This article contains spoilers for all previously aired episodes of Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones is more popular than ever, and its fourth season is setting viewership records on HBO as it dominates the pop culture landscape this spring. The series might be at a high water mark, but several characters of its huge ensemble cast have not survived to see these heights.
The series, in fact, has grown notorious for killing off its characters, mercilessly pruning the plot tree even as its overall story grows exponentially in complexity. Most episodes portray the death of at least a minor character, and major character killings have been sprinkled in throughout the show’s run, not just in climactic season-ending episodes, but whenever the audience least expects it.
Game of Thrones is unique in prestige television in that most of its plot has already been written ahead of time, allowing its showrunners to adapt the series for the small screen with a level of meticulous planning not possible in most scripted drama. Since the story has already been determined, Game of Thrones producers need not worry about killing off a popular character, as that character is probably already dead, murdered by the keyboard of book series author George R.R. Martin years before appearing on television.
The idea that no character is safe engenders an unprecedented degree of creative freedom, and ups the stakes of almost every scene on the show. Since the story is preordained, any character can die at any time, which heightens the drama whenever a character faces danger.
Even while fully aware of the brutal nature of the series, Game of Thrones fans continue to be surprised by many of the character deaths. Here are the 10 most shocking deaths so far on Game of Thrones.
10 Khal Drogo
Drogo, the horse lord who marries Daenerys early in season one, is a powerful and feared warrior, one of the strongest men on the planet. His people, the Dothraki, have a tradition that any warrior who loses in battle must cut his hair, and Drogo’s hair stretches down almost to the ground, the cavalryman having never been defeated in combat.
That’s why it’s such a shock that a small flesh wound sustained in a skirmish with one of his underlings becomes infected and weakens Drogo to near death. Dany, desperate to save her husband, asks the slave medicine woman Mirri Maz Duur to use blood magic to make Drogo live. The priestess, forever scarred by the Dothraki pillaging of her village, performs a magical ceremony to save Drogo, but it costs Dany the life of her unborn child, and leaves Drogo in an unresponsive state, unable to talk or ride a horse. Dany soon puts her beloved “sun and stars” out of his misery by smothering him with a pillow, and burns Mirri Maz Duur alive on Drogo’s funeral pyre.
9 Robert Baratheon
The great King Robert Baratheon won the Iron Throne in a rebellion against the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, personally killing Prince Rhaegar by putting his war hammer through the prince’s chest at the Battle of the Trident.
While his skill in combat was unquestioned, Robert Baratheon was much less competent in the political maneuverings that dominate the capital, King’s Landing. After Eddard Stark, Robert’s best friend and Hand of the King, discovers that all of Robert’s children with Queen Cersei Lannister were in fact conceived in incest by Cersei and her brother Jaime, the queen arranges for her husband to be poisoned with tainted wine while on a boar hunt. Slowed by the adulterated wine, Robert is mortally wounded by a boar.
Robert’s last wish was that the boar that killed him be served at his funeral feast, but before that can happen, the king’s death launches a power struggle that will eventually start a continent-wide civil war.
8 Renly Baratheon
Renly Baratheon declared himself king after the death of his brother Robert, proclaiming that Robert’s children were not biologically his, and thus were ineligible to rule. Renly, however, was the youngest of his three brothers, and so his claim on the Iron Throne technically should have taken a backseat to his older brother, Stannis Baratheon, who also styled himself king upon Robert’s death.
Renly tried to argue that since he was the most charismatic leader in the Seven Kingdoms, and had assembled the largest army, he would make the best king. He faced off with his brother Stannis on the battlefield, who gave him a dawn ultimatum to renounce his claim or face war between brothers. Renly refused, but was soon murdered in a shocking scene by a shadow demon conceived by Stannis and his lover Melisandre, a powerful and mysterious red priestess.
7 Jeor Mormont
The Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch was a man of action. Hearing reports of unusual activity north of the Wall, Jeor Mormont ordered his men on a ranging to meet whatever threat there was head-on, instead of waiting helplessly at Castle Black.
Mormont and his men stopped to rest and eat at Craster’s Keep, a small cabin north of the Wall inhabited by the eccentric Craster and his dozens of daughter-wives. Craster agreed to provide the rangers with a meager portion of food, but treated them poorly enough to incite a mutiny. When Lord Commander Mormont tries to stop the insubordination, he is stabbed in the back by his own men. Jeor’s son, Jorah, is unaware of his father’s murder, and remains exiled and friend-zoned as an advisor to Dany in Essos.
6 Pyat Pree
At the end of season two, the double-crossing Qartheen merchant Xaro Xhoan Daxos steals Dany’s dragons to lure her to warlock Pyat Pree’s trap at the House of the Undying. After seeing eerie and significant visions of the past and future, Dany is chained inside the tower where the warlocks intend to keep her imprisoned so they can feed off her magical powers.
Instead, Dany uses her dragons to burn Pyat Pree and escape. With a single word, “dracarys,” Dany roasts the warlock and burns off her chains. As a bonus, Dany shows up at Xaro Xhoan Daxos’s house while he is in bed with Dany’s servant Doreah, and locks them both in his empty vault to rot.
5 Lady the Direwolf
In most forms of popular fiction, no matter what happens to the heroes and villains in the story, the lovable dog survives to the very end. In the blockbuster movie Independence Day, for example, most of the humans on earth are vaporized by invading aliens, but Will Smith’s golden lab Boomer survives in a fiery tunnel by literally leaping past an explosion.
No such canine luck in this story. On the trip from Winterfell to King’s Landing, Prince Joffrey lies about being attacked unprovoked by Nymeria, Arya Stark’s direwolf. Arya sets Nymeria free to save her from the queen’s justice, but Cersei demands that a direwolf, any direwolf, must die nonetheless. On order from the king, Ned Stark kills his other daughter Sansa’s direwolf, Lady, a moment that changes Sansa forever and illustrates that neither man nor beast is safe in the game of thrones.
4 Viserys Targaryen
The exiled Targaryen prince Viserys thinks he will win an army of Dothraki riders by marrying his little sister Dany to their leader, Khal Drogo, and hopes this army will help him claim the Iron Throne that was taken from his father Aerys in Robert’s Rebellion.
The Dothraki, however, are slow to fulfill their end, insisting on a trip across the continent to their sacred city of Vaes Dothrak to celebrate Drogo and Dany’s wedding. Taking advantage of a Dothraki custom that no blade can be drawn in the holy city, Viserys unsheathes his sword, threatens his sister Dany, and demands Drogo crown him king and give him his promised army.
Viserys gets his crown when Drogo pours a bowl of molten gold over Viserys’s head, gruesomely killing him without drawing a blade. Dany notes that her brother was not a true dragon king, as dragons cannot be killed by fire.
3 Joffrey “Baratheon”
Bastard King Joffrey is notoriously cruel and sadistic, and fans have been anticipating his karmic demise for virtually the entire run of the series. Few, however, thought it would come at his triumphant wedding feast so early in season four.
Joffrey is killed by a poison called “the Strangler,” which quickly leads to his asphyxiation in front of the entire royal court. Although queen-regent Cersei accuses her brother Tyrion of the murder, Joffrey was actually poisoned by Lady Olenna, the Tyrell matriarch, who acted in concert with schemer Littlefinger Baelish. Olenna did not want her granddaughter Margaery to be married to a tyrant, and Littlefinger just wants as much chaos as possible so he can climb the social ladder.
2 Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Talisa Stark
The three Starks were murdered as guests of the Freys at the Twins, where they had been attending the wedding of Catelyn’s brother Edmure. Arranged via a secret pact between Lannister patriarch Tywin and the decrepit Lord Walder Frey, The Red Wedding, as it came to be known, is one of the most shocking and sad events of the entire series.
The Red Wedding was so startling to book readers that many set up hidden cameras to film their friends and family as they watched the corresponding television episode. These Red Wedding reaction videos trended on social media as television viewers processed the sickening event at the end of season three.
1 Ned Stark
The beheading of Lord Eddard Stark at the end of season one went beyond a plot twist and served to redefine the series in genre expectations. Traditionally, the heroes of fantasy series are not killed early in the story, and the death of Ned Stark at the hands of King Joffrey changed the rules of the story and let audiences know that no one was safe.
While Ned Stark was a fan favorite and arguably the most honorable man of the entire series, Ned’s plot armor didn’t save his head, and all that we thought was the main story turned out to be merely a prologue. The Song of Ice and Fire would not be sung by King Robert and Lord Ned Stark, but instead would star initially marginalized characters like “bastard” Jon Snow, sent to the Wall at the story’s start, and Daenerys Targaryen, sold into a forced marriage by her brother before forging her own path of redemption.