If the plot of Game of Thrones were a Facebook relationship status, it’d be, “It’s complicated.” HBO’s epic fantasy, based on the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels by George R.R. Martin, is tear-your-hair-out intense and exciting, yes. But its complex tangle of alliances, betrayals, family ties and blood feuds – not to mention dragons and ice zombies and shadow assassins and green napalm and stuff – can make its tale of conflict for the Iron Throne of Westeros tough to untangle.
Whether you’re new to the series or just need a quick refresher course, we’ve got you covered. Come with us on a guided tour of the world of Westeros, from King’s Landing in the south to Qarth in the far east to the winter wonderland beyond the Wall in the north, for the skinny on each region’s major players and plotlines.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FROM SEASONS ONE AND TWO AHEAD
Here’s a complete list of the rewards Tyrion Lannister received for saving the capital city of the Seven Kingdoms from being conquered by Stannis Baratheon during the Battle of Blackwater: the continued loyalty of his prostitute girlfriend Shae, his dutiful squire Pod, his faithful(ish) bodyguard Bronn . . . and that’s about it. Nearly assassinated on the battlefield by one of his own, Tyrion woke up to a massive facial scar, a major downgrade in his accommodations, and the news that his ice-cold father Tywin Lannister had ridden to victory and replaced Tyrion in the influential position of Hand of the King. But despite the opposition of his father, his sadistic nephew King Joffrey and his sister Queen Cersei (who may have been responsible for the attempted hit), Tyrion realizes he can’t quit playing the great game.
Cersei’s chief hostage, Sansa Stark, is having a slightly better time. Held captive by the mega-rich Lannister family ever since they murdered her father, Eddard Stark, when he discovered that Joffrey was the product of incest, Sansa was supposed to marry Joffrey, whose idea of courtship was ordering his Kingsguard to beat her. (That Kingsguard is down one member, mind you: Joff’s bodyguard Sandor “The Hound” Clegane fled King’s Landing with a wicked case of PTSD during Stannis’s assault after failing to convince Sansa to come with him.) But Joffrey has jilted Lady Sansa for Margaery Tyrell, the widow of slain rebel king Renly Baratheon – older, vampier, richer, and, thanks to her wealthy family’s money and her dangerous brother Loras’s sword, a major player in the alliance that helped Tywin defeat Stannis.
Sansa’s delighted – but not for long. Having successfully brokered the alliance between House Lannister and House Tyrell, the scheming royal treasurer and pimp Lord Peter “Littlefinger” Baelish receives a promotion, but his real interest appears to be in Sansa, daughter of the woman he once loved and the man he betrayed. Littlefinger reminds her the Lannisters will never free her, which means she’ll have to escape, with his help. Meanwhile, Littlefinger’s chief rival Varys, the bald eunuch who runs the biggest spy network in the Seven Kingdoms, has cozied up to his chief prostitute Ros, while remaining one of Tyrion’s few friends at court.
Stannis, meanwhile, has slunk back to his island fortress Dragonstone to lick his wounds. He’ll have help (perhaps literally) from Melisandre, the red sorceress who used dark magic to kill his kid brother, but who was banned from the battlefield on which Stannis was defeated. She still believes he’s the messiah figure who will save humanity from the coming darkness, and after looking into one of her fires to share the visions sent to her by the fire god called the Lord of Light, he seems to agree. Blown sky-high during the battle, Stannis’s skeptical right-hand man, Ser Davos “The Onion Knight” Seaworth is no longer around to play devil’s advocate.
Robb Stark, the king in the North, has won every battle, but still seems to be losing the war. Despite outfighting the hated Lannisters at nearly every turn, his forces are split by internal strife caused largely by him and his mother. Breaking his promise to marry the daughter of Walder Frey, the mean old lord of a strategically vital fortress, Robb instead made Talisa Maegyr, a foreign noblewoman he found working as a battlefield surgeon, his queen. Meanwhile, with literally all of his younger siblings in the hands of enemies, Robb’s mother Catelyn made a deal with the devil. She freed their hugely important captive Jaime “The Kingslayer” Lannister despite his attempted murder of her son Bran, in hopes that his sister (slash lover) Cersei would free the Stark daughters in turn. This infuriated Lord Richard Karstark and any other Northerner who’d lost friends and family to the Kingslayer’s blade.
Now Jaime is making the long trek back to King’s Landing in the custody of Brienne of Tarth. Once a member of Renly Baratheon’s Kingsguard (not to mention barking up the wrong tree by being in love with the guy), Brienne was forced to flee his camp after Stannis used magic to assassinate him. Catelyn’s kindness toward this lifelong misfit caused Brienne to pledge allegiance to the Stark matriarch, and she’ll stop at nothing to exchange Jaime for Catelyn’s daughters – even if it means killing other Northerners.
But one daughter, Arya, isn’t in King’s Landing at all – she’s elsewhere in the Riverlands with her fellow young refugees Gendry (a bastard son of King Robert’s) and Hot Pie (a pie enthusiast). She’d been working under an assumed name at the sprawling ruined stronghold called Harrenhal for Tywin Lannister and his chief enforcer, Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, until Tywin rode off to war. To escape, she called on a favor owed to her by Jaqen H’ghar, a criminal whose life she’d saved. Turns out he can use magic to completely change his appearance, and is maybe the deadliest man alive. As a parting gift, Jaqen gives Arya a foreign coin and a secret phrase, “Valar morghulis,” that he says she can present to anyone from the island nation of Braavos if she’s ever in trouble.
Hundreds of miles from the front, the ancestral home of the Starks was thought to be safe from conflict, which is why the two youngest Stark kids, Bran and Rickon, were left there alone while Robb and Catelyn rode off to war. But when his family rose up in rebellion against the lords of the mainland, Theon Greyjoy took the initiative and conquered the castle where he’d been raised as a half-foster kid, half-hostage. Ignoring the warnings of his sister Yara, he pretended to execute Bran and Rickon after they escaped his clutches, then was abandoned by his own men when the bastard son of Robb’s general Roose Bolton led Northern forces to liberate the castle.
By the time Bran, Rickon, their direwolves Summer and Shaggydog, their gentle giant of a helper Hodor, and their wildling caretaker Osha emerge from the crypts beneath the castle where they’d been hiding, the battle is over, Winterfell is burning, and everyone who lived there is dead. Now this motley crew is headed north to find refuge at the Wall – and, perhaps, the truth behind Bran’s psychic bond with his Summer, and his visions of a mysterious three-eyed raven.
ACROSS THE NARROW SEA
Daughter of one slain king, widow to another: Has Daenerys Targaryen finally come into her own? That’s the question after her misadventures in the elite Eastern city of Qarth last season. Dany, her advisor and bodyguard Ser Jorah Mormont and her dwindling band of Dothraki horselords staggered into the city after nearly starving in the nearby desert. Once inside, she found herself betrayed and her dragons kidnapped. But after experiencing a harrowing vision of the coming winter in the dark temple called the House of the Undying, she and her three growing dragons killed the warlock and the wealthy merchant who’d conspired against her and looted everything that wasn’t nailed down. It netted her enough money to buy a ship and get out of there, but probably not enough to buy an army to take back the Iron Throne.
BEYOND THE WALL
Out in the frozen wasteland beyond the massive Wall built to protect civilization from, well, everything out in the frozen wasteland, things are looking grim. Jon Snow, Ned Stark’s moody bastard son and rookie Night’s Watch member, was sent by Lord Commander Mormont to run recon on a wildling army being massed by Mance Rayder, a former Watchman who now reigns as “King Beyond the Wall.” But Jon and his new mentor Qhorin Halfhand get captured by a wildling band led by the fearsome Lord o’ Bones (and including Jon’s own former prisoner, the randy redheaded warrior woman Ygritte). The Halfhand saves the mission the only way he can: he goads Jon into killing him, so that the younger man will look like a traitor to the Watch and can then infiltrate the wildling army himself.
Meanwhile, Mormont and an army of Night’s Watch warriors have massed on a rocky hilltop called the Fist of the First Men, waiting for word of the wildlings. These forces include Jon’s friends: kind but cowardly Samwell Tarly, big dumb goodhearted Grenn and entertainingly pessimistic Dolorous Edd Tollett. The trio found a strange cache of black blades and arrowheads made from “dragonglass” in the snow, for all the good it will do them: The final shot of the season showed Sam cowering as an army of zombies led by the demonic White Walkers descended upon the Fist, no doubt hoping to wipe out the Watch in one fell swoop.