Ever since Ned Stark lost his head at the end of Season 1, Game of Thrones has been known as the show where nobody is safe, no matter how important they seem or how famous the actor is. The series has the highest death-toll on TV, and each season brings more early graves and “holy shit” moments than the last. Before the new season inevitably brings more with its many insane battles, let’s take a morbid and bloody trip down memory lane. All Men Must Die — and to pay proper respect, we’ll, naturally, rank their deaths considering their emotional impact, “holy shit” factor, gore, and their effect on the narrative.
20. Janos Slynt
Janos Slynt is not an important character in his own right — you probably don’t even remember who the hell he was, so I’ll remind you. He’s that bald douche bag Jon Snow beheads in Season 5’s “High Sparrow.” But that’s why his death makes the list, despite his relative insignificance. When he disrespects Jon in front of the entire Night’s Watch, it’s Jon’s first real test as Lord Commander. Jon takes no joy in disciplining him, but he’s absorbed Ned’s lesson: The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. Though Jon has had many transitional moments throughout the story, this execution marks the definitive moment in his place as a leader.
Ros began the show as a whore who served the needs of the Northern men — and the needs of the camera to throw in some t&a. Over the course of three seasons, she works her way up. First she expands her horizons to King’s Landing, then she works her way into Littlefinger’s spy network. But as Cersei once said, “everywhere in the world they hurt little girls,” and though Ros might not be a little girl, the sentiment still stands. In Season 3’s “The Climb,” she meets her grisly end via Joffrey’s crossbow. The scene gets bonus points for Littlefinger’s iconic “chaos is a ladder” speech.
18. Mance Rayder
The King Beyond The Wall was the first casualty of Season 5, meeting his end in the very first episode. His death set the tone for the rest of the season and foreshadowed Shireen’s burning. When Jon mercy-kills him with an arrow to stop him from suffering, it solidifies, once more, how Jon’s moral compass trumps everything — even his adherence to custom. Granted, it’s what gets him killed at the end of the season, but Jon’s code is why everyone roots for him.
17. Lysa Arryn
Catelyn Stark’s crazy sister and Petyr Baelish’s short-lived wife wasn’t a major character, but her Season 4 death-by-moondoor is intensely satisfying. It’s also instrumental to Sansa’s storyline, as it drives her continued relationship with Petyr Baelish and to Arya’s storyline, as it disrupts The Hound’s plans to deliver her to her last remaining relative.
16. Stannis Baratheon
Stannis’s death at the hands of Brienne in Season 5’s “Mother’s Mercy” is anticlimactic and not particularly notable, but it lays the Baratheon claim to the throne to rest once and for all. Unless, of course, Gendry finally returns from that boat trip.
15. Syrio Forel
Arya has had her share of male protectors throughout the series, each with their own intriguing relationship dynamic — Gendry, The Hound, Jaqen H’ghar, even Tywin Lannister for a hot second in Season 2. But the very first was her sword-dancing teacher Syrio Forel in Season 1. His death wasn’t shown onscreen, which, coupled with his Braavos lineage, has fueled fan theories that he was actually Jaqen H’ghar. Ned’s death robbed Arya of her innocence, but Syrio Forel was the first domino to fall.
14. Khal Drogo
Though he only survived one season, Khal Drogo’s footprint on the show was as large as his braid (no, that’s not a euphemism). It’s partly thanks to his compelling relationship with Daenerys, and partly thanks to Jason Momoa’s magnetic presence. Drogo was the sun and stars of Game of Thrones, and though his death from a festering wound was somewhat anticlimactic, it ranks high in emotional impact.
13. Shireen Baratheon
The most adorable tutor in all of Westeros had a heartbreaking end in Season 5. When she innocently asks Stannis (the no-longer-Mannis) if there is anything she could do to help his war efforts, she didn’t expect him to make her a human sacrifice. If Davos — her pseudo-father figure and Reading Rainbow student — hadn’t been at Castle Black at the time, he never would have let them get away with it. Though the camera mercifully panned away from the deed itself, her haunting screams stay with us.
Ygritte and Jon Snow had a tumultuous relationship if there ever was one, a Sid and Nancy for the fantasy set. First Jon betrays her, then she goes on a killing rampage in retaliation, culminating in an attack on The Wall. The battle between former lovers is high-stakes, and it’s telling that neither is willing to kill the other when they finally meet in battle. But alas, fucking Olly always ruins everything. If Game of Thrones official motto is All Men Must Die, it’s also unofficially No Couple Can Be Happy.
11. Talisa Stark
We will spare you the visual for this one, as it’s no doubt ingrained in your brain forever. Robb’s ill-advised chosen wife’s death is the least emotional of the Red Wedding carnage — the honor goes to Robb and Catelyn and poor Grey Wind — but man was that pregnant gut-stab gruesome.
10. Viserys Targaryen
Daenerys’s brother only lived six episodes and even then, his death was a long time coming — but it’s safe to say nobody could have predicted the gorily creative manner in which he’d bite it. His was the first elaborate “holy shit” death that clued us in: This is not just another show with average death methods. Game of Thrones goes above and beyond with the macabre.
9. The Hound
The Hound’s mortality status is debatable, as his death never happened onscreen and a delightfully zero-fucks-giving Ian McShane has pretty much confirmed that his new character will bring The Hound back in Season 6. Nevertheless, he makes the list because it hasn’t happened yet and because his death was a big one. His relationship with Arya was one of the most intriguing on the show; he was one of the best characters — coarse and gruff and violent yet oddly charming, much like Game of Thrones as a whole — and his death instigates Arya’s journey to Braavos.
8. Oberyn Martell
Like Khal Drogo, Oberyn was a one-season character who cast a wide shadow. He won us all with his dynamic zero-fucks giving attitude in Season 4, stuck around for some interesting conversations with Tyrion and Cersei, and then met his end in what was unquestionably the most gruesome, grisly manner on Game of Thrones. If only he’d just killed The Mountain while he was down, Oberyn might have been able to keep his brains and eyeballs and skull firmly together. The effects of his demise are felt even two seasons after, as it lead to the Sand Snakes plotline in Season 5 — for better or worse — and will reverberate into Season 6 with Myrcella’s death and Cersei’s response to it.
Like Lysa Arryn, Joffrey’s death was a long time coming but that in no way made it less satisfying. It had a major impact on the plot, from Sansa’s entanglement with Petyr Baelish to Tyrion’s trial and trip to Meereen to Tommen and Margaery’s marriage — and it was arguably the first building block to Cersei’s unraveling. But above all, watching that little dickface choke to death was a much-needed reminder that Game of Thrones isn’t all nihilism. Yes, good people like Oberyn and the Starks meet terrible ends they don’t deserve, but occasionally, the viewer is rewarded with bad people getting what’s due.
Shae’s death was a major turning point for Tyrion, and the fact that GoT pulls it off is a tribute to its deft hand with moral ambiguity and its skill with characterization. Having a fan-favorite character brutally strangle a former lover is an incredibly ballsy storytelling move. It’s one most shows might avoid, for fear the audience might no longer root for Tyrion. The scene is a triumph because it doesn’t make it easy: Although Shae betrayed him, she doesn’t deserve this end, and yet we understand where he’s coming from. It’s storytelling risks like this that make Game of Thrones special.
5. Robb Stark
The King of The North. The North Remembers. There’s a reason those words make some viewers feel emotional even three seasons after “The Rains of Castamere,” and it’s Robb Stark. He was noble, well intentioned, and full of heart. We should have known he was fucked — especially after Ned Stark — but hope springs eternal. At least, until The Red Wedding. If you don’t tear up when he reaches towards Catelyn and says, “Mother?” in that little-boy voice after he’s stabbed, your heart is made of Valyrian steel.
4. Tywin Lannister
Tywin Lannister was not a good guy, but damn was he fun to watch. His ruthless smarts were refreshing in comparison to sadistic psychos like Joffrey and Ramsay, and from a certain angle, he wasn’t actually bad. He was merely ambitious and unsentimental. As the unofficial ruler of King’s Landing and Westeros, his epic toilet death has profoundly effected the show’s power structure. It’s the point of no return for the Lannister family.
3. Catelyn Stark
Catelyn Stark was the most gutting Red Wedding casualty. Sure, Robb and Talisa had a future ahead of them with a son named Ned (that alone should have clued us in that kid would never see the light of day). But noble as Robb was, he did contribute to his own downfall. Catelyn was the strongest and most interesting woman on the show. She was tougher than her husband and son — her monologue about wanting baby Jon to die is one of her finest moments, and it’s a crime Michelle Fairley was never among the show’s Emmy nods — and she possessed compassion and steely will in equal measure. Her death was a profound loss to the show, and it’s hard to say what’s more brutal: Watching her die, or watching her anguish as she sees Robb die first.
2. Ned Stark
Ned Stark was the original “holy shit” moment. It clues us in that nobody is safe even if they’re on the center of the show’s posters; even if they’re played by the most famous actor. When Ned loses his head, it sets off a chain of events that reverberate six seasons on, affecting central characters in all corners of Westeros, from Arya in Braavos to Jon at The Wall. As Season 6 will feature a young Ned, it’s fair to say his impact will not fade anytime soon.
1. Jon Snow
Jon is going to be back in some form, and he will be critical to the show’s future. But at the moment, we’re not sure how that will play out. We don’t know what his last name will be — whether it’s Stark, Targaryen, or something else entirely.
All we know is the bastard boy named Jon Snow is dead; the underdog we’ve followed for five seasons as he tries to do the right thing, hold the corners of the world together, and remain in the dark about his definitely not important parentage. And that’s a huge deal. It imploded the internet more than any other Game of Thrones death precisely because it makes no narrative sense and if he doesn’t return, it will confirm to some that the show is indeed fucking with us. His is the most important death because regardless of how it plays out, it effects not only the entire future of Westeros, but how the show itself will be remembered.