A year ago this week, Tyrion Lannister gave his now-famous speech, Bran became Bran the Broken and the king of Westeros, Jon Snow ventured north, and Game of Thrones came to an end. In honor of the conclusion of the last piece of monoculture, The Ringer will spend all week looking back on Thrones—focusing not just on its final season, but celebrating its entire eight-season run, reminiscing about its host of memorable characters, and pondering where some of them may be one year later.
Death is, of course, an integral part of Game of Thrones.
Death is the way that Game of Thrones first expressed its outlook—Ned Stark’s beheading proclaiming that the show (and its source material) was not your average hero story. Death is the way that Thrones reinforced that original statement, much to our dreaded surprise—the good guys would not win simply because they were the good guys. Death is the way that so many characters earned power, closure, purpose, and perspective. Death is the only thing that the living in Game of Thrones could not defeat—until Arya Stark thrust a dagger through its heart, that is.
“When you play the game of thrones,” Cersei Lannister told Ned Stark in Season 1, “you win or you die.” And there’s only ever one winner, which means a lot of dead people.
And so, a year after Thrones itself met its end, it seems only reasonable to measure the massive scope of the show by evaluating the characters who lost their lives over the series’s eight-season run. The good (Oberyn Martell), the bad (King Joffrey), the compromised (Daenerys); the beloved (the Hound), the hated (the Mountain), the inscrutable (Tywin). To rank Game of Thrones’ dead characters, The Ringer’s own high council—composed of bingers and obsessives—considered not the manner in which the characters died, but these two factors: their legacy and the extent to which we miss them. (Important note: Though he did die once, the still-living Jon Snow was not considered.) What a character did while alive in Westeros—the choices they did and did not make—mattered, but so too did a character’s ability to wedge themselves within our souls. There were many left off of this list—innocent, unfortunate bystanders like Walda Bolton along with straight-up horrible humans like Karl Tanner (may the gods, old and new, remember them)—in order to determine the 101 Game of Thrones characters who left the biggest mark on us.
What is dead may never die, the Iron Island creed goes. Hopefully, what is ranked may never die, as well.
101. Rickon Stark
Hey Rickon, listen to me carefully: ZIGZAG, MY GUY! RUN DIAGONALLY! DO ANYTHING OTHER THAN WHAT YOU’RE DO—oh, what do you know, the arrows got him. —Andrew Gruttadaro
All images via HBO
100. Mole’s Town Whore
99. Obara Sand98. Nymeria Sand97. Tyene Sand
“What is your name again? Barbaro? Obara. You look like an angry little boy. Don’t presume to tell me what I need. Do shut up, dear. Anything from you? No? Good, let the grown women speak.” —Olenna Tyrell
First of all, Olly, how dare you? Second of all, HOW DARE YOU? Third of all, did you know that Jon Snow hanged a boy? He hanged a boy. —Gruttadaro
95. Pyat Pree
94. Xaro Xhoan Daxos
Let’s get this straight off the jump: Pyat Pree and Xaro Xhoan Daxos were the worst. The merchant prince of Qarth was a smooth-talking, devious liar and Pyat Pree was a creepy warlock who loved magic a little too much. Together, they schemed to steal Daenerys’s dragons, destroy the city council of Qarth, and take over the city for themselves. In the end, they got everything they deserved: death by dragonfire and suffocation in an empty vault. —Daniel Chin
93. Kraznys mo Nakloz
92. Hizdahr zo Loraq
91. Selyse Florent90. Randyll Tarly89. Doran Martell
It was always a bit strange to see Stillwater’s manager terrorizing the Riverlands, but Locke earns a spot in this top 101 because of his role in two important Thrones moments. He was the first concrete example of the awe-inspiring power Bran could wield by warging into other people like Hodor (RIP, Locke’s neck). And more importantly, he was of course the man responsible for chopping off Jaime Lannister’s right hand.
He’s a total bastard, like all Bolton men, but the entire series changes—and one of Thrones’ best character arcs emerges—because of him. —Gruttadaro
87. The Waif
More than most shows, Thrones was adept at building a roster of characters to passionately root against. Good TV stirs emotion—and hate is a worthy emotion. So while I certainly don’t miss the Waif, her terrible haircut, and her extreme runs to tell the teacher energy, I still reserve a sort of fondness for her—or at least for the passion she inspired. Arya’s jaunt with the Faceless Men is one of the stranger, more frustrating arcs in Thrones—and the Waif is the face (sorry) of it—but at the same time, it’s representative of an era when the show was still able to spend too much time in a single location. —Gruttadaro
86. Septa Unella
85. Balon Greyjoy84. Dontos Hollard83. Leaf
I can’t say I miss the fat wildling who raped his daughters and sacrificed his sons to the Night King. I did enjoy when Karl Tanner—another loathsome figure, to be sure—stuck a knife in his throat, though. —Riley McAtee
81. Janos Slynt80. Lancel Lannister79. Lady
While Dany “kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet,” we haven’t forgotten about dear Rhaegal’s senseless death. Rhaegal’s very existence was a miracle, fire and possibility breaking through stone and doubt, legend morphing into life. He helped Dany find her purpose and helped us find our sense of wonder. He also faced a great many challenges—captivity in the House of the Undying; entombment at his mother’s hands in the catacombs of Meereen; a vicious battle against his own kin in the Long Night. That such a majestic creature survived so many hardships only to fall to Euron Fucking Greyjoy and Bigger Crossbow™ is simply not right nor fair, just as it’s neither right nor fair that Rhaegal died right after finally finding and bonding with his rider, Jon Snow—whose father, Rhaegar, was Rhaegal’s namesake. Still, just as fire cannot kill a dragon, no Scorpion bolt can really take Rhaegal from us; he lives on in our minds, scales glistening, fire raging, streaking like a comet across the sky. —Mallory Rubin
77. Mirri Maz Duur
When the sun rises in the west, sets in the east. When the seas go dry. When the mountains blow in the wind, like leaves … only then will Mirri’s impact on Dany, and thus all of Thrones, be diminished. Long ago, the Lhazareen maegi asked Dany to consider “what life is worth when all the rest has gone.” Mirri’s screams may have melted away under the flames of Drogo’s funeral pyre, but the weight of that question pressed itself upon the rest of the story, as heavy and present as the dragons that fire helped to birth. —Rubin
76. Mace Tyrell75. Jory Cassel74. Rodrik Cassel
73. Talisa Maegyr72. Rickard Karstark
71. Shaggydog70. Viserion
Two animals given stupid names by their humans and then killed by neglect. Shaggydog probably had to die; his partner was a 9-year-old child, and though direwolves are fierce combatants, they can’t exactly take down an army of Bolton bannermen single-handedly. At least Shaggydog got to stay dead; after being sliced through the neck during Daenerys’s half-baked rescue plan north of the Wall, Viserion was used as a pawn in the war against humanity. Our man should have been able to count on his mother for more protection. Then again, she named him after this guy, so maybe not. —Chris Almeida
69. Dickon Tarly
Heh, “Dickon.” Roasted. —Almeida
68. Yoren67. Pyp66. Loras Tyrell
65. The High Sparrow
Let’s be honest: Nobody really liked the High Sparrow. The religious leader of the Sparrows was the perfect foil to Cersei Lannister and the Iron Throne, as he earned steadfast devotion from the commoners of King’s Landing and carved a path for revolution against the rich and powerful. But the story line in which the High Sparrow brainwashed the sinful royals one by one through his sanctimonious monologues and smug smirks also dragged at times, especially when more pressing issues were taking place elsewhere in Westeros. Still, the High Sparrow allowed for us all to sympathize with Cersei after her humiliating walk of shame, and played a central role in one of Game of Thrones’ most iconic scenes: the destruction of the Great Sept of Baelor. —Chin
64. The Mountain
There’s little to like about Gregor Clegane. As a child, he pushed his brother’s face into a fire. In the events before the show, he murdered Elia Martell’s children and then raped and killed her. At Tyrion’s trial by combat, he literally pops the head off of the Red Viper, one of the more charismatic characters in the Thrones universe. He also doesn’t lose much personality or intelligence after Qyburn Frankensteins a mostly dead Clegane back to usefulness. But those issues aside, the Mountain is one of the more physically imposing figures to ever appear on screen in any medium. It helps that the final actor to play him, Hafthor Bjornsson, has a reasonable claim as the strongest man in the world. —Justin Sayles
63. Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun
What can we say about Wun Wun? He was huge. He was strong. He excelled at breaking down gates. He was a giant of few words—but not no words, which set him apart from the other giants in Mance Rayder’s army. He was possibly the last of his kind. Oh, and he was named after Phil Simms. Wun Wun survived the massacre at Hardhome and, after traveling south, intimidated the Night’s Watch mutineers into relinquishing Castle Black, but he was brought down by Bolton archers—and a final, fatal arrow to the eye from Ramsay Bolton—at the Battle of the Bastards. (Being big, he fell hard.) Wun Wun was played by actor Ian Whyte, who at 7-foot-5 is only about half as tall as Wun Wun was. A few more like him, and the alliance of the living might not have needed dragons to defeat the dead. —Ben Lindbergh
62. The Three-Eyed Raven
Look, nobody likes a know-it-all, but there are exceptions to all rules. Chalk it up to the velvety warmth of the late Max von Sydow’s voice; I can’t think of another actor who could make being literally fused with a tree seem so compelling. The Raven isn’t just a teacher for Bran, he’s the (sort of) human embodiment of knowledge itself. The tale of Thrones is muddled with so many diverging paths, characters, and branches, and the Raven managed to bridge them all together. His supernatural abilities—even for a world populated by dragons, stone men, and warlocks—underscored just how impressive Bran’s powers were in comparison. The fate of the realms of men would have been wildly different if Bran hadn’t been counseled by the Raven. He showed us the Tower of Joy, and the unfortunate circumstances that changed Hodor’s life. Thrones was at its best when unraveling mysteries, and no character—not even Bran—was better at guiding us to answers than the Raven. —Shaker Samman
61. Jojen Reed
Jojen rode into the far north with Bran, Meera, Hodor, and Summer even though he knew the journey would result in his death. That makes him one of the most courageous and admirable characters on Game of Thrones—even though we now know that Bran becoming the three-eyed raven wasn’t quite as crucial to defeating the White Walkers as we’d imagined back in Season 4.
But Jojen was also an underrated on-screen presence. The greenseer filled us in on Westeros’s magic and the history of the Starks and the Reeds, and even verbally slapped Bran around a bit (the kid needed it). The greenseer also navigated every tricky situation with the same confidence a book reader navigated Game of Thrones watch parties in Seasons 1 through 4. In the end, Bran might have eaten him, but he deserved better. —McAtee
60. Myrcella Baratheon59. Tommen Baratheon
These poor, innocent incest babies. All they wanted was to hang out, leave the governing to other people, and get married to hot spouses. Smart, level goals, in my opinion. Alas, Myrcella is poisoned by Ellaria Sand, and then her body, resting in the Sept of Baelor, is blown up by her mother in the same incident that kills Tommen’s wife and leads him to jump out of a window. We knew the least detestable members of the Lannister/Baratheon family had to go, but that didn’t make their ends any less surprising—or tragic. —Almeida
58. Ellaria Sand
57. Lady Crane
If it weren’t for Lady Crane, the White Walkers would have overrun Westeros. Trace the steps and think about it: If Lady Crane weren’t such a moving, empathetic actress, Arya would not have prevented her from dying at the hands of the Faceless Men, which means she would not have left the House of Black and White so soon, which means she would not have traveled back to Westeros at the perfect time to learn about Jon’s reclaiming of Winterfell for the Starks, which means she would not have been in the proper position to kill the Night King with all of humanity at stake. This is the power of the arts, folks: A kind woman with a teary monologue can reshape the whole past and future of the human race. —Zach Kram
56. Brother Ray
Ah, Brother Ray. We hardly knew you, but we would have liked to know you better. Ray appeared in only one episode, Season 6’s “The Broken Man,” but his roughly 15 minutes of Game of Thrones fame led to an iconic quote by actor Ian McShane, who went full Shatner when he told spoiler-averse Thrones fans to “get a fucking life” and described the series as “only tits and dragons.” Ray, a reformed sellsword and self-professed “fucking septon” who led a flock of followers that McShane called “Murderers Anonymous,” paid for his pacifism, getting hanged by rogue members of the Brotherhood Without Banners. But by then he had served multiple purposes: getting Sandor Clegane back in the game, giving us a glimpse of a peaceful path through the violent world of Westeros and, most important, providing McShane with a chance to deliver a Deadwood-worthy soliloquy and swear repeatedly both on- and offscreen. —Lindbergh
55. Old Nan
Old Nan—who’s merely presumed to be dead—might be the only one in Westeros who understands the strangeness and wonder of the world beyond the Wall. Unlike the sweet summer children who star in the story, she’s seen some things: In the books, Hodor’s great-grandmother is the oldest person at Winterfell, so ancient that she was known as Old Nan before the birth of Ned Stark. Age and experience have given her a justified fear of the horrors that threaten humanity, and while she may distort some details, she instills an appreciation for the supernatural in the future Three-Eyed Raven and ruler of the Six Kingdoms as she sits by Bran’s bedside. Old Nan may not have studied at the Citadel, but she knows much more about the “higher mysteries” than Maester Luwin, who tells Bran that dragons are gone, giants are dead, and magic no longer exists. Her brief recounting of the Long Night foreshadows the rest of the series and makes the White Walkers sound like formidable foes. If only Old Nan had written Season 8. —Lindbergh
54. Qhorin Halfhand
53. Benjen Stark
From the moment his horse arrives back at the Wall without him in Season 1, Benjen becomes more of an enigma than a fully formed character. An early paternal figure to Jon, Benjen is mentioned throughout the show’s run—most notably when Olly lures Jon to Castle Black’s yard before he’s stabbed—but doesn’t return to the screen until Season 6, when he rescues Bran and Meera from a wight attack. Afterward, he tells them he was attacked by White Walkers and left for dead, only to be saved by the Children of the Forest, who halted his transformation into the undead halfway. The story is one of Thrones’ greatest mysteries (and the source of much book intrigue), but the show never fully explains why it happened. We see Benjen only once more, when he plays deus ex machina in Season 7 just as Jon is about to be attacked by wights. His reappearance doesn’t answer many questions, but it does give his character a poetic send-off: Benjen dispatches Jon to Castle Black alone, making it the second time his horse returned to the Wall without him. —Sayles
Once a lowly recruit of the Night’s Watch who grew up on a farm after his father abandoned him, Grenn eventually became a prominent ranger. He went from nearly cutting Jon Snow’s throat—after Jon broke Grenn’s nose during a training session in Season 1—to becoming one of Jon’s closest friends and most loyal companions. Though he was never as bright as Samwell Tarly, nor as skilled a fighter as Jon, Grenn lived by his oath to protect the realm and saved the eventual King of the North more than once. Even when sent to his imminent death during the Battle of Castle Black, Grenn obeyed Jon’s commands and held the inner gate to the castle while defeating a giant no less.
In a show that built its reputation on delivering shocking, and often gruesome, deaths to its characters, Grenn’s demise was a rare instance of one that occurred offscreen. It was a quiet but powerful reveal nonetheless when his body was discovered by Jon and Sam in the aftermath of the battle. —Chin
51. Eddison Tollett
“If the gods wanted us to have dignity, they wouldn’t make us fart when we died.” I’m not sure wiser words were ever spoken on this show. Edd was a sage, a hero, a loyal companion, and a person who never shrank in the face of a challenge. (I also just realized for the first time that the man who delivered such wisdom on post-death flatulence has a last name that sounds a lot like “toilet.”) —Gruttadaro
50. Euron Greyjoy
Quoth Cersei: “You might be the most arrogant man I’ve ever met.” Also: “You’re not boring. I’ll give you that.” And that’s about all he got. Poor Euron was an early-seasons character in a late-seasons world, brash and virile and heedless and clearly enjoying himself long past the point where any other character was still enjoying him- or herself. He had a plan. He had, indeed, an enormous amount of self-confidence. He had a healthy sex drive. He had a rad jacket. He conducted himself as though auditioning for Westeros’s finest Queen cover band. But he had no elephants, and likewise no chance amid the gloom and doom and despair that had long since subsumed everyone around him. He died doing what he loved, which was believing, erroneously, that he’d killed someone else. Let him have this, if only this. —Harvilla
49. Lysa Arryn
Judging by the size of this list, nothing defined Thrones more than death, and perhaps no character here is as responsible for bloodshed as Lysa. Yes, it was Littlefinger who convinced her that poisoning her husband, hand of the king Jon Arryn, would free Lysa to finally marry Petyr—an obvious lie. But she was the one who signed her own death warrant, and those of her closest friends and allies. Most of the Tullys and Starks—and countless others in the Seven Kingdoms—died in battle because of the instability she caused; the War of the Five Kings would not have begun if not for Lysa’s selfishness. Unfortunately for her, hubris was her downfall. The Eyrie and its moon door she was pushed out of by Littlefinger sit high above the Vale; she probably had plenty of time to think on her sins before reaching the ground. —Samman
48. Alliser Thorne
I must admit, I do miss Ser Alliser’s particular brand of pettiness. He is a testament to Game of Thrones—evidence that even its minor characters were delicately layered. For as annoying as his constant efforts to undermine and undervalue Jon Snow were, they came from a place of profound inferiority and devotion to a certain code. He had much to offer—and he legitimately taught Jon more than a few lessons—but he was a slave to his insecurity and inadaptability. He did hateful things, but you could never exactly hate him, because his mistakes were all too human. —Gruttadaro
47. Grey Wind
All the direwolves on Game of Thrones are good—obviously. But even so, Grey Wind was able to stand out from the (wolf)pack. Robb Stark’s direwolf was accomplished in battle, and a single scene with an imprisoned Jaime Lannister demonstrated the fearsome might of Grey Wind’s size. But Thrones is an unforgiving world, and poor Grey Wind paid the ultimate price for his owner’s ignorance. Not only did Robb trust the notoriously shifty Walder Frey after breaking a vow, but he agreed to keep Grey Wind locked up during the notorious Red Wedding. All Frey’s men had to do was fire their crossbows into Grey Wind’s crate, and this great beast was slain. It breaks my heart to this day. Like so many Thrones characters aligned with the Starks, Grey Wind deserved better. —Miles Surrey
One of the most loyal allies the Stark children ever knew started out as a threat to them. When viewers meet Osha in Season 1, she’s a wilding south of the Wall, trying to steal Bran’s horse. But after her Free Folk comrades are mowed down and she’s taken prisoner, she quickly becomes a Stark loyalist. Over the course of the series, she helps Bran, Rickon, and Hodor escape Theon’s siege; escorts Rickon to Last Hearth; and later tries to kill Ramsay Bolton at Winterfell by seducing him. Unfortunately, that last one doesn’t work—Theon, who by that point has gone full Reek, sold her out—and she meets her end at the hands of Thrones’ cruelest villain. It’s a sad ending for a character that came into the Starks’ lives like a stray dog and grew to love them because of their sheer good. —Sayles
45. Renly Baratheon
Beyond Daenerys, Robb Stark, and Jon Snow, perhaps no ruler inspired as much love from their people as Renly. When Joffrey was revealed to be King Robert’s bastard, Renly called the Stormlands’ banners and marched north to King’s Landing to claim his deceased brother’s throne. With the forces of the Reach at his side, Renly’s army could have toppled the Red Keep. But his older brother and his flaming stag, born of salt and smoke (not a ham), and his red priestess assassinated him before he had the chance. A shadow with the face of Stannis Baratheon brought Renly’s conquest to a swift end. And with it, the Seven Kingdoms’ wait for a just and strong ruler would extend for years. —Samman
44. Viserys Targaryen
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writers was “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” And boy did Viserys want something. It was characters like him—a side player, yes, but one completely and irrevocably convinced that he was the story’s protagonist—who fleshed out the world of Game of Thrones. Portrayed by Harry Lloyd with just the right number of whiny screeches to demonstrate his character but not overwhelm the screen, Viserys was a truly delightful secondary villain, a Cersei Lannister with none of the intelligence or sophistication or charm. —Kram
43. Thoros of Myr
In a traditional fantasy story, the priest blessed with the ability to restore lost life would be a pure and pious servant whose faith never wavers. In George R.R. Martin’s trope-overturning fantasy story, then, that powerful prelate is the drinking, whoring, and warring one who doesn’t believe in the lord he’s supposedly serving. Thoros is as surprised as anyone when his prayers bring Beric back, but after his first resurrection, he performs five more. Not bad for Robert Baratheon’s drinking buddy, who was too tanked to remember his heroism at the Siege of Pyke. It’s not clear whether Thoros’s get-out-of-oblivion-free card works on anyone but the Lightning Lord, but his success inspires Melisandre to try to revive Jon Snow. “You should not have this power,” the Red Woman says to Thoros. “I have no power,” he answers. “I ask the Lord for his favor, and he responds as he will.” R’hllor works in mysterious ways. —Lindbergh
Daenerys Targaryen wanted to break the wheel, but, in the end, most of what she offered was structurally identical to what came before. A female sovereign, an advisory council, constituent kingdoms that hold their lands and titles in the ruler’s name. … The ruler, in this case, would be a queen—an important change, no doubt. But below the top of the pyramid, all would have remained largely unchanged.
The true revolutionary of Game of Thrones? Qyburn. Yeah, I said it. Was he despicable? Yes. Totally immoral, lacking all human warmth, and basically evil? Bingo. But no character in Thrones was as dedicated to moving Westeros forward into heretofore unexplored territory as Qyburn. A committed scientist, Qyburn was thrown out of the Citadel for dissecting corpses. But the knowledge he gained allowed him to heal Jaime Lannister’s rotted stump after the Kingslayer’s hand was forcibly amputated. Depending on your reading of the situation, he either saved Ser Gregor Clegane’s life after the Mountain was poisoned during his duel with Oberyn Martell, or he brought him back from the dead. True, Clegane was basically a zombie, but that shouldn’t dim the brilliance of the achievement. Who knows how many lives might have been saved from illness, disease, and injury had the Citadel been amenable to Qyburn’s research? Qyburn was a trailblazer. —Jason Concepcion
41. The Night King
As a plot device, as a boogeyman, as an existential threat, the Night King is tremendous as Game of Thrones’ ultimate Big Bad from the show’s very first scene, even if he took the longest walk in prestige-TV history and major characters still weren’t convinced he even existed in Season 8. But as a character, as a screen presence, his moments of sublime terror (the baby, the Hardhome resurrection, the Ice Dragon) are savagely undercut by the fact that he ultimately blows a 300,000-1 lead at the Battle of Winterfell. Get some discipline! Get some guards! Get some scouts to eat some tape on Arya’s likely stabbing techniques! No villain could deliver the goods after a nearly decade-long buildup, but by the old gods and the new, what a collapse! At least he’s got his dancing career to fall back on. —Rob Harvilla
When Meera told Bran, “You died in that cave,” it was hard not to think of the part of him that actually did—Summer, his faithful direwolf. The Warg bond that Bran and Summer shared was one of the most fully realized fantasy elements in Thrones, a rich and vibrant paean to the power of a connection so deep and pure it actually unites the heart and mind. Summer’s sacrifice was tragic, but it was also bitterly cruel: He died to save Bran, but Bran ceased being Bran in part because Summer was no longer there to anchor him to his humanity, his history, his Starkdom. From the moment Bran first snuggled the wolf pup into his leathers, through every protective throat rip and howl, Summer was more than Bran’s companion—he was a part of him, and one of the best parts of Thrones. —Rubin
39. Jeor Mormont
Any man with the moniker “The Old Bear” is someone I would steer clear of in a fight. Jeor was a man of principle: He gave up his seat as the head of Bear Island so that his son, Jorah, might rule in his stead; he joined the Night’s Watch, where he rose up the ranks and became the Lord Commander; he saw great promise in Jon Snow and named him his steward; and then, after Jorah dishonored the family and fled to Essos, he gifted the bastard of Winterfell his family’s Valyrian steel sword, Longclaw—one of the last of its kind in the known world. Even after taking a blade to the back, Mormont fights. His death might’ve expedited Jon’s rise to Lord Commander, but all were worse off without his leadership beyond the Wall. —Samman
The author of most of the show’s gratuitous early-season nudity, Ros was, simply put, the Babe Ruth of sexposition. From facilitating the sexual awakenings of the young men of the Stark household in Winterfell to her memorable bit of exhibitionism on the turnip cart ride to King’s Landing, Ros had earned her call-up to the big league brothels of the capital. There she played fearlessly in the treacherous waters inhabited by the likes of Varys, Tyrion, and Littlefinger, even if from time to time she couldn’t quite keep up with such masters of subterfuge and manipulation.
More than anything else, she was a great hang, and when the politics of King’s Landing continued to place her in harm’s way—ultimately leading to her death at Joffrey’s hands—there was always a real sense of peril that we might lose such a popular character. In many respects, she was the textbook Game of Thrones supporting player: charming, clever, frequently naked, and on an inescapable path to a gruesome demise. —Michael Baumann
37. Ramsay Bolton
Sheesh, was it hard work being Game of Thrones’ cruelest and most loathsome character, but let it never be said that Ramsay Bolton didn’t put in the effort, which is to say the hours upon hours (seasons upon seasons!) of torture and sexual assault and monumental sniveling. How does one measure success in terms of villainy this total? Does revulsion equal triumph? Do you pay him by the disgusted think piece? Can you think about this dude without cringing? No on-screen death was too grody, too agonizing, for him, and it’s indeed very impressive that it felt like an anticlimax when he was mauled to death by his own rabid dogs. Fuck this guy, but respect the hustle. His archery skills, at least, were legit. It’s not his fault if his targets wouldn’t swerve. —Harvilla
36. Brynden “Blackfish” Tully
Named for his unwillingness to abide by tradition, the Blackfish was, plainly, one of the ideal characters from Westeros’s older guard. Lord Brynden Tully never missed his chance to dunk on those who crossed him, be it his nephew, unable to light his father’s funeral pyre despite having multiple chances, or the Kingslayer, looking to parlay when the Blackfish regained his ancestral home from the Freys. It was the Blackfish’s honor and devotion to what he thought was best that made him one of Thrones’ most entrancing characters, and it was those same characteristics that kept him from joining his niece at the Battle of Winterfell and, in turn, signed his death warrant. Every scene with the Blackfish was an all-timer. It’s a shame we didn’t get more of them. —Samman
Tyrion’s ex may deserve her fair share of resentment, but she did the best with what she had. As many other entries on this list can attest, there are next to no good options for Westerosi women, especially non-noblewomen, and especially sex workers. Shae led her life, enjoyed a genuinely fulfilling relationship for a few years, and did what she had to do when said relationship had its inevitable consequences. Her betrayal hurt, but it also inspired one of the best scenes—and certainly the best acting—in Thrones history, with Tyrion’s courtroom meltdown. Tyrion killed her for selling him out; his family would’ve killed her for staying true. In the game of thrones, there’s no good way out for the pawns. —Alison Herman
34. Maester Luwin
Soft-spoken, warm, and fiercely devoted, Maester Luwin may as well have been part of the Stark family rather than just in their service. He’s one of the purest characters Thrones had to offer (which of course meant he wouldn’t last forever), and each of his scenes in the series’s first two seasons was a gift. While he wasn’t right about everything—the whole “dragons are gone; giants are dead” take did NOT age well—his sage advice saved, and also shaped, Bran’s and Rickon’s lives. If Bran has any chance of succeeding as a ruler, it’s because of the wisdom bestowed in his early days by Maester Luwin. —Gruttadaro
33. Lyanna Mormont
Lyanna Mormont is first introduced in Game of Thrones as somewhat of a gag. The 13-year-old is seated in the center of a table at House Mormont on Bear Island, looking on imposingly as Jon and Sansa plead with her for aid. Sansa makes the first misstep in their introduction: assuming Lyanna cares about growing into a beautiful woman like her namesake, Lyanna Stark. “My mother wasn’t a great beauty,” Lyanna snaps, “or any other kind of beauty. She was a great warrior, though.” And from there, the die is cast.
Lyanna quickly became an internet sensation, with various people calling her the show’s “youngest and bravest hero,” saying she has the “best stank eye in all of Westeros,” and even campaigning for her to run for president in 2020. Sadly, our tiny queen met her end fighting the White Walkers in the Battle of Winterfell, but no one can say she didn’t go down swinging. —Megan Schuster
32. Shireen Baratheon
On a show full of characters dappled with various shades of gray, Shireen stood out for her purity of spirit. She read and taught others. She displayed a voracious enthusiasm for history. She loved her father and didn’t decry her place in the world, despite being discarded for having a disfiguration that was outside her control. Unlike most other characters in the show, Shireen didn’t participate in any climactic scenes—aside from her haunting, shriek-filled end—but her introspective scenes with Davos and Stannis provided meaningful moments of quiet between the battles. The saying’s cliché, but she was truly too good for the world she occupied. —Kram
31. Stannis Baratheon
Stannis Baratheon: pretender to the Iron Throne, hardcore grammar prescriptivist, religious weirdo, total grouch. He killed his brother and daughter and suffered a series of hideous self-inflicted military defeats before Brienne of Tarth decapitated him in the woods outside Winterfell. Nobody mourned him. —Baumann
30. Khal Drogo
A warlord with the build of Conan the Barbarian and more eyeliner than a kid going through a goth phase, Khal Drogo was one of Thrones’ most imposing figures before we got a chance to meet the Night King. While Drogo was driven by barbarian impulses—kill enemies, ride horses, etc.—his early courtship with Daenerys Targaryen was mutually beneficial. He exposed the Khaleesi to a world she’d been hidden from most of her life; she helped him become a surprisingly nurturing partner after problematic beginnings. In a series that constantly subverted expectations, the great Khal Drogo was felled by a mere flesh wound—one tainted by a vengeful witch whom Dany mistakenly trusted. Drogo wasn’t the first and certainly wouldn’t be the last casualty of Dany’s ill-fated quest to claim the Iron Throne, but one terrific season from future Aquaman Jason Momoa ensured the character would remain a vivid presence in fans’ memories for years to come. —Surrey
29. Grand Maester Pycelle
“Kings? I can tell you all there is to know about kings,” Pycelle once said as courtesan Ros washed her lady parts behind him. “The thing you need to understand about kings: In the past 67 years, I have known—truly known—more kings than any man alive. They’re complicated men, but I know how to serve them. Yes. And keep on serving them.” Pycelle managed this by appearing, at all times, unthreatening. As Grand Maester of King’s Landing, he was in a position of great influence—but he survived as long as he did by appearing not to know it. Pycelle played the role of the doddering and forgetful old man to perfection—the mumbly voice, the shuffling gait, his back bent under the weight of his maester’s chains. Behind closed doors, however, he was, as the aforementioned scene showed, a different man. Spry, shockingly sexually active, and watchful.
Of Aerys II Targaryen, he said: “Of all the thousand maladies the gods visit on us, madness is the worst. He was a good man, such a charmer. To watch him melt away before my eyes, consumed by dreams of fire and blood …”
Of Robert Baratheon, first of his name: “An entirely different animal. Powerful man, a great warrior. But, alas, winning a kingdom and ruling a kingdom are rather different things.”
Of Joffrey: “It’s far too soon to know what manner of king he will be, but I sense true greatness on the horizon for our new king. True greatness.”
As that last assessment shows, Pycelle’s downfall was that the illusion became the reality. The Grand Maester was so comfortable, so conservative, so used to playing the unbiased adviser and the harmless old man that when the totality of his 67 years caught up with him, he was alone and, indeed, harmless and old. Easy pickings for Qyburn’s mob of child spies. —Concepcion
People in Game of Thrones didn’t have friends so much as people they trusted wouldn’t chop their heads off (or poison them, wage war against them, push them out a window, burn them alive, etc.). Missandei was a legitimate friend, and a quality one, even by today’s standards. She was everything you wanted in your corner: good listener, nonjudgmental, diplomatic, speaks 19 languages, loyal, high likelihood of having a great skin-care routine and caring enough to share it, funny . . . ish. Before Missandei is beheaded by The Mountain, she yells “Dracarys,” Dany’s command to her dragons to breathe fire. “Missandei knows that her life is over, and she’s saying, you know, ‘Light them up,’” showrunner David Benioff said after the third-to-last episode of the series. Missandei—loyal to the end. —Haley O’Shaughnessy
27. Barristan Selmy
The greatest “you can’t fire me, I QUIT!” of all time:
Barristan the Bold was a great character, who connected Daenerys to the Mad King and the rest of Westeros. His anticlimactic death at the hands of the Sons of the Harpy was a disservice to him. —McAtee
26. Walder Frey
The pettiest lord in all of Westeros, Walder Frey allowed the most infamous act in the show’s history to take place under his roof all because Robb Stark reneged on a promise to marry his unsightly daughter. As far as villains go, he’s not as cruel as Roose or Ramsay Bolton, not as cunning as Tywin Lannister, and not as dynamic as Euron Greyjoy or Joffrey, but he is an absolutely wretched, contemptible character. (He may also be responsible for the show’s most casually sinister line when he responds, “I’ll find another,” after Catelyn Stark threatens to kill his wife if he doesn’t let Robb go at the Red Wedding.) It’s fitting that he meets one of Thrones’ grossest fates when Arya slits his throat after feeding him a meat pie made from bits of his own sons. —Sayles
25. Roose Bolton
Ah, Roose! A pale-eyed Judas who hatched enough plot points and horrors to fill the Dreadfort for eternity. Roose was a shitty dude but an exceptional villain, his still demeanor belying a depth of greed and viciousness that helped spawn one of the most shocking moments in storytelling history: the Red Wedding. Roose liked to espouse the foul wisdom of his house—“A naked man has few secrets, a flayed man none”—but he didn’t need to actually shear the skin from his enemies in order to convey the real menace behind those words. His savagery came from subtlety, quietly biding his time, masking his intentions until revealing the chain mail beneath his wares at last. He didn’t just take Robb’s life, or Winterfell, or the North. He took the very idea of trust and comfort. Rest in misery, Roose: The Ringer sends its regards. —Rubin
24. Theon Greyjoy
Despite him being the source of one of Thrones’ most difficult slogs, despite him diving overboard like a coward rather than fighting for his sister, despite him being disgracefully unable to behead a man, I still have a soft spot for Theon Greyjoy. The story of a man without a family—traded as a bargain of war by his own father, never able to feel fully accepted by his adopted house—whose litany of mistakes can be traced back to an insurmountable desire to fill that void is just too compelling. Theon was often despicable, but never inscrutable. I always empathized with his deep-seated pain and shame; I always wanted more for him, I always rooted for him to redeem himself. He finally did—standing up to the Night King just long enough to give Arya a window to kill him—and now I actually miss the guy. —Gruttadaro
23. Beric Dondarrion
If you ask me, 23 is far too low for the Lightning Lord. If anyone earned a top-tier placement in a ranking of dead Game of Thrones characters, it’s the dude who died seven times. The leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners was impaled, stabbed, shot, hanged, and cleaved—hell, he was killed by both Clegane brothers—but he kept coming back for more until he perished for the final time defending Arya at the Battle of Winterfell (and, by extension, sealing the fate of the Night King). Despite his scars and memory/personality loss, he kept his temper and his sense of humor, and he fought for life itself. Beric was brave, honorable, compassionate, selfless, and civil, and he could casually light his sword on fire. You’re telling me he doesn’t deserve better than 23? Oh, well—at least it’s a number reserved for the greats. —Lindbergh
22. Syrio Forel
You know a character—and character death—is good when they inspire all kinds of implausible conspiracy theories about how they could still be alive. Game of Thrones never brought back Arya’s erstwhile mentor, who sacrificed himself offscreen after introducing her to the art of the sword, putting her on the path to an assassins’ cult and, eventually, saving the world. But book readers hold out hope Syrio might turn out to be a Faceless Man himself or even just a survivor of the massacre that took his employer’s life. Sparing fan favorites wouldn’t be very Thrones-ian, but what did Syrio teach Arya to say to the god of death? Not today. —Herman
21. Mance Rayder
Mance Rayder was a standard-bearer in the great Game of Thrones tradition of bringing in a recognizable European actor for a few episodes of absolute lights-out relief pitching. He bantered, he brooded, he parlayed with Jon Snow and taught the latter about manhood and leadership. Then, when given the choice between submission and death, Mance chose death. Burning at the stake is a huge bummer, even if Jon Snow mercy killed him before he could cook to medium well. But Mance got an absolutely awesome nickname—“King of Lies”—on his way out, so it’s pretty much a wash. —Baumann
20. Maester Aemon
Castle Black’s blind, frail maester revealing himself to be Aemon Targaryen in Season 1 remains one of the best scenes in all of Game of Thrones.
For Jon, this put everything into perspective about his decision to either forsake the Night’s Watch and head south to join Robb or stay true to his vows and remain at the Wall. It’s a scene made even better knowing that Jon is a Targaryen, and that the test of Aemon’s vows—the death of Arys—was also the death of Jon’s grandfather. Even though neither character knew of that connection, Aemon always had the best advice for Jon:
Aemon also has a notable honor among Thrones characters: He died of old age. We’ll never see his like again. —McAtee
19. Robert Baratheon
Here’s a brief list of all the iconic things Robert Baratheon did in his brief time in the Thrones universe: launched a war to get back his betrothed after she was “kidnapped,” fathered Gendry, consistently owned Joffrey, said “gods” every five minutes, avoided all responsibilities and small council meetings, threw an irresponsible number of tournaments, bankrupted the kingdom, got drunk all the time, peer-pressured Ned into drinking with him, got too fat for his armor, told Lancel Lannister that his mother was “a dumb whore with a fat ass” after Lancel said Robert’s armor wouldn’t fit, tried to give the kingdom to Ned instead of Joffrey, died from injuries after he drunkenly tried to hunt a boar.
The only king of Westeros I recognize. —Schuster
Does the good a person does outweigh their evils? Among her countless misdeeds, Melisandre is responsible for one of Thrones’ most grisly moments—the sacrifice of Stannis Baratheon’s daughter, Shireen. But after her king is defeated at the first Battle of Winterfell, she quickly places her faith in a new Prince That Was Promised and begins using her powers for good. She revives a dead Jon Snow early in Season 6 and inspires Arya to make her fateful run at the Night King in the battle against the White Walkers. Melisandre may have not fully made up for all the carnage her faith in the Lord of Light led to, but by the time she died outside the gates of Winterfell, she had become a sympathetic figure. (Even more so when she removed her necklace.) —Sayles
While certain Thrones characters started out with compelling arcs before being reduced to meme status—hello, Bran—Hodor’s emotional journey went in the opposite direction. This giant was beloved by fans for his gentle nature and the fact he would only repeat his name—a lot. But in one of the show’s most ambitious swings, we find out the time-bending origins of Hodor’s name and simple nature—a heroic sacrifice to protect Bran from the army of the dead, something he’d feared ever since he had a vision as a stable boy at Winterfell. Hodor won our hearts for being such a sweet character in an unforgiving universe, and by the sixth season he broke us into a million pieces, just by holding the door. —Surrey
16. Catelyn Stark
Oh, Cat. Her inclusion on this list is somewhat debatable, given her fate in the books (JUSTICE FOR LADY STONEHEART), but her status as a tragic figure rivals only her husband’s. Catelyn loved her five children, yet couldn’t save them from death (Robb, Rickon), disillusionment (Arya, Sansa), or disfigurement (Bran). She misdirected her anger at her husband’s supposed infidelity onto an innocent Jon Snow. And she couldn’t stop the men in her life from making stupid decisions—taking a gig in King’s Landing, marrying for love—that doomed their entire dynasty. Cat’s brutal demise at her oldest’s Red Wedding marked the death of any hope that Thrones could be a conventional fantasy that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Unfortunately, she had to die so we could learn. —Herman
They say there’s nothing quite like your first love, and that certainly holds true for Jon Snow. Ygritte, the wildling played by Kit Harington’s now-wife Rose Leslie, taught a naive Jon to empathize with the Free Folk and that women could be more than the swooning girls he’d known back in Winterfell. (She also taught him a thing or two more in that cave too.) Jon would, of course, eventually move on to be with the great Khaleesi, but with Daenerys, the chemistry never felt quite right. (Probably because the Mad Queen was, you know, his aunt and all that.)
Ygritte was also a warrior, known for some iconic side-eyes, being a skilled archer, and backing down to absolutely no one. (Though she may have held back, never forget the time she shot Jon three times while he was escaping.) And perhaps above all else, Ygritte is responsible for one of Game of Thrones’ most memorable lines, which she delivered one last time with her dying words: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” —Chin
14. Jorah Mormont
The only thing stronger than Jorah’s jawline was his commitment to Daenerys—a devotion so formidable it withstood treachery, countless battles, a disfiguring disease, torturous confinement to the friend zone, and so much more. Jorah was a great many things to Dany: a tether to her homeland, an adviser in times of uncertainty and sword in times of trouble, a confidant and source of constant encouragement. He was not a perfect man, but that was always part of the point: His flaws spawned mistakes, and those mistakes spawned the desire to right them—to work to make amends and repent until he was worth something again in Dany’s eyes.
We heard so often throughout Thrones that there would be no place for Jorah in Dany’s new world, and he knew that, in some ways, that was true. As he told Jon beyond the Wall, with Longclaw held between them, “I brought shame unto my House. I broke my father’s heart. I forfeited the right to claim this sword. It’s yours. May it serve you well—and your children after you.” But he also knew that despite so much protestation, Dany’s side was really the only place he belonged.
That’s where he died, fighting against death itself to try to save her. And in the end, she tried to save him, too. Jorah always had a gift for reminding Dany of something more important than her strength: her gentle heart. His hard-won perspective helped ground and orient her, not only to the reality unfolding around her, but to her sense of self. “No one can survive in this world without help,” he once told her. That was never about making Dany or anyone else feel unable or small. It was about the healing balm of letting someone in, letting someone know you, letting someone follow you into the fire and maybe even the sky. —Rubin
13. Margaery Tyrell
Margaery played the game of thrones and ultimately didn’t win—yet while she lived, she was the rare character with more nuance on the show than in the books. Played by Natalie Dormer with a ubiquitous smirk, the wife of not one, not two, but three different kings displayed a lust for power as keen as anyone else’s in King’s Landing—though she masked hers with skillful subterfuge and an enchanting personality.
Cersei saw through her veneer, however, setting the stage for a crackling rivalry in the capital. At one point, on something of a heat check after seducing Tommen and taking after her barb-filled grandmother, Margaery insults Cersei’s drinking habits, jokes about having sex with her son, and reminds her that she’s no longer the queen. All in one conversation. —Kram
12. Robb Stark
Game of Thrones killed off its protagonist and biggest-name actor—Sean Bean’s Ned Stark—before the end of its first season, sending narrative shockwaves throughout the TV world. But even after that, it broadly stuck to narrative convention. The second and third seasons established Ned’s oldest son, Robb, as a charismatic leader and undefeated military commander who was maturing into a man who could blend his father’s righteousness with the ability to effectively wield power. Robb’s only fault was that he married for love, which is like citing “I work too hard” as a weakness in a job interview.
Played by handsome Scot Richard Madden, who literally went on to star as Prince Charming after his run on the show, it seemed like a pretty straightforward proposition that Robb would eventually win the war. Then he and his family got murdered out of absolutely fucking nowhere. The Red Wedding was the most shocking and brutal moment of a show that set great store by its ability to shock and brutalize. Few deaths upset the show’s political structure more, and none did greater violence to the expectations of narrative convention. —Baumann
11. The Hound
The Hound was brutal; the Hound was kind. That the same character could battle Brienne and the Mountain, and also care gently for Sansa and mentor Arya through the Riverlands, is a testament to Thrones’ widespread creation of complex characters. Just as Jaime made his way into viewers’ hearts after throwing Bran out a window, the Hound started the show by killing Arya’s friend, Mycah the butcher’s boy, before transforming into a character we’d root for. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all: The Hound wielded his words, via heartfelt monologues and biting one-line retorts, as effectively as a sword. —Kram
“I am the Master of Whisperers,” Lord Varys tells a soon-to-be-executed Ned Stark in Season 1’s “Baelor.” “My role is to be sly, obsequious, and without scruples.”
Varys more than lives up to those first two traits throughout the series. He has “little birds” everywhere, in each of the Seven Kingdoms and as far east as the world goes. He consistently plays his hand close to the vest, revealing information only if it gives him leverage over an opponent. And more than anyone in the show, he understands how the world works—that power doesn’t come from wealth, or capital, or armies, but from information. Even with all that knowledge and experience, though, Varys is undone by that last trait: He cannot put aside his scruples to watch the world burn.
Varys says often during the series that he serves no ruler, only the people. He comes from nothing—less than nothing, in fact—and his primary goal is to aid the people that he sees as being most like himself. It’s ultimately that desire (and, ya know, his betrayal of Daenerys Targaryen to achieve it) that gets him killed. But in Jon Snow and Bran Stark, his principles live on. —Schuster
9. Joffrey Baratheon
He was a sniveling brat. An evil masochist. A scared boy. An overprivileged nightmare. A poster child for the ill products of incest. He forced his wife-to-be Sansa Stark to stare at the decapitated head of her father—and when she disobeyed, he instructed his guard to physically assault her, too cowardly to do it himself. When his uncle Tyrion sent prostitutes to his chambers—in the hopes that a little relief would do him good—he maimed them with a crossbow rather than having sex with them. On his birthday, he cut a gigantic cake with a gigantic sword, like a true asshole.
Joffrey Baratheon is one of the most delightfully hateable characters to ever exist on television. Much of Thrones’ first two seasons revolve around the awful gravity of his immaturity, narcissism, and toxic entitlement. He was not a daunting figure—quite the opposite—and yet his presence was terrifying (and honestly, plain annoying). But he was exactly what the show needed: a character whom everyone could hate, alliances be damned. While it was endlessly pleasing to watch his face turn purple and the life drain from his eyes, it was also a bittersweet moment. For never again would Game of Thrones have a character like Joffrey Baratheon. —Gruttadaro
8. Oberyn Martell
Jon Snow’s death at the end of A Dance with Dragons (he’s been lying in the snow in the Castle Black courtyard since 2011) is the angriest I’ve ever been reading A Song of Ice and Fire. A close second: the death of Oberyn Martell. In the show, as in the books, it’s hard to escape the feeling that he was taken from us too soon.
At a time when the heroes of the story were at their lowest points—held hostage in King’s Landing; putzing around with the wildlings far from the action; kidnapped by the Hound—it was Oberyn who provided a ray of hope as bright as the Dornish sun. While the Starks were either cowed into silence or spinning their wheels, with no hope of attaining recompense, the Red Viper was fearless in the face of Lannister power and unyielding in his pursuit of justice for his murdered kin. Where the capital was stoggy and conservative, Oberyn brought a dash of open and progressive Dornish culture. Did those cultural exchanges mostly take the form of group sex outings? Yes. But let’s not discount that Oberyn was a voice for bastard equality and against needlessly murdering innocents—truly revolutionary stuff in Westerosi terms.
Oberyn’s most unforgettable moment, not counting his head-popping demise, was the speech in which he agrees to act as Tyrion Lannister’s champion and duel the fearsome Gregor Clegane.
Tyrion: If you want justice, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Oberyn Martell: I disagree. I’ve come to the perfect place. I want to bring those who have wronged me to justice. And, all those who have wronged me are right here. I will begin with Ser Gregor Clegane, who killed my sister’s children and then raped her with their blood still on his hands before killing her, too. I will be your champion.
And he almost pulled it off, too. —Concepcion
7. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
Everyone remembers the “chaos is a ladder” speech, but all of Littlefinger’s verbal spars with Varys are worth highlighting. That’s not only because their shadow war for power in King’s Landing was representative of the shadowy politicking that helped audiences fall in love with Thrones, but because all of their scenes together were created out of whole cloth for the TV show, with no books to pull from. Varys and Littlefinger are not point-of-view characters in George R.R. Martin’s novels, so any scene in the show without a major character present (think Tyrion, Cersei, etc.) is something the showrunners had to write themselves. Frequently, that meant brilliance:
Our favorite accent-changing, teleporting schemer was always at his best when he was in King’s Landing. And Thrones was at its best with him there. For a show about dragons and bloodlines and magic, the story thrived when it was just two people in a room, talking. And Littlefinger sure could talk. When he left King’s Landing, the show lost some of its momentum, and Littlefinger’s downfall in Season 7 seemed inconsistent for his character. But for a while, he was one of the most electric on-screen presences the show had. —McAtee
6. Ned Stark
There is perhaps no other character who helps explain why Game of Thrones became such a phenomenon and who set the tone for the rest of the series. Ned Stark was your prototypical fantasy hero: honorable, brave, and played by one of the most famous actors in the show’s ensemble, Sean Bean; the kind of guy who carries you through an entire series. But the genius of Thrones was lulling non-book-readers into a false sense of security. Ned’s death at the end of the first season made it clear that the show wasn’t playing by usual conventions. It’s a moment that has had ramifications across the television landscape, with other shows trying to chase Thrones’ innate capacity for shocking bloodshed.
But what helps make Ned’s death resonate is how effectively the series committed to the Lord of Winterfell’s inherent goodness. Ned’s sense of honor and duty was passed down to the rest of House Stark—often working against them in a cruel realm—and the tragic irony of his beheading is that it happened in part because he didn’t want Cersei Lannister or Joffrey Baratheon to be harmed. His story is the story of the show—that you either win or die, with no in-between and with nothing else mattering. —Surrey
5. Olenna Tyrell
“Tell Cersei. I want her to know it was me.” Leave it to the Queen of Thorns to die as she lived: viciously effective, on her own terms, and with an eternally memorable catchphrase.
Olenna played the game perfectly, and she came so close to winning. She seduced her way into one of Westeros’s most powerful families; controlled the Tyrell fortune as matriarch with little resistance from her bumbling son; and made sure a little light treason didn’t get in the way of her progeny’s path to the Iron Throne. Unfortunately, while Olenna was an expert at underhanded intrigue, she never quite knew what to do in the face of all-out, irrational madness. When she couldn’t see a way around Joffrey, she killed him. When Cersei couldn’t see a way around her, she killed Olenna’s family in a coup-slash–terrorist attack.
As a character, Olenna’s peak came in Game of Thrones’ middle stretch, which let her share the screen with intellectual equals like Tywin and Tyrion Lannister. Her demise wouldn’t come until several years and alliances later, when the world Olenna learned to navigate so well had crumbled in the face of dragons, ice zombies, and sex pirates. All that hard-won savvy couldn’t save Olenna, but her iron will—and Jaime Lannister’s mercy—made her prefer poison to becoming a prisoner of war. Unlike some other late-period casualties, Olenna went out utterly in character, as beloved as she began. —Herman
4. Daenerys Targaryen
Put some respect on her many names. Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regent of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons. From the beginning of her life to its shocking end, there were blades aimed at her heart. She was born after her father, Aerys II the Mad King, was slain by Jaime Lannister, a member of his own Kingsguard; after the fall of King’s Landing to the forces of the usurper Robert Baratheon, who mercilessly sacked the city; during a storm that lashed what remained of the Targaryen fleet to splinters. She and her brother Viserys spent their youths on the run in the Free Cities of Essos, no more than beggars. Viserys would later sell her to the Dothraki Khal Drogo, in hopes of gaining an army with which to retake the Seven Kingdoms.
Viserys underestimated his sister. He was not alone. The warlocks of Qarth, the masters of Slaver’s Bay, the Dothraki khals, and the Lannister army—all of them met fiery ends. In her best moments, though, she was generous, gentle, and loyal. She took Jorah Mormont back into her fold after she discovered he had been spying on her. She made the former slave Missandei one of her most trusted advisers. Her most fateful decision, sparing the life of the blood witch Mirri Maz Duur, came from a desire to halt suffering where she had the power to do so. It’s not surprising, then, that, as her power grew, that desire would become darker, more domineering, and eventually despotic. However, what she, and we, needed was more time. In the end, Dany’s final turn to genocidal tyranny happened in a few moments, as the bells of King’s Landing chimed. She deserved better. —Concepcion
3. Tywin Lannister
Before Season 8, I ranked Tywin as the best villain Thrones ever had, and I stand by that sentiment. He’s an unusual villain in the story: He never swings a sword or unstoppers a bottle of poison, but no figure in the realm intimidates more than the lord of Casterly Rock. Tywin’s backstory, of course, contains plenty of horrors, from his massacre of the Reynes to his terrible treatment of his father’s mistress and Tyrion’s first wife. But in the show’s present day, he’s already a feared and accomplished puppetmaster, content to control proceedings and manipulate the world to his own ends from behind the scenes.
In his older age, Tywin is most fearsome and enthralling in muted settings: sitting behind his desk, orchestrating the Red Wedding with calligraphy; monitoring Ned Stark’s abandoned sword in the forge; conversing about matters of legacy and leadership with characters ranging from Arya to Tommen to all three of his children. Tywin had smarts and steel, wisdom and wealth, and only one weakness in his perennial quest for lasting relevance: a blindness toward his children. It’s fitting, in the end, that two of those offspring would best him in this ranking. —Kram
2. Cersei Lannister
Cersei’s defining trait, we have often heard, is that she loves her children. To which I say so what? Ned Stark did too. Ditto Lady Olenna, Stannis Baratheon, Lysa Arryn, and on and on. Cersei loved her children, it’s true. But that doesn’t explain her. What defines Cersei is transgression. At her core, she’s a rule breaker.
Cersei wasn’t the smartest Lannister. That was Tyrion. She wasn’t the best strategist. That was Tywin. She wasn’t the best fighter. That was Jaime. But, because she was shockingly transgressive, she was the most ruthless. Cersei ignored social mores, religious edicts, and the written and unwritten rules that constricted her allies and her opponents. She was shameless. And when she moved against her enemies, she did so in ways that they simply did not see coming because she was playing a totally different game.
Robert’s will named Eddard Stark as Regent and Protector of the Realm. She simply tore it up, in the throne room, in front of dozens of witnesses. “Those are the King’s words,” an appalled Barristan Selmy said. She then had him thrown out of the Kingsguard, a formerly lifetime position. Margaery Tyrell turned her son King Tommen against her; Cersei struck a deal with the High Sparrow and the common people of Westeros, whom she so disdained, to bring the Tyrells down. When the High Sparrow became her enemy, she blew up the holiest site in King’s Landing, the Great Sept of Baelor, killing, in one stroke, the Tyrells, the Sparrows, and untold other innocents unlucky enough to be in the way. Westeros never had a queen and would not, many argued, countenance one; she simply crowned herself. Qyburn, her Hand, had been excommunicated by the Citadel and her bodyguard was an abomination whose existence transgressed the border between life and death. Whereas Jaime always sought to cover up their longtime sexual relationship, Cersei didn’t care that everyone knew. As long as they feared her enough to pretend that they didn’t. —Concepcion
1. Jaime Lannister
Perhaps no character better represents one of the greatest gifts Thrones gave us when it was at its best: time. Jaime Lannister came into our lives by pushing a child out of a window when that child discovered Jaime having secret sex with his twin sister, and yet Thrones fans en masse grew not only to accept him but to actively adore him. He is a miracle of storytelling, a singular creation who speaks both to our capacity for change and to the limits on that capacity when we don’t believe we’ve earned the right to be forgiven.
That depth of understanding is not possible without time. It’s not possible without seeing the tenderness Jaime showed to Tyrion when so few others did. It’s not possible without seeing Jaime find the strength to walk away from Cersei and into the North, toward a castle full of people he knows might want him dead. It’s certainly not possible without every moment he shared with Brienne, a transformative relationship that established an unambiguous truth about the show and its characters: Growth isn’t just about how you see yourself; it’s about how you see yourself in the eyes of someone you love.
In the bath at Harrenhal in Season 3, Jaime showed Brienne a piece of himself that he’d actively shielded, with sword and snark, from the rest of the world. When he knighted her in Season 8, the look that passed between them was, perhaps, the best encapsulation of fans’ feelings about Jaime, Brienne, and their relationship: an almost unbearable amount of gratitude for the chance to bear witness to that growth and appreciate the bends on the winding road of a life truly lived.
The conclusion of Jaime’s arc can feel, even a year later, contrary to many of those lessons, a rush to rewind and unlearn rather than study and work to understand. He came into the world with Cersei, and he left it with her, too, buried beneath the weight of her ambition, nestled together in a womb of their own making. “So many vows,” Jaime once said. “They make you swear and swear.” Ultimately, he chose to fulfill his lifelong vow to Cersei. It wasn’t what Brienne wanted. It wasn’t what so many of us wanted. And so it’s one more test, at the end, of our ability to forgive. The things we do for love. —Rubin