No other show has treated us to brutality quite like Game of Thrones. The lengths it goes to in wrenching our hearts from our being is staggering at this point. Some moments are earned, others not quite, and few – if you can believe – are damn near artful. They’re worth mentioning regardless, and worth revisiting if only to mentally prepare us for the hurt that awaits in the upcoming final season. As Ramsay Bolton once said, “if you think this has a happy ending then you haven’t been paying attention.”
Get your guard up. It’s about to get brutal.
10. Janos Slynt Follows Orders
Once upon a time in Season 2, we were still getting a handle on the world of Game of Thrones. Post-Ned Stark, we knew no one was safe, but it wasn’t until S2’s opener that we came to grasp the scale of that notion. Joffrey commands the City Watch to execute all of Robert’s bastards because 1.) they could challenge his claim to the throne if the rumors of his true parentage were true (spoiler: it is), and 2.) because, well, he’s Joffrey. City Watch Commander Janos Slynt abides by the Nazi-soldier defense of following orders and murders a baby simply because his king commanded it. That’s a hell of a way to reintroduce us to a world where honor is moot. Innocence has no place here either.
9. That’s not you
The books never let you forget the Stark children have direwolves. The show, on the other hand, has dispensed with them altogether. (Trivia question: do you recall seeing Ghost in Season 7?) S7 marked the rare occasion we got to see Nymeria, Arya’s long lost pup whom she shoo’d off to save her from Cersei. Nymeria returns just as Arya’s made her return, and if it seemed too good to be true, it’s because it was. Arya’s eyes pleading like a puppy herself, and Nymeria giving her the cold shoulder. For a second, I thought Nymeria would rip Arya’s face off. I didn’t think she’d rip my heart out instead.
8. Viserion 😦
Viserion, we hardly knew ye. And yet, the ill-named dragon’s death in S7’s “Beyond The Wall” was no less shocking or emotional. How Game of Thrones came to subtly endear us to an oft-seen CG-dragon is a work of Melisandre sorcery. Before Viserion came crashing down on the ice, we knew it would rise as part of the Night King’s army. Say what you will about the episode, but the raid beyond the wall is successful in its goal to capture a wight – and it comes at a great cost. I’d expect nothing less of the show.
7. Cersei’s Walk of Shame
Fans rejoiced when Cersei was FINALLY thrown in a dungeon of her own making. But I can’t imagine fans cheered for this. Cersei’s walk of atonement ponders an interesting moral question: do you answer amorality with amorality? Is there justice in an eye for an eye? And can there truly be justice in a sea of hypocrisy? The city might’ve suffered beneath the plight of war, but a mob will always be a mob, no matter the circumstances that incited them. Take S2’s riot, wherein a Septon is literally ripped apart (weird flex but ok) and then a gang of men tries to rape Sansa. Is the mob justified in their atrocity because they suffered and therefore others should suffer? Is this mob, for that matter? It’s the frequency of Cersei’s public shaming that’s so cruel, and I say that knowing full well what Cersei would go on to do. Frankly, the people of King’s Landing deserve her as queen.
6. One Last “You Know Nothing”
Before Jon and Dany’s shipped sailed (Targaryens, amiright?), it was Ygritte and Jon whom we rooted for despite the odds. They had the sweetest meet-cute story: he was supposed to execute her. Only in Game of Thrones. That hoping against hope is what makes the end of Jon and Ygritte’s story at Castle Black so heartbreaking, and gets the waterworks running for me every time. The trajectory was always written. Because as Night’s Watchman and Wildling woman, they could never be. Now that’s a Shakespearean romance if I’ve ever seen one. Longing, endearing, and above all, doomed.
5. Sansa’s Wedding Night
Oh Sansa, you deserved better than to be subbed in for another character’s redemptive storyline. No one’s suffered on a scale quite like Sansa, and this is even before she’s wed to Ramsay. She realizes her beloved Joffrey is a sociopath, loses her precious direwolf, watches her father die, is promised to marry a very eligible knight only to be wed to a Lannister (surely the best one for her, but still a Lannister), and then believes she’s safe with her Aunt Lysa only to discover her aunt is batshit crazy-jealous… Needless to say, Sansa’s been through a lot. Which is why Season 5’s reveal that she’s to be wed to Ramsay is so cruel, and what will happen to her on her wedding night and the nights after is far crueler that it’s breathtaking. (She had felt the fear of an attempted rape by a gang of men, and here she’s forced to resign to a man who will rape her… Seven Hells.) At the end of Season 6, Sansa FINALLY gets her long overdue transformation. It’s just a damn shame she had to suffer this much to earn it.
4. Ned Stark’s Execution
Where it all began. Sean Bean has a rare talent as an actor – you want him to survive. He’s so easy to root for, and that makes his deaths all the more gut-wrenching. You believe in some way that he’ll make it out of this, because we know just how honorable he is. And Ned Stark believes he’ll survive too, so we’re not expecting the rug to be pulled out from under us. But this was back in Season 1, when we were still being introduced to George R.R. Martin’s world – a world where devout honor can only get you so far. Ned Stark’s death, however shocking, was steadfastly earned. The foreshadowing, the game of politics and deception that no sword or soldier of his can hack through; and the fealty to Joffrey’s rule signifying his moral surrender and end. Ned didn’t see it coming and neither did we. We are right there with Sansa and Arya.
3. Shireen’s Sacrifice
Game of Thrones has done some truly reprehensible things (see above) so I suppose this shouldn’t have come as a surprise… and yet. Nothing could prepare us for this. Shireen’s death is every bit as hard as it is harsh – a fitting end for a hard man like Stannis. It’s just so endlessly cruel to Shireen. What makes it so heartbreaking is this scene, and later in the finale when she asks if there’s anything she can do. Admittedly, we weren’t blind-sided; I believe Stannis loves his daughter. But I also believe the depths he’d go to in order to sit on the Iron Throne. What happened to Shireen is cruel, even for Game of Thrones, but this was always coming.
2. The Red Wedding
As far as Game of Thrones-changing events go, this is the crowning jewel. Ned Stark’s death was merely a prelude. This was the single event that demonstrated what kind of world this was and was truly, where honor painted you in a corner, and ruthlessness roamed free. Robb’s steadfast belief in trusting the Freys becomes crueler each time I revisit Season 3, because he’s completely blind to the checkmate. He is just as honorable as his father, and that’s why he dies.
All involved are operating at their gut-wrenching best— Michelle Fairley especially. With her eyes and a simple turn to the camera, she registers what’s about to happen before anyone else as “The Rains of Castamere” starts to play. (That deep cello tune is blood-curling.) Her quiet, foreboding terror giving way to anxiety, the reveal of the Roose Bolton’s chainmail, and the deaths rolling in one by one: Grey Wind cross-bowed, Lady Talisa stabbed in her pregnant belly, Robb plunged in the heart, and Catelyn’s grief piercing the scene. We want it to be over, and, just before it does, Catelyn’s throat is cut and the show cuts to its most enveloping black screen. The sequence employs the same tactic in the books, that of course there was foreshadowing, of course this was coming, and of course we’d be wrecked by the end. It’s a rare work of art and patience melded specifically to devastate you, and I’d be damned if Game of Thrones hadn’t earned this duly. Brutal, to be sure, but it didn’t come out of nowhere and that’s why it’s so devastating. We’re powerless to stop it. All we can do is watch.
1. Hold the door
Through it all, nothing could prepare us for this prophetic reveal, that Hodor hadn’t been speaking nonsense. He was foreshadowing his own death. I don’t think anyone had an inkling of how a character like Hodor would come to eviscerate us emotionally. As Bran discovers for himself, his green-seeing can echo through time. His visions have consequences. None more so than in Season 6’s halfway point, “The Door.” Bran’s own curiosity costs them dearly. The Three-Eyed Raven fulfills his destiny, the Children of the Forest perish, Summer dies (oh, how symbolic), but what’s revealed of Hodor is so unforgettably upsetting.
Hodor had been fated for this moment his entire life. That’s so profoundly shocking that even now I can’t stomach to watch the scene as it all comes together, or watch as Hodor himself realizes his destiny. Kristian Nairn will go down as one of the most underrated performers of the cast. He spent 6 seasons pretending to be essentially a Pokemon. That caught us off guard, that someone as apparently dim-witted as Hodor could have a hero moment, and could still die tragically. “Hodor” wasn’t just a whimsy or an identity, it was his ending written across time. We’ve witnessed many a great hero fall like fools. Hodor was the only fool who went out like a hero. This isn’t just Game of Thrones at its most brutal, but at its most utterly traumatizing.