What is Game of Thrones?
In the four years since Game of Thrones premiered, phrases like "winter is coming" and "valar morghulis" have entered the American lexicon, leaving fans eager for the Sunday-night show full of backstabbing, bloodletting, and fiery dragons. The fifth season is currently showing on HBO. Whether you need a refresher on the insanity of the last three seasons, or haven't seen a single episode and missed every battle, we've got you covered. Read along to prepare yourself for the Iron Throne.
What the show is all about
Game of Thrones is an HBO series that tells the story of a medieval country's civil war. The series, which premiered in April 2011, is set on the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos in a world where seasons stretch on for years. When the story begins, a decade-long summer is ending, and winter looms as characters battle to claim the "Iron Throne," the seat of the king of the Seven Kingdoms, the regime that rules all but the northern tip of Westeros. In show parlance, "sit on the Iron Throne" is a metonym equivalent to "rule Westeros."
The show is divided into three major plot lines. The first covers the battle between the lords of the continent of Westeros — most notably members of the Baratheon, Lannister, and Stark families — who are involved in the fight for the Iron Throne. The second follows the rise of Daenerys Targaryen, the last member of an exiled family as she builds an army in Essos to reclaim the throne. The third plot takes place in the North of Westeros among the Night's Watch, an armed unit that guards the 300-mile-long, 70-foot-tall wall that protects the rest of the continent from the mythical creatures that lurk there.
The show has an ensemble cast that includes Peter Dinklage — who won an Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister — Lena Headey, Natalie Dormer, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Aidan Gillen, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Charles Dance, and Maisie Williams.
When is it on?
The fifth season of Game of Thrones premiered on April 12, 2015. It airs Sunday nights at 9 pm Eastern on HBO.
As Queen Cersei says in season one, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground."
*Be forewarned. This explainer is littered with spoilers through the end of season 4.*
Where did the show come from?
The story told in Game of Thrones was adapted by series writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss from George R. R. Martin's fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin published the first book of the series, Game of Thrones, in 1996. The book was originally intended to be the first part of a trilogy, each following one of the three major plot lines, but as Martin wrote, the story expanded into what he now expects to be a seven-book series.
Martin's novels are not light reads. All five published books are more than 700 pages long, and in the course of the story Martin names more than 1,000 characters. The books are filled with blood, revenge, and sex. Martin kills off prominent favorite characters without flinching, and reveals the hidden inner workings of a society built on violence.
The series started off with a small fan base, but as Martin published more books and the scope of his fantasy world grew larger, so did the popularity of his story. Today, Martin's novels have been translated into 20 languages and have sold more than 24 million copies in the United States alone. The HBO series is only one of many spinoffs from Martin's epic tale, including a comic book, video games, and many historical prequels.
What are the basic plot points I need to know going into season five?
To understand the important moments of the first four seasons, let's break the story into its three major plot lines:
The lords of Westeros
First, let's look at the fight to claim the Iron Throne taking place among the major families of Westeros. The most important families to know are the Baratheons, the Lannisters, and the Starks. These are the families most involved in the battle for the Iron Throne.
As season one began, the Baratheons and Lannisters ruled together — King Robert Baratheon was married to Queen Cersei Lannister. But a problem soon arose. It turned out that Cersei was having an affair with her twin brother, Jaime Lannister — and that all of Robert's supposed children, including his heir, Joffrey, were actually fathered by Jaime. To keep this from becoming known, Cersei arranged Robert's murder and crowned teenager Joffrey king. His army is made up of Lannister forces, and his lead adviser is his grandfather, Tywin Lannister — the true ruler of Westeros.
When word of Joffrey's true parentage leaked out, Robert's younger brother, Stannis Baratheon, decided that the throne truly belonged to him. Much of season two portrayed the war between Stannis and the Lannisters, and it ended with a Lannister victory. Stannis and the remaining Baratheons then spend most of subsequent seasons listening to a witch-like woman who reads their future in fire. This has somehow failed to win them back the throne, so far.
Then there are the Starks, the beloved main characters whom viewers got to know well in season one, before most of them were brutally murdered. Eddard (Ned for short) Stark served as King Robert's chief adviser in season one. He discovered the truth about Joffrey's parentage, but lost his power struggle with the Lannisters and was publicly beheaded. Ned's son Robb rose up in rebellion and waged war against the Lannisters in seasons two and three. Though he won many individual battles, the Lannisters retained the upper hand in the war.
At the end of season three, Robb's own men betrayed him — he, his mother, Catelyn, and his pregnant wife, Talisa, were all killed. The Starks have now effectively lost all their power, and the surviving Stark children are scattered around the continent, either prisoners or in hiding.
Season four began with Joffrey having consolidated his hold on the Iron Throne and exploring an emerging love with soon-to-be queen Margaery Tyrell. By the end of the season, though, Joffrey is dead, and his younger brother Tommen sits on the Throne (and is about to wed Margaery). The Starks are even more divided, and Stannis Baratheon is leading a charge to take over the Iron Throne through the north of Westeros.
The last Targaryen
Before the series began, the Targaryen family reigned over Westeros for hundreds of years. The final Targaryen to hold the Iron Throne, Aerys II, was dubbed the "Mad King" for very sound reasons (he had a particular penchant for burning enemies alive). He was assassinated by Jaime Lannister, which led to the Targaryens' loss of the throne.
The Mad King's children fled to the continent of Essos. The series opened 17 years later, as Viserys Targaryen tried to win an eastern tribal army to his side, so he could retake the Iron Throne. Viserys arranged to marry off his sister Daenerys to the tribe's leader, Khal Drogo. But after a series of reversals in season one, both Viserys and Drogo ended up dead, and most of the army dispersed — until Daenerys managed to hatch three live dragons from eggs. This was quite a surprise, since dragons had been thought extinct.
With manipulation and dragonfire, Daenerys conquered three cities on the eastern continent — freeing each city's slave class — and acquired a strong and devout army to fight with her on her quest to retake the Iron Throne. Daenerys is nicknamed "Dany" and often referred as "Khaleesi," an honorific in one of the show's several invented languages. At the beginning of season five she is in Meereen ruling over its people, with her dragons locked away in a dungeon.
North of the wall
The northern border of Westeros is marked by a gigantic wall of ice. The wall is guarded by the brothers of the Night's Watch, who swear a vow of complete devotion to defend the southern kingdoms from threats beyond the wall. One threat they guard against is the wildlings — the native (human) people who live far north, eschew political authority and private property, and are viewed as savages by those in the south.
Yet there's another, more dangerous threat beyond the wall — the White Walkers, creatures of ice and winter that can reanimate the dead. Most people in the south are unaware of magic's existence and believe the White Walkers to be creatures of legend, gone for thousands of years. But the show has made clear that they exist, and that they're coming.
The main character in this plot line is Jon Snow, the bastard child of the Stark family. He has had a few brief encounters with White Walkers but has spent most of his time so far dealing with the human wildlings. He infiltrated the wildling army and had an affair with a wildling woman, but at the end of season three he returned to the Night's Watch.
Season four put a lot of focus onto this plot, as the wildlings attacked the wall in an attempt to move south of the wall for protection. Jon Snow remained the main character of this plot line, but by the start of season five he has been joined by Stannis Baratheon, who hoped to recruit the wildlings into his army.
Which territories does each family control?
At the start of season five, the show's main families are widely spread out. Stannis Baratheon is currently at the wall (which is at the absolute north of the western continent on this map) with Jon Snow.
What's left of the Stark family is spread all over. Arya is in Braavos trying to fend for herself. Sansa is with Littlefinger; they are currently at the Vale of Arryn, which is right below "the Fingers" on this map.
The Lannisters are also divided. Tommen Baratheon (son of Cersei) sits on the Throne and is engaged to Margaery Tyrell. Cersei and Jaime are still in King's Landing tending to the kingdom; Tywin is dead after Tyrion shot him in the chest. And the last we saw Tyrion, he was boarding a ship, presumably to the east.
Daenerys Targaryen has conquered several cities on the eastern continent in her quest to sit on the Iron Throne. She is currently in the city of Meereen, which is the city at the very south of this map, far to the east. As you can see, she still has a long way to go to return to Westeros.
Who are the main characters in Game of Thrones?
New fans of Game of Thrones often complain about the enormous number of characters to keep straight. While it's true that the show has hundreds of characters, there are only a few who truly matter. Many of the characters on the show are so supplementary that many viewers don't even know their names.
Even with all of those characters removed, however, there are too many to list on a single page. We will break them down by houses over a series of cards. The list includes:
- The Starks
- The Lannisters
- The Baratheons
- The Tyrells
- The Greyjoys
- The Targaryens
Who are the Starks?
Eddard "Ned" Stark
The honorable and kind Ned (played by Sean Bean) was the main character of season one. He ruled the Stark homeland in the north but traveled south to serve as the main advisor to then–King Robert Baratheon, his old friend. But Ned wasn't cut out for the schemes and treacheries at play in the capital city. After Robert died, Ned lost a power struggle with the Lannisters and was publicly beheaded in front of his daughters, Arya and Sansa.
Ned's eldest son, Robb (Richard Madden), gathered an army and rose up in rebellion against the Lannisters, trying to win the independence of his kingdom. Robb turned out to be quite skilled in battle, winning several important victories, but he was less adept politically. Robb had pledged to marry the daughter of a key ally, but fell in love with a battlefield nurse and decided to marry her instead. At the end of season three, he was betrayed and murdered by several of his subordinates who decided to join the Lannisters' side, and his army was destroyed.
Ned's widow, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), assists her son Robb in his fight with the Lannisters in seasons two and three. She was particularly focused on trying to free her daughter Sansa from captivity in King's Landing. She was murdered along with Robb.
Arya — Ned and Catelyn's third child and youngest daughter — has never been good at being a lady. She learned to sword-fight in the first two seasons and spends a significant amount of time pretending to be a boy so she can travel on foot back to her family. But now that her parents and older brother are dead, it's not clear she has anywhere to go. As of season five, she is still nomadic and headed across the sea to the east. She is played by Maisie Williams.
Sansa (Sophie Turner), the second child of Ned and Catelyn, remained captive in King's Landing after her father was executed. She was originally engaged to marry King Joffrey, but the Lannisters called off the engagement so he could marry Margaery Tyrell instead. After a tumultuous betrothal period, she ended up in a loveless arranged marriage to Tyrion Lannister. After that ended, she found herself under the thumb of the sly Littlefinger at the Vale.
After being pushed from a tall tower at the end of the first episode of the series (because he walked in on Lannister siblings Cersei and Jaime having sex), Bran (played by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is paralyzed from the waist down. Luckily, he is a "warg," which allows him to possess the minds of animals and sometimes other humans. He's also had mysterious visions of a three-eyed raven, and dreams that predict the future. At the end of season three, he crossed a secret passage beneath the wall to head to the frozen north, where he believes his destiny lies. During season four he experienced many visions, learned to see through others' eyes, and visited a magical tree. He is not expected to appear in season five but should return in season six.
The least prominent and youngest Stark child, Rickon (played by Art Parkinson), traveled with Bran for a time. It was too dangerous for him to go north of the wall, so he left his brother and sought protection elsewhere in the north. He has yet to reappear but is presumably safe.
Jon (played by Kit Harington) is the bastard son of Ned Stark. He is currently a member of the Night's Watch, which he briefly abandoned to go on an undercover mission among the wildlings. The identity of Jon Snow's mother remains a mystery.
Who are the Lannisters?
The widow of King Robert Baratheon, Cersei (played by Lena Heady) is known for her incestuous relationship with her twin brother, Jaime. She works best behind the scenes, manipulating every situation to her advantage.
The Lannisters won the war against the Baratheons in season two because of Tyrion's cunning skill. He is one of the most intelligent, crafty characters on the show. He is often called a "half man" because he is a dwarf. He marries Sansa Stark, but the marriage is later dissolved. He frequently comes into conflict with his own family, especially his domineering father, sister, and kingly nephew. As of the end of season four, Tyrion has killed the love of his life, divorced Sansa, shot and killed his father, and fled Westeros for parts unknown. He is played by Peter Dinklage.
Jaime (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is known as the "kingslayer" for his murder of the "Mad King" before the series began. He was recently a captive of the Stark family, and on his way back to King's Landing after release, he lost one of his hands. In season three, he returned to the capital city and was reunited with his family. Little of importance has happened to him since then.
Tywin (played by Charles Dance) is the father of Tyrion, Jaime, and Cersei and head of the Lannister family. He ran the family's war with the Starks, and while he is on good terms with Cersei and Jaime, he loathes Tyrion, largely because Tywin's late wife died birthing Tyrion. Tywin died in the season finale of season four when Tyrion shot him with a crossbow.
Joffrey (played by Jack Gleeson) is the Justin Bieber of Westeros. He's too young to be king, has too much power at his disposal, and has floppy blonde hair. He claims to be the son of King Robert Baratheon, but his true father is his mother's brother, Jaime Lannister. In season four, he was crowned king of Westeros, but on his wedding day to Margaery Tyrell he was poisoned and died.
Myrcella and Tommen Baratheon
Myrcella (played by Aimee Richardson and later Nell Tiger Free) and Tommen (played by Callum Wharry and later Dean-Charles Chapman) are Joffrey's siblings and Cersei and Jaime's children (though publicly they are believed to be Robert Baratheon's). Myrcella was shipped to another kingdom for a political marriage. With Joffrey dead, Tommen is now on the Iron Throne.
Who are the Baratheons?
Stannis (Stephen Dillan) is the the late King Robert's younger brother. He knows Joffrey was a child of incest and tried to use that knowledge to claim the throne. But his attempt to take the capital failed, and he lost most of his army. At the end of season four he arrives at the Wall to assist the Night's Watch in its battle against the wildlings.
Melisandre of Asshai
Melisandre (Carice van Houten) is a lead advisor to Stannis. A fire priestess of the Lord of Light — the god of fire — she has visions of the future and has demonstrated some magical powers.
The youngest brother of Stannis and Robert, Renly (Gethin Anthony) made a brief play for the Iron Throne after Robert's death. He was eventually assassinated by Stannis and Melisandre, through magical means. He was previously married to Margaery before his death.
The late king of Westeros was an important character on the show in the first season. He led the rebellion that deposed the Targaryen dynasty, but spent most of his reign drinking and sleeping with whores. He was married to Cersei. Robert dies in season one while on a hunting expedition. He was played by Mark Addy.
Who are the Tyrells?
Maergaery (Natalie Dormer) was Joffrey's betrothed. She is also the widow of Renly Baratheon — but her brother, Loras, was Renly's lover. Margaery was the only person able to manipulate Joffrey, but now that Joffrey is dead, Margaery is double-widowed and engaged to marry King Tommen.
Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) is the brother of Margaery Tyrell and a skilled jouster and swordsman. His claim to fame is beating Jaime Lannister in a jousting tournament. Loras was the close friend and lover of Margaery's first husband, Renly Baratheon, before Renly died. Loras is currently engaged to Cersei Lannister, but that marriage seems unlikely to happen.
Olena Tyrell (Diana Rigg) is the elderly matriarch of House Tyrell and a true master of manipulation. She's expected to appear again in season five.
Another Tyrell worth knowing is patriarch Mace Tyrell, played on the series by Roger Ashton-Griffiths.
Who are the Greyjoys?
Theon (Alfie Allen) began the series as a hostage of Ned Stark's because his father, Balon Greyjoy, had earlier led a failed uprising against King Robert. Theon became a close friend of Ned's son Robb, but eventually turned on the Starks when his father wanted to launch a new rebellion. He seized the Stark family castle, Winterfell, in season two, but his rule was vicious and incompetent, and he ended up losing everything.
Theon spent season three getting tortured by a new character, Ramsay Snow. (Ramsay is the bastard son of a northern lord — all bastards born in the north are given the surname "Snow," so Ramsay bears no known relation to Jon Snow.) Ramsay's family, the Boltons, carried out their own betrayal of the Starks, and won control of the north. Theon is still with the Boltons at the end of season four, though he is now known as "Reek."
Theon's father (played by Patrick Malahide) and sister, Yara (Gemma Whelan), are also minor characters on the show.
Who are the Targaryens?
Daenerys (played by Emilia Clarke) is the queen ("Khaleesi") of her people and the lead character of the show's third major plot line. She's easily recognizable by her intricately braided white-blonde hair and her pet dragons, which she hatched from eggs. Her father was the Mad King, the last Targaryen to hold the Iron Throne. Now, as the last living Targaryen, she wants to retake the throne for herself. She's currently on a separate continent from most of the other characters, and is in the process of freeing the slaves of that continent's cities.
Her now-dead brother, Viserys (Harry Lloyd), and husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), were both important characters in the show's first season.
Who else should I know?
So many people! One of George R. R. Martin's greatest strengths is the complexity of his minor characters. Even people who might never have a chapter told from their perspective in the books can grow into monumentally important figures. Here are a few very important unaffiliated characters to know.
Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger)
Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) owns a brothel in King's Landing and seems to be connected to absolutely everyone. He has a massive spy network that keeps him updated on everything going on in the city and the realm. He marries Lysa Arryn in season four, then promptly murders her, which leaves him in charge of her son and Sansa Stark, who travels with him.
The ultimate spy of King's Landing, Varys (Conleth Hill) often trades information with Littlefinger. A quiet and manipulative presence, he serves the kings of the Seven Kingdoms until the very end of season four, when he helps Tyrion Lannister escape Westeros after Tyrion murders Tywin.
Sandor Clegane ("The Hound")
Sandor (Rory McCann) served as a personal bodyguard for King Joffrey Baratheon. In season two, he rescued Sansa Stark during an uprising, but eventually deserted his post during a major battle. He then traveled with Arya Stark for a time. By the end of season four, the Hound has seemingly been killed by Brienne of Tarth, who left him grievously wounded after a battle.
Brienne of Tarth
Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) is a warrior from Tarth who served on Renly Baratheon's kingsguard before Renly's sudden assassination. She ended up pledging her service to Catelyn Stark. For much of season three, Brienne struggled to return Jaime Lannister to his family in an attempt to exchange him for Arya and Sansa Stark. Unable to do so, she spent most of season four trying to find them. She is now traveling the Westeros countryside.
Hodor (Kristian Nairn) is a gentle giant who serves the Stark family. He is mentally handicapped and communicates almost exclusively by saying his own name. Hodor's service to the Stark family became essential after Bran's fall from the tower in season one. Hodor carries Bran or pushes him around in a wheelbarrow, and is the only reason Bran can be mobile.
Osha (Natalia Tena) was taken captive by the Stark family after she attacked Bran, Theon Greyjoy, and Robb with a group of wildlings. Like Theon, the Stark family treated Osha well, and she became a confidant to Bran as he explored his ability to warg. As of season four, she is the only protector of Rickon, the youngest Stark child. She has not been seen again since heading off with him.
Jojen and Meera Reed
Bran, Rickon, and Osha meet the Reed siblings, Jojen (Thomas Sangster) and Meera (Ellie Kendrick), on their way to the wall in season three. Jojen also has magical visions, and teaches Bran how to use his burgeoning powers. Meera is a master archer, and travels with Jojen and Bran to protect them.
Is there a graph I can look at to help me understand all the characters in Game of Thrones?
HBO has a full interactive site to help guide you through the families and houses of Game of Thrones.
The site features helpful family trees, like this one for House Lannister:
And this one for House Targaryen:
What's going on in Game of Thrones besides all the fighting?
Game of Thrones centers on the violence of war, and it should not be watched by those with weak stomachs. But it's not all about death in the world of Westeros. Love and sex fill the screen, as well. Marriage plays a huge political and emotional role in Game of Thrones and provides many a plot twist.
Sansa Stark and Tyrion Lannister
Sansa's love life has taken many twists and turns in seasons one through three. She moved to the capital city of King's Landing, where she became engaged to King Joffrey. But her future husband turned out to be a sadist, who abused her and forced her to look at her father's head on a pike. Since then, she's ended up in a political marriage to Tyrion Lannister. This marriage ended during season four. As the only known surviving child of Ned Stark, however, she is a very likely candidate for a political marriage.
The Red Wedding
This event made TV history when it combined two of Game of Thrones' biggest plot lines: marriage and death. At the wedding of Catelyn Stark's brother, three of the most sympathetic members of the Stark family were brutally murdered when their subordinates betrayed them. Eldest Stark child Robb, Robb's wife, and Robb's mother, Catelyn, all died in a period of five minutes, leaving Arya (who, unbeknownst to everyone, was present) traumatized, the Lannister family thrilled, and TV viewers everywhere shocked (and all the more addicted to the show).
Joffrey Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell
Joffrey was a sociopath. Margaery is a master of manipulation. Their relationship was strange and uncomfortable, and it ended with Joffrey's poisoning at their wedding celebration.
Tommen Baratheon and Margaery Tyrell
Heading into season five, this is the coupling to watch. After Joffrey's death, Margaery became engaged to Tommen. She seduced him, hoping to drive a wedge between him and his mother.
What supernatural creatures are in Game of Thrones?
The White Walkers are an otherworldly group of ice creatures preparing to attack Westeros from the far north. They have the ability to reanimate human corpses. Most characters on the show are unaware that they even exist and believe they are creatures of myth. Only the Night's Watch and the wildlings have encountered them so far.
Bran Stark has had magical dreams in which he's seen a strange three-eyed raven. The true meaning of this vision isn't yet known — except to those who've read the books.
The other important creatures in the series so far are Daenerys Targaryen's three dragons. She received the eggs as a wedding gift, and when she brought them into her husband's funeral pyre, they hatched into baby dragons. The first Targaryen king to conquer Westeros had dragons on his side, so the beasts are a substantial advantage for Dany.
Where do things stand at the beginning of season five for the major characters?
At the beginning of season five, the Lannisters still rule most of Westeros. Tommen is currently the king of Westeros and engaged to marry Margaery. His mother, Cersei, is engaged to marry Margaery's brother, Loras, so that the Lannisters can maintain control over the south, where the Tyrells hold sway. Now that Tywin is dead, it seems unlikely this marriage will actually happen. Tyrion is stowed away on a ship after fleeing Westeros after killing his father.
For the Stark family, things are looking grim. No one in the family holds any real power at present. Sansa was married to Tyrion against her will, and then divorced. She has since been at the Vale with Littlefinger. With most of her family dead, Arya has boarded a ship across the Narrow Sea. Bran has gone north of the wall to try to find the source of his magical visions. Jon Snow is still at the wall.
Daenerys Targaryen has been freeing slaves on the continent of Essos. She now has a sizable army and three dragons that are growing ever larger.
Stannis Baratheon has left his island stronghold and amassed a fairly large army. At the end of season four, he appeared north of the wall to help the Night's Watch in its battle against the wildlings. He is still accompanied by the "Red Woman," Melisandre.
Will the show catch up with Martin’s story? How many more seasons can I expect?
The first two seasons of HBO's Game of Thrones each covered a single book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. As the plot became more complicated, the series writers began moving pieces from other books into the story in order to maintain the pace of the show. The third season covered around two-thirds of George R. R. Martin's third book, A Storm of Swords, and the fourth season covered the rest of the book, while also bringing in material from the fourth and fifth novels.
The first five books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series have been released, and Martin is working on writing the sixth book, The Winds of Winter. Martin took six years to write the fifth book in the series, which was released in July 2011. Martin's UK publisher stated on Twitter that the sixth book would not be published before 2015, but then deleted that statement. So far, Martin has released four chapters from book six on his website: one in December 2011, one in January 2013, one in March 2014, and one in April 2015.
At this point, the TV show has nearly caught up to Martin and is quickly moving through the material in the already-published books four and five.
Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have stated that they are planning for the show to run seven seasons. Since Martin has actually told Benioff and Weiss how he plans to end the series, it seems possible that if he doesn't write the final books quickly enough, the TV series could reveal his ending first. If the show is renewed for seven full seasons, as most expect, that seventh season would likely air in 2017.
Can I get a preview of Game of Thrones, season five?
Here's a tease: