If you’ve been around any TV-watching person, animal, or magazine in the past several years, then you’ve probably heard of Game of Thrones; but, you may not have watched it, and the show’s meteoric success means that many of you may not be as inclined to admit your “GoT” ignorance as you normally would be. Never fear! You must have had good reasons for not watching it, after all; perhaps you enjoy a delightful sip of tea with some Downton Abbey more than bloody guts and gruesome violence. Perhaps you enjoy shows that actually give you happy endings, and don’t leave you sobbing and screaming seemingly-nonsensical things like “HODOOOOR!”. Perhaps you’ve actually been–gasp!–busy.
But nevertheless, you’re about to start watching it–or at the very least, talking to someone who knows a lot about it–and you want to be prepared. After all, the show’s new season (and it’s going to be a doozy) is starting on this coming Sunday, and last season’s sequence of events means that this is actually a particularly good season to start with. You do NOT have to watch all of the seasons before this Sunday’s episode in order to understand what’s going on–so take a relaxing breath, pull up a chair, and read on for some simple shortcuts to GoT knowledge. (Warning: Many spoilers ahead!)
A family of nobles from the North, aka a snowy and seemingly miserable place where the peoples’ cheerful motto is that “Winter is coming”. In GoT-land, also known as Westeros, the seasons are only summer and winter–and each one could last as long as it likes, so winter’s arrival could mean years and years of misery. (Although, come to think of it, the summers in Westeros haven’t been particularly peaceful and merry either…so really it’s just not a great place to live). The Starks are a good-looking bunch, led by Ned Stark. He’s a dignified and long-suffering leader, but a very good father to all of his children. Or, at least, he was; Ned was killed unjustly at the end of the show’s first season. He was executed because he had figured out that the queen, Queen Cersei (more on her later), had been having an incestuous relationship with her brother and thereby created a line of completely illegitimate children as heirs to the throne. While Cersei’s children were blonde, somewhat short-lived, and all products of incest, Ned’s children are all the opposite (save, sadly, for the short-lived part. Two of them died, very upsettingly). With dark or red hair, honorable backgrounds, and two genuinely good parents, the Stark children are usually favorites among the show’s viewers. Let us count them down:
Heroic, dashing, and forced into a leadership role before he was quite ready, Robb was the oldest and most responsible of the Stark brood. But, he’s dead–killed in a massacre at what is known as the Red Wedding (one of the most shocking episodes of the show so far).
Yes, he is a Stark; however, as a bastard, he was not given the Starks’ official family surname. Jon never quite fits in with the Starks at their home in Winterfell, mostly because he is a walking reminder of Ned’s infidelity and has therefore earned the hatred of Ned’s wife, Catelyn. Catelyn was a strong and kind woman on the show, and was killed at the Red Wedding. Her hatred of Jon, unfortunately, was unfounded; after several seasons of the show–and after Jon has gone off to join the Night’s Watch (a celibate and morally dubious army at the Wall up even further north)–it is revealed that Jon is not actually Ned’s son. Ned’s sister was raped, and she entrusted the resulting child to her brother before she died. So Ned kept his sister’s secret, raising her son Jon as his own, and suffering through his beloved wife’s resentment in silence. More proof that Ned Stark was one of the good (and dead) guys.
Related: Life Lessons From the Men of Game of Thrones
Jon doesn’t know about his true parentage yet; until now he’d been fighting White Walkers (mean bad guys who look like giant icicles) up near the Wall, with the help of the other Night’s Watchmen and his new best friend Samwell Tarly (a pudgy, intelligent, and brave man). Jon had also started to sympathize with the wildlings, people who live up above the Wall in primitive furs and who fight against Westeros. He got too close to one wildling woman, Ygritte, who was killed–and Jon was murdered by his own men for his affiliation with the enemy. But ho ho ho–surprise awaits! Jon’s not dead! After a very suspenseful ending of season five, Jon is brought back to life with black magic. He leaves the Night’s Watch to return home to Winterfell–but someone else, a violent and sadistic young man named Ramsay Bolton, has taken over the Stark domain. So battle ensues, between Jon and his wildlings and Ramsay and his soldiers. Jon wins and takes back Winterfell, with the help of his sister Sansa–who’s coming up next!
Originally the foolish and boy-obsessed daughter, Sansa has now become a grim and serious leader with her brother Jon. When the series began, she was a slight young girl, red-headed and the spitting image of her mother Catelyn. When contrasted with her witty and boyish younger sister Arya, Sansa was always made to seem dainty, bratty, and powerless; but a great deal has changed since that first season. She was arranged to marry Joffrey, the horrible eldest son of Cersei Lannister (the incestuous queen), and Sansa was initially eager and enthusiastic to oblige. Only after she understood his true, vicious character–and after he had her father Ned executed–did Sansa start to become the scarred woman she is now. She escaped Joffrey and the capital city of King’s Landing, and eventually made her way back to Winterfell…and to Ramsay Bolton. Forced into a marriage, a prisoner in her own childhood home, and a victim of violent rape, Sansa became very different from the girl that she first was. She had also lost both of her parents, her brother, and been separated from all of her other siblings for years, making the reunion between Jon and Sansa and their re-taking of Winterfell all the more uplifting. Now Sansa is at Winterfell with Jon, watching him take the lead–and having her convictions constantly undermined by Littlefinger, a twitchy little man who is insidious, unscrupulous, and who has transferred his desire for Sansa’s mother onto her. A drama-filled Winterfell, indeed.
Arya has been an audience favorite from the beginning; she’s smart, feisty, and very close with her brother Jon (fitting, since his bastard status and her tomboyish behavior had made them both outcasts in the family). Arya wanted to fight like her brothers, and to excel at it–and, with bitter irony, she does. After traveling to King’s Landing with Sansa and her father, Arya was witness to their father’s execution. Now a member of a wanted family, she fled the city–and ended up being trained with a group of Nameless assassins. After becoming the best, besting another jealous assassin, and refusing to perform an ordered kill, Arya takes off on her own–back to Winterfell, for revenge. Along the way, she kills Walder Frey–the man responsible for the Red Wedding, and therefore her brother and mother’s murders. Now she’s on her way back home, killing her enemies as she goes. And, fun fact: her assassin ability includes being able to adopt other people’s faces. Revenge, here Arya comes.
Bran has had a tough life. Originally just a cute, happy boy who loved to climb, he found himself climbing the wrong tower when the Queen happened to be visiting. She was up in its highest room, carrying out her incestuous affair with her brother Jaime (a smooth-talking soldier). Bran witnessed the incest from a window, and was subsequently thrown out by Jaime to a fall that should have killed him. But the Starks are undoubtedly resilient; Bran survived, although paralyzed, and has now become the Three-Eyed Raven, a prophet of sorts who can travel through time to see past events and who can possess other creatures’ bodies. It was Bran who went back in time to see the birth of Jon Snow, and who knows the truth about Jon’s heritage and Ned’s secret. Now, all we can hope is that he makes it back to Winterfell and tells Jon–that is, if the writers will be kind enough to let that happen.
Speaking of writers’ kindness, here is a character who has received virtually none of it–save for the kindness of seeing Jon before his death. Rickon was a toddler at the beginning of the show, and spent most of his adolescence on the run with Bran after their family had been labeled as enemies of the crown. The pair split up when Bran went on to become the Three-Eyed Raven, and Rickon was subsequently caught by Ramsay Bolton, imprisoned in his own home until the battle where Jon and Sansa came to the rescue. That is, they would have…if Ramsay hadn’t shot poor Rickon in the back just as he was being reunited with his older brother. Still not forgiving you for that, writers.
The Stark children all received a wolf in the show’s pilot episode. It was supposed to be an omen, since the wolf was their sigil. So far, only two wolves remain: Arya’s, Nymeria, is missing in action, but Jon’s, Ghost, is still with him. The others, unsurprisingly, are dead. Sigh.
While this show has some gray areas, the original heroes and villains were clear from the beginning. We, the audience, are guided to support the Starks–and to hate the Lannisters. Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime are the ones who tried to kill Bran; their son, Joffrey, committed horrible acts of violence before being poisoned; and their own horrible acts have continued all the way into the most recent season (although Jaime, in some ways, seems to have softened). Cersei’s resolve has only grown stronger after some debilitating defeats. Her two other children, who did nothing wrong, are both dead–and her brother, Tyrion (the only adult Lannister that the audience has actually liked all along, since he is as much an outcast in his family as Jon was in the Starks) is far away with the upcoming character (but getting closer). The Lannisters are blonde, clever, and–as of their latest struggles–very, very irritated with the world. They may be down, but they are not yet out.
Perhaps the most recognizable figure from the show, Daenerys (or Dany, as we’ll call her) is a young woman with white braided hair, a small stature, and three very large dragons that she gave birth to (just accept that last part). The Targaryens are associated with fire; they used to be the rulers of Westeros, but were defeated and sent into exile. Dany was given away by her brother in marriage; he gave her to Khal Drogo, a violent horseman with an entire army of people called the Dothraki. Said brother meant to use the arranged marriage to take back Westeros; his sister in exchange for the Dothraki army’s support. However, Dany proved to be more than a pawn. After the death of her brother, death of her husband, and the birth of her three dragons, she ended up freeing slaves and building her own army–and is now heading across the sea with a fleet of ships, loyal soldiers, Tyrion Lannister, and her dragons. This is the showdown that most viewers have been waiting for–it has, after all, been coming since the show’s very first episode in 2011.
Related: Life Lessons From the Ladies of Game of Thrones
In summary, here are the most basic of basics: Jon and Sansa Stark are in Winterfell, while Arya and Bran Stark are (hopefully) both on their separate ways back to Winterfell as well. Dany, the Mother of Dragons, is on her way to take back Westeros, and Cersei Lannister is waiting to defend it. The White Walkers (creepy icicle men, remember) are coming to attack from the North, tensions are brewing between Jon and Sansa, and the odds of a successful and happy reunion between all four remaining Starks seem…well…stark, at best. All in all, progress has been made, stakes are higher, and some big battles will be coming. Now you’re ready for the show! Head to a TV on Sunday the 16th and watch its highly anticipated premiere; you will not recognize every character, but you’ve got the basics, and when it comes to Game of Thrones, that means you’ll still have an exciting, dramatic, and perhaps tear-soaked time.