Warning: This post contains spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones.
When Game of Thrones returns for its seventh season in July, the HBO series will have been off the air for a year, making it hard for many fans to remember exactly what’s going on in the world of Westeros. Luckily, there’s plenty of time before then to catch up on the lives of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen and all the other characters who have miraculously managed to survive up to this point.
However, for those who don’t want to spend 60 hours re-watching every episode from the beginning, there’s a solution. TIME’s guide to the 20 most essential episodes will help viewers binge the series in a third of the time it would normally take while still hitting most of the major plot points.
And while we don’t recommend that first-time viewers skip a single moment of Thrones, this selection of episodes is a good jumping off point for newcomers looking to understand what all the fuss is about.
Check out the full guide below.
Write to Megan McCluskey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Winter Is Coming
Season 1, Episode 1
In the pilot episode, the audience is introduced to the series’ four most important families — the Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens and Baratheons — as well as the dynamics that exist between them. You learn why Ned has to leave Winterfell, what’s going on between Jaime and Cersei and how Bran becomes paralyzed. If nothing else, the very first scene — which showcases the horror of the White Walkers — is a must-see.
Season 1, Episode 9
Ned Stark’s beheading remains one of Thrones‘ most defining moments, but there are also several other game-changing scenes in “Baelor.” Tyrion meets Shae, Robb captures Jaime (after unwisely agreeing to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters), Jon receives his Valyrian steel sword Longclaw, Daenerys goes into labor and Joffrey becomes one of the most hated characters in television history. This eventful hour also established each season’s penultimate episode as something fans both await and dread.
Fire and Blood
Season 1, Episode 10
As news of Ned’s execution spreads throughout the Seven Kingdoms, the new power players of Westeros begin to come into their own. Robb is proclaimed the King in the North, Tyrion is named the Hand of the King, Jon begins his first expedition beyond the Wall and, last but certainly not least, Daenerys emerges unscathed from a massive inferno with her three newly-hatched dragons.
The Old Gods and the New
Season 2, Episode 6
After an initial watch, it may seem as though nothing of great significance occurs in this episode. However, several moments set up major events in the series. North of the Wall, Jon’s hesitation to kill Ygritte separates him from his fellow Night’s Watch brothers, a mistake that eventually leads to his immersion into the Wilding camp. Meanwhile, Tyrion stirs up the bad blood between himself and Cersei by sending her daughter Myrcella to Dorne and Jaqen H’ghar continues to use his mystical powers to help Arya. Finally, there’s the Ironborn takeover of Winterfell, which brings about some of the season’s most direct foreshadowing: “Gods help you Theon Greyjoy, now you are truly lost.”
Season 2, Episode 9
An hour-long depiction of the highly-anticipated showdown between the Lannisters and Stannis Baratheon is Thrones‘ first capsule episode and demonstrates the series’ unrivaled capacity for producing a satisfying battle scene. As Stannis’s forces attempt to invade King’s Landing, the true strength of wildfire comes to light, Tyrion proves himself a worthy leader and Cersei shows how far she will go to keep her children safe (at least in her mind). Oh, and you also get to hear The Hound deliver his iconic, “F—k the Kingsguard. F—k the city. F—k the king,” pronouncement.
Season 2, Episode 10
As season 2 comes to a close, the ramifications of the War of the Five Kings echo throughout the Seven Kingdoms. In King’s Landing, Tyrion and Sansa are cast aside by Joffrey as Tywin and Margaery are chosen to take their places as Hand of the King and queen-to-be, respectively. Theon is betrayed by his own men, who surrender him to the Boltons at Winterfell. Robb makes the biggest mistake of his military career by foregoing his debt to Walder Frey to marry Talisa and Jaqen invites Arya to become one of the “Faceless Men.” Meanwhile, beyond the borders of Westeros, Daenerys enters the House of the Undying, Jon finds a way to prove his “loyalty” to the Wildings and the White Walkers make another terrifying appearance.
And Now His Watch Is Ended
Season 3, Episode 4
An episode dubbed “one of the big ones” by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the final scene of “And Now His Watch Is Ended” marks a major turning point for Thrones. After gaining control of the 8,000 Unsullied, Daenerys commands her new army to take out Astapor’s masters, beginning her seasons-long crusade against slavery. The hour also depicts the fallout from Jaime losing a limb, the reveal of Ramsay’s true nature and a change of command for the Night’s Watch.
Season 3, Episode 8
In the season’s first wedding, Sansa is married off to Tyrion — to their collective dismay. Elsewhere, Melisandre demonstrates exactly what she means by, “there is power in the king’s blood,” while Daenerys meets Daario Naharis and gains control of the Second Sons mercenary army. The episode culminates with what feels like major foreshadowing, as Sam discovers that White Walkers can be killed with dragonglass.
The Rains of Castamere
Season 3, Episode 9
The Red Wedding. That’s really all that needs to be said.
The Lion and the Rose
Season 4, Episode 2
Featuring another wedding and another shocking death — although this one a crowd-pleaser — the main attraction of “The Lion and the Rose” is the post-nuptials feast of Joffrey and Margaery. Tensions rise throughout the episode as King’s Landing’s power players spar with each other and Joffrey relentlessly torments Tyrion. However, the hour ends on a high note, as the sadistic king is poisoned by an unknown assassin and finally meets his end.
The Mountain and the Viper
Season 4, Episode 8
After Tyrion demands a trial by combat to prove his innocence in Joffrey’s murder, his champion, Oberyn Martell, faces off with Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. Unfortunately, Oberyn’s desperation for The Mountain to confess to raping and murdering his sister, Elia Martell, turns his near-success into a crushing defeat and Tyrion is sentenced to die. “With one of the most gruesome scenes to date, ‘The Mountain and the Viper’ delivers a tense, twisty final scene well worth the wait,” reads the episode’s Rotten Tomatoes description.
Season 4, Episode 10
The fourth season finale sees the Lannister family tension finally come to a head as Tyrion murders Tywin after being released from his cell by Jaime. He then boards a ship headed to Essos with Varys — a voyage that sets him on course to meet Daenerys. The climactic hour also features Bran’s first real life encounter with the Three-Eyed Raven, the Wildlings’ surrender to Stannis and Arya’s long-awaited departure to Braavos. Oh, and let’s not forget that epic battle scene between The Hound and Brienne.
Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken
Season 5, Episode 6
In a plot that diverges from the books, Ramsay marries Sansa in the sacred Godswood of Winterfell, then forces Theon to watch him rape her. One of the series’ most controversial episodes, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” illustrates Ramsay’s sadistic brutality and Sansa’s growing desolation.
Season 5, Episode 8
The true meaning of “winter is coming” becomes very clear in the final 20 minutes of “Hardhome,” as the Night’s King and his band of White Walker lieutenants unleash their undead army on an unsuspecting Wilding outpost. But there’s one bright spot in the midst of the wights’ brutal slaughter of the settlers and visiting Night’s Watch brothers. As Jon battles one particularly fearsome White Walker, he discovers that his Valyrian steel sword is at least capable of defending against his attacker’s weapon — a plot point that will undoubtedly factor into the wars to come. Back on the south side of the Wall, Arya receives her first mission from Jaqen, Theon reveals to Sansa that Bran and Rickon are alive, and Daenerys agrees to allow Tyrion to advise her.
The Dance of Dragons
Season 5, Episode 9
Featuring what was described by Benioff and Weiss as the first of three “holy s—t moments” in the series, this penultimate episode is a roller coaster of emotions. Moving rapidly from one of the season’s lowest moments — Stannis allowing Melisandre to burn his daughter Shireen to death — to one of its highest — Daenerys riding one of her dragons for the very first time — the episode’s final two sequences set viewers on a crash course for the finale.
Season 5, Episode 10
“Mother’s Mercy” is the episode that launched ten months of furious debate over the fate of Jon Snow. Leaving viewers with a number of cliffhangers, the action-packed hour sees the Baratheons meet the Boltons in battle, Sansa and Theon attempt to flee Winterfell, Arya cross another name off her kill list and Cersei make her long-awaited walk of atonement. This climactic finale to Thrones’ darkest season to date is a can’t-miss episode.
Season 6, Episode 2
Jon Snow is alive! Right when it seems as though there’s no hope for everyone’s favorite Lord Commander, Melisandre is able to use her powers to resurrect him from the dead just before the episode cuts to black.
Season 6, Episode 5
After being touched by the Night’s King in a vision, Bran finally learns that his time traveling abilities are more dangerous than they seem. As the White Walkers and a horde of wights descend on the Three-Eyed Raven’s giant weirwood tree, both the consequences of Bran’s meddling in the past and the cause of Hodor’s disyllabic condition come to light as the gentle giant meets a traumatic end in the series’ second “holy s—t moment.”
Battle of the Bastards
Season 6, Episode 9
The most recent penultimate episode saw the Starks finally battle the Boltons for control of the North, culminating in the long-awaited death of the much-hated Ramsay. It earned Thrones a record six Emmys — including Outstanding Writing and Directing — and has been hailed by some as the greatest TV episode of all time.
The Winds of Winter
Season 6, Episode 10
Beginning with a (literal) bang, the series’ longest — and most-watched — episode to date ushers in a new era for Thrones. By killing off 11 series-regular or recurring cast members, “The Winds of Winter” establishes which characters will likely have an impact on the show’s final outcome. It also sets in motion several long-awaited storylines, including Jon’s discovery of his true parentage, Cersei’s ascension to the Iron Throne and Daenerys’s departure for Westeros.