Warning: This post contains spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones.
But for those who don’t want to spend more than 72 hours re-watching the series from start to finish, there’s a solution. TIME’s guide to the 30 most essential episodes will help viewers binge the series in less than half 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.
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.
Kissed By Fire
Season 3, Episode 5
In one of Game of Thrones‘ most memorable monologues, a desolate and newly one-handed Jaime reveals the truth about the night he murdered the Mad King and earned the nickname Kingslayer to Brienne. Elsewhere in the Riverlands, Arya learns that Thoros of Myr has brought Beric Dondarrion back to life on six separate occasions and Robb executes Rickard Karstark for killing Willem and Martyn Lannister, prompting nearly half of his army to desert his cause. Meanwhile, Jon and Ygritte sleep together for the first time, Daenerys names Grey Worm the commander of the Unsullied, and Tywin tells Cersei and Tyrion that he intends to marry them off to Loras and Sansa, respectively.
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 Laws of Gods and Men
Season 4, Episode 6
The lifelong hostility between Tyrion and his father comes to a fiery head in the closing minutes of “The Laws of Gods and Men” when Tyrion demands a trial by combat for Joffrey’s murder — a crime he did not commit — in lieu of the rigged bench trial he is being subjected to by Tywin and Cersei. In one of Game of Thrones‘ most iconic speeches of all time, Tyrion pleads guilty to “being a dwarf” before berating the people of King’s Landing for hating him despite the fact that he saved them from Stannis during the Battle of the Blackwater. Elsewhere, Yara unsuccessfully attempts to rescue Theon from Ramsay, Davos convinces the Iron Bank to ally with Stannis and Daenerys realizes the politics of Meereen are more complicated than she thought.
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 is essential for 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
Thrones‘ sixth 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 season 6 finale ushers in a new era for Thrones. By killing off 11 series-regular or recurring cast members, “The Winds of Winter” established which characters were likely to have an impact on the show’s final outcome. It also set in motion several long-awaited storylines, including Jon’s discovery of his true parentage, Cersei’s ascension to the Iron Throne and Daenerys’ departure for Westeros.
The Queen's Justice
Season 7, Episode 3
After nearly seven seasons of buildup, ice and fire finally meet when Jon arrives on Dragonstone for an audience with Daenerys. Jon refuses to bend the knee, but at Tyrion’s prompting, Daenerys agrees to allow him to mine the island’s dragonglass as a gesture of good faith. Meanwhile, Melisandre predicts that both she and Varys will die in Westeros, Cersei takes revenge on Ellaria for murdering Myrcella and Bran returns to Winterfell for the first time in years. The episode’s final sequence sees the Unsullied attack Casterly Rock only to realize that Jaime has outmaneuvered them by diverting the majority of the Lannister forces to Highgarden. But even in defeat, it’s the Queen of Thorns who gets the last word. In one of Thrones‘ most iconic death scenes ever, Olenna confesses to Joffrey’s murder after drinking down the poison that Jaime brought to kill her. “Tell Cersei,” she coldly insists. “I want her to know it was me.”
The Spoils of War
Season 7, Episode 4
After Tyrion reveals his military strategy has failed, a fired up Daenerys unleashes her wrath by leading the Dothraki into battle against the Lannisters on Drogon’s back. The ambush results in the slaughter of much of the Lannister forces and a near-death experience for Jaime, who unsuccessfully attempts to charge a grounded Drogon when Daenerys isn’t looking. Farther north, Littlefinger gives Bran the Valyrian steel dagger that was used in the attempt on his life in season 1. Bran, however, regifts it to Arya nearly immediately upon her return to Winterfell, a detail that foreshadows one of the biggest twists of the series.
Beyond the Wall
Season 7, Episode 6
The majority of season 7’s penultimate episode takes place, as the title suggests, beyond the Wall, where Jon, Tormund, Jorah, Gendry, Beric, Thoros and the Hound attempt to capture a wight to convince Cersei that the threat of the dead is real. But after they successfully pick one off and discover that killing a White Walker also instantly kills all of the wights that the Walker reanimated, they end up stranded on a rock in the middle of a frozen lake surrounded by the army of the dead. They manage to get word to Daenerys, who swoops in with her three dragons to save the day, but Viserion is killed — and later reanimated as a wight dragon — by the Night King in the process. Meanwhile, at Winterfell, after finding the letter that Sansa was forced to write urging Robb to pledge fealty to Joffrey, Arya accuses her sister of conspiring to rule the North in Jon’s stead. She then not-so-subtly threatens to add Sansa’s face to her growing collection.
The Dragon and the Wolf
Season 7, Episode 7
After seeing a wight with her own eyes at the Dragonpit summit in King’s Landing, Cersei declares that the Lannister army will march north to fight alongside the Starks and the Targaryens in the Great War. But in typical Cersei fashion, she later reveals to Jaime that she has no intention of keeping her promise. This turns out to be the final straw for Jaime, who, at long last, deserts his twin sister and rides north alone. At Winterfell, it’s revealed that Arya and Sansa have been working together to bring Littlefinger to justice for his crimes against their family. During a public tribunal in the Great Hall, Arya executes Thrones‘ master manipulator on Sansa’s orders. Bran and Sam then use their combined knowledge to piece together the truth about Jon’s birth — i.e., that Jon is both a trueborn Targaryen and the heir to the Iron Throne — while Jon and Daenerys, unaware that they’re related, consummate their relationship onboard a ship en route to Winterfell. The season 7 finale comes to a climactic close when the Night King brings down the Wall with undead Viserion, allowing the army of the dead to march into Westeros.
Season 8, Episode 1
The Game of Thrones season 8 premiere opens with Jon, Daenerys and their combined entourage arriving at Winterfell in preparation for the war against the dead, a development that reunites long-separated duos like Jon and Arya, Arya and Gendry, and Tyrion and Sansa. Not to mention that Bran and Jaime come face to face for the first time since Jaime pushed him out of a tower window in the series premiere. After riding a dragon for the first time, Jon finally learns that he is the trueborn son of Rhaegar Tarygaryen and Lyanna Stark, not the bastard of Ned Stark as he was raised to believe. And at Last Hearth, Tormund, Beric and Dolorous Edd discover that the Night King has left them a message in the form of Ned Umber’s impaled body surrounded by a spiral of severed limbs.
The Long Night
Season 8, Episode 3
The third episode of Game of Thrones‘ eighth season sees nearly all of Westeros’ remaining power players face off with the Night King and his army of dead in the long-awaited Battle of Winterfell — the longest battle sequence in cinematic history, according to Entertainment Weekly. The 80-minute showdown is full of twists and turns, including Melisandre’s return, Theon and Jorah’s deaths, and, of course, Arya’s sneak attack on the Night King. After Beric sacrifices himself to save Arya, Melisandre gives her the nudge she needs to realize she’s the one who is fated to kill the Night King. Arya then sprints to the godswood, where the leader of the White Walkers is preparing to kill Bran, and stabs him with her Valyrian steel dagger. When he falls, the rest of his army, including undead Viserion, falls with him, and the Great War is over.
Season 8, Episode 5
In Game of Thrones‘ final penultimate episode, Daenerys Targaryen completes her Mad Queen turn by torching King’s Landing with dragonfire despite the fact that Cersei rings the city’s bells to signal her surrender. Meanwhile, Jon and Tyrion watch the carnage in horror, Arya is caught in the fallout from Daenerys’ attack, Cersei and Jaime die together after Jaime takes out Euron Greyjoy, and the Hound and the Mountain fight to the death in the long-awaited “Cleganebowl.”
The Iron Throne
Season 8, Episode 6
Game of Thrones ends its storied eight-season run with a controversial episode, yet it’s essential nonetheless. The series finale sees Jon kill Daenerys to prevent the Mother of Dragons-turned-Mad Queen from bringing more death and destruction to the realm. Upon discovering his mother’s dead body, Drogon destroys the Iron Throne in a blast of fiery grief before carrying Daenerys off to an unknown final resting spot. Later, the nobles of Westeros convene in the Dragonpit for Tyrion’s trial and, at his suggestion, vote in Bran, a.k.a. Bran the Broken, as the new King of the Six Kingdoms. Bran proclaims that Tyrion will make amends for his crimes by serving as Hand of the King, Sansa insists that the North remain an independent kingdom and is subsequently crowned Queen in the North, and Arya sets out on her own to discover what is “west of Westeros.” As punishment for killing his queen, Jon Snow is sentenced to live out as his life as a brother in the Night’s Watch. But in the episode’s closing minutes, he sets out beyond the Wall with Ghost, Tormund and the remaining wildlings in a way that seems to hint he may never return.