5 years ago, Game of Thrones aired its last great episode. Here’s why it still holds up

Brienne of Tarth looks up in episode 2 of Game of Thrones season 8.

Many fans would likely agree that Game of Thrones went out not with a bang, but a profound whimper. After dominating pop culture for nearly 10 years, the hit HBO series concluded with a trio of episodes that were universally reviled by both fans and critics alike. The show’s lackluster, ham-fisted finale led to its popularity seemingly vanishing into thin air. In the five years since it aired, time hasn’t been kind to Game of Thrones season 8.

To this day, many people still discuss the series’ final season with a mix of bitterness and disbelief, and those fans won’t find any disagreement about the quality of Game of Thrones‘ last few chapters here. As disappointing as its eighth season remains, though, April 21 marked the five-year anniversary of its noteworthy second episode, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. The fan-favorite installment ranks not only as its season’s best chapter, but also as the last great episode that Game of Thrones ever produced.

Five years later, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its power. As a matter of fact, the episode is both an astonishing reminder of what made Game of Thrones such a special TV series in the first place and a useful key to solving where the episodes that followed it went wrong.

The calm before The Long Night

Jaime Lannister stands in Winterfell's grand hall in episode 2 of Game of Thrones season 8.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a lot of things. It’s a prologue to the central, apocalyptic battle of the show’s next episode, The Long Night, and a methodically paced follow-up to Game of Thrones‘ season 8 premiere, Winterfell, which spends much of its runtime paying off series-long threads and laying the groundwork for what’s to come. It’s also a rare thing in the history of Game of Thrones: a hangout episode.

Set in the hours leading up to what its characters rightly believe could be the end of the world, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms gives its heroes, as well as those watching at home, the chance to say goodbye. The episode, penned by longtime Game of Thrones writer Bryan Cogman, is packed with moments both unexpected and long-awaited — from Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) apologizing to Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) for pushing him out a window in the show’s very first episode to The Hound (Rory McCann) reuniting with Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). Even one brief shot of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) sharing a meal with Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) carries enormous weight, thanks partly to all that the two characters have previously been through together and also to the rich, lived-in performances given by Turner and Allen.

It gives the spotlight to one of the show’s best storylines

Jamie knights Brienne in episode 2 of Game of Thrones season 8.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms crucially doesn’t rush through these or any other interactions, no matter how big or small they may seem. It’s an episode that treasures getting to spend as much time with its characters as it can and allows its audience to savor the moments of reconciliation, redemption, and connection that fill it. Nowhere is that clearer than when Jaime decides to give his longtime, unspoken love interest, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), the knightly title she’s wanted all her life. Director David Nutter beautifully emphasizes every one of the scene’s dramatic beats, whether it be Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman) silently giving Brienne permission to actually want the kind of recognition she’s long deserved or Jaime’s hand nervously finding a firm hold of his sword just before he raises it onto Brienne’s shoulders.

It’s as cathartic as any great Game of Thrones scene, and not just because it’s the rare instance in which things go right for one of its heroes. Beginning in its third season, the HBO series spent years building toward the moment when Jaime and Brienne’s mutual respect and love could be truly recognized. In A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, not only do both characters do that for each other, but Jaime’s decision to knight Brienne marks the climax of his redemption arc and pays off all the times she’d already proven herself as arguably the show’s most honorable character. It’s a moment that feels hard-won and earned, and it rewards viewers for investing so much time and emotion into Jaime and Brienne’s stories.

It prioritizes character over plot

The Hound sits with Arya in episode 2 of Game of Thrones season 8.

For most of its eight-season run, Game of Thrones skillfully balanced its characters’ personal stories with its overarching plot. What makes A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms interesting in that regard is that it doesn’t really have much of a plot. Almost everything that happens in it is directly set up by the episode that immediately precedes it, and it actively prioritizes its characters and their emotions over whatever narrative demands viewers might go in expecting it to fulfill. As a result, it proves that what really made Game of Thrones great was how its characters and their stories always seemed to naturally collide and bounce off each other. With its single-location setting and almost meandering pace, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms consistently puts its characters first, and that’s what makes it so enduringly special.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the episodes that follow it, which try unsuccessfully to pack several seasons’ worth of twists and character development into a shockingly small window of time. In its second half, Game of Thrones season 8 puts its plot first and, consequently, loses the sense of organic spontaneity that made the show feel so alive and unpredictable for so long. That said, the HBO series’ last-minute mistakes don’t lessen the power of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms‘ best moments. On the contrary, the episode’s highs only make Thrones‘ subsequent lows all the more frustrating.

Game of Thrones | Season 8 Episode 2 | ''A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms'' Trailer

Even now, five years later, they force one to ask: How could the series get so much so right only to get everything wrong a few weeks later? We may never know the true answer to that question, but at least we’ll always have A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.

All eight seasons of Game of Thrones are available to stream now on Max.