So you slacked off and forgot to catch up on Game of Thrones, and now you have just days or hours left to get yourself educated so you don’t look like a total noob on the night Season 8 premieres.
Relax. I’ve got a cheat sheet. There are 67 episodes in all with the end of Season 7, and I figure you can get caught up on the big moments by watching around 30 of them. What can I tell you? This is a complex show.
It’s not a perfect fix. You’re still gonna need a big chunk of time to fit in 30 hours of TV. What’s more, even people who have watched every single episode of the hit HBO series struggle to keep up with the zig-zagging plotlines and mountains of subtext. You definitely won’t be acing any Game of Thrones pop quizzes after watching these episodes and these episodes alone.
But you’ll be better situated for the final journey into Westeros than you were before. You’ll get caught up on the main characters, the big trials they’ve faced, and the far-reaching narrative beats that shook every inch of the Seven Kingdoms.
NOTE: The text below is almost completely spoiler-free, but I’m including a recommended episode list for every season at the top of each entry so you can know what to watch without having to read why. If you do want more of a spoiler-y explanation for each season without having to rewatch hours of TV, the seven links below all point back to “everything you need to know” rundowns for the season in question.
Recommended viewing: 1.01 (“Winter is Coming”), 1.09 (“Baelor”), 1.10 (“Fire and Blood”)
This is where it all started. You’ve gotta begin with the opening episode of the series because, well, it’s the opening episode of the series. But it’s the season’s final two episodes that deliver a major escalation of violence that sets up some of the key fractured relationships that linger even now, as Season 8 approaches.
Recommended viewing: 2.02 (“The Night Lands”), 2.03 (“What Is Dead May Never Die”), 2.09 (“Blackwater”), 2.10 (“Valar Morghulis”)
Season 2 brings a number of big story beats, but it’s actually a minor moment — a bit of information about the White Walkers, the biggest threat to Westeros — that stands out the most. Any shred of information on this mysterious faction is going to be important in Season 8. The second season also introduces Brienne of Tarth, still a major character, and sets up her relationship with the Starks of Winterfell. The final two episodes are packed with plot and huge character moments that can’t be missed — really, this is true of every season, and it’s a recurring theme in this viewing guide.
Recommended viewing: 3.03 (“Walk of Punishment”), 3.04 (“And Now His Watch Is Ended”), 3.06 (“The Climb”), 3.08 (“Second Sons”), 3.09 (“Rains of Castemere”), 3.10 (“Mhysa”)
This is the Game of Thrones season that features the infamous “Red Wedding” scene (in Episode 9), so prepare accordingly. In general, the show’s third season is pivotal in many ways for the larger story — but still, the small moments matter. Pay attention to Varys’s words about hearing a voice in the fire, and to Melisandre’s promise to Arya that still hasn’t been paid off. Note the importance of king’s blood. And of course, behold the major shift the season’s end ushers in as formerly key characters are killed off and new major players move to the forefront.
Recommended viewing: 4.02 (“The Lion and the Rose”), 4.04 (“Oathkeeper”), 4.06 (“The Laws of Gods and Men”), 4.08 (“The Mountain and the Viper”), 4.10 (“The Children”)
If Season 3 highlights big shifts in the Stark family, Season 4 does the same for the Lannisters. Beginning in the second episode and continuing in the sixth, a major character death and subsequent trial shaped the course of several major arcs for every season that followed. There’s also a major revelation about how the White Walkers operate and, in the final episodes, a couple of big plot moments that can’t be missed.
Recommended viewing: 5.08 (“Hardhome”), 5.09 (“The Dance of Dragons”), 5.10 (“Mother’s Mercy”)
After a busy pair of very plot-shifting seasons, you’ll be happy to know that much of Season 5 is skippable. The season’s final three episodes are the most important, bringing key — perhaps vital — revelations about the White Walkers and the way they fight, as well as the significant shifts in Danaerys Targaryen’s story that put her on the path to where we find her in Season 8. There’s also a key character death at the tail end of the season that has huge import for the developing story.
Recommended viewing: 6.01 (“The Red Woman”), 6.03 (“Oathbreaker”), 6.05 (“The Door”), 6.09 (“Battle of the Bastards”), 6.10 (“The Winds of Winter”)
Remember that “key character death” I mentioned from the end of Season 5? Well, it’s more complicated than your typical Game of Thrones murder and it takes on a new wrinkle in Season 6. We also learn a great deal about what’s happening beyond the wall and some of the mysticism surrounding that region of Westeros. And of course, the Battle of the Bastards and its aftermath set the stage for a new chapter that would begin in the following season.
Recommended viewing: 7.03 (“The Queen’s Justice”), 7.04 (“Spoils of War”), 7.06 (“Beyond the Wall”), 7.07 (“The Dragon and the Wolf”)
Ideally, you’re just re-watching all of Season 7 ahead of Season 8, since there are only seven episodes. But these four will definitely give you a “greatest hits” tour of what happened. Any details are in full-on spoiler territory, but obviously there are significant revelations about the growing White Walker threat and about what the battle lines are going to look like — and how they’ve been redrawn — as we wheel into the final stretch of episodes.
Tune in for the Game of Thrones Season 8 premiere on April 14.