In 2011, HBO’s Game of Thrones, the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire book series, was unleashed upon the seven continents with the 100% Tomatometer-rated episode “Winter Is Coming.” This episode was written by showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff and directed by HBO vet Tim Van Patten, who set the chessboard for subsequent seasons as they introduced dozens of characters who would eventually be battling ice zombies, traveling between continents, and taking part in some horrifying weddings.
In the world of Game of Thrones, there is a thin line between characters being good and bad. The same can be said for the current 67 episodes: 66 of them are Fresh, 21 have 100% Tomatometer scores, and the rest mostly fall into the 90-100% Tomatometer range. With the overall 67-episode average at 94.2%, we wanted to know what factors contribute to making an episode truly rōvēgrie (High Valyrian for “great”) at 95% or more — as opposed to just really, really good.
In an effort to figure out what makes up the best possible episode of GoT, we channeled our inner Maester and consulted our local Three-Eyed Raven to guide us through our research, and now that our watch has ended, we’ve identified some patterns and trends that are important to crafting the perfect episode.
Read on, but beware: Spoilers will be flowing like wine at a party thrown by Tyrion Lannister.
Season 1 averages a 98.1% score on the Tomatometer, making it the highest-scoring season. It’s followed by season 4 (97%), season 2 (96.7%), season 3 (93.2%), season 6 (92.6%), season 7 (91.6%) and season 5 (90.1%). Season 7 is also the only season without a 100%-rated episode.
Four is the lucky number in the GoT world, with fourth episodes averaging a 98.4% Tomatometer score. Three of the seven fourth episodes to date have 100% Tomatometer scores, with season 2’s “Garden of Bones” (96%), season 4’s “Oathkeeper” (98%), season 5’s “Sons of the Harpy” (98%), and season 7’s “The Spoils of War” (97%) coming close. We noticed while reading the fourth-episode reviews on Rotten Tomatoes that the following phrases appeared frequently: “cruising along,” “things are picking up speed again,” and “this episode moved the plot forward more than the previous three combined,” suggesting that critics must appreciate the pacing of these episodes, which may be one explanation why fourth episodes have the highest Tomatometer average.
It’s worth noting that the only episode of seasons 6 and 7 to receive a 100% Tomatometer score is “Book of the Stranger” (season 6, episode 4). The episode was hailed as “Game of Thrones at its best” because it “got down to business” and featured Daenerys walking through fire and emerging naked, with hair and flesh perfectly untouched by the flame. The character similarly survived a massive fire in the 100%-rated season 1 finale, “Fire and Blood,” as well — with dragons no less.
Which grouping of episodes have the lowest Tomatometer average? The average for sixth episodes is 86.4%, which, in the GoT world, is considered almost Rotten.
In anticipation of the epic battles involving zombie dragons and massive armies that will surely occur in season 8, we looked at the highest rated battle episodes from prior seasons.
“Blackwater” (100%; season 2, episode 9), “The Rains of Castamere” (100%; season 3, episode 9), and “Hardhome” (100%; season 5, episode 8) are perfect examples of episodes delivering massive battles that feature supposed heroes losing and major characters surviving to fight another day. In true GoT style, many supporting characters are slaughtered (R.I.P., Karsi). But despite losing the battle, characters like Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister are kept on the chessboard to fight another day.
In the show’s other battle-heavy episodes — including “The Watchers on the Wall” (91%; season 4, episode 9), “The Dance of Dragons” (89%; season 5, episode 9), “Battle of the Bastards” (98%; season 6, episode 9), “Stormborn” (98%; season 7, episode 2), and “The Spoils of War” (96%; season 7, episode 4) — the “hero” was victorious and secondary characters (Ygritte, Rickon Stark, a couple of Sand Snakes) were killed.
There is, of course, an exception to the rule: dragons.
Season 3’s fourth episode “And Now His Watch Has Ended” was the first in which the dragons took part in the fight — in this case, with the Unsullied against their former masters. Daenerys won the day, and the episode scored 100%. Similarly, season 7’s fourth episode, “The Spoils of War,” in which Daenerys took Drogon out to meet the Lannister army, scored a very high 97%. But in the same season’s sixth episode, “Beyond the Wall” (82%; season 7, episode 6), the Night King killed Viserion, and the episode scored an 84% — he was resurrected(ish), but dead and mobile is still mostly dead. It was a Night King victory.
It’s worth noting that director Miguel Sapochnik, who helmed both “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards,” will be back to direct two episodes of season 8. For the sake of the Tomatometer score, the major characters will survive any new battle scenes (even if they lose) and there are no more dragon deaths!
Each episode of GoT features an average of five locations, and it’s interesting to note that GoT is at its best when episodes are either scaled back to one or two locations — including “Blackwater,” “The Watchers on the Wall,” and “Battle of the Bastards,” averaging 97.3% — or spread to seven or more locations — like the excellent “The Pointy End” (100%; season 1, episode 8) or “Book of the Stranger” (100%; season 6, episode 4), averaging 94.4%. This is good news for season 8, which will bring dozens of characters from many locations together so they can battle the Night King (and his growing horde of undead warriors). We’re thinking the first few episodes will take place all over the Seven Kingdoms until the final showdown, which should take place on a massive centralized battlefield. Or a massive showdown will occur in the first few episodes, and the survivors will then fight skirmishes all over Westeros in the final episodes as wights overrun castle after castle and the Night King heads to King’s Landing to teach Cersei some manners. This is Game of Thrones — anything can happen.
Five of seven GoT episodes featuring important weddings have 100% Tomatometer scores. What do these episodes have in common? They feature very expensive weddings that take place in front of large crowds. Episodes like “The Rains of Castamere,” “The Lion and the Rose” (season 4, episode 2), and “Winter Is Coming” (season 1, episode 1) go BIG with their weddings that end horribly for some.
“Valar Morghulis” (91%; season 2, episode 10) and “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” (55%, season 5, episode 6) feature low-key weddings. In fact, the latter is the lowest-scoring GoT episode, largely due, it seems, to Ramsay Bolton’s deplorable acts after his wedding to Sansa Stark.
Tip: Big weddings are more popular with critics. Keep the slaughter and violence broad and relatively impersonal.
Only 12 episodes in the series have running times of 60 minutes or more, but they have a very Fresh 95% average. That’s slightly higher than the 94.1% average of the shorter episodes that don’t cross the one-hour mark. Four of the six GoT season 8 episodes have running times of more than an hour — and they’re all a super-sized 78 minutes or more. Only two previous episodes (season 7’s “Beyond the Wall” and “The Dragon and the Wolf”) have gone beyond the 75-minute mark, and the results are an 85.5% average Tomatometer score — which is almost Rotten by GoT standards. The rest of the episodes average 95%.
Fortunately, four of season 8’s six episodes will be longer than 60 minutes.
Showrunners Weiss and Benioff wrote 46 of the 67 episodes together, and have a 94.8% Tomatometer average. The writers who contributed to the other 21 episodes include Bryan Cogman (10 episodes), George R.R. Martin himself (four episodes), Vanessa Taylor (three episodes), Dave Hill (three episodes), and Jane Espenson (one episode, written alongside Weiss and Benioff). While Espenson’s single episode earned a 100%, the others average around the same: Taylor at 95%, Hill at 94.3%, Martin at 95%, and Cogman at 93.8%. (It’s worth noting that without the season 5 outlier “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” however, Cogman’s average for his remaining nine episodes would be the second-highest at 97.4% after Espenson’s single entry.)
Taylor went on to write the screenplay for the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, and Espenson became the co-executive producer on Once Upon a Time. Martin, of course, continues to frustrate rabid fans demanding his next book. He’s also collaborating on the show’s prequel series, starring Naomi Watts, Miranda Richardson, Jamie Campbell Bower, and more.
Only one of the 19 directors who have tackled GoT episodes so far has averaged 100% — that’s Tim Van Patten, who helmed the first two installments of the first season. The veteran TV director (The Sopranos, The Wire, Black Mirror, and plenty more prestige series) was brought in to reshoot the disastrous pilot episode that was a deemed a “MASSIVE PROBLEM.” Van Patten helped pull off the “biggest rescue in Hollywood history” by smoothing many of the rough edges and successfully introducing the characters and world to the audience. Under his supervision “Winter Is Coming” and “The Kingsroad” laid a perfect foundation for the show to grow.
The other top directors include Alex Graves (six episodes, 98.8%), Daniel Minahan (five episodes, 97.2%), David Nutter (six episodes, 96.5%), David Petrarca (two episodes, 96%), and Miguel Sapochnik (four episodes, 96%). Director Alan Taylor, who has directed the most Game of Thrones episodes, shares the distinction of having directed four episodes with 100% Tomatometer scores, along with Graves. (Taylor’s “Beyond the Wall,” while still high at 82%, brought down his average to 94.4% — which is like complaining that your New York City penthouse apartment on Central Park sucks because its floor-to-ceiling windows only wrap around three sides of the building.)
Nutter, Sapochnik, and Benioff and Weiss are directing the final six episodes of season 8. With four 100% episodes between them, they should certainly be able to find a way for GoT to go out on top with a 95% or above finale.
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is the go-to guy for 100% episodes because he’s appeared in 21 of the 22 perfect episodes and played a major part in the sections mentioned above. He was heavily featured in director Tim Van Patten’s two 100% episodes and in each of the fourth episodes with 100% scores. He also played an integral part in the two 100% Tomatometer episodes written by George R.R. Martin that feature battles (“Blackwater”) and very expensive weddings (“The Lion and the Rose”). What makes Tyrion the MVP are his appearances in “Blackwater” and “Battle of the Bastards.” They are highest-rated episodes that take place in only one or two locations (a very good thing). Basically, you want Tyrion appearing in any episode for any reason.
Nudity, Major Deaths, Pie, Direwolves and Cameos
After sorting through all the GoT episodes, we learned there are several side elements that make positive Tomatometer contributions to the series. The episodes featuring pie consumption (99.1%), famous musician cameos (97.1%), Stark or Lannister death at a wedding (100%), or a direwolf being killed onscreen (99% – Summer in “The Door” and Grey Wind in “The Rains of Castamere”) have great Tomatometer averages. However, we did learn that certain favorite GoT elements or characters don’t move the Tomatometer needle; for instance, episodes featuring main or recurring characters getting naked (93.7%) or being killed (94.4%) don’t have the best Tomatometer averages comparatively.
Appearances of the Night King also trend lower at 93.4%. Only two episodes have a 100% score, revealing that it’s actually best to feature him during a battle episode (“Hardhome”) or a wedding episode (“The Lion and the Rose”).
Based on the statistics and observations above, we’ve come up with an equation that adds up to a perfect Game of Thrones episode:
Make it 61-62 minutes long + air it as the fourth episode + hire Tim Van Patten to direct it + include a major battle or fight in which the heroes suffer major losses + tack on a very expensive wedding + make sure George R.R. Martin writes the script + include Tyrion Lannister + limit the story to one or two locations + kill a direwolf + eat a pie = 100% Fresh Tomatometer score.
Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season premieres Sunday, April 14 at 9 p.m. on HBO.