“Game of Thrones” is known for its shocking deaths, gruesome violence, gratuitous nudity, dragons, and a lot of other things. At awards shows it’s often nominated for best drama, best directing, best writing, and other behind-the-scenes work.
But the actors on the show aren’t usually recognized for their performances.
To pull off a character believably on a show of this scale, in such a crazy world, is no small feat. In most cases, you never know what a character is truly up to – and there are so many layers to these characters.
These actors deserve some recognition, so we put together a list of what we think are the best performances on the show so far.
Here’s the 20 best performances on “Game of Thrones,” ranked:
20. Mark Addy as Robert Baratheon
Robert Baratheon’s time on “Game of Thrones” was very short, but Mark Addy brought a lot to the memorable character. Robert Baratheon wasn’t a great person – he was a terrible king because he mostly just ignored his duties to drink and sleep around, and he had a temper problem. But Addy made the character come to life in a way that made us really miss him when he was gone. There isn’t another character like him in Westeros.
Best quote: “I want the funeral feast to be the biggest the kingdom ever saw, and I want everyone to taste the boar that got me.”
Best scene: King Robert’s squire, Lancel Lannister puts armor on him while he talks to Ned. Ned suggests that he’s too fat for his armor, and Robert jokingly demands that Lancel fetch him the breastplate stretcher, which does not exist. “The Wolf and the Lion” – Season 1, Episode 5.
19. Clive Russell as Brynden Tully/The Blackfish
The Blackfish is Catelyn Stark’s uncle with an attitude, and Clive Russell goes all out with the limited screen time his character got on the show. The Blackfish is loyal to his family and to his house, but mostly loyal to himself. He escaped the Red Wedding (he was going to the bathroom outside when all the bad stuff happened). He took back Riverrun off-camera, and his scenes with Jaime in season six during when the Kingslayer was trying to take Riverrun back made us wish that we had been with him all along.
Best quote: “As long as I’m standing, the war is not over. This is my home. I was born in this castle and I’m ready to die in it. So you can either attack or try to starve us out. We have enough provisions for two years. Do you have two years, Kingslayer?”
Best scene: The Blackfish insults Jaime Lannister when he orders him to surrender Riverrun. “The Broken Man” – Season 6, Episode 7.
18. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister
Tyrion Lannister is undoubtedly the most beloved and popular character on “Game of Thrones,” and for good reason. Tyrion is one of the few characters left to root for, and in his performance, Peter Dinklage proves that it was the role he was born to play. Dinklage’s performance is bigger compared to some of the others on the show, and that totally works for his character. As the series goes on, Tyrion faces more and more physical and internal battles, which shows off Dinklage’s range more than it did in earlier seasons.
Dinklage has been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series for all six seasons, and won for his performances in seasons one and five.
Best quote: “A day will come when you think you are safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth. And you will know the debt is paid.”
Best scene: Tyrion rallies up the men at King’s Landing during the Battle of Blackwater after King Joffrey abandons them. “Blackwater” – Season 2, Episode 9.
17. Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth
Gwendoline Christie didn’t join the show until season two, but immediately fit into the world. She also immediately became an audience favorite, even for those who didn’t read the books and knew how big her role would become. Christie’s understated performance brings Brienne’s biggest strength forward, which is her, well, strength. Christie also sells her action sequences, which can get very complex, especially her fight with The Hound in season four.
Best quote: “All my life I’ve been hearing, ‘Jaime Lannister, what a brilliant swordsman. You were slower than I expected. And more predictable … Maybe you were as good as people said … once. Or maybe people just love to overpraise a famous name.”
Best scene: Brienne fights The Hound. “The Children”- Season 4, Episode 10.
16. Conleth Hill as Lord Varys
Like Littlefinger, it’s quite difficult to pinpoint what Varys’ true motives are. In the first few seasons, Varys was a suspicious character and seemed to only do things to benefit himself. But as it turns out, Varys seems to just really care about Westeros (or at least that’s what he wants us to think). Conleth Hill makes playing Varys look so easy, when it has to be one of the challenging roles on the series due to his mysterious past, his mysterious little birds, and his mysterious motives. Hill knows how to play a man who everyone trusts but no one trusts at the same time, and he definitely has a lot of fun doing it.
Best quote: “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
Best scene: In a desperate play for power, Littlefinger insults Varys and reveals that he’s been spying on him, but Varys proves that he has the upper hand. “The Wolf and the Lion” – Season 1, Episode 5.
15. Richard Dormer, Beric Dondarrion
Although he’s only appeared in a few episodes – the most being in season three – Richard Dormer’s Beric Dondarrion has made quite an impression on the series. Dormer brings the leader of the Brotherhood Without Banners to life, and also happens to die and come back to life for the sixth time on screen. Dormer brings an intimidating calmness to Dondarrion, but his charm overpowers the sense of fear that comes along with his presence. His return in season six was very welcome, and his brief appearance with a flaming sword in the season seven trailer has generated a lot of buzz among fans, and suggests that he’ll have a much bigger role in episodes to come.
Best quote: “That’s what we are: ghosts. Waiting for you in the dark. You can’t see us, but we see you. No matter whose cloak you wear – Lannister, Stark, Baratheon – you prey on the weak, the Brotherhood Without Banners will hunt you down.”
Best scene: The Hound defeats Beric in a trial by combat, but Thoros of Myr instantly brings him back to life via the Lord of Light. “Kissed By Fire”- Season 3, Episode 5.
14. Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark
Catelyn Stark will do anything for her children, but she’s no Cersei Lannister. She is proud and even prouder of her family and her honor. Fairley made sure to prioritize Catelyn’s role as a loving mother and wife, but always made sure there was more to her beneath that. Catelyn experienced a lot of pain – both emotionally and physically, as her throat was split at the Red Wedding. Fairley’s moans and screams as she saw her son die, and as she died herself, are still haunting to this day, and her death and performance as a whole is even more heartbreaking for it.
Best quote: “Listen to yourselves. If you were sons of mine, I would knock your heads together and lock you in a bedchamber until you remembered that you were brothers.”
Best scene: Catelyn tells Talisa Stark about that one time she prayed that Jon Snow would die, and confesses that she couldn’t love him. “Dark Wings, Dark Words” – Season 3, Episode 2.
13. Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane/The Hound
The Hound has had quite the arc. First, we thought he was a ruthless killer who would do anything for the Lannisters. Then, after his little buddy road trip with Arya Stark, he becomes more humanized to the point where even Arya doesn’t stick a sword through his eye when she gets the chance. His return to the show in season six was welcomed with applause all over the world, and credit has to go to Rory McCann for providing so much range, charm, and excellent delivery on lines about wanting chicken.
Best quote: “You’re a talker. Listening to talkers makes me thirsty.”
Best scene: The Hound says “F— the king” and abandons the Battle of Blackwater. “Blackwater” – Season 2, Episode 9.
12. Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark
Like Maisie Williams, we’ve also seen Sophie Turner grow up in her role as Sansa Stark. At the beginning of the show, Sansa was an annoying teenager. Cruel to Arya, cruel to Jon Snow, and desperate to be a princess to Joffrey Baratheon. Over time, and after a series of very, very, very horrible things happening to her, Turner has transformed Sansa into one of the best characters on the show, one of the strongest fictional female characters, and a force to be reckoned with in Westeros. It was undoubtedly a challenge for Turner to capture everything Sansa’s been through in her performance, but she makes sure that we see it and that we feel it.
Best quote: “The worst ones always live.”
Best scene: Sansa watches Ramsay get eaten by his own hounds. “Battle of the Bastards” – Season 6, Episode 9.
11. Bella Ramsey as Lyanna Mormont
- Daryl Dixon/Flickr
Like Pedro Pascal as Oberyn, Lady Mormont hasn’t appeared on many episodes of “Game of Thrones.” She’s only been in season six, and was one of the most memorable things about the season as a whole. Bella Ramsey practically blew up social media in every appearance (especially her epic stink eye at Ramsay Bolton) in what turned out to be her professional acting debut. If she’s any better than what we’ve seen – and she probably is – she’s in for a great acting career, and a great last two seasons on “Game of Thrones.”
Best quote: “We’re not a large house, but we are a proud one. And every man from Bear Island fights with the strength of 10 mainlanders.”
Best scene: Lyanna gives Ramsay Bolton a death stare in a meeting before the Battle of the Bastards. “Battle of the Bastards” – Season 6, Episode 9.
10. Maisie Williams as Arya Stark
- Helen Sloan/HBO
Maisie Williams is the most impressive child actor on “Game of Thrones,” as well as one of the most impressive actors on the series. She got the role of Arya Stark when she was 12 years old, and we’ve watched her grow up on the show, both as a human being and a serious actress. With every season, Williams gives more depth and maturity to her performance as Arya Stark. Since season one, Williams has convincingly played an outsider who wanted a different life for herself than the one expected of her. And since then, she’s convincingly turned that around: Arya’s a dangerous killer and cannibal pie-maker, out in Westeros to avenge her family. She’s also showed she has acting chops among some of the best actors on the show – and working today – including Sean Bean (Ned Stark), Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister), Rory McCann (The Hound).
In 2016, Williams was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a drama for her performance in season six.
Best quote: “Anyone can be killed.”
Best scene: Arya slits Walder Frey’s throat while reminding him exactly who’s killing him. “The Winds of Winter” – Season 6, Episode 10.
9. Liam Cunningham as Davos Seaworth
Davos is one of the few characters that has always been likeable, will always be likeable, and literally always deserves a hug. And that’s no small feat. While he is a likeable characters on the page, Liam Cunningham brings him to life in a way that makes everyone feel safe when he’s present. Cunningham’s understated performance makes Davos’s more powerful moments all the more powerful. He’s particularly great in all his scenes with Stannis Baratheon, Shireen Baratheon, and Melisandre. In season six, Cunningham subtly shows Davos’s conflict with working alongside Melisandre, considering their differences in the past, and the subtlety throughout the season makes his confrontation about the death of Shireen more impactful.
Best quote: “I may not know the North, but I know men. They’re more or less the same in any corner of the world and even the bravest of them don’t want to see their wives and children skinned for a lost cause.”
Best scene: Davos and Jon Snow confront Melisandre about killing Shireen Baratheon. “The Winds of Winter” – Season 6, Episode 10.
8. Pedro Pascal as Oberyn Martell
While his time on the show was limited to a few episodes within one season, Pedro Pascal made Oberyn Martell one of the most memorable and lovable characters in the show’s history. Oberyn had a violent and arrogant nature, but Pascal channeled Oberyn’s charm. Combined with his thirst for getting revenge on Lannisters for their role in the murder of his sister Elia Martell, it made him a character to root for immediately, which is pretty hard to find in Westeros – and very hard to pull off within one season of television.
Best quote: “People everywhere have their differences. In some places, the highborn frown upon those of low birth. In other places, the rape and murder of women and children is considered distasteful.”
Best scene: Oberyn tells Tyrion about the day he met him when he was a baby and volunteers for fight in his trial by combat. “Mockingbird” – Season 4, Episode 7.
7. Dianna Rigg as Olenna Tyrell
Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell joined the show to provide some comedic relief, but she has proven to be so much more than that, as she’s actually one of the most powerful human beings in Westeros, despite the fall of her entire family. As Olenna Tyrell, Rigg is captivating, funny, cunning, and mysterious: You really have no idea what her intentions are, but you trust her and love her anyway. Rigg brings so much energy to her character, and brings joy in every scene, even when she’s telling Cersei that she might be the worst person she’s ever met.
In 2014 and 2015, Rigg was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding guest actress in a drama for her performance in seasons three and four, respectively.
Best quote: “The cheese will be served when I want it served, and I want it served now.”
Best scene: When she outwits Tywin Lannister by reminding him that his children Cersei and Jaime have a . . . very special relationship. “The Climb” – Season 3, Episode 6.
6. Aiden Gillen as Littlefinger/Petyr Baelish
- Helen Sloan/HBO
Littlefinger is pretty much the mastermind behind this entire show, and Aiden Gillen captures his creepiness and awfulness, yet never gives a hint as to what Littlefinger’s true intentions are. Every single scene with Littlefinger is horrifying, because you know what he’s capable of, but you never know what his next move will be. Littlefinger is responsible for the death of Jon Arryn, which was the catalyst for the entire series. He loves Catelyn, but betrayed Ned. He killed Joffrey and helped Sansa escape captivity in King’s Landing, but sent her off to Ramsay Bolton. And now that he’s in the North, he’s giving mysterious looks at Sansa and Jon Snow, so we have no idea what he’ll do to gain power up there in season seven. And Gillen won’t let us know, because he’s way too good at playing him.
Best quote: “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, are given a chance to climb. They refuse, they cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
Best scene: Sansa confronts a speechless Littlefinger about Ramsay. “The Door” – Season 6, Episode 5
5. Stephen Dillane as Stannis Baratheon
Stannis is not a likeable guy. He is actually quite annoying. He’s stubborn, obsessed with honor, and he expects everyone around him to do what he wants, believe what he believes (Melisandre), and not question him no matter what he does (letting Melisandre burn his daughter alive). But Stephen Dillane’s performance made Stannis more tolerable (especially compared to Book Stannis), and even likable at times. Dillane made Stannis one of the kings in the War of the Five Kings to root for, until he, you know, had his daughter executed so he could win a battle.
Best quote: “I hate a good many things, but I suffer them all the same.”
Best scene: At Castle Black, Stannis tells his daughter Shireen about the lengths he went to save her from greyscale and gives her a rare hug after she asks him if he’s ashamed of her, like her mother is. “Sons of the Harpy” – Season 5, Episode 4
4. Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister
- Macall B. Polay/courtesy of HBO
Tywin Lannister is a terrible and violent guy: He’s responsible for the Red Wedding, among many other things involving the murders of a lot of innocent people (AKA: letting the Mountain do whatever he wants). He will do whatever it takes for the Lannister name to keep its power and dignity. But Charles Dance played him with a charm and wit that made him appealing, especially when he challenged King Joffrey and/or Cersei.
Best quote: “Any man who must say, ‘I am the king’ is no true king. I’ll make sure you understand that when I’ve won your war for you.”
Best scene: Tywin steps up to Joffrey at the Iron Throne and tells him that he can arrange for someone to carry him to the King’s counsel meetings in the Tower of the Hand. “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” – Season 3, Episode 7.
3. Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister
As Cersei Lannister, Lena Headey has one of the most challenging roles on the entire show. She’s a villain who is sympathetic at times (when her children die, her walk of shame), but she is also one of the most ruthless villains. Headey’s performance shows Cersei’s struggle for power, and her thirst for it. She also channels Cersei’s role as a concerned mother and her distaste for every single person who is not The Mountain or Jaime, and her hatred of the way women are treated in her world.
In 2014, 2015, and 2016, Headey was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a drama.
Best quote: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Best scene: Cersei drinks a lot of wine during the battle of Blackwater Bay and tells Sansa Stark that a woman’s best weapon is between her legs. “Blackwater” – Season 2, Episode 9.
2. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister
As Jaime Lannister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau didn’t have that much to do until season three. In season one, Jaime wasn’t much more than a douchey knight who slept with his sister, and he spent the majority of season two sitting in a pile of his own waste in a prison in the Stark camp. But once Catelyn set him free with Brienne of Tarth to bring her daughters to safety, Coster-Waldau brought a humanity to Jaime that we hadn’t seen before, especially considering Jaime started out the series pushing a child out of a window for incest. Coster-Waldau perfectly captures Jaime’s devastation over losing his hand – he manages to keep Jaime both cocky and sympathetic. Coster-Waldau also subtly captures Jaime’s identity crisis: He hates that he is known as the Kingslayer, because he did it to save the entire city from the Mad King.
It is unfortunate that Coster-Waldau didn’t get an Emmy nomination for his performance in season three, and even more unfortunate that his character hasn’t had much more to do since his stunning third season.
Best quote: “There are no men like me. Only me.”
Best scene: Jaime tells Brienne why he killed the Mad King while they’re in the bath tub. “Kissed by Fire” – Season 3, Episode 5
1. Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy
Among all the actors on “Game of Thrones,” Alfie Allen has been challenged with showing the most range. Theon Greyjoy doesn’t seem like a complicated character at first, but if you dig deep into his layers, as Allen as done since season one, you get a better understanding of who Theon is, and just how good Allen is at portraying him. In seasons one and two, Theon is a incredibly cocky and even more insecure man-child who wants to please the Stark family, but also please his father who sent him away. Then Theon transforms into Reek under the captivity of Ramsay Bolton. Allen still lets you see a little bit of Theon in there, but you can still tell that he’s completely lost himself. And in season six, Allen captures Theon’s rediscovery of his identity and how years of torture under Ramsay Bolton affected him. Allen’s performance is the most underrated on the show, but it’s the best one by far.
Best quote: “It’s better to be cruel than weak.”
Best scene: Theon prepares for Winterfell to be taken after he has taken it in an inspiring speech that is interrupted by him getting knocked out by a fellow Iron born. “Valar Morghulis” – Season 2, Episode 10.