By Christian Holub
May 14, 2019 at 08:32 PM EDT
  • TV Show

After all these years, the end is almost nigh.

Game of Thrones airs its final episode this Sunday, bringing to a close eight seasons of heartbreak, political machinations, and perhaps most importantly, stunning physical battles. The combat on Game of Thrones has ranged from epic clashes between huge armies to intimate (but equally brutal) one-on-one duels. So, as the finale approaches, we looked back and compiled some of our most favorite fights from across the show’s run.

Helen Sloan/HBO

Check that out below, and stay tuned for more coverage of Game of Thrones‘ final season on EW.

10. Ned Stark and friends vs. the Kingsguard, “Oathbreaker”

It always felt like the Tower of Joy was going to be the key to everything. Ned Stark’s fractured recollection of the last battle of Robert’s Rebellion in George R.R. Martin’s first book gave readers just the right amount of information to be maddeningly tantalized. On one side stood Ned and six of his closest friends; on the other, three of the most renowned knights of the Kingsguard. All we knew for sure was that only Ned and Howland Reed survived, but the fact that Rhaegar Targaryen had set a warrior as renowned as Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, to guard Lyanna Stark rather than help him fight off rebellion was the first indication there was more to their relationship than the story of abduction and rape we heard from Robert Baratheon. Ned was executed before he could tell us more, but the show filled in the gaps.

They gave Arthur Dayne (Luke Roberts) two swords instead of the single greatsword Dawn, but the resulting swordsmanship was a much clearer way of establishing his legendary martial prowess. But when did legend and renown ever count for much in Westeros? It was a shock to Bran, but this noble warrior’s brutal end — stabbed in the back by Howland Reed (Leo Woodruff) rather than defeated honorably by Ned (Robert Aramayo) — continued Game of Thrones’ tradition of undermining typical hero narratives. And now it begins…

9. Brienne vs. the Hound, “The Children”

Brienne of Tarth didn’t get a point-of-view chapter in Martin’s books until A Feast for Crows. Set amidst the wreckage of Westeros after much of the main cast had been decimated and scattered, A Feast for Crows is a book dripping with dark irony. Sent to find and protect Sansa Stark, Brienne searches far and wide across the ruined Riverlands — even though the reader is perfectly aware that Sansa is actually with Littlefinger in the Vale. That kind of dead-end water-treading is one reason the events of A Feast for Crows changed so much in adaptation, but this brutal duel managed to pack a book’s worth of irony into one devastating fight. 

Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and the Hound (Rory McCann) have each weathered dozens of battles, yet here they fight harder than ever before — even though they both want the same thing. Their battle’s devolution from words to swords to fists and teeth and rocks parallels Westeros’ own post-apocalyptic breakdown in the wake of the War of the Five Kings.

8. Night’s Watch vs. the Wildlings, “The Watchers on the Wall”

Many of the best moments in Game of Thrones either involved friends turning on each other, or foes becoming friends. This battle included both. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ser Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale), a man who gave him nothing but grief since he first joined the Night’s Watch, in order to defend Castle Black against the unified wildling horde. Over the course of that battle, Jon came face-to-face with the love of his life, Ygritte (Rose Leslie), for one last time. His black cloak and her arctic camouflage always dictated which side they’d each end up fighting for in the end, but that didn’t make it any less tragic when she died in his arms.

Also, shout out to one of Harington’s best line readings in the entire show, a small indication of the epic, fantastic scope of this battle: “Those are GIANTS riding MAMMOTHS down there!!”

7. Daenerys, Drogon, and the Dothraki vs. the Lannisters, “The Spoils of War”

Ever since the very beginning of Game of Thrones, we’ve heard tales of Aegon the Conqueror. Daenerys’ ancestor united the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros by riding his great black dragon Balerion into battle alongside his sisters; together, they melted anyone who dared oppose them. At long last, Daenerys’ vengeance against the Lannister army gave us a glimpse of what that might have looked like. It took several seasons for Drogon to grow to fighting size, but the simultaneous majesty and horror of watching him burn soldiers like kindling made the long wait worth it.

After all, who deserves this fate more than the Lannisters? The spoiled enfants terrible of Westeros finally come face-to-face with an enemy they can’t outwit or seduce, and the result is carnage. Even Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), the black sheep of his family, is horrified to watch the lion-clad troops cut down so effortlessly by the Dothraki. The experience stayed with him, and clearly influenced his radical actions in the final season.  

6. Battle of Winterfell, “The Long Night”

The final stand against the Night King took a lot from Lord of the Rings’ Helm’s Deep sequence, but one thing the showrunners didn’t mimic was that battle’s incredibly vivid night-time lighting. It was clearly a strategic choice. Unlike almost any other fight in Game of Thrones, the Battle of Winterfell wasn’t just a contest over land or wealth but a war between the cold darkness of oblivion and the roaring fire of life. Director Miguel Sapochnik and the other filmmakers chose to visualize this contrast. The occasional eruptions of flame, whether from the dragons’ breath or Melisandre’s spells, stand against the wintry darkness just as these few brave souls at Winterfell withstand the onslaught of death itself.

Alas, the cost was that some sequences were difficult to make out — especially disappointing considering the massive amount of effort that went into making the episode, as reported by EW’s James Hibberd. Viewer discussions about the battle were mostly subsumed by the question of whether people could even make out what was happening, which unfortunately prevented a full appreciation of truly stunning setpieces like Jon and Daenerys’ dragon-back battle with the Night King above the clouds.

On top of that, it must be said that not enough major characters died to justify the seasons-long build-up of the threat posed by the army of the dead. Those who did meet their end, such as loyal Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and the redeemed Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), went out in very noble and true-to-character ways. Yet even that was part of the poetry of the episode, showing how different characters conduct themselves in the face of death: Arya fights, runs, survives, and kills; Grey Worm stands firm; Jorah protects his queen; and Jon screams defiance. 

Everyone gave their all at the Battle of Winterfell, cast and crew and characters alike. But a few MVPs deserve special mention: Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who as it turns out was right about pretty much everything even when she didn’t know it; Arya Stark, who finally used her assassin training to put the knife where it belonged; and composer Ramin Djawadi, who conveyed the most important emotional storytelling in this mostly dialogue-free episode through a stunning piano score (only the second time he used that instrument in the show’s history).

5. Cleganebowl, “The Bells”

Many fans hoped that they might see a Cleganebowl one day. After all, the Hound had long been one of the show’s most interesting characters, and the Mountain had committed such grievous acts of carnage that it felt like he deserved epic comeuppance from his original victim. Yet, even so, few fans probably expected that not only would a Cleganebowl happen, but it would end up being…the climax of the entire episode, pretty much.

Director Miguel Sapochnik and actors Rory McCann and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson put all their effort into making the battle worthy of its placement amidst the epic sack of King’s Landing. The showdown — in which the Hound finally comes face-to-face with the physical embodiment of his lifelong trauma and still (STILL) can’t even hurt him — makes for a brutal mirror both to Tyrion and Jaime’s heartfelt goodbye, and Daenerys’ own choice to pursue vengeance at any cost. Such a path can only ever lead to screaming hysterically and tackling your own brother headfirst into the fires of hell.

4. Stannis Baratheon’s forces attack King’s Landing, “Blackwater”

The climax of the War of the Five Kings was the show’s first real test of whether it could deliver an epic battle sequence on par with those in Martin’s books and iconic fantasy films (they had sneakily avoided showcasing the Battle of the Whispering Wood in season 1 by having Tyrion knocked out). Under the stewardship of director Alan Taylor, they succeeded. Game of Thrones proved it could make action just as compelling as personal drama. As amazing as it was to watch Blackwater Bay bathed in green flame by Tyrion’s wildfire surprise, the battle was at its most compelling when it switched to the fascinating wine-tinged conversation between Cersei (Lena Headey) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) hiding in the Red Keep.

3. Night’s Watch and Wildlings vs. the White Walkers, “Hardhome”

“Night’s Watch! With me!” is Jon Snow’s “Avengers Assemble” — a battle cry noble enough to inspire his brothers-in-black to stand with him and hold back death incarnate just a little bit longer to save the lives of wildlings who at one point would’ve killed them without blinking.

This episode is a great example of the show’s unique strengths, because the massacre at Hardhome is unseen in George R.R. Martin’s novels. Benioff and Weiss decided to give us a full view of the White Walkers’ carnage, and in so doing set up the perfect coming-out party for director Miguel Sapochnik’s work on the show. This was Sapochnik’s first big Westeros battle, but far from the last: He would go on to direct some of the most epic sequences of the final seasons, some of which you’ve already read about on this list. At Hardhome, he set a high bar for himself.

The Night King, it may surprise some readers to remember, is wholly a creation of the show. The Others (Martin’s preferred term for the White Walkers) are mostly unseen in the books, and we certainly know nothing of their leadership structure. But with one unforgettable image (the Night King raising his hands to recruit all the people his minions just massacred into his undead army), Sapochnik and company gave evil a face — one that would haunt the show for years to come, and eventually unite desperate characters in unexpected ways.  

2. Oberyn Martell vs. Ser Gregor Clegane, “The Mountain and the Viper”

“You raped her, you murdered her, you killed her children.”

After years of waiting, Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell thought he was finally on the precipice of vengeance for his brutalized sister Elia. Alas, that’s not how things work in Westeros. When you get too attached to vengeance, you lose sight of your own vulnerability — as Oberyn did when, inflamed with the desire for Ser Gregor to confess he killed and raped Elia on Tywin Lannister’s orders, forgot that the Mountain still possessed considerable strength even when unarmed. Watching Oberyn leap gracefully through the air spinning his spear, only to get his head crushed like a juicy fruit by the Mountain’s iron fists, is the zenith of Game of Thrones’ heartbreaking brutality. The final seasons, in which many characters seemed to reach the ends they deserved or even wanted, could have taken more cues from it.

Fans of the Red Viper can take solace in a few things, however. The poison on his spear tip did eventually kill the Mountain, forcing the elder Clegane to be turned into a hideous zombie monstrosity. Oberyn couldn’t prove Tywin had ordered his sister’s murder, but by failing Tyrion’s trial by combat, he set in motion Tywin’s own death. The Red Viper may be gone, but at least his sister’s killers didn’t take long to follow him into the grave.

1. Bastard Bowl, “Battle of the Bastards”

Possibly the most satisfying episode in the history of the show, Game of Thrones cast its most noble hero against its most sadistic villain — and for once, the good guys won.

Sapochnik’s previous directorial outing on the show, “Hardhome,” had given us the unforgettable image of the Night King raising his arms and summoning his fallen enemies to his service. Here, the director topped that with the even-more-iconic shot of Jon valiantly raising his sword as Ramsay Bolton’s forces charged at him. It felt like something out of The Lord of the Rings, which made the following minutes so satisfying as that noble iconography was drowned amidst the chaotic melee of visceral battle. There were plenty of reasons to despise Ramsay (not least his cruel execution of young Rickon Stark just before the battle began) but what does that matter to soldiers just trying to survive the day?

Jon had been brought back from death by Melisandre at the top of season 6, but he spent the following episodes feeling like a shadow of his old self. It wasn’t until he had to claw his way out from under that suffocating mound of bodies that he was truly reborn and ready to take his place as a leader of men.

And then there was Ramsay. Everyone will take in the story at their own pace, but for a certain subset of readers and fans (say, those who had caught up on Martin’s books ahead of season 5) there was a period of time where the most recent update in Westeros was that the Boltons were triumphant and the Starks had been scattered to the ends of the Earth. Given Martin’s penchant for killing off his heroes and empathizing with villains, it wasn’t out-of-line to think their victory might be permanent. Seeing Ramsay finally brought low (and finished off by his former victim Sansa, no less) felt like much-need catharsis after that time of darkness, even if he did manage to kill the last giant on his way out. Because…of course, he did.

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HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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