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Critics’ Survey: The ‘Game of Thrones’ Scenes With the Biggest Impact

Over eight seasons and 73 episodes, HBO fantasy epic made quite the impression on critics – for better and for worse.

Emilia Clarke, “Game of Thrones”

HBO

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Which scene from all eight seasons of “Game of Thrones” had the most impact on you and why? (It can be memorable, disturbing, funny, beautiful, etc.)

Daniel D’Addario (@DPD_), Variety

I have probably spent more time thinking about the closing scene from the third season finale, “Mhysa,” than any other from the show’s run. First, it blends a cinematic beauty with a toxicity in a manner I had, for a while, concluded was purposeful. The scene depicting Daenerys lecturing the freed slaves of Yunkai that their freedom is theirs alone to take — but if she’s not their liberator, she’s happy to be their goddess, accepting their cries of “Mhysa” (“Mother”) and eventually riding on the shoulders of the Yunkish as they encircle her in rapture. It’s stunningly ambitious, concluding in a shot from above with her dragons flying free, and also distasteful, given that actors of color are worshipping a white performer. But that poor taste had seemed too, for years now, an apt depiction of the vexed nature of Daenerys, a character whose politics begin and end with her own generational power and who is only happy at the center of things, surrounded by those less powerful than she. If the scene is gross, it’s because Daenerys’s whole thing is a bit icky when one thinks too hard about it. I’m both emboldened in my opinion now, given what we’ve learned about how Daenerys’s politics reacted against the opportunity to rule all of Westeros, and less sure, given the unsteadiness of the show’s hand in its final going. But I’ll likely be thinking about Daenerys’s story — the key journey of the show, no matter how one feels about where it ended up — in the years to come, with this moment as its linchpin.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

This season’s premiere opener. The family reunion at Winterfell where we first took off watching this series, the majestic effects of the fully grown dragons flying overhead as they accompanied the royal procession, the sentimental undercurrent through all of that. For me, “Game of Thrones” feels like the saga of the Starks first and foremost, including the torturous character arc of Theon Greyjoy, who later in the series rose to the occasion and was able to restore his warrior dignity after Ramsay Bolton flayed and stripped him of his manhood a few seasons back. And when Jon Snow was reunited with his direwolf Ghost, Bran, Arya, and Sansa was a terrific moment. And Tyrion feels like he belongs with the Starks more than his Lannister clan. It was an emotional opener and it was all before Dany went cuckoo and the DP went to the Gordon Willis school of chiaroscuro.

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson and Pedro Pascal, “Game of Thrones”

HBO

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

In a show full of jaw-dropping and emotional moments, no moment has ever left me as breathless as the title confrontation in “The Mountain and the Viper.” Even knowing exactly how the scene was going to play out, it still punches me in the gut every time I watch. Bonus mention for the extended and masterful opening scene in “The Winds of the Winter.” So that’s one scene of “Game of Thrones” doing hyper-emotional action on a smaller scale and another showing the full extent of the show’s epic ambitions. Easy peasy.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Oberyn Martell’s death will always be my personal turning point in “Game of Thrones,” and, unlike other, probably wiser critics, it’s a scene that turned me all the way off. Though plenty of the incest, rape, and other ugly aspects inherent to the series turned my stomach for the wrong reasons, it was the glee with which David Benioff and D.B. Weiss cherished the death of a charming hero that reframed my perspective on what the series was at its core. After a twisted turn of events, it wasn’t enough that Oberyn’s confidence (or arrogance) proved to be his downfall, but as Clegane pops out his eyes and crushes his skull, the monstrous opponent admits to raping his sister, killing her children, and then murdering her, too. The subversion of expectations is painful to witness on its own, just as watching any athlete give away an assured victory can be, but it’s also what “Game of Thrones” is built on — cutthroat actions, backstabbing politics, and more bloody warfare all to prove the lesser good can and will triumph. Given today’s state of global politics, these kind of realistic evocations served the series’ grander ambitions… but combining such visceral onscreen brutality with appalling offscreen actions, all to further enforce the wrong champion would be crowned, that’s just sadism for sadism’s sake. There are plenty of excellent articles written about the impressive dramatic execution within this battle, and far be it from me to take anything away from a director of Alex Graves’ stature. But the scene as written, at is core, illustrates a disturbing overindulgence — these writers are too in love with the pain they’re inflicting on the audience. That’s what I felt then, and I was never really able to shake it.

“Game of Thrones”

HBO

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

Despite my disappointment with this final season, “Game of Thrones” has meant so much to me over the years and defined a lot of my internet experience during that time. There are so many moments that remain fresh in my memory because of the communal experience of watching the show, talking about it, writing about it, or just seeing it meme’d to death. But there are two scenes that speak (for me) to the core of the series, one addressing its narrative boldness (at least for a time), and the second its fantasy spectacle.

The first is Jaime pushing Bran out of the window, because those two things — incest and violence towards children — on any TV show were (and to a lesser extent still are) so taboo. And should be! More than Ned’s beheading, that was my “yikes, this show is going to go there” moment realizing anything could happen, which was both horrible and fascinating in terms of its storytelling.

But the moment that really made me stand up and viscerally react was the Night King riding an undead Viserion and destroying The Wall with blue dragon fire in the Season 7 finale. I mean just like HELL YES. It was an unreal moment of television that went all-out on the fantasy. Truly, an ice zombie riding a zombie dragon melting an 8,000-year-old magical wall? I was so excited at where the show would go next with its fantasy lore (whoops), but no matter how much it whiffed the ultimate story of those characters, that moment is cemented in my mind as just the nerdiest, craziest, most metal moment of “Game of Thrones.”

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”

HBO

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

So I could say Jon reuniting with Ghost in the series finale had a major impact on me because I really love dogs and Ghost is basically just a large dog I want to cuddle. Or I could say that every time Davos corrected someone’s grammar made my heart soar. But I’ve written a lot about the emotional scene in Season 3 in which Jaime vulnerably recounts the truth about what happened the day he killed the Mad King, so I feel like I have to choose that moment. That scene was when I realized there was a lot more to Jaime Lannister than what we’d previously seen. That scene is when I realized I was fully onboard for whatever redemption arc the series was going to throw my way. And that scene is the reason I am so mad the show threw his entire seasons-long redemption arc in the trash by series’ end. Jaime Lannister deserved better.

Jacob Oller (@JacobOller), Paste Magazine

In a show with bloody weddings, molten crowns, and face-taking assassins, the moments that hit me hardest are the pathetic tragedies. These aren’t the crushing, weeping cruelties, but of someone realizing only too late that their foolishness has come back to bite them. Tommen hopping out the window. Ned losing his head. Selyse hanging herself after Shireen is sacrificed to the Lord of Light. But the one I kept coming back to was Jaime Lannister losing his hand. The rich pretty boy, the legendary warrior, the Kingslayer! All brought down by Locke (a character so minor we never learn if that’s his first or last name) in season three’s “Walk of Punishment.” Locke chops off Jaime’s sword hand when the latter gets cocky and tries to throw his money around after saving Brienne with some quick thinking. Done in by his own big mouth and the Lannister penchant for bribery, Jaime loses his whole identity and unlocks the potential for nuance and growth. This kicks off one of the best character arcs on the show, is a major step in one of the best relationships on the show, and allows Nicolaj Coster-Waldau to flourish in the role – even if Jaime didn’t really stick his (King’s) landing.

“Game of Thrones”

HBO

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone

It’s less a scene than a sequence, but Cersei orchestrating the bombing of the Sept of Baelor is, to me, “Game of Thrones’” masterpiece. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the series, which was capable of incredible highs in isolated moments, but could feel like an overcrowded muddle (and/or a sadistic wallow) a lot of the time. Even though this particular sequence was just the show ridding itself of a bunch of characters who had become extraneous, the way it was put together in terms of directing, photography, editing, the score (the first time a piano was heard on the soundtrack), Lena Headey’s performance, etc., gave me chills watching it and still does just thinking about it. It’s one of the few moments in “GoT” history where the whole felt like more than the sum of the show’s many impressive parts.

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

Visually, the show knocked me out on a weekly basis regardless of the storytelling so I could list countless scenes of unrivaled beauty (the Dany-wings scene in the finale was fire, as the kids say). But the one that really impacted me was maybe not so much because of the stunning imagery as it was the emotion brought to the screen (and of course, the memes it birthed). Yes, I am talking about Cersei’s walk of SHAME in the Season 5 finale, “Mother’s Mercy.” Past the awful wig and “is that a body double?” curiosity (it was), this moment was just so gut-level raw as Lena Headey’s Cersei was forced to walk naked through King’s Landing from the Sept to the Red Keep amid a screaming, garbage-heaving crowd, followed by the bell-ringing Septa Unella. With every step, Headey took her character from mortification to fear to finally, terrifyingly silent resolve — this was easily Headey’s most sympathetic work of the series — and I never once forgot that this absolute degradation, paired with the murders of her kids, was more than enough to explain her escalating villainy as the series progressed. Everything she did after this made sense. Unlike some characters who broke bad overnight.

Lena Headey and Mark Addy, “Game of Thrones”

HBO

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

I came to “Game of Thrones” as a fan of the books, and I spent the first several episodes just a touch disgruntled with what felt to me like a flat adaptation of a novel I had enjoyed. But as I made my way through the early screeners (HBO sent out six episodes), I slowly but surely found myself getting more and more drawn in. I went back and watched some sequences from those days in the lead-up to the final season, and it’s amazing how much cheaper the show looked back then, because, well, it was cheaper at that time. (Try looking at the dragon effects from the first few seasons sometime if you dare.) But the show also knew it couldn’t go for broke on spectacle, so it really tried to invest the characters with spirit and grace. Thus, a scene in the fifth episode, in which Cersei and Robert talk out the sorry state of their marriage and wonder if ever there was a time when they might have loved each other. This scene stands on the precipice of a whole bunch of major events that are about to kick the story into high gear, but it’s also a woozy dive into a very bad marriage, which is the only thing holding a kingdom together. It’s maybe not the best scene in the show, but it was the first to convince me the show had something of its own to say.

“Game of Thrones”

HBO

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

The “Game of Thrones” scene that had the most impact on me was when the finale faded to black because that meant the show was over and I can officially stop pretending to care about it. I should probably explain that I don’t like “Game of Thrones.” Never have. And yes, I have seen a ton of episodes because of work reasons and friends who just really wanted to watch it when we had nothing better to do, and I like to think that I am a considerate friend. Also, now they owe me. Anyway, I never got into it, and while it’s capable of moments of greatness in spurts, it was wildly inconsistent, and its grand technical scale and spectacle, which are arguably unrivaled, obfuscated its storytelling shortcomings. It was never as thematically rich or deep as you think it is or want it to be, or as good as its popularity and Emmy wins — for its weakest seasons, thanks to the new voting system — would suggest. So yeah, I was feeling very much like this when this frantic, slapdash disaster of a final season that prioritized shock and awe and dragon fire over character development unfolded. To be clear, I don’t want a show to be bad — and if a show is on the verge of winning a record-tying fourth Best Drama Series Emmy, I want it to be at least decent — but it is nice to say “I told you so” sometimes.

There have been so many times in the past eight years when I didn’t bother telling people who were fans of the show that I don’t like it because it just wasn’t worth the energy (and some of them weirdly take it as a personal affront). True story: Last month, during a lull while on the phone with the cable guy, he asked if I was excited for “Game of Thrones”‘ return that weekend (he was trying to get caught up for the final season and had just watched the Red Wedding). I just quietly sighed and said yes because I wasn’t going to get into this with someone I will never speak to again and all I wanted was my new monthly bill amount. So when that shot of Jon, Tormund and the Free Folk morphed into blackness, it was sweet, sweet release. It’s over, the season was bad, and I never have to act like I care again, like how D&D stopped caring about crafting a good, proper ending.

Actually, scratch that. I felt the most seen during all the A+ grammar jokes. Sign me up for the “Master of Grammar” spin-off.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Barry” (five votes)

Other contenders: “Fleabag” (four votes), “Chernobyl,” “What We Do in the Shadows” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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