The brutality of Game of Thrones was apparent from the series’ inaugural scene, as rangers of the Night’s Watch were butchered at the hands of what we later find out are the White Walkers. Then, the poor ranger who survives runs away, only to be executed for desertion at Winterfell. Death —just and unjust— was going to define the world of Westeros.
Ranking anything by shock value leaves several methods by which one might create such a ranking. Is a death shocking because of its importance to the plot? Because it is particularly brutal? Because it reveals something about the character you didn’t previously know? The list below blends these criteria in an attempt to illustrate the different ways in which Game of Thrones handled the killing of its many characters, and how the actual loss of the character isn’t always the loudest takeaway. With that said, I don’t think there could possibly be more spoilers below than there are. So, please be advised. Off we go.
Honorable Mention: Jon Snow (Season 5, Episode 10, “Mother’s Mercy”)
Although nearly all viewers expected Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to return after being brutally betrayed by his brothers of the Night’s Watch, it was still a chilling scene at the end of the fifth season that ended quietly with Jon being stabbed to death, bleeding out on the snow. The following break between seasons, poor Harington had to dodge questions left and right about whether his death was real or not. For those privy to the theory that Jon was the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, his return seemed obvious, not to mention that he’s essentially been one of the key protagonists since the beginning. But, if Ned’s (Sean Bean) death taught us anything, it’s that anyone can die at any time, and Jon’s uncertain fate left many uncertain if the Stark bastard had seen his final days or not. Obviously, we now know that there is more of Jon’s story to tell, with the announcement of a new series from HBO.
14. Varys (Season 8, Episode 5; “The Bells”)
If there was ever a character who truly was the embodiment of the concept of a canary in a mine, Varys (Conleth Hill). Varys understood the truth about Jon Snow’s parentage and saw first hand the evidence of Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) descent into madness. Seeing the writing on the wall, Varys does his best in the final hours before the sacking of King’s Landing to try and get Jon legitimized as the true heir to the throne. But, of course, his plans get back to Daenerys via Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and he is executed by Daenerys by being burned alive by Drogon. For two characters who always had some of the most interesting scenes together, Varys and Tyrion’s proverbial break up was devastating, especially given how right Varys was. Obviously, though, there is a much bigger shock in this episode than the demise of Lord Varys, more on that later.
13. Tommen (Season 6, Episode 10, “The Winds of Winter”)
While the deaths of the other major characters ranks a bit higher, it was still rather surprising to see the nonchalant way that King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) saw his end. As the youngest child of Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey), he was not nearly as cruel or as heartless as his older brother. A lover of kittens and simply just a nice kid, he became a casualty of the game of thrones after witnessing his mother blow up the Sept of Baelor. Watching his city in ashes, knowing that his queen was dead, Tommen took off his crown and walked right out of his window, falling to his death. Tommen was Cersei’s remaining child and his death sent her deeper into despair and despotism.
12. Viserys Targaryen (Season 1, Episode 6; “A Golden Crown”)
Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) is one of the first villains in Game of Thrones. While the Lannisters are set up in opposition to the Starks almost immediately, Viserys takes on the role of being one of the first truly despicable characters. He treats his sister like (sexual) currency, is so far beyond what one might consider entitled, and is, ultimately, a whiny little brat. By the time the sixth episode of season 1 rolls around, the audience has already endured some brutality, but when Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa) breaks Viserys’s arm and dumps a pot of melted gold over his head, following his “I want my crown!” tantrum, the first truly memorable death of the series unfolded. The villains, just as much as the heroes, were vulnerable.
11. Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger (Season 7, Episode 7; “The Dragon and the Wolf”)
One of the recurring themes in the later seasons of Game of Thrones is that most of the bad people get their comeuppance and most of the good people make it out alive. Walder Frey (David Bradley), Meryn Trant (Ian Beattie), Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), and Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) are all dispatched in ways that are surprisingly just for Westeros. Where Littlefinger’s death differs is that the season had been building towards a different plotline before it happened —Littlefinger manipulating Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) and Arya Stark against one another. When Sansa turns the tables on Littlefinger, we see him turn into a shell of himself, begging for his life before Arya slits his throat. It feels appropriate that he would be willing to play whatever trick, no matter how pathetic or likely to fail, before admitting defeat.
10. Viserion (Season 7, Episode 6, “Beyond the Wall”)
As one of the smallest dragons of Daenerys’ trio, Viserion was named after Daenerys’ not-so-great brother, but that doesn’t mean his death was not tragic. “Beyond the Wall” was always a stressful episode, but when our gang of heroes were trapped in the far north surrounded by wights, it was Daenerys’ arrival with her dragons that seemed like a gift from heaven. Unfortunately, when it comes to facing up against the Night King, you’re hard pressed to survive unscathed. Wielding an ice spear, the Night King manages to kill Viserion with a direct hit. It’s the first time we see a dragon die, and horrifically it is not the last we see of Viserion. While Rhaegal’s death was offensive – with a scorpion, really? Viserion’s was probably the first nail in the coffin for Daenerys’ eventual downward spiral. Next we see Viserion, he is a full ice zombie dragon attacking Winterfell in Season 8. He is eventually killed after Arya (Maisie Williams) kills the Night King.
9. Joffrey Baratheon (Season 4, Episode 2; “The Lion and the Rose”)
As King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is celebrating his nuptials to Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), he is poisoned by Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg). We watch as the brutal monarch scratches at his throat, struggles to breathe, turns purple, and leaks various bodily fluids from his nose and mouth. Aside from the narrative significance of Joffrey’s demise, there was no death too gruesome to make us feel sorry for this nightmare of a person. When the final breath left his body, perhaps the shock was more jubilation: They finally killed that bastard.
8. The People of King’s Landing (Season 8, Episode 5; “The Bells”)
Throughout Game of Thrones, we watch as Daenerys Targaryen slowly —and sometimes not so slowly— moves towards madness. As she sits atop Drogon, after coaxing surrender from the city of King’s Landing, she finally loses what is left of her marbles. She promptly decimates the Westerosi capital city, along with most of the people in it, with dragonfire. Due to the uneven pacing of the final seasons, Danaerys going nuclear in this moment is abrupt, and therefore, shocking —the total betrayal of everything that has driven her character for eight seasons (“break the wheel,” justice for the common people). In a way, this figurative death is more shocking than Danaerys’ actual death in the following episode. By this late point in the series, it is apparent that she is more her father (the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen) than anything else. While the narrative execution is shaky, she appropriately comes full circle with the Mad King’s final order concerning the people of King’s Landing: “Burn them all.”
7. Margaery Tyrell et al. (Season 6, Episode 10; “The Winds of Winter”)
The final episode of Season 6 starts with an eight-minute build of ominous piano music, Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover) being stabbed to death by children, candles slowly burning towards barrels of wildfire, and an increasingly nervous Margaery telling the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) that Cersei Lannister’s no-show status at the trial is indicative of an impending calamity. Inevitably, Margaery is right, and Cersei settles all family business in a fiery bloodbath: The wildfire erupts, blows up the Sept of Baelor, and disintegrates everyone in it. This scene felt like the showrunners (David Benioff, D. B. Weiss) realizing they had an enormous number of plotlines that still existed, and they needed to cull the fold before the show began its final narrative descent. This moment resulted in the deaths of Margaery, High Sparrow, Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), Mace Tyrell (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), Lancel Lannister (Eugene Simon), Kevan Lannister (Ian Gelder), ended the religious cult of the Sparrows, and led to King Tommen Baratheon committing suicide.
6. Tywin Lannister (Season 4, Episode 10; “The Children”)
It was probably expected that the patriarch of the Lannister family, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), would eventually meet his end. And while it is easy to look at the details of his death —killed by his son, Tyrion, murdered while using the privy, the political/power struggle that predictably ensues following— as the shocking elements, the revelations that he is sleeping with Tyrion’s former love interest, Shae (Sibel Kekilli), and that a huge swath of his character sketch is a lie, are perhaps more shocking. Despite his constant insistence on family, legacy, and claims on moral superiority, we find out that Tywin isn’t so different after all. Or, to put us in context, he does not, in fact, “shit gold.”
5. Oberyn Martell (Season 4, Episode 8; “The Mountain and the Viper”)
There are more important moments in Game of Thrones than the trial by combat between Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) and the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), but it’s hard to find a moment more brutal. While it was always expected that Oberyn could lose this duel, the manner in which he does is scarring. After overwhelming the Mountain, Oberyn begins demanding admittances of guilt concerning the Mountain’s rape and murder of Oberyn’s sister, Elia. Of course, in the world of Game of Thrones, this goes about as well you might expect. The Mountain trips Oberyn, and punches out his teeth. The Mountain then buries his fingers into Oberyn’s eyes, eventually exploding Oberyn’s head. The sights and sounds (*shudders*) of this sequence make it the most straightforward sort of shock on the list.
4. Hodor (Season 6, Episode 5; “The Door”)
Of all the dramatic deaths in Game of Thrones, Hodor’s (Kristian Nairn) might be the most beautifully done, narratively speaking. While his death creates an emotional reaction from his character’s innocence and longevity, it is the revelation that Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is the cause of Hodor’s inability to communicate beyond the word “hodor” that is most shocking. It moves to full emotional devastation when it is revealed that “hodor” is just a slurred blend of the phrase “hold the door,” which Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) shouts to Hodor as he attempts to hold off the army of wights chasing the group, arguably indicating that Hodor knew the moment of his death since the moment Bran warged into him many years earlier. The episode closing with nothing but Hodor’s speech methodically transforming from “hold the door” into “hodor” hits like an atomic bomb.
3. Shireen Baratheon (Season 5, Episode 9; “The Dance of Dragons”)
Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), the daughter of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), is neglected by her mother, has a facial skin deformity thanks to a case of Greyscale, and is basically locked away in a tower. Despite everything, she is always ready to help her father however she can. What she doesn’t know is that her father has lost all sense of reality thanks to his blind following of Melisandre (Carice van Houten), leading Stannis to believe that the only way for him to overcome his losses on his way to conquer Winterfell is to burn his young daughter at the stake. Say what you want about the narrative choice, but there is no denying that this is the most upsetting scene in the entire series. For the night is dark and full of terrors, indeed.
2. Eddard “Ned” Stark (Season 1, Episode 9; “Baelor”)
The death of Eddard “Ned” Stark is such a touchstone in the cultural zeitgeist that it is hard to remember how shocking this death was when it first happened. In a series laden with characters, Ned Stark was comfortably set as the primary protagonist. So when Ned is arrested at the end of the seventh episode of Season 1 (“You Win or You Die”), it seemed like nothing more than a plot device to set up the next series of events. If you hadn’t read the books, you did not have a lot of expectation that the show was preparing to ax its main character. When Ned is executed at the conclusion of the ninth episode, Game of Thrones effectively set the standard for the “no one is safe” mantra.
1. Robb Stark / Catelyn Stark / Talisa Stark / Grey Wind (Season 3, Episode 9: “The Rains of Castamere”)
As I was building this list, I really tried to come up with a variation when the Red Wedding didn’t come in at the top. I just couldn’t make it work. Losing Robb Stark (Richard Madden), Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), Talisa Stark (Oona Chaplin), Robb’s direwolf, Grey Wind, and loads of Stark bannermen to Walder Frey and Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton) wasn’t just the most shocking moment on Game of Thrones, it might be the most shocking moment on television. The Red Wedding exploded the show’s plot, dealt one of the all-time blows to the good guys, and inadvertently spawned a never ending blitzkrieg of Game of Thrones “reaction videos” that laid waste to the digital landscape up through the end of the show. But as brutal as the Red Wedding was, it featured one of the most iconic lines in a series full of them, forever defining the Lannister family as top-tier villains. As Roose Bolton buried a dagger in Robb Stark’s heart, he may as well have been talking to all of us: “The Lannisters send their regards.”
Therese Lacson also contributed to this article.