Watching Game of Thrones is a lot like ruling the Seven Kingdoms: No one said it would be easy. After all, this is a series that has more dead main characters than most TV shows have living ones. Change is a constant, and keeping track of the faces and places requires a mind sharper than Valyrian steel. But no monarch rules alone. And just as every king needs a helping Hand, you'll probably require a convenient cheat sheet to bring you up to speed before the fifth season of HBO's hit series kicks off this Sunday. Region by region, storyline by storyline, everything you need to know can be found below.
Another brick in The Wall
The battle for the one structure that stands between civilization and icy chaos is over…for now. Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall, nearly led the wildlings to victory over the Night's Watch — and safety from the White Walkers and their zombie army — until King Stannis Baratheon swooped in to save the day. Now Mance, his second-in-command Tormund Giantsbane, and countless other wildlings are prisoners, while Stannis and his entourage (fanatical Queen Selyse, scarred Princess Shireen, the red priestess Melisandre, and loyal Ser Davos Seaworth) help the Watch man the Wall. Jon Snow lost his beloved wild woman Ygritte in the battle, but he and his nemesis Ser Alliser Thorne are both now heroes for their role in the fight.
Way farther North, even wilder shit went down. After a run-in with Jon's best friend Sam and his wildling pal Gilly, "Lord Snow"'s brother Bran and his traveling companions, Meera Reed and Hodor battled past reanimated skeletons to enter the underground lair of the Children of the Forest — a magical, elfin race long thought extinct. The trip cost them the life of Meera's psychic brother Jojen, but succeeded in hooking Bran up with his vision quest's tour guide, the Three-Eyed Raven. This wizened old sorcerer, tangled in the roots of a tree, has promised to train the young man (according to sources on the show, we won't see the results till next season).
A Tale of Winterfell
Make that "Occupied Winterfell." In exchange for stabbing King Robb Stark in the back (well, technically the chest) at the Red Wedding, Tywin Lannister gave ice-cold Lord Roose Bolton the ancestral Stark stronghold, and the title "Warden of the North" to go with it. Roose legitimized his batshit-crazy bastard son Ramsay Snow in celebration. Now he's Ramsay Bolton, Heir to Winterfell — and poor Theon Greyjoy, now the gelded wreck of a man called Reek, is still along for the ride.
On the Road
The Stark sisters spent most of Season Four on the run, but they've found very different destinations. Sansa fled King's Landing after Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish involved her in the plot to assassinate King Joffrey without her knowledge. He whisked her away to the remote mountain castle called the Eyrie, where her crazy aunt Lysa Arryn nearly killed her before Littlefinger killed the cuckoo relative instead. But instead of narc-ing on her sinister guardian, Sansa covered for him. Now, with a new all-black wardrobe and her trademark red hair dyed dark, she seems ready to embrace the Seven Kingdoms' biggest schemer as a mentor.
Her kid sister Arya had an even rougher time. She killed her way across the war-torn countryside with rogue warrior Sandor "The Hound" Clegane until they ran into another unlikely pair: Brienne of Tarth, the warrior woman sworn to protect the Stark sisters, and her goofy squire Podrick. Brienne defeated the Hound in a duel, but Arya decided to strike off on her own, hiding from the former and leaving the latter to slowly die from his injuries. Using a coin and a code phrase ("Valar Morghulis" — all men must die) given to her by the ace assassin Jaqen H'ghar a couple seasons back, she hitched a ride to Braavos, an isolated nation far beyond Westeros' shores.
Back in King's Landing...
In the words of Ser Paulie Walnuts, bannerman to House Soprano, it's fuckin' mayham out there. King Joffrey is dead, courtesy of a conspiracy between Littlefinger and Lady Olenna Tyrell, leaving his kid brother Tommen to take the crown and his uncle Tyrion Lannister to take the rap. Tyrion nearly escaped his death sentence when he tapped Prince Oberyn "The Red Viper" Martell to take his side in a trial by combat — a resident the Southern kingdom of Dorne who, you'll remember, had come to the capital seeking vengeance against the Lannisters. (His previous go-to guy, Bronn, was bought off with the promise of a castle and a lordship of his own.) Oberyn mortally wounded his opponent, the towering murder machine Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane — but the big man ended up squashing the Viper's skull.
In the aftermath, Oberyn's girlfriend Ellaria Sand fled to her native city. (Which is where, you might recall, Tyrion sent his niece Myrcella as a goodwill gesture.) Queen Cersei handed the dying Gregor over to her creepy new pal, the Mengele-like ex-maester Qyburn, for experimentation. And the Imp himself was saved from execution by his brother Jaime, who ordered the spymaster Varys to help his fugitive sibling get the fuck outta Dodge. Unfortunately, Tyrion made a pit stop on the way, murdering his ex-girlfriend Shae and his all-powerful father Tywin Lannister for their involvement in his conviction. He and Varys were last seen aboard a ship, secretly sailing to parts unknown. That means no one's left to keep Cersei and her son's bride-to-be, ambitious beauty Margaery Tyrell, from each other's throats.
Meanwhile, in Meereen...
It seemed like a good idea at the time: use dragons, Dothraki and the eunuch supersoldiers known as the Unsullied to liberate the infamous Slaver's Bay. But Queen Daenerys Targaryen is learning that's easier said than done. Settling down to rule the city of Meereen before continuing on her road to the Iron Throne, she's discovered that half the population worships her — and the other half wants her dead. Her conflicted ruling council includes wise old Kingsguard knight Barristan Selmy, her translator Missandei, the Unsullied's Grey Worm, former master Hizdahr zo Loraq, and shifty but sexy sellsword/Friend with Benefits Daario Naharis. What's more, Dany exiled her closest advisor, the lovelorn Jorah Mormont — also a former spy for her enemies in Westeros. Finally, she chained up her dragons Viserion and Rhaegal when their big brother, Drogon, killed a local kid; the black dragon himself escaped and hasn't been seen since. It's not easy being Khaleesi.