We are finally starting to get some sneak peeks at the much-anticipated Game of Thrones season 7, one of the show’s final seasons. It has become such a cultural phenomenon that during the 10 weeks it airs each year (only 7 weeks this year), it takes over the pop culture conversation.
The show is certainly epic in scope and action, but a lot of credit for its success should go to the fantastic characters brought to life by a superb cast. Sure, not everyone on the show delivers an award-worthy performance, but with a cast of this size, there is a plethora of talent in front of the camera. The question is: who gives the best performance?
Only a handful of the actors on Game of Thrones have received Emmy nominations, but as we all know, awards don’t necessarily highlight the best of the best. There's so many great performances to choose from all the actors who brought our favorite heroes, villains, warriors and schemers to life, but only one can be named the best.
Here are the 20 Best Performances On Game Of Thrones, Ranked!
20 Iwan Rheon As Ramsay Bolton
It’s not easy to play a character who is supposed to be as hated by fans as Ramsay Bolton. As an actor, you need to allow yourself to come off as a vile, despicable, loathsome human being and yet somehow make your character three-dimensional. That was the very daunting task facing Iwan Rheon during his time on the show and he managed to pull it off wonderfully.
The thing about Ramsay is that, on paper, he’s not that interesting a villain. The show was more interested in showing him do awful things than building him as a character. He could have become a cartoonish bad guy were it not for Rheon’s performance. He is such an emotive and expressive performer that he was able to bring life to the role beyond the brutality.
When it came to Ramsay’s relationship with his father, Rheon really got to explore the role and brought new layers to the character. While we certainly never sympathized with him, Rheon made Ramsay much more interesting than he was written.
19 Diana Rigg As Olenna Tyrell
In a show in which power is transferred through acts of violence, it might seem a bit preposterous that one of the most powerful players in the game is an old woman. And yet, with Diana Rigg’s performance, you never once doubted that Olenna Tyrell was the biggest power-player in the room.
Olenna was a refreshing character when she arrived on the scene. Most of the women in this world, even those who actually hold the power, remain in the background for appearances' sake. Olenna is not keen to play such games and takes full control of every conversation she has. Rigg brought so much fun energy to the role that it would be an instant joy any time she appeared on screen.
It’s not easy for an actor, even one with Rigg’s body of work, to play a character who exudes so much confidence, yet she always seems to have the upper hand. Sith her sassy put-downs and blunt talk, she is likely the closest thing to comic relief we have in the show.
18 Emilia Clarke As Daenerys Targaryen
Daenerys is without a doubt one of the most iconic characters to come out of the show and a lot of that is thanks to Emilia Clarke’s performance. If you look back at season 1 compared to season 6, it’s amazing how much she has developed the character overtime.
When the show began, Daenerys was an abused pawn to men in power, but now she is maybe the biggest player for the Iron Throne. Clarke has done an impressive job of showing the character’s growth into such a powerful position, while still making her feel grounded in those quieter moments of self-doubt. In a show in which women have little agency, Clarke has helped to shape an inspiring and iconic image of female empowerment.
The show occasionally loses its way with the character of Daenerys, sending her off on meandering and dull storylines, but when they give the character those big moments, Clarke’s talents really shine through.
17 Gwendoline Christie As Brienne
There are few noble characters in Game of Thrones, but Brienne would certainly be at the top of that shortlist. The powerful female warrior captured the hearts of fans going back to season 2 and Gwendoline Christie has became an instant fan favorite.
While female characters like Daenerys and Olenna are in positions of power, Brienne has the strength and skill to go toe-to-toe with just about any male warrior on the show. She’s already bested Jaime and The Hound in single combat, and while Christie is convincing in the action scenes, it’s her performance that really sells Brienne’s strength. Christie plays the role not as a woman acts like a man, but as a woman who knows she doesn’t need have to be pushed around by men.
From her heroism, like her loyalty to the Starks, to her heartbreaking relationship with Renly Baratheon, and her naivety of thinking every knight is as honorable as she is, Christie allows Brienne to be a badass but also be a realistically flawed hero.
16 Rory McCann As The Hound
One of the great things about the world of George R.R. Martin's books is that it sets up familiar character archetypes then inverts our expectations for them. One of the best examples is how Martin managed to flesh out the character of Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound, from a brutish goon to a complex anti-hero. And while the books helped create this character, Rory McCann brought him to life.
The Hound was always one of the toughest characters around and McCann was always convincing as the intimidating goon. It wasn’t just his imposing size, though; McCann carried himself like of a man who has made it this far in life by cutting a number of people down. Yet, he could just as easily drop that persona for some of The Hound’s more vulnerable moments. In two scenes in particular, when The Hound confronts Sansa during the Battle of Blackwater and when he confesses to Arya how he got his scar, we see a different side of him.
It’s a testament to McCann’s performance that we as an audience have come to care for this violent man over the course of the show.
15 Liam Cunningham As Davos Seaworth
Davos is a very easy character to like. Even if he’s sometimes been allied with less likable characters, Davos is an advocate for doing the right thing. It’s a lot of pressure for an actor to take play likable, but Liam Cunningham makes it look effortless.
Cunningham is a teddy bear of a man; he lets you breath a sigh of relief every time he’s on screen. Davos needs to have that calming nature to him, not only for the audience to trust him as a beacon of good, but also other characters who often heed his advice. There is precious little room for sweetness in this world, but Davos exemplifies it, especially with his relationship with young Shireen.
Cunningham perfectly sold this warm relationship between a man and his pseudo-daughter, never making it sappy but always making it feel natural. When Davos confronts Melisandre about what happened to Shireen, Cunningham packs so much grief under his anger that it’s hard not to tear up just from his emotions. He’s a fan favorite and therefore we’re all very worried for him going forward.
14 Sophie Turner As Sansa Stark
No Game of Thrones character has gone through more horrors than Sansa Stark and that presents a unique acting challenge for young Sophie Turner. To watch a character go through so much grief and pain can be pretty exhausting for an audience. What Turner does so well is make audiences believe she is strong enough to endure it.
Sansa was a victim for so long it was only a matter of time that she starting gaining agency for herself. We saw her getting stronger and becoming a great manipulator in the game. It’s a true talent as an actor to be a believable liar when the audience knows the character is lying, but Turner has perfected that. However, Turner never made Sansa’s empowerment unrealistic. Even as she started to become stronger, horrible things still happened to her and she always let Sansa’s vulnerability be seen.
It’s been quite an amazing arc for Sansa over the seasons and it will be very interesting to see where season 7 takes her, but the character will always be in good hands with Sophie Turner.
13 Iain Glen As Jorah Mormont
There are plenty of big characters on this show (both in size and personality), but there are also plenty of less flashy characters who help hold the whole thing together. Iain Glen as Jorah Mormont certainly fits into the latter category.
Glen has a suave, rugged way about him that perfectly sells him as an experienced warrior while making him an immensely watchable performer. No matter what situation Jorah happens to find himself in, Glen is always playing it with total sincerity and authenticity. He’s so reliable and valuable as a stoic presence in each scene he’s in. While it can be the butt of many “friend zone” jokes, his unrequited love with Daenerys works based solely on Glen's performance.
Watching a man pine over a girl half his age for season after season sounds more creepy than anything, but Glen always sold Jorah’s love of Daenerys as genuine and much more than a physical attraction. His time on the show is likely coming to an end but we can always appreciate him as one of the show’s most solid performers.
12 Pedro Pascal As Oberyn Martell
It’s a challenge for any actor to stan dout on a show of this size, but when you’re only given a season to do it, it becomes that much more impressive when it's pulled off. Pedro Pascal certainly was up to the challenge when he was introduced as Oberyn Martell.
Oberyn was a character that the audience had to immediately like. He had to be charming, threatening, and someone we would all cheer for. From the very first scene in which Oberyn was introduced in the brothel, it was clear Pascal was the right man for the job. Pascal came in and stole scenes from characters who had been there since season one. He had a swashbuckling energy to him but was equally effective in quieter moments.
The scene in which Oberyn speaks to Tyrion about visiting him when the youngest Lannister was just a baby showed a deeper, more sympathetic side to Oberyn. Yes, he’s a warrior and arrogant, but he ultimately believes in seeing justice served. It was largely due to Pascal’s performance that Oberyn’s death was such a shocking moment.
11 Conleth Hill As Varys
Playing a character whose motivations purposely unclear is a daunting task for an actor. Even now, going into the show’s seventh season, Varys is still very much a mystery. Despite the challenges of the role, Conleth Hill has nevertheless given this enigma a lot of humanity.
Hill’s performance has always benefited from being enormously charming. Even when we were unsure of his allegiance, Hill managed to make us like Varys. He’s clever, calm, reasonable, and kind (even if it’s all an act). Hill seems to relish those scenes in which he goes head-to-head with the show’s other talented actors, especially the great passive-aggressive conversations he shares with Baelish.
Hill's delivery of his eloquent speeches rank among the best scenes in the show, particularly his monologue to Tyrion about how he became a eunuch. While his backstory and motivations remain foggy, Hill has always made Varys one of the show’s most interesting characters.
10 Maisie Williams As Arya Stark
Child actors can really make or break a show, especially when they play such large roles, but Game of Thrones has done a remarkable job finding young actors of immense talent and Maisie Williams is best example of that.
While some of the young actors on the show have improved as they age, Williams has been giving an amazing performance right from the beginning. She was instantly charming when she appeared and quickly stole everyone’s heart. While playing a cute tomboy may not seem like the hardest role, Williams never overplays it. She always plays Arya as someone who thinks is tougher than she actually is. As we see Arya develop more and more into a killer, Williams continues to keep the character grounded.
Most impressive is when Williams shares a scene with more established actors. Arya is not one to shy away from a confrontation so she has many intense one-on-one scenes and has held her own with the likes of Sean Bean, Rory McCann, and Charles Dance. Not bad for a kid.
9 Sean Bean As Ned Stark
Ned Stark is very much the heart of the show. While his time was short, even after he was gone, Ned managed to cast a large shadow over everything. Sean Bean’s performance was a big part of why we still talk about Ned Stark today.
Ned was not a perfect man. He made a lot of costly mistakes, but Bean always made us respect the man and want to see him get out of trouble. Playing a character who has such rigid values can come off as being stubborn, but Bean played him with a heartbreaking belief that the honorable way would prevail. He also made us believe the history behind the character. We believed he was a man who had been in too many wars and was filled with regret, guilt and bitterness. Still, he was a man who ultimately put family above all else.
Although Game of Thrones is doing just fine without him, Bean’s presence is still very much missed on the show, which speaks highly of how effective his performance was. Of course, he left us with another great death scene.
8 Kit Harrington As Jon Snow
Game of Thrones is certainly an ensemble piece, but arguably the last few years have turned Jon Snow into the main character and Kit Harrington into the show’s star.
In the earlier seasons, Harrington received some criticism suggesting he might not have the chops to handle such an important character. As Jon developed as a character, though, Harrington proved he was up to the challenge and let his talents be known.
Certainly, he’s given one of the more physical roles, appearing in most on the show’s biggest action scenes, but he’s also been great at conveying Jon’s journey as a leader. Jon keeps a lot of things internal and Harrington sells those quiet moments of doubt and fear very convincingly.
The show didn’t handle Jon’s resurrection well but Harrington was able to show a change in Jon even if the material didn’t help. It’s not easy to carry the weight of a show as Jon Snow does, but Harrington continues to succeed at it, giving depth to a character who could have easily been a dull good guy.
7 Alfie Allen As Theon Greyjoy
One of the great things about Game of Thrones is how secondary characters can suddenly take a more substantial role as the series progresses. Theon Greyjoy has come a long way since his introduction as Robb’s bratty right-hand man, but Alfie Allen has always been one of the show's strongest performers.
Allen really embraced the unlikable qualities of Theon in the early seasons but always showed a hint of insecurity that made him intriguing. Once his role was expanded in the second season with the introduction of his family, Allen became one of the show's standouts. Even when he spent an entire season getting tortured, Allen gave an authentic and powerful performance.
His role has changed so much over the seasons from losing all his identity and slowly gaining it back, Allen has maybe had the most dramatic material on the show and he’s never disappointed. It’s unclear where the character of Theon will go in the seasons to come, but it’s safe to say Allen will make it compelling.
6 Charles Dance As Tywin Lannister
Tywin Lannister is one of the most overpowering characters in a show full of intimidating figures. The show was therefore very lucky to get such an accomplished actor like Charles Dance for the role, as he seemed to effortlessly command every scene he was in.
Tywin didn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities, yet Dance was able to play him with such a compelling and alluring quality that you can almost say you liked him. It also helped that he was one of the few characters who had no qualms about putting Joffrey in his place. It was the unexpected moments in which Tywin let his guard down that Dance’s performance really shined through.
The scenes Tywin shared with Arya in season 2 explored his obsession with keeping the Lannister legacy, and likewise, the scene in which he tells Tyrion about the day he was born helps to explain what drives his horrific acts. He’s cold and calculating but Dance always makes his motivations clear, and even understandable.
5 Michelle Fairley As Catelyn Stark
When Game of Thrones was first cast, Jennifer Ehle was given the role of Catelyn Stark before dropping out. While Ehle is a great actress, it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the character better than Michelle Fairley.
Early on in the show, Fairley established Catelyn as a loving mother who wants nothing more than to keep her family together. She’s not looking to rule; she’s not looking to do the right thing; she just wants her children to be safe. It’s that dedication, and Fairley’s raw emotion concerning her family, that make Cat one of the most heartbreaking characters in the show.
In many scenes, Fairley was so moving by showing perfectly the pain a wife and mother would feel in these situations. The grief she displays when trying to convince Ned to stay in Winterfell, the regret she shows when speaking of her hatred for Jon Snow and the utter anguish she experiences at the Red Wedding offer some of the show's most gut-wrenching moments. Fairley gave it her all in these emotionally devastating scenes and broke our hearts every time.
4 Nikoliaj Coster-Waldau As Jaime Lannister
Few could have predicted (apart from the book readers) that Jaime Lannister, the character who tried to kill a child in the first episode, would become one of the show’s most popular characters. It’s a fascinating character journey and Nikoliaj Coster-Waldau has sold it in every moment.
Plenty of shows have tried to make villains into heroes and it rarely works because it doesn’t seem organic. Coster-Waldau sells Jaime’s arc by making us want to believe Jamie has always been a relatively good man buried under the shame of his reputation. We see flashes of Jaime’s conflicted nature in early seasons, but the real change comes when he loses his hand, and then Coster-Waldau really explores the depths of this character.
The scene where a newly humbled Jaime tells Brienne how he earned the title “Kingslayer” is the perfect example of how Coster-Waldau expertly plays the complicated aspects of Jaime.He's a man bitter about how he’s perceived while haunted by the fact they might be right about him. Watching Coster-Waldau explore Jaime’s fight to find his place in the world has been one of the best parts of the show.
3 Stephen Dillane As Stannis Baratheon
It could be argued that Stephen Dillane had the hardest job on Game of Thrones. Stannis was never going to be a fun character; by reputation he is rigid, dull, and unemotional. Yet even with so little to work with, Dillane managed to give one of the show’s best performances.
Dillane is an actor of great gravitas, which served him well in this stoic and reserved role. Stannis was a man of few words, but Dillane could do so much with those silent moments. It’s a challenge for an actor to show genuine, believable emotion, but it’s even harder to show repressed emotion. Stannis didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but Dillane was able to show those fleeting, almost internal moments of frustration, amusement, awkwardness, and regret. In the scene in which Brienne confronts Stannis, before he speaks his final words, you can see just such a range of emotions pass across his face in a manner of seconds.
Dillane is one of the most underrated aspects of the show. He played a character few people like and did it with a performance devoid of any showiness. In that respect he was the perfect man for the job.
2 Lena Heady As Cersei Lannister
Few characters have gone through as many rises and falls as Cersei, and Heady’s immense talents have made the character’s journey all the more compelling. While she does have a thirst for power, you could argue she does it all for the love of her children. It’s amazing how Heady can make us believe this woman is the world’s most loving mother while also being one of the most evil people in the world.
Perhaps most impressive of all is how much Heady can make us feel for Cersei, even after all this time. The “Walk of Shame” sequence was such an important moment for the character and Heady really sells it. As it begins, we’re happy to see Cersei get her comeuppance, but as her calm, proud demeanor starts to fade, we actually begin to feel sorry for her. It's an absolute tour-de-force performance.
1 Peter Dinklage As Tyrion Lannister
Tyrion Lannister is the type of compelling and complex character that any actor would want to sink their teeth into, but it’s also the kind of character who can fall flat in the hands of the wrong actor. Lucky for the show, and for us, the great Peter Dinklage plays the role.
From the beginning, Dinklage stole the show. In one of the biggest casts in television, he made Tyrion stand out. He was funny, witty, and just flawed enough to feel real. As the show went on we began to see more sides of the character and Dinklage helped shape Tyrion into the show’s most tragic figure. He’s a man born to most powerful family in the world, but it’s a family that will never accepted him.
There has likely not been a better acting moment on the show than Tyrion’s explosive speech during the trial for Joffrey’s murder. Dinklage brings us along with him through every emotion, from shock, to heartbreak, to anger and finally an oddly triumphant moment of defiance.
The show has many wonderful characters and exceptional actors, but Game of Thrones would never have been what it is today with Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister.
Game of Thrones returns on Sunday, July 16, 2017 on HBO.
Who is your favorite actor on Game of Thrones? Let us know in the comments!