After almost 70 hours of television, and nearly a decade of captivating audiences, Game of Thrones is coming to an end. In preparation for the fantasy series’ last season, some fans have made it their mission to watch all 67 of the show’s episodes, some more than once, and even catch up on the five main, and several supplementary, books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
While that may be a perfectly fine choice for some Game of Thrones superfans, very few casual viewers will have the chance to catch up on every moment of Thrones, a show that requires you to know all the politics, all the mythos, and all the history to fully understand the weight of its drama.
So, if you want to brush up on your Game of Thrones knowledge, but are a little pressed for time ahead of the season 8 premiere on April 14, we’ve put together a list of the five lore-heavy episodes you absolutely have to watch to understand (most) of what’s going on in Game of Thrones’ final season.
Season 1, episode 1: “Winter is Coming”
Key takeaways: the prologue, Ned and Robert in the crypt, the character introductions
To appreciate an ending, you have to remember how things started. While the events of Thrones have changed some characters and calcified others, the pilot — infamously shot, scrapped, then reshot — is a great refresher on where each of them started. But there are other reasons to go back this far as well: In the lead-up to season 8, the creators teased that the final episode is likely to mirror the first of the show, so this will help you catch up on the references that are sure to pop up. Finally, the first episode also gives us our mysterious introduction to the White Walkers, the force that poses the most immediate threat to Westeros in the final season.
Season 5, episode 8: “Hardhome”
Key takeaway: learning how the dead fight, and what a war against them might look like
The war between the living and the dead is the primary focus of Game of Thrones’ final season — at least in the beginning — so it’s important to remember what exactly the stakes are. This is the only episode in which we get to see what a full-scale battle against the White Walkers and the Night King himself may look like, and it’s not pretty. The White Walkers themselves — the ice people, not the zombies — can only be killed by dragonglass or Valyrian steel. And even with the right weapons, some of the best fighters won’t make it out. The single most important part of the episode, though, is the moment after Jon and the few surviving wildlings escape, when the Night King raises from the dead everyone who’s been killed so far so they can fight again as wights. It’s a stark reminder that the odds are already nearly insurmountable, and that the wight army grows with every battle they win.
Season 6, episode 5: “The Door”
Key takeaways: the Night King’s origin story and how he finds Bran
This is quite the episode, but for now we’re going to skip past its memorable hold-the-door character death and talk about Bran’s visions. As a brief reminder, the Three-Eyed Raven, the man in the tree, seems to stand guard between the living and the dead, and Bran is training to replace him. The Three-Eyed Raven takes Bran to see the birth of the Night King, who would later spawn the army of undead that continue to threaten the world.
It’s here that we find out that the Children of the Forest — Westeros’ earliest inhabitants —created the White Walkers in hopes of driving the First Men out of the country. Instead, the dead swept across Westeros like a plague and destroyed everything, including almost all the Children of the Forest themselves. The episode’s tragic conclusion often distracts from the fact that the Night King joins Bran in his visions. The two even meet, with the Night King marking Bran in a way that allows him to track Bran, even as the boy sits in Winterfell at the beginning of season 8.
Season 6, episode 10: “The Winds of Winter”
Key takeaways: Cersei becoming fully unhinged, Dany setting sail, the confirmation of Jon’s parents
“The Winds of Winter” — a sly nod by series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to George R.R. Martin’s long-awaited sixth book — is the payoff after six years of buildup. After watching Cersei’s slow descent into madness we finally see it culminate in the destruction of her own city, and possibly her own child. Across the Narrow Sea, Tyrion convinces Daenerys to set sail for Westeros. Whatever other purposes Tyrion has in the upcoming season, or whatever mistakes he made in season 7, convincing Dany to leave Essos and set out for Dragonstone is likely to be what saves the world from the army of the dead.
Speaking of payoff, this is also the episode where R+L=J, a long-running theory that Jon’s parents are actually Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, was finally confirmed — almost 20 years after it was hinted at in Martin’s original text.
Season 7, episode 7: “The Dragon and the Wolf”
Key takeaways: the meeting and drawing of sides, the wall coming down, the revelation of Jon’s parents
Continuing the theme of shedding light on Jon’s true parentage, this episode reveals that Lyanna and Rhaegar were actually married before Jon was born, making him a true Targaryen with the strongest living claim to the throne — even more so than Dany. Before this reveal, we are treated to a meeting between Cersei and the allied front of Jon and Dany, who compel her to help them fight the army of the dead, which has taken down the wall and is now marching into Westeros.
This tenuous peace between the living factions could prove to be one of the upcoming season’s most important points, as Cersei has never exactly been trustworthy when it comes to promises. And when the dead are vanquished, there’s still a war for the crown to be fought — Game of Thrones gonna Game of Thrones.
Correction (April 9): At Hardhome, the Night King reanimated the human corpses, not the dead wights. We’ve edited the article to reflect this.