A Clash of Swords: Game of Thrones’ Best Battles

The Long Night is upon us y’all.

After taking a year off, it’s safe to say the anticipation for Game of Thrones’ final season is ready to burst like the Sept of Baelor. As we wait out this final stretch before the premiere, I’ll be taking a look back on past seasons with deep dives, discussions, and lists long enough to test Arya’s patience.

First up: the show’s best battle sequences. I’m not going to limit myself to just the big army battles, but all the spectacular PVPs in between. It’s going to get bloody. (And, from what’s been teased of the upcoming season, it’s about to get even bloodier.)

Let the ranking begin.

Honorable Mention: Brienne vs. The Hound
This clash is movie monster sized. A wincing, no holds-barred fuck ‘em up. My only gripe is the hyper-editing of the swordplay, which undercuts the bluntness of their blows. Otherwise, this one still deserves mention.

 

10. The Not-so-Magnificent 7

This epic raiding party forms in a jail cell at Eastwatch. But whatever promises made in this Westerosi suicide squad pretty much die in the midst of this overlong affair to “bring the dead to Cersei.” I suppose it’s no surprise that the plan goes both awry and according to plan. They succeed, but lose oh so very much. There’s been many a comment thread on the episode’s logistics crashing into the ice like a fallen Viserion (them namesakes, man) so I won’t waste the space, but I gotta say that dragon entrance still gives me goosebumps; it’s always satisfying to see Beric’s sword light on fire; and there’s also this. A flawed penultimate episode, which isn’t always the case for GoT, but I still found the battle on the ice entertaining as hell.

 

9. Jaime & Bronn vs. Dornish Welcome Party

Season 5 contains a load of injustices (which I’ll get to in another post), its Dornish plotline chief among them. But before the arc goes sour, it was a fascinatingly worthwhile buddy comedy between Jaime and Bronn. Bronn’s free-flying demeanor is the perfect foil to Jaime’s stature. Which is why this sequence is so damn watchable; Jaime’s belief in his self-confidence betrays Bronn’s attempt to con their way out of a skirmish. A skirmish ensues. Turns out when you take away Jaime’s best hand, he becomes infinitely more compelling. Seeing Jaime panic is a rare delight because of Nikolaj’s ability to express it through Jaime’s distinguished poise. Sword clashing is always fun. Watching Jaime and Bronn try and fail to parry their way out of awkward scenarios is even better. It’s almost enough to redeem the Dornish plotline. Almost.

 

8. Euron’s Ambush

This naval battle scene wins the award for Holy-Shit-I-Did-Not-See-That-Coming. By now, we’ve gotten used to the show’s rhythm of teasing big battles in time for the epic penultimate episode. Few times GoT has successfully managed to catch us off guard: Hardhome (which I’ll get to in a moment) and this. Just when we think Dany and her allies have the upper hand, Euron comes to crash the party. Pilou Asbæk properly heralds his character a worthy intro— the heir apparent to Ramsay’s love-to-hate villain. A bold pyro-technics display, a straight up Viking-style slaughter, and a critical family confrontation that ends with your heart being ripped open. This is GoT served just right.

 

7. Attack on Castle Black

Director Neil Marshall essentially gets his Battle of the Blackwater re-do with this episode. Not that the Blackwater battle was terrible per se, but he didn’t quite get the chance to pre-viz or pre-plan the action beats. (He was a last-minute replacement.) With Season 4’s penultimate “Watchers on the Wall,” Marshall gets exactly that. This one-shot panning across the chaos at Castle Black practically set the template for similar sweeping one-shots in subsequent battle scenes. (Marhsall, too, seemed inspired by his leading man Kit Harington; he’s given a great many hero shots in the ep.) Leave it to the guy who directed The Descent to inject a visceral energy without sacrificing the character beats that ground us in the spectacle. There’s a moment between Sam and Pyp that echoes a similar intimate moment in The Descent, and the ending between Jon and Ygritte gets the waterworks going every. single. time. You 👏 know 👏 nothing 👏 Jon 👏 Snow 😭😭😭

 

6. No Place Like Hardhome

Season 5 put the show in uncharted territory because by then it had caught up *mostly* to the books. That’s what made the Massacre at Hardhome so harrowing and impactful. No one saw this coming. In the books, the threat of the White Walkers (who go by the “Others”) is oft described, left to the imagination. Hardhome treated us to a World War Z-style undead terror, inducing a panic and anxiety that goes to show just how fucked Westeros will be if it doesn’t get its shit together. Miguel Sapochnik’s direction is crazy inspired, the camera-work a ballet of medieval action and sheer visceral horror that would make Army of Darkness director Sam Raimi blush. As many times as I’ve watched the Massacre at Hardhome, its ending moment is always chilling. You think you hear the wind howling, but it’s not. It’s the silence of the dead staring at you.

 

5. King in the North vs. Kingslayer

The fight that laid the groundwork for ensuing fights to come. It’s always a pleasure to see Sean Bean and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau act opposite each other, and it’s somehow more satisfying when push comes to shove. Ned’s stern dislike pitted against Jaime’s arsenal of ego. I low-key love that punch Ned throws after the parry; he knows killing Jaime would ignite a war between their houses and vice-versa, so he elects to show him what he really thinks of the Kingslayer. The faces Jaime makes are exactly what I’d expect from a smug knight as himself. (You know, back when he had two hands.) Their fight only lasts roughly 40-seconds, but it accomplishes a great deal of coverage establishing the show’s early swordplay aesthetic marked by a touch of Disney villainy courtesy of Jaime’s locks. Who would’ve disarmed who if that Lannister soldier hadn’t interrupted, I wonder?

 

4. Mountain v. Viper

“Today is not the day I die.” – Oberyn, the day he died

Pedro Pascal’s Inigo Montoya-like swagger seals the deal for me, just as it seals Oberyn’s fate. Achilles heels aside, this trial by combat is always fun to revisit even with its gruesome ending. The Unsullied might’ve been the first to show us what spear combat looked like, but it was Oberyn who made it a fearless dance, with – as a man who goes by The Viper is wont to have it – a seething venomous bite. Part of Oberyn’s allure was his being not-at-all intimidated by The Mountain, and he had the skill to back that swagger. When all was said and done, he got the confession he wanted didn’t he? His screams of face-crushing agony still haunt me, but while Oberyn commanded the floor, he was the man.

 

3. Young Ned vs. The Sword of the Morning

Arthur Dayne, you Westerosi Ip Man. Book readers have been teased with the Sword of the Morning’s reputation and excellence, and this (our only glimpse of him in the show) did NOT disappoint. I’ve never seen a knight engage with 4 combatants simultaneously. The sequence is also revealing of Ned Stark’s supposed shining nobility. (Damned Howland Reed.) The lie of the story that would later be recounted to Ned’s children foreshadows the lie of Robert’s Rebellion. On a first viewing, it’s a spectacular set-piece; repeat viewings show a starkly dramatic heft to the events that would follow. If only we could get a glimpse of Robert and Rhaegar’s fateful showdown at the Trident…

 

2. Battle of the Bastards

Miguel Sapochnik’s masterpiece. This medieval battle stacks up alongside Lord of the Rings’ epic battles, filled with highs and lows that made this such a visceral and unforgettable showdown. We can groan at Ramsay’s excessive brutality-streak, but it was all set-up for this, him as the ideal target of the surviving Stark children’s wrath (the most earned beatdown in television history). Kit Harington’s performance in this episode is masterful. What he does with stillness, or a stare, or utter resignation, is superb; just goes to show he’s always been the MVP of the show (as does his character’s lineage reveals). And let’s not forget Sansa; the last minute save of the Rohirrim-esque Knights of the Vale is a moment we rarely get in a show as brutal as GoT, and is felt enormously because of it. The episode’s production team of over 500 extras, 600 crew members and 70 horses, take a freakin’ bow. The horses, too.

 

  1. The Loot Train Barbecue

This is what Game of Thrones was made for. Huge battles, pivotal character confrontations, and DRAGONS – a magnificent blend of live-action and special effects that’s on another level. (You could tell me that it was a real dragon and I would 100% believe you.) A sequence 7-seasons in the making, GoT carefully laid the historical and dramatic groundwork that makes it endlessly rewatchable. A resurgence of destiny in Jaime’s meeting of Targaryen wrath, a caution of a fool’s errand (“Only a fool would meet the Dothraki in the open field”), and a deliverance of the series’ tagline of a promise. Yes, yes, Winter is coming. This song of fire, however, is an epic symphony to behold.

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