One of the benchmarks of the epic fantasy genre is that the world the story depicts is vast and positively riddled with characters. While this is entirely ideal for mega fans who seek to commit every available fact to memory, it can make keeping track of things a bit difficult for more casual fans, particularly when said fantasy happens to be a television show with a cruelly long hiatus.
That’s right, the wait is almost over for legions of “Game of Thrones” fans. The HBO series returns on March 31. There is time enough yet for a marathon screening of every existing episode, but just barely.
In the event that doesn’t pan out, we’ve assembled a series overview along with a liist of many of the key players and detailed what’s happened with them so far. While it’s by no means comprehensive–read the books like we did if you want to be all-knowing–the summary and analysis herein should keep you from being the only one scratching your head at the themed viewing party. To that end, consider yourself warned: Spoilers for the first two seasons lie ahead.
Over the course of the first two seasons the seven kingdoms of Westeros have gone from a peaceful realm under the reign of King Robert Baratheon to a land embroiled in war. You may want to pop open HBO’s viewer’s guide, (the map and house guide in particular) because we’re about to break down how things came to all out war.
As the series opens, we learn that Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King (basically the number two man in the hierarchy of power), has died. King Robert Baratheon and his host ride North from the capitol city, King’s Landing, to Winterfell, home of House Stark. Eddard “Ned” Stark is the Lord of Winterfell and King Robert’s oldest friend, in fact, he is the man that the King wishes to be the new Hand.
Ned a devoted Northman and family man has no real desire to leave his home, nor for the power, but feels that he cannot say no to his King. Ned and his daughters, Sansa and Arya, return to King’s Landing with the King and his host. It is decided that Ned’s eldest daughter, Sansa, and Robert’s eldest son and heir to the throne, Joffery, shall be betrothed, effectively joining the houses and ensuring their allegiance to one another.
The Starks soon receive intelligence to suggest that Jon Arryn, Ned’s predecessor, was poisoned by the Lannisters. The Queen, Cersei, is a member of House Lannister, and it is soon revealed that she and her brother, Ser Jaime Lannister, have been carrying on an incestous relationship for years. King Robert’s children bear the name Baratheon, but they are in fact Lannisters through and through.
Ned begins to investigate what Jon Arryn did during his last days in an attempt to discover what would motivate the Lannisters to poison him.
After realizing that Joffrey is not the true heir to the throne Ned, being an unfailingly honorable man confronts Cersei with his discovery and tells her he will be telling the King the truth when the latter returns from a hunt.
Cersei responds with the prophetic and series defining words, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” The King returns from the hunt fatally wounded. Unable to tell his friend the truth as he lays dying, Ned takes steps to pave the way for the true heir to claim the throne. He alerts members of the King’s Small Council whom he believes will help him. Included in that number are Robert’s brothers, Stannis, the rightful heir to the throne, and Renly.
As it transpires, Ned’s actions are in vain. Even as he makes his move to remove Cersei, and Joffrey, who has claimed his father’s throne, he is betrayed. Ned is taken prisoner and named a traitor by Joffrey and Cersei.
Joffrey ultimately decrees that Ned should be put to death and orders him publicly beheaded. Arya Stark escapes the city disguised and a boy being sent to join the Night’s Watch at the Wall. Sansa Stark, on the other hand remains stranded in King’s Landing engaged to her father’s murderer.
With Ned’s murder and the now rapidly spreading rumors of Joffrey’s true parentage in the open, several other claimants to the throne emerge. Ned’s eldest son, Robb, declares to fight to avenge his father and free the North from southern rule. Both living Baratheon brothers, Stannis, the elder and true heir to Robert’s throne and Renly declare themselves King. Renly feels that his brother is a soldier, not a ruler.
Meanwhile, across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen, the daughter of the “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen, who was slain by his own guard, Jaime Lannister, during Robert’s rebellion, is married off to a warlord by her brother, Viserys. Daenerys becomes beloved of her new people and her husband, much to Viserys chagrin. He threatens to kill his sister and her unborn child, something that doesn’t fly with her husband, Kahl Drogo, obviously. With Viserys dead, Khal Drogo vows to cross the sea and win back the Iron Throne for his wife and son.
Unfortunately, for Daenerys and her Khal, a witch sees Drogo and their son dead. Dany gathers dormant dragon eggs that were given to her as a wedding gift and walks into Drogo’s funeral pyre with them. Her subjects assume this will kill her, but when the fire dies, there she is, alive with three baby dragons clutching to her. The first living dragons the world has seen in centuries. And so she becomes The Mother of Dragons.
Far removed from the capitol and even from the North, Ned Stark’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow, has joined the Night’s Watch. A force of men who protect the realm from what lies beyond the wall. Throughout the season we see signs that Whitewalkers (living dead frost guys) are emerging, and that the wildlings (men who live free beyond the wall) are rallying together as a single force.
As we enter season two, the war is in full swing.
Robb Stark and his army have had a series of victories over the Lannister men, and quite early on are able to capture Jaime Lannister. Robb and his mother Catelyn Stark find themselves removed from Winterfell for the whole of the season carrying on the war. Robb’s victories against the Lannisters continue and he begins to settle into his role as King.
But he is betrayed by both his mother–who ends up sending Jaime off to King’s Landing under the guard of Brienne of Tarth (a fierce female warrior who was originally loyal to Renly Baratheon, more on that later), with the intention of trading Ser Jaime to the Lannisters in exchange for Sansa and Arya (whom she believes is still in the city)–and Theon Greyjoy.
Theon grew up as a ward of the Starks and was considered a brother by Robb. When the Lannisters killed Ned, Theon swore to fight with Robb and was sent as an envoy to his father, Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands. While Theon returns to his home with a mind to bring his father to Robb’s cause, he soon finds that his family has other plans. The Greyjoys make their move on the North while the army is away.
Theon returns to Winterfell and lays siege to the castle he grew up in. After sacking the castle he leads everyone to believe that he has killed Bran and Rickon–the youngest Stark boys–though they actually escape.
The Baratheons meanwhile are fighting each other. Stannis and Renly meet to discuss a truce before going into battle against each other, though neither will yield. Stannis is spurred on by his advisor, Melisandre, a priestess for the Red God, while Renly is backed and motivated by the Tyrells. He takes Margaery Tyrell as his wife, though her brother, Loras has long been his lover.
Renly is slain by a shadow, the result of a spell performed by Melisandre at Stannis’ behest, the morning before the brothers are to do battle. The blame for his murder falls largely on Brienne of Tarth, who was with him at the time, as a member of his Kingsguard. Brienne flees with Catelyn Stark who had come to treat with Renly on behalf of her son, Robb. In lieu of her King, Brienne vows to serve Lady Stark, which is how she comes to inherit the task of delivering Jaime Lannister.
After ordering his brother murdered, Stannis prepares to make his move on King’s Landing by striking up a deal with a pirate to bolster his naval forces. The Tyrells on the other hand turn to the waiting arms of Joffrey Baratheon after a timely visit from Petyr Balish, a member of the King’s small council.
In King’s Landing, Joffrey remains on the throne, while his mother acts as the Queen Regent and his uncle, Tyrion Lannister serves as Hand of the King in place of the patriarch of the family, Tywin Lannister, who is off fighting the Starks. If Cersei’s relationship with Jamie is too loving, her relationship with Tyrion falls on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The two fight quite as much amongst themselves as the Baratheons do, though both recognize that Joffrey is out of control.
Tyrion secretly plans for the protection of the city in the event of attack and makes moves to strip his sister of power. He also intervenes on behalf of Sansa Stark in a number of situations when she finds herself at the mercy of Joffrey, who increasingly takes pleasure in torturing her.
When Stannis finally attacks King’s Landing by way of Blackwater Bay it is Tyrion’s plotting that keeps the city safe until Tywin and the other Lannister forces arrive to put a complete stop to the attack. Cersei arranges a ceremony that will allow Joffrey to publicly thank all those who aided the city. In this ceremony she sees that her father resumes his role as Hand of the King, effectively stripping Tyrion, who was wounded in the battle, of all power. She also paves the way for Joffrey to shirk his engagement to Sansa, stating that the Stark family’s betrayal frees him of any obligation. The young King then agrees to wed Margaery Tyrell, Renly Baratheon’s widow.
Beyond the wall, Jon Snow and the rest of the Night’s Watch ready themselves for a showdown with Mance Rayder and his wildling army. After finding himself unwilling to kill a wildling girl and then allowing her to escape, Jon finds himself captured by her. He finds himself in captivity with a senior member of the Watch. Qhorin Halfhand surmises that Jon could be a valuable spy if he is able to infiltrate the wildling ranks and orders Jon to kill him to prove that he wishes to join the wildlings.
Arya Stark is captured along with other members of the group headed to the Wall and taken to Harrenhal, which at the time is occupied by Tywin Lannister. He recognizes her for a girl and makes her his cupbearer, but never guesses that she is the missing Stark girl. With the aid of an assassin she befriends, Arya and her friends, Gendry and Hot Pie escape from Harrenhal to make their way North to find her family.
Still far across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen is in a precarious situation. Following the death of her husband she and her remaining subjects attempt to trek across the Red Waste. Having almost no supplies left to them and no real sense of where they need to go, Daenerys sends her Bloodriders off in opposite directions to find shelter and civilization.
One of the three returns with an invitation from the city of Qarth. Once there, she and her people receive a cool reception and gain entry only when a local dignitary, Xaro Xhoan Daxos vouches for them. Xaro takes Daenerys and her people in as guests.
After learning of King Robert’s death, Daenerys becomes determined to return to Westeros to reclaim her father’s throne, but is unable to convince the merchants of Qarth to loan her ships to make the voyage. Following this meeting she finds that her dragons and one of her servants are missing. Upon discovering the location of her dragons, she instructs them to burn those who took them and finally comes to understand that Xaro was involved. She leaves Xaro locked in his vault to die, and leaves, taking enough of his possessions with her to buy a ship.
Look for things to get more complex on all fronts as the war wears on and winter looms ever nearer.
In a certain sense Cersei won a great victory over Tyrion when Tywin resumed the role of Hand of the King, as Tyrion was stripped of the power he used to foil her so frequently. Still, much remains uncertain in Cersei’s world with Jaime’s continued absence and the unknown intentions of her father and son.
Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth
Things seem to be looking up for Jaime Lannister, he is being couriered back to his family by Brienne of Tarth, but in a war torn land, with Stark men almost certainly hunting for them, the odds seem long that his journey will be all rainbows and lollipops.
Tywin Lannister is being hailed as the hero of the Battle of the Blackwater. For the first time we will see him in close quarters with his children (well two of them) for an extended period of time, and what’s more he will be wielding even more considerable power as the Hand of the King. Expect Tywin’s presence to shake things up in Lannister land.
Will he be able to reign Joffrey in? What will become of Cersei and Tyrion’s powerplays and squabbling with the head of the pride (the Lannister house sigil is a lion, see what we did there?) in their midst?
A serious battle wound and the return of Tywin to King’s Landing spell bad news for Tyrion. Gone is the measure of power he wielded while acting as Hand on behalf of his father, and with that power what little security he had managed to carve out.
Tyrion must now regain his footing in the capitol, and indeed in his family.
Joffrey Baratheon, Margaery Tyrell
Joffrey remains on the Iron Throne, now betrothed to Margaery Tyrell and celebrating a major victory against Stannis Baratheon’s forces. In fact, everything seems to be coming up roses for the violent, cruel, young king.
A collective sigh of relief was breathed for Sansa when her engagement to Joffrey was called off, but as Tyrion wisely reminded her, she is still trapped in King’s Landing, and we’ll within the King’s reach. Yes, the eldest Stark daughter is in as dangerous a situation as ever.
The King in the North has won himself battles and more respect from his rivals than he previously enjoyed. But the cost of success was steep, he agreed to wed a daughter of House Frey in order to gain their allegiance and assistance. His resolve to keep that promise waned quickly when he met, Talisa Maegyr, a nurse he ultimately ended up marrying, putting his entire cause at risk. Interestingly enough, Talisa does not exist in the novels, but Robb does similarly break his pact with the Frey’s by marrying Jayne Westerling.
As the season unfolds we’ll see what other similarities and differences emerge in this story arch. In any case, it looks as if the Young Wolf’s love life is due to land him in a heap of trouble.
Arya and her pals Gendry (an illegitimate son of King Robert, though he and his companions don’t know it) successfully escaped Harrenhal, but now face some incredibly steep odds traversing the King’s Road in an attempt to reach the Stark family, or at least the Stark faithful.
With constantly growing, now lethal dragons, a ship and a heart full of resolve, Daenerys is poised to make some moves this season, or as she put it, take what is hers “with fire and blood.”
Jon Snow, Ygritte
Having killed Qhorin Halfhand (at the slain’s) behest, Jon Snow was last seen en route to meet The King Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder. Rayder is a former man of the Night’s Watch himself, and now Jon must convince him that he, like Mance, has abandoned his vows. As far as an exit strategy go, Jon has none to speak of.
Like the other Stark children, Jon is in a very dangerous situation indeed. But his continued presence with the wildlings means we’ll hopefully get to hear Ygritte declare, “You know nothing, Jon Snow” at least a few more times.