Fans of Game of Thrones have undoubtedly noticed a trend among the first three seasons. Every year the ninth episode (the penultimate in a season of 10) features all of the major action.
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In season 1, “Baelor” ended with the shocking beheading of Ned Stark. In season 2, “Blackwater” featured the epic battle at King’s Landing. And in season 3’s “The Rains of Castamere,” the infamous Red Wedding arrived with the deaths of three series regulars.
Clearly the show saves all the good stuff for episode 9, and with three down (and hopefully many more to come), let’s look back and see which one was the best.
Season 1: “Baelor”
This episode is best known for ending with Ned Stark’s beheading, a bold move as he was the show’s main protagonist. It was the first real clue to viewers who hadn’t read the books that anything could happen. But as iconic and terrifying as that scene was, “Baelor” may be even more important on second glance.
It’s the first episode where Catelyn and Robb Stark met Walder Frey and made the deal with him that Robb would marry one of his daughters. The symmetry of this event coming in the same episode as Ned’s death and being the cause of Catelyn and Robb’s demises two seasons later is beautiful.
In even more foreshadowing, this was also the episode where Tyrion was first sent to the frontlines of battle with the hill tribes, though it was far less successful than when he led the army at the Battle of Blackwater. It seems possible that every huge ninth episode event in the future may have roots in “Baelor.”
Without having read the books and knowing what potential future ninth-episode game-changers will come, I will point out other major events from “Baelor” include Jon Snow being given the sword originally meant for Jorah Mormont and learning that Maester Aemon was a Targaryen, Daenerys using dark magic to try and revive Khal Drogo and Tyrion meeting Shae and telling her the story of his first wife, the prostitute Tywin hired to take Tyrion’s virginity. If those plotlines play a role in whatever groundbreaking events occur in the ninth episodes of season 4 and beyond, the importance of “Baelor” will only grow.
Season 2: “Blackwater”
Unlike every other episode of Game of Thrones, this episode featured only one storyline at one location. There was no Daenerys or Robb or Jon or Arya or Bran or Theon. In fact, of the 25 series regulars from the second season, only 11 appeared.
That single-minded focus helped make it, in my opinion, the best episode the series has ever done and set a bar that is nearly impossible to surpass. The scope and visual effects of the battle itself, particularly Tyrion Lannister’s daring wildfire attack, were stunning.
But action sequences alone don’t make a great episode. The episode also featured the sharpest writing (perhaps due to the fact that it was written by the author of the novels, George R.R. Martin). From Bronn’s pre-battle showdown with the Hound to Cersei’s drunken ramblings to Sansa in the tower to Tyrion’s pitch-perfect battle speech, it was the rare masterpiece that provided equally excellent action and dialogue.
Game of Thrones is such an expansive show with most episodes taking place in at least five or six different locations across the Seven Kingdoms, but to center an entire hour on one location and one event let the series really develop its themes and atmosphere.
Season 3: “The Rains of Castamere”
Whether you read the books and looked forward to the Red Wedding with fear and anticipation or had no idea that Talisa, Robb and Catelyn would all die at the hands of Walder Frey’s vengeance, the final scenes of this episode are the most haunting the show has ever accomplished. Ned Stark having his head chopped off was one thing, but killing three main characters in a single event, including two of the most important players from the first three seasons?
To grasp this, you only need to look at the numbers. Thus far four of the 28 series regulars have been killed off in season 3 (Oona Chaplin, Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley join James Cosmo’s Jeor Mormont). Meanwhile, none of the 25 regulars of season 2 were killed. Season 3 is now on par with season 1, where 4 of the 19 series regulars met their end (Ned Stark, King Robert Baratheon, Viserys Targaryen and Khal Drogo, though no two died in the same episode).
However, as shocking and visceral as the Red Wedding was, “The Rains of Castamere” was actually aided by other storylines. Most importantly, many of the other Stark family members were featured. Arya’s heartbreaking attempt at a family reunion added an extra layer of tragedy to the event and Bran’s new powers came with the bittersweet foreshadowing of the possibility that Robb would die. Then there was Jon Snow, who got to fight against the wildlings before riding off (offering a brilliant parallel between Robb and Arya and Jon and Bran, both at the same location, yet denied their reunions).
Throw in a cool fight sequence with Jorah, Daerio and Grey Worm taking out the Yunkai soldiers and you have an episode with a little bit of everything. From top to bottom, “The Rains of Castamere” had great moments and was definitely the highlight of a third season that started somewhat slowly.
So now you can vote for your favorite ninth episode of Game of Thrones? Did you love the beheading of Ned Stark in “Baelor,” the epic battle in “Blackwater” or the Red Wedding in “The Rains of Castamere”?
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(Image courtesy of HBO)