Everyone has a theory for how Game of Thrones became one of the biggest shows on TV—and they're all wrong. "Tits and dragons" may seem like a winning combination in retrospect, but it's not like fantasy-based television series had a long and storied history of success. Nor was Game of Thrones an immediate hit: The show's early ratings were solid, sure, but have since quadrupled, making it a massive hit.
Game of Thrones didn't arrive out of nowhere to take its place in our hearts—it built itself up, scene by scene. In the process of writing my book 100 Things Game of Thrones Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, I found that I was repeatedly referencing the same scenes that tell the story of how Game of Thrones became the unavoidable sensation Game of motherfucking Thrones. Some of them are big, famous, explosive scenes—but most aren't. Here are the scenes that made Game of Thrones the massive, expensive, controversial, unavoidable hit that it's become.
1. The Arrival of King Robert (and Arya Stark)
When Game of Thrones debuted, it faced the monumental task of presenting a fully fleshed-out fantasy world with a dense history and almost 20 characters right from the start. How would the show go about transcending that confusion? It did so in two ways, both of which are demonstrated effectively in this scene from the show's pilot: First, it showed off the highest possible production values. Sure, the green screen behind Bran is notable, but also—look at those sets and costumes! And the music is arguably composer Ramin Djawadi's best work from the first season, capturing the immediate bombast and the subtle threat of the king's visit to Winterfell.
But those elements are useless without a direct emotional connection to the characters, and Game of Thrones promoted the books' fan favorites in such a way that viewers immediately latched onto the same characters that readers did. This particular scene is centered on Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), whose big, curious eyes, and deception while watching the king's arrival make her more compelling in this scene than Bran Stark. New viewers might not have instantly understood the full impact of Robert demanding to see Lyanna's grave, but they wanted to see what kind of trouble the girl in the ill-fitting helmet would get up to.
2. Robert, Barristan, and Jaime Recount Their First Kills
The first few episodes of Game of Thrones struggled a bit, but the show really came into its own in the middle of the first season. The plot's acceleration made it clear why we should care about the show's characters, and the show was learning how to be something more than an adaptation of its source material. So if any one scene serves as a turning point, it's the one in which Robert, Barristan, and Jaime discuss their first kills. They're all moderately important characters in the books, but the scene was created entirely for the TV series. The show takes a few minutes to let us get to know these men a little better, displaying confidence to tell the story of Game of Thrones its own way. This doesn't always work out for the show in later seasons, but it's a necessary part of the show's development regardless.
3. Osha Predicts Robb Stark's Fate
Robb Stark is the good guy. The perfect son of a great lord, he's honorable, wise beyond his years, and understands the threat of the Lannisters enough to call his banners and march south on behalf of his father. But he doesn't listen to Osha, the Wildling woman who fled south of the Wall to escape the White Walkers. Late in season one, she tells Bran she tried convincing Robb to march north rather than south to fight the army of the dead instead of the Lannisters. Osha is right—and having seen the undead as the ultimate threat in the show's very first scene, the viewers know she is.
But Robb doesn't know—he can't know. His tragedy is that his concept of doing the right thing—trying to free his father and defeat the Lannisters—is totally bound up in the feudal, patriarchal, stupid world of Westeros that he can't break out of. If he listened to Osha and stayed in the North, he and his army (and, likely, the world) would've been better off for it. But he couldn't, and that's why one of Game of Thrones' central themes is embodied in this scene: The best people make the worst decisions because they can't conceive the options beyond what's possible within their terrible societies.
4. Varys Tells Tyrion a Riddle About Power
Every season finale of Game of Thrones has scored higher ratings than its premiere, and almost every premiere has higher ratings than the previous finale (the show's sixth season being the exception). It's a show that has built excitement as it's progressed—an element that was by no means guaranteed following the first season's shocking death of Ned Stark (Sean Bean), which stood to slow the word-of-mouth momentum heading into the show's second season.
So in the trailer previewing what was next, HBO used music from frequent trailer soundtrackers Florence and the Machine to back one of the most famous monologues from the books: Varys telling Tyrion a riddle about power. The trailer established Tyrion played by the freshly Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage as the show's new central character, as well as affirming that the adaptation of the novels was continuing apace.
5. Davos Calls for the Drums
Another major risk Game of Thrones faced in its second season was that it was based on A Clash of Kings—a book that's more transitional than climactic. The biggest conflict in the book is the Battle of Blackwater, the critical fight of the War of the Five Kings where Stannis Baratheon leads his armies against the Lannisters in King's Landing. It's a damn big deal: Multiple episodes are spent setting it up, and its arrival heralds the first of Game of Thrones' big battle episodes.
"Blackwater," directed by The Descent's Neil Marshall, instantly became one of Game of Thrones' biggest and best episodes. Marshall masterfully establishes the personal and political stakes of the battle through a series of quiet but increasingly tense scenes. The tension has to break at some point, and it does brilliantly in this simple scene where Davos speaks to his son before calling for the drums. His son shouts it for the ship, Stannis's army announces its presence, Ramin Djawadi's soundtrack shifts into gear, and things get explosive. This ability to shift seamlessly from tense, quiet dialogue into explosive bombast became, arguably, the show's greatest strength.
6. Jaime Loses His Hand
Game of Thrones is pulpy and sordid, a story of increasingly absurd events happening to larger-than-life characters. The show (and to some extent, the books) doesn't always understand this, veering between stately period drama stylings and the revelry of misery. This particular scene—in which Jaime Lannister seemingly convinces Bolton henchman Locke not to rape Brienne, only to lose his hand to Locke's poor impulse control—isn't quite a compromise.
It's one of the strangest scenes in all of Game of Thrones, because immediately after the violent mutilation, the credits roll with a raucous version of the in-world song "The Bear and the Maiden Fair" performed by real-world rock band the Hold Steady. Electric guitars weren't previously featured in Thrones, but here they are wailing. It's not a coincidence that in Game of Thrones' third season—which features the Red Wedding, arguably the darkest and most shocking event in the show's entire story—the show leans toward being, well, fun.
7. The Sack of Astapor
That great third season demonstrated that it learned the lessons from "Blackwater" masterfully. The show consistently and confidently deployed a wide range of tonal shifts, utilizing a solid baseline of writing, acting, and production value to tell its increasingly intense story. The show's confidence would eventually backfire on itself in future, but the highlights from the third season demonstrated that, for a time, it worked.
It's funny to remember that the big battle scene in the first season was cut, given how famous the show became for huge, bombastic set pieces. My favorite of these is the sack of Astapor, in which Daenerys Targaryen unleashes her plan to betray the slavers of the city and gain an army at no cost. Emilia Clarke has never been better, unleashing an imperious sneer at all who doubted her. The violence that follows is not the grim, dark sort the the show's since become famous for—but rather, the cathartic release of revolution. In this moment, the constant plot twists of the show convey an "anything is possible" feeling that actually includes hope.
8. Jamie and Brienne in the Baths
The previous two scenes are fun, but they don't tell the full story of how well Game of Thrones worked at its peak. The explosive scenes and shocking moments require a solid foundation of character work, another area in which the third season shines brightly. In adapting the relatively uneventful half of A Storm of Swords, the season actually has room to slow down and breathe. (Consider how slowly the Tullys are introduced, compared to the dizzying survey of Westeros given in the next few seasons.) The absolute best of these character-centered scenes is in "Kissed By Fire," my sneaky favorite episode of the series. Brienne and Jaime pretty much just sit in the baths and talk. There's a bit of nudity, but it's largely desexualized during a long, quiet monologue where Jaime discusses how he acquired the moniker "Kingslayer."
Everything about this scene enhances the weight of history in Game of Thrones by complicating what we thought we already knew about Jaime; even the scene's location, Harrenhal's baths, help add to our understanding of what the baths and Westerosi society in general are like. Scenes like this are the true source of the show's popularity, regardless of how many Red Weddings or Battles of the Bastard steal all the attention.
9. The Jaime-Cersei Sexual Assault Scene
Game of Thrones' fourth season was heavily anticipated from fans and critics alike, and its superb premiere "The Lion and the Rose" justified the hype. But a single scene in the third episode, "Breaker of Chains," provoked inescapable controversy and turned the show into the thinkpiece-generating extravaganza it's now become. The scene in question occurs at the funeral of the awful King Joffrey, as his parents—the incestuous Jaime and Cersei Lannister—mourn him. What ensues is a scene that most people read as rape, which became a huge issue for a few reasons.
First, Jaime had become one of the show's best characters, his redemptive arc taking shape when he prevented the sexual assault of Brienne. Second, the scene in question wasn't portrayed as rape in the novels, making it seem like the show was going for pure shock value. Third, director Alex Graves argued against what most of us saw, claiming he didn't intend to film the scene that way. The confusion and backlash turned two of Game of Thrones' biggest support bases, fantasy fans and TV critics, against the show, and its critical acclaim has not followed its increasing popularity. The show became one of controversy rather than quality, a trend that culminated a year later with a similar scene that caused one major geek outlet to stop covering the series entirely.
10. The Mountain and the Viper
Even as it became more controversial, Game of Thrones only got better at providing grand spectacle. The fourth season's back end features the show's greatest duel scene, between the Mountain that Rides and the Red Viper. On a technical and storytelling level, it's one of the greatest duels I've ever seen committed to screen: Oberyn, using his showmanship to gain reactions, fights symmetrically and elegantly; Gregor, only interested in winning, breaks up the beauty as much as possible.
The fourth season as a whole is filled with these massive, beautiful spectacles, to the point where it seemed that the show existed just to create big moments. This moment in particular raised the issue that, after the massive tragedy of the Red Wedding, Oberyn's death seemed to be little more than building up hope to squash it again. While I personally disagree (Oberyn's death leads to a more direct comeuppance for Tywin, the show's biggest villain), Game of Thrones was established as a show that, while technically top-tier, existed primarily to inflict cruelties upon its characters and viewers alike, even if those cruelties have never looked better.
11. Arya Kills Meryn
That narrative was enhanced by the fifth season of the series, which managed to adapt the darkest novels and somehow make them even nastier. While much of the opprobrium focuses, quite fairly, on Sansa's unnecessary rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, the season was shot through with darkness, ending on two episodes of unrelenting grimness—a nihilistic death march of child murder and promise betrayed. From a narrative perspective, there are many exemplary scenes of season five's darkness—but, aesthetically, the one that sticks in my mind is Arya's assassination of Ser Meryn Trant.
It's the opposite of Dany's sacking of Astapor, an act of just violence treated as the start of a new age of heroism. The brothel in Braavos is nothing but brutality, built on revenge, child prostitution, and abuse. It isn't cathartic, nor is it an impressive action sequence—it's purely unpleasant to watch. Perhaps the show's producers wanted viewers to believe it's darkest before the dawn; perhaps they wanted to punish viewers for finding other pieces of Arya's revenge so entertaining. Regardless, alongside Stannis's downfall, Jon's betrayal, Myrcella's deeply ill-timed murder, and so much more, Arya's vengeance against Meryn Trant defines Game of Thrones' fifth season.
12. Brienne Swears Her Oath to Sansa
Game of Thrones' sixth season was dramatically different from the previous seasons in two critical ways. It was the first season that wasn't based primarily on the existing books, and second, after the increased criticism from the past few seasons, showrunners Benioff and Weiss claimed they'd listened to criticism and adjusted accordingly. These changes were apparent less than 20 minutes into the season, with Sansa and Theon's rescue at the hands of Brienne and Podrick setting a tone of pure heroism that the rest of the season followed (save for a few detours, of course). Charting this path was a risky move for Game of Thrones, which built its success on subverting fantasy tropes. But even if a straightforward good-versus-evil battle isn't the most intelligent and satisfying conclusion for the show to reach, Brienne swearing her oath to Sansa (as she had to Catelyn) was still amazing.
13. Jon Draws His Sword
The sixth season's preparations for the show's endgame also meant highlighting Game of Thrones' two most traditional fantasy heroes: Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. An increased focus on Jon hasn't always worked out, in part because Kit Harington hasn't demonstrated tremendous emotional range as an actor. What Harington is good at, however, is action sequences—something that Game of Thrones has decided to make his character's raison d'etre in its later seasons. In the Emmy-dominating "Battle of the Bastards," this is distilled into a single moment: Jon Snow, mourning the death of his brother, facing the onrushing Bolton army, draws his sword. A single image defines Game of Thrones' endgame: Our heroes now stand up against evil.
14. Cersei's Coup
This article opened by discussing the importance of production values to Game of Thrones' early popularity. The show always looked and sounded fantastic, to the point where it was easy to take for granted. But in this single scene from the opening minutes of the sixth season finale, Game of Thrones drew focus again on its aesthetic quality by letting two of its most essential creative types go wild: costumer Michelle Clapton and composer Ramin Djawadi, turning in their most notable productions for Cersei Lannister's coup that grants her the Iron Throne.
Clapton's design for Cersei's dress incorporated Cersei's father's style and her brother's hand into the queen's look, and Djawadi—normally a composer in the Zimmer school of sharp staccato drums and horns—weaves melody in different ways throughout his soundtrack. One of the problems with Game of Thrones is that its episodes can feel samey; we check in on each of the major characters all across the world, it looks great, maybe some cool stuff happens, we move on. It takes something special to break through the default mode and force people to pay attention. Despite its highs and lows, Game of Thrones has always carried the potential to be the most impressive show around. As it heads toward a massive climax, it knows it can always rely on spectacle.
Follow Rowan Kaiser on Twitter.