Game of Thrones premiered back in 2011 and became an instant hit for HBO. Thanks to its successful mix of political intrigue and high fantasy, the show quickly cemented its place as one of the most ambitious, daring, and addictive dramas on television.
Its standing would only increase over time, eventually becoming the biggest show on Earth by the time season 8 came along. However, it all began with its now-iconic first season, which introduced many of Game of Thrones‘ trademark elements. And while the franchise’s reputation suffered thanks to its infamous ending, its first season remains flawless and keeps getting better with time.
9 The Worldbuilding
The world that George R. R. Martin created for his A Song of Ice and Fire series is nothing short of a masterpiece. Layered, violent, intriguing, and addictive, the continent of Westeros stands alongside other literary creations like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Herbert’s Arrakis in terms of intricacy, relevance, and outright excellence.
Translating such a fascinating and complex world was a daunting challenge, but David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did the source material justice. The Westeros in Game of Thrones was faithful to Martin’s vision, a sadistic and ambitious world that sucked audiences into its game. Throughout the first season, the show cleverly laid the foundation for the world’s lore, slowly creating a sprawling world unlike anything fans had seen before.
8 Varys & Littlefinger
Varys and Littlefinger were arguably the best players in the game. The former was a snake slithering through the realm to collect the most guarded secrets and delivering them with the perfect mix of poise and menace, a threatening tranquility that made him very dangerous. The latter was a charming and clever manipulator who knew words were just as if not deadlier than sword and bows.
These two expert players pulled the strings in the realm throughout season one, making the rules that everyone else obeyed. They also shared some of the best conversations in the show’s history, teasing each other with an abundance of intelligence that put all other characters to shame.
7 Syrio Forel & Arya’s Bond
Braavosi swordmaster Syrio Forel was one of Arya’s best friends on Game of Thrones. Acting as a mentor and role model, he encouraged Arya’s fighting spirit and provided her first lessons. Syrio plays a crucial role in Arya’s life, initiating her on a path that would eventually turn her into the show’s most dangerous character.
Fans revisiting Thrones’ first season often point out how endearing Arya and Syrio’s bond is, especially in a world as misogynistic as Westeros. Syrio never treats Arya differently because she’s a girl and encourages her to fight with honor and strength. He has an overwhelmingly positive influence on Arya’s young mind, providing some much-needed support for the girl.
6 Robert Baratheon
Westeros has a chaotic history with rulers. Before House Targaryen lost the Iron Throne, they ruled for centuries, and for every capable and kind King they produced, an equally cruel and despotic one came along. Following Robert’s Rebellion, House Baratheon took over the Iron Throne, and Robert Baratheon became King. He wasn’t a particularly capable ruler, but he was a riot to watch.
Played with brazen gusto by English actor Mark Addy, Robert was a drunk and a womanizer who cared little about the kingdom he supposedly ruled. However, he was also a hugely entertaining character, delivering crude lines and biting insults with shameless glee. Addy clearly relished the chance to play such a loud and unabashed character, and even though he died mid-way through the season, Robert left an indelible mark on the show.
5 Robb Stark’s Characterization
Season one presents Robb Stark as a capable leader who inspires considerable devotion from his bannermen. Once the Lannisters imprison Ned, Robb calls his banners and launches an attack that eventually leads to Jaime’s imprisonment and the North’s secession from the Seven Kingdoms, with Robb as the King in the North. It’s a brilliant storyline that established Robb as the series’ presumed “hero,” especially after Ned’s death.
Alas, good fortune never lasts in Westeros, and Robb commits a series of foolish mistakes that eventually lead to his death in the infamous Red Wedding. Nowadays, his reputation is pretty stained — fans often claim Robb is the worst Stark in Game of Thrones — but at least in season one, the young wolf was the prototypical fantasy hero that everyone couldn’t help but love.
4 Subverting Audiences Expectations
GOT made a name for itself by subverting audiences’ expectations. Ned Stark’s death, one of the most unexpected things to happen in Game of Thrones, took non-book readers by surprise and established Westeros as a merciless place where no one was safe.
The show kept pushing boundaries in future seasons, eventually losing sight of itself and culminating in a final season where things happened out of sheer shock value. However, season one remains a master class in effectively shocking an audience. The surprises — whether it’s Jamie pushing Bran out the window or Robert dying mid-season — happen organically and serve a true purpose to the plot without sacrificing its essence.
3 Peter Dinklage As Tyrion Lannister
When Game of Thrones premiered, Peter Dinklage was a familiar albeit underrated character actor. The versatile actor delivered consistently great performances since the beginning of the millennium, including his breakthrough and critically acclaimed role in Tom McCarthy’s directorial debut, The Station Agent. However, Thrones changed his career, elevating him to the A-list and showering him with accolades.
From the first season, Dinklage was the show’s clear standout. Tyrion was the best Lannister on Game of Thrones — a clever, sassy, witty, and compelling figure and one of television’s best and most complex characters. For his part, Dinklage was magnetic on screen, commanding every scene with ease. From his trial at the Vale to his interactions with Jon Snow and Catelyn Stark, Tyrion’s season one storyline is full of iconic episodes that cemented his place as Thrones‘ undisputed breakout character.
2 The Performances
Even when the show descended into an obscure version of itself, the performances remained top-tier. However, fans could tell the show was something special from season one. The obvious standout was Dinklage, but the large ensemble featured other seasoned professionals at the top of their game, including Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Michelle Farley, and Mark Addy.
Additionally, the show introduced many young and compelling performers who quickly became fan favorites. Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Alfie Allen, and Sophie Turner would all go on to earn Emmy nominations for their performances, and the roots for their success were there from season one.
1 The Dialogue
“When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die. There is no middle ground.” For years, Game of Thrones was one of the best-written shows on television, and it all began with season one. Featuring a successful mix of clever expository dialogue and witty and biting lines, the show quickly established itself as a worthy successor to George R. R. Martin’s rich prose.
Indeed, Game of Thrones was ridiculously quotable, producing one memorable line after the other, expertly delivered by its unbelievably talented cast. The show’s writing would eventually lose its bite, but season one remains an excellent example of how addictive a well-written show can be.