1. Season 6
When putting lists like this together there are a lot of completely subjective choices that have to be made. Am I going to fight with someone who thinks season two is better than season one, or season three is better than season four? No. We’re truly splitting hairs there. But when it comes to the question of “what’s the best single season of Game of Thrones,” there is no argument needed. No hairs need be split. That question has a definitive answer: season six.
It masterfully provides us with the answers and payoffs to plotlines we’ve been following for years, while simultaneously propelling the story forward. There’s the coup at the Wall and Jon Snow being brought back to life by Melisandre, a new man. He’s much more sullen, more aware of his own mortality, but also a bit more reckless in his pursuit of what he believes in. Arya finally graduates from her Faceless Man school in Braavos a more dangerous threat to the realm than anyone could have anticipated. Daenerys finishes her seasons-long quest of conquering Slaver’s Bay and finally turns her attention westward towards the Iron Throne.
This season is thematically one of graduations. Each character evolves into their final form in many ways. Bran becomes the Three Eyed Raven giving the fans answers to the long-anticipated question of Jon’s parentage through flashbacks. Sansa is brutalized by Ramsay turning her into the hardened leader incapable of trusting outsiders from this point forward. Her escape from Winterfell is fueled by Theon, who finally starts amending for his sins of the past and turns into a man dead set on redemption. The Hound is revealed to be alive and living a new life also fueled by redemption—this hardened warrior with no heart, now determined to help others in ways that in season one would have been impossible to believe.
And of course we can’t talk about this season without discussing the final two episodes: “The Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter,” the best one-two-punch of any season of Thrones. The Battle of the Bastards delivers on bringing the brutality of war to the screen in ways never before seen on television. It cements Jon’s legend in the North as a ferocious warrior willing to fight for what is right no matter the odds, which in turn forces all the noble houses in the North to beg his forgiveness and anoint him “King in the North” in maybe the most goosebump-inducing scene in the show’s history. How can you possibly follow the Battle of the Bastards up satisfyingly? That’s what we were all wondering before the finale of season six, but leave it to Cersei to have an answer. She had been reduced to a caged lion in season five, and she, like the rest of our characters, finds her footing before the season ends, evolving into a sociopathic mass murderer who puts a definitive end to her feud with Margaery Tyrell, and in the end becomes the queen she’s always wanted to be.
Season six is everything Game of Thrones could be and should be, executed at the highest level. And what people forget is that this was Benioff & Weiss operating without a book to hold themselves to. They’d surpassed George R.R. Martin’s source material with this season, and not only did they succeed, they blew everything else they’d done to this point out of the water.