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Illustrations by Claire Merchlinsky

The 8 ‘Game of Thrones’ episodes you need to watch before the final season

Get ready for winter.

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After a nearly two-year hiatus, we’re nearing the final chapter of HBO’s Game of Thrones. The Wall separating the North from the rest of Westeros is a mound of rubble thanks to an undead Viserion, now the property of the Night King. (Does Viserion still breathe fire? Or is it, like, ice? Or is it just blue fire? These are the big questions.) Jon Snow has pledged fealty to Daenerys Targaryen — who also happens to be his aunt. Cersei Lannister is letting her northern rivals concentrate on the Army of the Dead, while she awaits the arrival of backup in the form of the Golden Company. Bran Stark is now — psychic? A time traveler? The knot of interlacing storylines and ambitions are coming close to unraveling, and in case you need a refresher on how exactly we got here, we put together a list of eight episodes you need to watch again before Season 8 begins on April 14. Winter is here, let’s see who survives.

The Lion and the Rose (Season 4, Episode 2)

Everyone knew Joffrey would get his comeuppance at some point, but the mystery of who, exactly, poisoned the king’s pigeon pie would be the subject of heated fan debates for years. And while there was plenty to celebrate in that megalomaniacal twerp finally croaking, it also marked the beginning of King’s Landing’s descent into an ambient sort of madness. Cersei losing her son — a, um, purebred Lannister if you catch our drift — sparked a paranoia in her that would lead to an increasingly nihilistic perspective on the world, and suspicions about who was responsible for killing Joffrey set into motion conflicts both great and small throughout the Seven Kingdoms.

The Rains of Castamere (Season 3, Episode 9)

That sound you heard when Roose Bolton rammed a knife through Robb Stark’s heart was every GoT fan’s jaw dropping simultaneously. The Red Wedding was a paradigm-shifting moment in the show, signaling that no character is too important to be killed off in the most brutal fashion. It also marked the decline of the Stark family’s central place in Westerosi politics. Robb and Catelyn are dead, Sansa is living in a gilded cage down in King’s Landing, Arya is wandering the wilderness with the Hound, and Bran and Rickon are north of the Wall, searching in vain for a way home. The most important family in the North was decimated in a single night, and Westeros would never be the same.

Battle of the Bastards (Season 6, Episode 9)

Take a step back from the considerable implications Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton going to battle has for Westeros and bask in the sheer spectacle of the episode. It’s one of the most ambitious installments the team behind GoT ever put together, winning HBO countless awards and taking a small army of extras and almost a month of shooting to complete. Technical accomplishments aside, this episode saw one of the most vile characters in GoT lore, Ramsay Bolton, get what was coming to him from none other than his recently escaped wife, Sansa Stark. She saved her brother Jon — who was on the verge of defeat after his Wildling army was routed by the Boltons — by rallying the Knights of the Vale to Winterfell, and simultaneously became a major player in the Seven Kingdoms.

The Children (Season 4, Episode 10)

This may be the most important scene in television to have happened while one of the characters was on the toilet. You could feel the catharsis coursing through Tyrion Lannister when he put a bolt through his father Tywin’s chest, but you could also sense that he knew this was the end of everything he knew up until then. Tyrion’s cloaked exit from King’s Landing also marked a shift in the power dynamics on either side of the the Narrow Sea that we’d see develop more fully in the next couple seasons. Tyrion knows his family’s inner machinations better than anyone and would be a valuable asset — like, say, to an aspiring queen with a trio of dragons — to anyone looking to understand the realpolitik of the Seven Kingdoms.

Hardhome (Season 5, Episode 8)

When Hardhome begins, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a catch-up episode where we’re given updates on all the main storylines as a windup for the season finale. We see Cersei locked away in a King’s Landing dungeon following her arrest by the High Sparrow; Arya continues her spy murder ninja training in Braavos; Theon Greyjoy — now completely transformed into Reek — tells Sansa that her little brothers are still alive, giving her hope while she’s held captive in Winterfell. But when Jon Snow arrives in the Wildling village of Hardhome to convince them to join him south of the Wall, everything goes off the rails. The Army of the Dead descend on Hardhome in a flash, and Jon Snow comes face to face with a White Walker whom he smashes into a bunch of undead ice. (The expression on the Walker’s face when his sword unexpectedly clangs against Snow’s Valyrian steel blade is one of the funniest moments in the series.) Jon escapes, but it’s what he sees as he’s rowing out from Hardhome that will stick with fans forever: The Night King, standing on the shore, raises his arms and the scores of dead Wildlings along with them.

Claire Merchlinsky

The Spoils of War (Season 7, Episode 4)

Daenerys’s dragons have always been more of an existential threat to the Seven Kingdoms than a practical one. She’s used them to terrorize slavers and torch fleets, sure, but it wasn’t until the most recent season that we got to see what they’re really capable of — and how they really are the game-changing asset they appeared to be. The Lannister army, fresh off raiding Highgarden and nabbing the Tyrell’s gold stores, are almost back to King’s Landing when death rains from above in the form of Drogon. It’s the first time we see what even one dragon can do to a full-strength army, and the terror on Jaime Lannister and Bronn’s faces when Drogon wipes out entire columns of soldiers with a single breath tells you everything you need to know. As long as Daenerys has her dragons, she’s the frontrunner for the Iron Throne.

Winds of Winter (Season 6, Episode 10)

Joffrey’s death was the beginning of Cersei’s journey into madness; this episode marks the end. After she blows up the Grand Sept with wildfire as vengeance for her humiliation and marginalization, she loses her other son Tommen after he jumps out of a Red Keep window. Cersei is defined by her family, and as the Lannisters become increasingly isolated and threatened, she begins to feel the walls close in and lashes out with astonishing results. It’s not the only big development in this episode — we finally get confirmation that Jon Snow has both Targaryen and Stark blood flowing through his veins, and we also see Daenerys set sail to Westeros, dragons in tow — but it’s what happens in King’s Landing that solidifies Cersei’s position on the undead invasion coming from her north. She’ll protect her family’s interests at all costs, even if she has to take the Seven Kingdoms down with her.

Mother’s Mercy (Season 5, Episode 10)

Few shows could make a walk this iconic. When Cersei is stripped down and forced to walk the streets of King’s Landing in the nude as penance for her crimes, you see her anger metastasizing into something enormous. She knows this shame is only temporary, so she’s remembering every face and name of those who put her in this position and thinking about the things she’s going to do to them the minute she’s back in power. (Yes, Jon Snow dies in this episode but it feels like that doesn’t end up mattering that much since he comes back to life anyway.)

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