in one swift and explosive move. It was a supremely well-edited and well-scored assassination scene, just beautiful to behold. Still, that doesn't exactly help out, like, Otto the Peasant, does it? So you can only feel so good about that.
Daenerys ended season 5 in her weakest position yet: alone with a moody, disobedient dragon and surrounded by a horde of Dothraki screamers. But she not only claimed the Dothraki army for herself, she slew the slave masters who'd been undermining her entire rule at Meereen, and by the end she was on the way to conquering Westeros with three obedient dragons and new allies.
But there were some downer moments that tempered a triumphant season. Jon failed to save his little brother Rickon; although Tommen is nobody's favourite character, his suicide at the end is affecting and you can't help but feel for the boy who never had a chance; and, of course, “Hold the Door”. Stifles tears, The fuck, Bran?
5. Season 2
After the shocking death of main protagonist Lord Eddard Stark, season 2 reoriented and squared its focus on the Stark children and a host of new characters: Arya and her misadventures at Harrenhal; Sansa at the mercy of the depraved King Joffrey; Bran and Rickon dealing with an unwelcome change at Winterfell thanks to the Greyjoys and their Ironborn men; young Robb winning every battle as the new King in the North, but finding himself torn between duty and desire when he meets a beauty from Volantis; and Stannis Baratheon and his crew of loyal followers.
This one lacks the major deaths of seasons 6 & 7, but is layered with significantly more heartache. Especially Arya's journey, which was something like a Dickens story with lashings of gruesome torture scenes. One time Stark ally Theon Greyjoy turned cloak and sacked Winterfell, all so he could feel like the Big Man for a change. Stannis Baratheon seemed the most suitable candidate to overthrow Joffrey, but he suffered a terrible defeat at the Battle of Blackwater. Daenerys floundered, angry and ineffectual, in the desert city Qarth.
Though there's nothing here close to the crushing loss of good man Ned Stark or the bloody horror of the Red Wedding, it is indeed a bit of a bummer across the board. The few character flaws planted the seeds from which calamitous consequences would sprout – Robb's hasty infatuation, Stannis' religious fanaticism – and grants this season a bit more weighty darkness upon re-watches.
4. Season 4
You had to be at least a little suspicious during season 4 when, very early on, it gifted us all with the graphic death of the unreasonably awful boy King Joffrey Baratheon. And if you were a little suspicious you were right to be, because everyone's favourite littlest Lannister Tyrion was immediately blamed for his murder.
The season followed his ordeal of a trial and introduced a new player into the game, the dashing and vengeful Dornish prince, Oberyn Martell, a man after our hearts and out for Lannister blood. He volunteered to be Tyrion's champion for the Trial By Combat in one of the season's more touching scenes. So, naturally, the Lannisters' own Luca Brasi, Gregor Clegane, crushed Oberyn's skull and it exploded like an especially ripe melon. It was only then we realised that Pedro Pascal's charming and charismatic performance amounted to a winding fist aimed at our collective gut.
Arya was under the protection of a man she hated, the Hound. Though he cared for her in his own gruff way, she coldly left him to die. Her humanity was fading away, as evidenced by her uncharacteristic shriek of mirth upon learning that another relative had died. Sansa escaped the viper's nest capital of King's Landing with the help of Littlefinger, only to be implicitly held hostage by the monologuing creep. Theon's dehumanisation continued with no end in sight.
If anyone emerges from this season with some wins under their belt, it's probably Jon Snow, who really came into his own as a leader when he led a rag-tag team of Watchers to avenge the fallen Lord Commander Mormont, and bravely held the line during the Wildling invasion at the Wall. Alas, his love Ygritte died at the battle, along with a couple of his good friends.
A sense of malaise permeated this season. It ended on an appropriately down note with the pitiful death of Lannister patriarch Tywin, who valued his family name above all else, only to be killed by the son he couldn't not spit venom at, even at quarrelpoint. And Daenerys' dragons, so instrumental in securing her victories, grew large and restless and began terrorising her new subjects.
Amazing to think that there was a time when the dragons weren't awe-inspiring sites but Just Another Problem to Deal With.
3. Season 1
The first season of Game of Thrones deftly introduced us to a sprawling, weighty mythology and a tangled web of political intrigue. When compared to the blockbuster/ soap opera antics that we often get from the show now, it comes off looking more and more like a subdued costume drama.
And it did a bang up job of also introducing us to Game of Thrones' tendency to grind your heart into hamburger meat.
And not just by way of chopping off Ned Stark's head in the end, but also in intimately detailing King Robert's and Ned's true and honest friendship, and the underlying sadness in how they can never go back to simpler times, much as they yearn to. Or when King Robert and Cersei discuss their loveless political marriage in frank terms, and you could almost pinpoint the moment when Cersei decides to kill him. It's the first time you get a good glimpse of the pain underneath King Robert's boisterousness and fat man joviality. Remember the first time you're watching this show and, in your infinite naivety, you know that surely Joffrey can't be king for long and justice will prevail for all? To paraphrase the Hound, "Fuck all that."
Yep, nothing hurts like the first time. Except for these next top two showstoppers of pure misery...
2. Season 3
George RR Martin called the Red Wedding chapter, “the hardest chapter I've ever had to write”, and showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss cited it as the reason for adapting the Song of Ice and Fire. The showrunners went above and beyond in that regard, because not only were the Stark forces slaughtered at was meant to be a convivial evening of forging new friendships, but Robb's new pregnant wife Talisa was knifed in the belly too, whereas Robb's wife was spared such a fate in the books. Neither did the show spare us the horror of Robb's direwolf's severed head sewed to his neck and mockingly paraded about. Again, something only hinted at in the novels.
The show dared to up the gruesomeness of the already infamous Red Wedding chapter, and for that it shoots straight to number 2.
And, sidebar, let's not forget Tywin's tongue lashing to Tyrion:
"You are an ill-made, spiteful little creature, filled with envy, lust, and low cunning. And to teach me humility, the gods have condemned me to watch you waddle about wearing that proud lion sigil that was my father's, and his father before him. Neither gods nor men will ever compel me to let you turn Casterly Rock into your whorehouse."
1. Season 5
From the creepy opening scene that contextualises Cersei's fears, to the last image of Jon Snow's ravaged body leaking copious amounts of blood that slowly blacken the surrounding snow, season 5 is a wall-to-wall misery fest. Consequently, it's the toughest one to sit through.
The High Sparrows weren't antagonist that were perversely enjoyable to watch like Joffrey or Ramsay were, but just miserable, pious pricks. Narratively they were an interesting and even necessary addition. But good lord did they make for sucky entertainment, with their filthy robes and outrageous lack of humour.
The Boltons stranglehold over the North continued to rankle. Stannis' slow march to take it back for the North was, really, a slow march to his men starving and the winter snow burying them all. As a pathetic hail mary gesture, he sacrificed his daughter to the flames. Only for it to utterly backfire, for his forces to be decimated by the Boltons in like 2 minutes of screen-time. He faced his death with the grimace of a man who'd lost all the fight in him.
Quick anecdote for a sec. A guy I used to work for said he'd stop watching the show after the episode where Stannis burned his daughter alive. Why? I asked, puzzled that this was the thing that'd make someone call it quits. He shrugged and just said, “I don't need that in my entertainment. I just don't”. I couldn't really argue the point, and was wondering myself if nihilism was all this show had to offer underneath the spectacular production and filmmaking.
Sansa's development hinted at her becoming a shrewd young woman who'd finally take her destiny into her own hands. But that won't be this season; she was sold to the Boltons like a brood mare and suffered repeated rapes and torment at the hands of Ramsay. This too was a breaking point for many people.
The subplot of Bronn and Jaime embarking on an undercover mission to retrieve Myrcella from Dorne initially held some promise as a light and fun romp away from the politicking and the wars in Westeros. But, uh, it wasn't the show's finest material, let's just say. And Arya's training as a Faceless Man in the House of Black and White was pretty dull stuff for the most part. The most exciting scene was when she crossed a name off her kill list, but her execution of the man was so sadistic that catharsis was denied.
Looking for more Game of Thrones fix?
Check out our episode-by-episode deep dive into Season 7 on the Spoiler Nation podcast. Listen below or subscribe to "Spoiler Nation" on wherever you get your podcasts!