When Game of Thrones returns to television on April 24th, Game of Unknowns might make for a more accurate title. Now that the show has fully caught up with George R.R. Martin’s epic-fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, both book-readers and newbie viewers are totally in the dark about what’s going to happen next. That makes keeping track of the show’s sprawling cast and countless subplots more crucial — and more daunting — than ever.
But you don’t have to have a maester’s degree in Westerosology to keep up! We’ve assembled a quick-and-dirty, region-by-region rundown of all the major players and their current status leading up to the new season’s premiere. It’s the perfect refresher course for being ready when winter finally comes.
Jon Snow is dead. The idealistic 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch was stabbed to death by his own men — led by his longtime nemesis Ser Alliser Thorne — for the crime of getting too cozy with the wildlings, whom he’d allowed through the Wall to save them from the White Walkers. Of course, there are different degrees of “dead” in this world, and the big question at the start of this season is whether Lord Snow will rise again — aided, perhaps, by his psychic bond with his direwolf Ghost, or resurrected by the magic powers of Melisandre, the red priestess who’s demonstrated an ability to raise the dead in the past.
But the supernatural femme fatale may have other things on her mind. She fled the camp of her supposed messiah Stannis Baratheon after encouraging him to sacrifice his daughter in exchange for the Red God’s blessing, and which only brought him defections and defeat. Her rival in Stannis’ council, good-hearted ex-smuggler Ser Davos Seaworth, seemed understandably devastated by the news. Whose side will they take in the Night’s Watch’s power struggle? And how will Tormund Giantsbane, the towering red-bearded leader of the Free Folk, react to the killing?
At least nebbishy Samwell Tarly and his wildling girlfriend Gilly escaped the carnage: Jon sent them, along with her baby, to the southern city of Oldtown to train as the Watch’s new maester. But that’s a long journey, and his hardass dad Lord Randyll Tarly may be a stop along the way.
Beyond the Wall
The frozen wasteland of Westeros’ extreme north is the last place you want to be, which in this world is really saying something. The Night’s King and his coterie of demonic White Walkers have raised an army of the dead to destroy the world of the living, swelling its ranks by the thousands in their dramatic attack on a wildling village last season; he took special notice of Jon Snow in the process, just as Jon learned that his ultra-rare Valyrian steel sword could kill the seemingly indestructible Walkers. Presumably this whole horde is headed south, where they’ll find conditions at the Wall unfavorable to its defenders, to say the least.
But the Walkers aren’t the only game in town up there, magic-wise. Though he took last season off, Bran Stark, accompanied by his direwolf and guardians Meera Reed and Hodor, will be back this year, training in psychic sorcery under the wizened wizard known as the Three-Eyed Raven. Played this time around by screen legend Max Von Sydow, Ol’ Three Eyes works with the Children of the Forest, the tiny, ancient supernatural race who appear to be the White Walkers’ opposite numbers.
There are no White Walkers south of the Wall (not yet, anyway), but monsters are abound nonetheless. Foremost among them: the Bolton boys, Roose and Ramsay, who have seized control of the ancestral Stark fortress Winterfell and defeated Stannis Baratheon’s army. They had plenty of help from Stannis himself: He burned his awesome daughter Shireen alive as a blood sacrifice to the Lord of Light, driving his wife to suicide and seeing half his forces flee in disgust.
It was Brienne of Tarth, however, who delivered the killing blow against the man who would be king, at last getting revenge for his Melisandre-assisted shadow-murder of his brother Renly. Unfortunately, this meant she and her sidekick Podrick Payne took their eyes off the prize, abandoning their stakeout of Winterfell just when Sansa Stark, wedded to Ramsay and subject to his sexual sadism, signaled for their aid in escaping.
But Lady Stark found help anyway, in the wretched form of Theon Greyjoy, better known to his cruel Bolton masters as Reek. Finally snapping after untold abuse, he killed Ramsay’s vicious paramour Myranda, then leaped off Winterfell’s walls into the snow with Sansa before the Bolton forces returned from battle. Their current status and whereabouts are unknown.
The same is true of the least talked-about Stark kid and his own traveling companion. Little Rickon Stark and his wildling babysitter Osha were last seen a couple seasons ago, when they split up from Bran and company to better avoid detection. They were headed to the Last Hearth, home of the longtime Stark loyalists in House Umber.
The watery “free city” off Westeros’ eastern coast is the current home to Arya Stark, who spent the season training under master assassin Jaqen H’ghar to join his order of mystical murderers, the Faceless Men. But while she’s supposed to become “no one,” she’s still a Stark at heart. When she gets the opportunity to kill Ser Meryn Trant — the brutal pedophilic Kingsguard responsible for so much of the family’s misfortune — she seizes it with gory gusto. This sits ill with her new bosses, who only kill when given the order, and she is magically blinded as punishment.
The Iron Islands
West Coast represent: Though they’ve receded to the background for several seasons, the warlike Ironborn are still nominally an independent kingdom, ruled by Balon Greyjoy, the last of the War of the Five Kings’ main monarchs left standing. (Renly Baratheon, Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, and Stannis Baratheon have all gone to meet the Seven, and you can throw in King-beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder for good measure.) His daughter Yara may be helping him rule these rugged islands off Westeros’ western shore, though her abortive rescue mission of her castrated brother Theon may have driven a wedge between them.
Technically, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms is still ruled by Tommen Baratheon, but, well … it’s complicated. The boy king was already being used as pawn in the power struggle between his wife Queen Margaery Tyrell and his mother Queen Cersei Lannister, who was losing that particular battle. In her rage and paranoia, she gave free rein to the Faith Militant, an army of fanatical worshippers of the Seven led by the grandfatherly beggar priest called the High Sparrow. This worked out well for a while, as the fundamentalists arrested Margaery’s brother Loras for homosexuality and tossed her in jail for covering it up in the bargain. But the Queen Mother herself finally found herself on the wrong end of their wrath when her born-again cousin Lancel revealed their incestuous relationship and her involvement in the death of her ex-husband King Robert. Her partial confession led to the humiliating walk of shame that served as the centerpiece of Season Five’s finale.
So who’s in charge now? Well, the High Sparrow rules the streets, but Tommen still sits the Iron Throne, and his great-uncle Kevan Lannister serves as the Hand. Presumably Lady Olenna Tyrell, the matriarch of Margaery’s family, won’t let either of her grandkids go down without a fight. Yet even a humiliated Cersei has a secret weapon: Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. Brought back from the brink of death after he was poisoned in a duel against the Red Viper of Dorne, he’s now the Kingsguard’s newest member — and oh yeah, he’s a mute, blue-faced zombie, too. Hey, what could go wrong?
The culturally distinct southernmost of the Seven Kingdoms had largely been spared the destruction of the War of the Five Kings, until Prince Oberyn Martell, aka the Red Viper, attempted to get revenge against the Lannisters and their lackey Gregor Clegane for the murder of his queenly sister during Robert’s Rebellion years before. To put it mildly, it backfired. With his girlfriend Ellaria Sand and their daughters the Sand Snakes swearing revenge, Cersei sent her brother Jaime and his sparring partner Bronn right into their home turf to bring back their daughter Myrcella, whom Tyrion had sent to Dorne as a bargaining chip, before they can take out their anger on her. Prince Doran Martell prevented the two groups from coming to blows, insisting on peace and offering to relinquish the young woman as long as her fiancé — his son Trystane — could travel back to King’s Landing with them to serve on Tommen’s Small Council.
All’s well that ends well, right? Not exactly. Just after they set sail for home, the Lannister princess tells her “uncle” that she knows he’s really her father, and loves him anyway … then drops dead in his arms, poisoned by Ellaria while saying her goodbyes. This does not seem like news the Queen Mother and her zombie bodyguard will take well.
The easternmost stop in our world tour takes us from ice to fire. The city of Meereen, conquered by Daenerys Targaryen, her dragons, and her patchwork army of freed slaves, is currently as unstable a place as King’s Landing, if not more so. It’s got a fanatical insurgency, the Sons of the Harpy, and an assassinated leader, Dany’s fiancé Hizdar zo Loraq. But no one back at the Red Keep has to deal with two dragons chained in the basement, and the third, Drogon, running amok before rescuing his “mother” and fleeing to parts unknown with her on his back.
With the Khaleesi in the wind, it falls to her advisors to rule in her stead. This means a strange-bedfellows triumvirate of her right-hand woman Missandei, the young leader of the elite Unsullied troops Grey Worm, and newcomer Tyrion Lannister, who fled to Meereen in hopes of joining forces with her against his hated family. The trio are now in charge, with the Imp’s spymaster buddy Varys riding shotgun. Meanwhile, the two men vying for the Queen’s affection, sexy sellsword Daario Naharis and turncoat exile Ser Jorah Mormont, have set off to find her — bringing Mormont’s hidden greyscale infection and the potential for a plague with them.
And Dany? She and her dragon are back where it all began — in the vast grasslands known as the Dothraki sea, where we last see them surrounded by a khalasar of warriors on horseback. Only time will tell if she winds up back in the saddle herself.