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The essential Game of Thrones episodes to watch before season 8

<em>Game of Thrones</em> season 8 is fast approaching.

We divided our must-watch episode guide into two lists: one for the plot and one for the shocks.

Looking for a simple “essential episodes” guide to Game of Thrones before the show returns for its eighth and final season? Not so fast.

Game of Thrones is such a sprawling series that trying to skim-watch your way through it — especially if you’re trying to catch up before season eight premieres on April 14 — isn’t as easy as it might sound.

For one thing, while its fancy high-budget battle scenes and many shocking moments have earned it plenty of buzz and fueled endless fan debates over the years, revisiting them won’t necessarily help you recall the overall plot — and if you’re a newbie, many of them will be hard to care about without the context of who’s who and what’s at stake. As a case in point, Game of Thrones’ single most essential episode, “Rains of Castamere,” is pretty much useless as a way to understand either the show’s overall narrative trajectory or who any of its core characters are.

In other words, not only is there no single episode that will unlock Game of Thrones for you, but plenty of the show’s “must-watch” hours are tough for newcomers to get into. And on the flip side, a lot of the show’s key episodes, in terms of helping you follow the plot, aren’t the ones that have earned all the critical accolades and fan love.

So if you’re looking for a refresher on Game of Thrones’ biggest spectacles and most shocking moments, you’ll need to watch different episodes from someone who’s looking to quickly get up to speed on what’s happening in the story.

To solve this problem, we’ve divided the following list of essential Game of Thrones episodes into two parts: The first part (28 episodes) covers the most important plot developments of the last seven seasons, for anyone who’s completely new to the series or looking to jog their memory before season eight begins. The second part (16 episodes) covers all of the show’s most major “Holy shit!” moments, of which there are plenty. For your convenience, we’ve used asterisks to denote the nine episodes that appear in both parts.

Note: If you’re worried about spoilers, we’ve done our best to stay vague in these episode descriptions, but we make no promises about keeping absolutely every detail under wraps.

The essential episode guide to Game of Thrones — if you want to understand the plot

 HBO
The mother of dragons.

“Winter Is Coming” — Season 1, Episode 1

Why it matters: This is the episode that introduces all of Game of Thrones’ major players, most importantly the Stark family and their relationship to Winterfell, our emotional home base throughout the seasons to come.

** “A Golden Crown” — Season 1, Episode 6 **

Why it matters: We get to see a few key differences that set one Targaryen apart from other would-be rulers of their line — and we witness one character’s lifesaving quick wits at work.

“You Win or You Die” — Season 1, Episode 7

Why it matters: A few crucial plot developments happen, and we begin to understand how swiftly fates can change on this show.

** “Baelor” — Season 1, Episode 9 **

Why it matters: One of Game of Thrones’ most famous episodes culminates in an utterly shocking development, cueing viewers’ realization that A) one character is truly unredeemable and B) this is a show where traditional bets regarding which characters are “safe” are totally off.

** “Fire and Blood” — Season 1, Episode 10 **

Why it matters: OH SHIT DRAGONS.

“The North Remembers” — Season 2, Episode 1

Why it matters: We’re introduced to two important new characters and their equally important entourages, and continue to observe the ripple effects of “Baelor.”

“The Ghost of Harrenhal” — Season 2, Episode 5

Why it matters: A lot of plot happens in “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” and several characters start down long story paths, some of which are still unfolding.

“The Old Gods and the New” — Season 2, Episode 6

Why it matters: This plot-heavy episode introduces a major new character and is, in part, crucial to understanding what will turn out to be one of season three’s biggest moments.

** “Blackwater” — Season 2, Episode 9 **

Why it matters: One of Game of Thrones’ most acclaimed episodes showcases its first climactic battle scene, while one of the show’s most beloved characters gets to really shine.

“Valar Morghulis” — Season 2, Episode 10

Why It matters: Taking its title from what is now a well-known Game of Thrones catchphrase (which translates to “all men must die”), “Valar Morghulis” sows the seeds of some long-term bitterness for one character, and introduces a long-haul plot point for another.

“And Now His Watch Is Ended” — Season 3, episode 4

Why it matters: The plot ramps up significantly for lots of players, and one major Iron Throne contender gets a major boost in their quest.

“Kissed by Fire” — Season 3, episode 5

Why it matters: This popular episode is major in terms of backstory and insight into one character who’s on a slow, satisfying redemption arc.

“Second Sons” — Season 3, Episode 8

Why it matters: We meet a couple of minor but long-abiding new characters, and we get a bit of crucial insight that sets up the gamechanger of an episode that follows.

** “The Rains of Castamere” — Season 3, Episode 9 **

Why it matters: “The Rains of Castamere” is arguably the show’s most brutal, shocking, and genuinely heartwrenching episode — and it both arises from far-reaching plot ripples and gives rise to even more.

“The Lion and the Rose” — Season 4, Episode 2

Why it matters: Written by the creator of the Game of Thrones fantasy universe, George R.R. Martin himself, “The Lion and the Rose” includes one of the show’s most famous (and most eagerly awaited) plot moments. It also offers a bit of a palliative after “The Rains of Castamere.”

“Oathkeeper” — Season 4, Episode 4

Why it matters: The aforementioned redemption arc that we saw in “Kissed by Fire” picks up here again as two bonded characters cross paths once more.

“The Laws of God and Men” — Season 4, Episode 6

Why it matters: This painful episode gives voice to some of the deep-seated bitterness for one main character that we witnessed in “Valar Morghulis,” while presaging major developments to come.

“The Watchers on the Wall” — Season 4, Episode 9

Why it matters: Another epic battle episode, this one has huge emotional ramifications for two characters.

** “The Children” — Season 4, Episode 10 **

Why it matters: The major shocking plot developments of “The Children” almost overshadow its big, and hugely entertaining, sword-fighting sequence.

** “The Dance of Dragons — Season 5, Episode 9 **

Why it matters: One Iron Throne contender’s journey ends with a single horrifying decision.

Read more: The 5 most important moments of Game of Thrones’ season 5, episode 9

“Mother’s Mercy” — Season 5, Episode 10

Why it matters: The sadistic cap to a season characterized by sadism, “Mother’s Mercy” sets in motion a very long revenge cycle and treats us to a hell of a season cliffhanger.

Read more: The 10 most important moments of Game of Thrones’ season 5 finale

“Oathbreaker” — Season 6, Episode 3

Why it matters: Even more important than this episode’s resolution of the cliffhanger that ended the previous season is that it finally sets in motion one character’s movement toward their ultimate narrative destiny. We also get some hugely important backstory glimpses that you’ll want to pay attention to.

Read more: Game of Thrones season 6, episode 3: 5 winners and 5 losers from “Oathbreaker”

“Book of the Stranger” — Season 6, Episode 4

Why it matters: After years apart, two major characters finally reunite with each other and with their beloved home, and it’s as lovely as it sounds.

Read more: Game of Thrones season 6, episode 4: 7 winners and 5 losers from “Book of the Stranger”

“Battle of the Bastards” — Season 6, Episode 9

Why it matters: “Battle of the Bastards” features one of the show’s biggest, critically acclaimed battle scenes, but even more important, it kills someone off who really needed killing.

Read more: Game of Thrones season 6, episode 9: 5 winners and 6 losers in the “Battle of the Bastards”

** “The Winds of Winter” — Season 6, Episode 10 **

Why it matters: Two different characters exact some seriously brutal revenge for various things that have been in play for several seasons, and it all makes for an unforgettable climax to a strong season. Meanwhile, one of the show’s biggest secrets is revealed.

Read more: Game of Thrones season 6 finale: 8 winners and 7 losers from “The Winds of Winter”

“The Queen’s Justice” — Season 7, Episode 3

Why it matters: Game of Thrones is all about serving up long-awaited narrative payoffs, but only alongside painful plot twists. “The Queen’s Justice” is a perfect example, issuing a bittersweet but fitting farewell to one of the show’s best characters. Oh, and two major characters finally meet, in one of the show’s most long-awaited encounters.

Read more: Game of Thrones season 7, episode 3: 7 winners and 6 losers from “The Queen’s Justice”

“Eastwatch” — Season 7, Episode 5

Why it matters: What’s that? A minor character’s casual mention of some boring history minutiae is actually a piece to one of Game of Thrones’ biggest unifying plot puzzles? And you thought you could just kick back and enjoy the dragons this season.

Read more: Game of Thrones season 7, episode 5: 6 winners and 6 losers from “Eastwatch”

** “The Dragon and the Wolf” — Season 7, Episode 7 **

Why it matters: This is the season finale that officially sets off Game of Thrones’ shortened eighth and final season, plus a primo asshole finally gets his due — at the hands of two people he tried to divide.

Read more: Game of Thrones season 7 finale: 9 winners and 10 losers from “The Dragon and the Wolf”

The essential episode guide to Game of Thrones — if you want to see or relive the show’s biggest “Holy shit!” moments

 HBO
The Night King’s “Come at me, bro” moment of infamy

** “A Golden Crown” — Season 1, Episode 6 **

Why it shocks: “A Golden Crown” delivers Game of Thrones’ first big ‘They did what?’ moment — and really, there are two of them. (Hint: One is in the title. The other one involves a heart.)

“The Pointy End” — Season 1, Episode 8

Why it shocks: What do we say to the god of death? NOT TODAY, DAMNIT.

** “Baelor” — Season 1, Episode 9 **

Why it shocks: “Baelor” contains, narratively speaking, one of the most unexpected deaths in TV history (unless you read the A Song of Ice and Fire book series before watching Game of Thrones). Also, who knew Joffrey was really that much of an *expletive*?

** “Fire and Blood” — Season 1, Episode 10 **

Why it shocks: OH SHIT DRAGONS.

** “Blackwater” — Season 2, Episode 9 **

Why it shocks: In addition to being a brilliantly staged and choreographed battle scene, the whole episode is worth watching for a single jaw-dropping moment.

“The Climb” — Season 3, Episode 6

Why it shocks: This episode’s titular “climb” is a genuine thrill ride, with (literal) high stakes.

“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” — Season 3, Episode 7

Why it shocks: Oh, like you don’t want to see Brienne of Tarth fight a freaking bear.

** “The Rains of Castamere” — Season 3, Episode 9 **

Why it shocks: Sorry, if you’re new here, we can’t utter a word about this one, and if you’re not new here, then you already know exactly which episode this is.

“The Mountain and the Viper” — Season 4, Episode 8

Why it shocks: The melon pop heard round the world.

** “The Children” — Season 4, Episode 10 **

Why it shocks: The identity of the person behind the shocking moments in “The Children” is arguably even more shocking than the moments themselves — but if you’ve been observing that person’s rough journey thus far, this plot development may feel more inevitable than surprising.

“Hardhome” — Season 5, Episode 8

Why it shocks: Technically, there’s some important establishing plot stuff that happens in “Hardhome” regarding dragon glass, Valyrian steel, and the sheer horror of the fact that the real villains of Game of Thrones are terrifying ice zombies. But let’s not front: We’re all here for this moment.

Read more: The 5 most important moments from Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 8

** “The Dance of Dragons — Season 5, Episode 9 **

Why it shocks: As shocking as it is all by itself to see a certain character’s journey to the Iron Throne come to an abrupt end, the manner in which said character brings about their own demise is one of Game of Thrones’ grimmest moments. (Also, hella dragons.)

Read more: The 5 most important moments of Game of Thrones season 5, episode 9

“The Door” — Season 6, Episode 5

Why it shocks: This freaking show waited six-and-a-half seasons to bring you a stunning plot twist involving a minor character we met in the show’s very first episode.

Read more: Game of Thrones’ “The Door” was a meta-commentary on the whole series

** “The Winds of Winter” — Season 6, Episode 10 **

Why it shocks: The climax of “The Winds of Winter” episode is a master class in delivering a hugely satisfying narrative payoff with an absolutely devastating punch to the gut. Oh, and R+L=J!

Read more: Game of Thrones season 6 finale: 8 winners and 7 losers from “The Winds of Winter”

“The Spoils of War” — Season 7, Episode 4

Why it shocks: Amid all the dragon artillery bombing happening in “The Spoils of War,” let’s take a moment to appreciate that the episode’s bit of climactic madness involves one reluctantly redeemed character saving another. (The great thing about Game of Thrones’ latter seasons is how full they are of narrative alignments like these, both tiny and huge.)

Read more: Game of Thrones season 7, episode 4: 11 winners and zero losers from “The Spoils of War”

** “The Dragon and the Wolf” — Season 7, Episode 7 **

Why it shocks: You’d think that the creation of a zombie ice dragon would be the lasting image from “The Dragon and the Wolf,” but really, it’s the look of surprise on Littlefinger’s face when he realizes that a couple of teenage girls (who’ve beautifully overcome their own longstanding sibling rivalry) have bested him at his own years of games. Chef’s kiss.

Read more: Game of Thrones season 7 finale: 9 winners and 10 losers from “The Dragon and the Wolf”

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