Via titles, costumes, and scripts, Game of Thrones tells us who its most fearsome fighters are supposed to be. When we meet Ser Arthur Dayne at the Tower of Joy in Season 6, for instance, we see his sleek kingsguard armor and dual-wielded swords, and we hear Bran tell the Three-Eyed Raven, “Father said he was the best swordsman he ever saw.” The Three-Eyed Raven, in turn, tells Bran that Ser Arthur was a “far better” fighter than Ned. Thus, even before the first blow lands, we’re primed to believe that this virtual stranger (to non-book readers) is a badass, even if his title, “Sword of the Morning,” sounds like a euphemism for a condition that men often wake up with when they have to pee.
Practiced eyes often see something different from us easily misled laypeople. One such pair of practiced eyes belongs to my soon-to-be-brother-in-law, Alec Barbour, a fight director (also known as a fight choreographer or fight coordinator) and an advanced actor/combatant with the Society of American Fight Directors—that is, the type of person who would work on a show like Thrones and ensure that the fight scenes are both entertaining and moderately realistic. Alec has trained in fencing, Wing Tsun kung fu, and kickboxing, and he’s been directing fights for theater for about a decade. (Here’s what he looks like in action.) To his credit, he’s never threatened to throttle me with a quarterstaff if I do anything to hurt his sister, although I don’t doubt that he could. He has, however, expressed some well-informed opinions about combat on Game of Thrones.
Although Thrones is acclaimed by experts and fighting neophytes alike for its big battles, the show has received more middling reviews from the stage-combat community for its smaller-scale fights. Alec has argued that Thrones hasn’t devoted its usual painstaking attention to those scenes because they’re so often diversions from the real draws of storytelling and characterization, in contrast to more fight-centric shows such as Daredevil and Vikings, which weave plot into their combat in the way that modern musicals seamlessly incorporate songs. Alec believes that fight scenes of all sizes in Thrones have become more convincing in recent seasons, but with a 65-episode back catalog, there’s plenty of bad to go with the good.
With that variable combat quality in mind, I asked Alec to rank the best and worst warriors on Game of Thrones, in terms of how effective and realistic their fighting technique appears from a fight director’s perspective. Seven is a special number in Westeros, so with apologies to Pod, Bronn, Sers Loras and Barristan, and other (in Alec’s words) “middle-of-the-road” warriors who didn’t make the cut, we present the best seven and worst seven fighters on Game of Thrones, accompanied by Alec’s (lightly edited and condensed) comments and critiques.
Top Seven Fighters Featured on Game of Thrones
7. Tyrion Lannister
Fight Director’s Verdict: Tyrion doesn’t fight often, but when he does, it’s pure gold. The moment that settled it for me was when he beat a brigand to death with the edge of a shield in Season 1, as his friendship with Bronn was still forming. Grabbing a nearby object and wielding it with force is a smart, improvisational mid-battle move, and that sort of shield (a kite or heater shield) makes for a fitting weapon. Tyrion is brutal, effective, and totally committed, and I’d want him on my side of a fight every time.
6. The Hound
Fight Director’s Verdict: Clegane the younger has never been an inspiring fighter, but he has been remarkably consistent. He knows his strengths (namely, strength) and he applies it liberally, never failing to keep his huge sword moving. His standout fight was the Battle of Blackwater Bay, in which he held the beach largely on his own until his fear of fire took him out of the action, allowing our seventh seed to save the day (for a while).
5. Oberyn Martell
Fight Director’s Verdict: Oh, what might have been. One could accuse Oberyn’s flashy style of being more flowery than practical, but during his trial by combat with the Mountain, there was never a doubt in my mind that his spear would find its mark. Using a long-reach, unpredictable weapon against a larger, more powerful opponent is sound martial science, approved of by everyone from medieval jousters to Bruce Lee; hit first and often, and you’ll steal the force of the counterstroke every time. If only he’d remembered to work on his endgame.
4. Syrio Forel
Fight Director’s Verdict: Ah, Syrio, we hardly knew ye. First, everything Syrio taught Arya in the brief time they were together was excellent, easily superseding her later training at the House of Black and White. Second, Syrio’s on-screen fighting style—the look of which was crafted by legendary British sword-master William Hobbes, who choreographed amazing fights for Rob Roy, The Duellists, and The Three Musketeers, among other films—was our first introduction to water dancing, and I far prefer his style, which is solidly grounded in historical rapier fencing, to the altogether-too-showy juggling style we were introduced to by Jorah’s Season 5 opponent in the fighting pits of Meereen. When Syrio, armed only with a wooden sword, took on five men armored and armed with steel, we knew we were watching a master.
3. Brienne of Tarth
Fight Director’s Verdict: If there’s a “Most Improved Fighter” award in Westeros, it should go to Brienne. I found her early work uninspiring at best, and her fight with Jaime Lannister on the bridge was particularly disappointing (more on that later). But starting in Season 4, Brienne has looked like a different person. Her every move has taken on a degree of lethality, declaring that this is a woman who knows what she’s doing. Her recent fight with Arya in the courtyard at Winterfell was a joy to watch, as she showed that size and strength do not necessarily translate into clumsiness.
2. Arya Stark
Fight Director’s Verdict: Arya’s penchant for killing has been apparent from the beginning. I still have mixed feelings about the water-dancing variant shown in Meereen in Season 5, but in her fight with Brienne, Arya thoroughly sells Syrio’s style. She knows exactly how to use a smaller sword against a larger one. Watch the fight closely: She never simply blocks Brienne’s sword, but always either beats it away or deflects it at an angle. Movie lovers may be reminded of Tim Roth from the final fight in Rob Roy; here’s hoping Arya doesn’t meet a similar fate.
1. Jon Snow
Fight Director’s Verdict: From the beginning of the series, Jon Snow has stood out as a consistently skilled fighter. There’s nothing novel about his style. He sticks to classic cinematic longsword technique: wide stance, knees bent, with both hands holding the sword most of the time. (Aragorn should come to mind.) We first got a good sense of what Jon could do while he defended Castle Black against the wildlings in Season 4, and his no-holds-barred beatdown of Ramsay Bolton during the Battle of the Bastards made for some of the most satisfying television of all time. But Jon’s defining moment came in his duel with a White Walker at Hardhome, when he looked gloriously shocked that Longclaw, his Valyrian steel sword, was able to meet the Walker’s weapon without shattering, and wasted no time in returning the attack. It was a fantastic reversal, and fantastic storytelling, conveyed through a fantastic fighter.
Bottom Seven Fighters Featured on Game of Thrones
7. Arthur Dayne
Fight Director’s Verdict: This one will be controversial, but hear me out. Arthur Dayne was obviously an expert swordsman. He fought off five men single- (or, rather, double-) handedly at the Tower of Joy, only falling after being stabbed in the back by an injured Howland Reed. But while Prince Oberyn could be accused of impractical showmanship, Arthur Dayne is actually guilty of it. A case can be made that his decision to fight with a pair of longswords (on the show, but not in the books) made some amount of sense at the time, but his every move seemed calculated to show how skilled he was, rather than to defeat his opponents, as if in the NBA Finals the Warriors had decided to play like the Harlem Globetrotters. There’s no place for showmanship when you’re fighting for your life.
6. The Mountain
Fight Director’s Verdict: Clegane the-even-bigger has a terrifying reputation, but post-Frankenstein-ization appearance aside, I struggle to understand exactly why. He may have been the size of a mountain, but he also moved with the speed of one, falling into the unfortunate (and usually untrue) stereotype that “enormous and strong” also implies “slow.” In his famed fight with Oberyn, he used an oversized, obviously terribly balanced sword (a hollow ring pommel on a six-foot-long sword, really?) and frequently overswung as a result, making awkward prods at his swifter and much more skilled opponent. Clearly, things changed once the Mountain got his hands on Oberyn, but the fact remains that the way Gregor fought seemed calculated to show his strength, rather than to win.
5. Jaime Lannister
Fight Director’s Verdict: Even before losing his hand, Jaime made a pretty poor showing of himself. The first time we saw him fight, against Ned Stark, his performance was inoffensive, if uninspired. But his fight against Brienne made it impossible for me to take him seriously. There was a series of yield parries (in which blade-to-blade contact is maintained while a fighter redirects an opponent’s attack) during which he pulls Brienne’s blade across his own face. A moment later he switches to an underhand grip on his sword and swings wildly in a series of downward strokes; this is no more practical than trying to swing a baseball bat the same way. Ultimately, one of the most celebrated fighters in Westeros ends up looking like a rank amateur, although admittedly, being imprisoned and poorly fed for a year didn’t set him up for success. Between his captivity and his subsequent dismemberment, we never got a glimpse of Jaime in his prime.
4. 3. 2. The Sand Snakes
Fight Director’s Verdict: For all their father’s awesomeness, these three never
gave the impression that they could fight their way out of a paper bag. The idea of a group of misfit sisters, each with their own unique fighting style, is appealing, but the Sand Snakes evidently spent too much time making their styles distinct, and not enough making them effective. Nymeria’s whip is not a real weapon, especially on a boat—the cat o’ nine tails was invented because ordinary whips were too long to swing on a ship without getting tangled in the rigging. (Hence the phrase “room to swing a cat.”) Obara constantly twirled her spear to no effect, and Tyene’s daggers were a poor choice in a world where almost everyone carries a sword. Each of these weapons may have its place, but relying on any one of them exclusively makes you a gimmick, not a fighter. The Sand Snakes’ duel with Bronn and Jaime, in which the three of them failed to gain an advantage on one soldier and a man missing his dominant hand, is proof of their inflated reputation.
1. The Unsullied
Fight Director’s Verdict: For my money, the most overrated fighters in Westeros (or Essos) are the Unsullied, Game of Thrones’ answer to elite shield and spear regiments like the Spartans from 300 (and history) or the Myrmidons from Troy (and mythology). Unfortunately, in the Season 5 episode “Sons of the Harpy,” the narrative demanded that they be tricked and slaughtered, and the so-called best soldiers in the world were left holding the idiot ball.
By my count, seven Unsullied are lured into a narrow alley and are promptly surrounded by about twice that number of Sons of the Harpy. These are mask-wearing, dagger-wielding former aristocrats. And our elite, rigorously drilled, and insensitive-to-pain fighting machine immediately breaks ranks and falls into a confused melee, in which their training counts for nothing. What drives me crazy about this fight is that this is exactly the sort of situation where the Unsullied should have excelled. Had they locked shields and fought as we’re told they usually do, they could have withstood the Sons of the Harpy until the Long Night came. Instead, an apparent lack of creativity transformed the allegedly peerless Unsullied into red shirts before our eyes.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.