All men must die, but there’s no need for you to have “trying to figure out what the hell is going on in Game of Thrones” listed as your cause of death. When Season Four debuts this Sunday, the cast somehow manages to get even bigger, despite a mortality rate that makes trench warfare look like a leisurely stroll through New York City’s scenic High Line park. But with a little help, anyone can look like a master of the Game. Brush up with our Season Four cheat sheet, which takes each major section of the realm and breaks the story down by character. Who’s alive, who’s dead, who’s in charge, who’s on the run, who’s leading a ragtag band against an unstoppable army of ice demons — everything you need to know is below.
IN THE WAR ZONE
Do we have to even talk about it? Oh, alright, fine: Everyone’s dead. Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, Talisa Stark, Talisa’s little heir-to-the-throne in the oven — murdered at the wedding of Robb’s dopey uncle Edmure Tully by the host of the festivities, Walder Frey, and Robb’s own bannerman Roose Bolton. Frey was avenging an insult, Bolton was switching sides because he thought Robb couldn’t win, esus, let’s just move on.
Narrowly escaping the carnage: Arya Stark and her kidnapper/protector Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, who arrived at the Frey fortress hoping to exchange Arya for a ransom from her family and instead walked into a slaughter. It’s a slaughter the increasingly violent Arya paid back to a bunch of Frey footsoldiers she and the Hound stumbled across a few days later. Also on the run: Blackfish Tully, Catelyn’s gruff uncle. How all this will effect the long-running guerilla war between the Brotherhood Without Banners — a Lord of Light-worshipping crew run by resurrected Lord Beric Dondarrion and red priest Thoros of Myr — and the Lannister forces led by the Hound’s psychopathic, gigantic brother Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane remains to be seen
To the east, on the sad-ass island of Dragonstone, Stannis Baratheon spent the season licking his wounds after his attempt to invade King’s Landing failed. Egged on by his fanatical wife Selyse (and ignoring his facially disfigured daughter Shireen), the would-be king decided to go along with the wishes of the sorceress Melisandre and sacrifice his bastard nephew Gendry in order to magically slaughter his enemies. But his right-hand man Davos Seaworth freed the kid, saving his own bacon only when he showed Stannis a letter from the besieged Night’s Watch begging for help.
IN KING’S LANDING
Everything’s coming up Lannister! The Starks have been wiped out. King Joffrey is engaged to the rich, beautiful Margarey Tyrell, whose shrewd grandmother Lady Olenna is bankrolling the Lannister/Tyrell alliance. His mother Queen Cersei is also engaged, to Margaery’s gay brother Loras, a prospect neither of them are particularly thrilled with. Tyrion Lannister has been demoted from Hand to Master of Coin, a politically tricky position — and forced to marry poor Sansa Stark, who’s reeling from the slaughter of her family. (Tyrion’s prostitute girlfriend Shae still works for Sansa, despite the spymaster Lord Varys‘ attempts to get her to flee.) Even Jaime Lannister is back in town, though he’s short one hand, courtesy of the brutal Bolton henchman Locke. He also has a couple of unexpected tagalongs: Brienne of Tarth, tasked by the late Lady Stark with returning Jaime safely to the capital in exchange for the release of Sansa and her sister, and Qyburn, the disbarred maester who helped save his life. The only missing pieces are Joffrey’s sister Myrcella, sent off to the southern kingdom of Dorne for safekeeping, and Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, sent to the mountain stronghold of Catelyn’s sister Lysa Arryn to broker a truce.
And the architect of all this? Tywin Lannister, the most powerful man in Westeros. Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.
IN THE NORTH
Jon Snow, undercover brother (of the Night’s Watch)! At the end of Season Two, Jon’s commander, Qhorin Halfhand, allowed the kid to kill him in order to make it seem like he’d betrayed the Watch and joined the Wildlings, the free-spirited people who live in the frozen wastes north of the Wall. They’re led by Mance Rayder, another ex-Night’s Watchman, who as King-Beyond-the-Wall is leading literally every wildling — including the telepathic wargs and actual, honest-to-god giants — south to escape the coming of the White Walkers. Mance sends a raiding party, including Jon, his redheaded/hot-blooded new girlfriend Ygritte, and the commanding leader of the group Tormund Giantsbane over the Wall to be part of a coordinated attack designed to open the Wall’s impregnable gates. But when Jon is commanded to kill an innocent bystander, the jig is up — he flees, getting feathered full of arrows by his devastated ex.
He’s greeted back at Castle Black by his old friend Samwell Tarly, who’s had adventures of his own. Escaping both a disastrous battle against the White Walkers, their zombie army and a bloody mutiny against the late Lord Commander Mormont in the wildling outpost controlled by the White Walker worshipper/incest enthusiast Craster, Sam flees with one of Craster’s daughter-wives, Gilly, and her newborn son. They make it to the Wall alive, but not before Sam slays a White Walker with an old “dragonglass” dagger he found in the snow.
Along the way, Sam bumped into Bran Stark and his posse, who now include not just his hulking human chariot Hodor but also the teen team of Jojen and Meera Reed. Jojen’s psychic visions line up with Bran’s own: They must travel north of the Wall, where Bran will have a fateful encounter with a mysterious figure called the Three-Eyed Raven. But first the group said goodbye to Bran’s kid brother Rickon and his wildling guardian Osha — they split up in order to dodge the murderous Bolton and Greyjoy forces fighting for control of the north, and to keep at least one heir to House Stark alive.
At this point, it’s the Boltons who are winning the battle. Roose Bolton’s deeply crazy bastard son Ramsay Snow spent the entire season torturing Theon Greyjoy after liberating Winterfell from him, then killing everyone there anyway. It cost Theon his sanity, his manhood, and his name — now he’s called “Reek.” His dad, rebel king Balon Greyjoy, has given up on him, but his warlord sister Yara is leading a rescue mission, even if it’s too late for Li’l Theon.
ACROSS THE NARROW SEA
The Mother of Dragons is on a roll. Dodging black-magic assassins from the city of Qarth, where she burned a bunch of warlocks and robbed the place blind in Season Two, Daenerys Targaryen and her crew — which now includes Ser Barristan Selmy, the legendary member of the Kingsguard who Joffrey fired back in Season One — rolled into the cities of Slaver’s Bay, the human trafficking capital of the world. But instead of buying an army of highly trained eunuch slave soldiers known as “The Unsullied,” she freed them instead, and turned them on their former masters.
After wiping out the ruling class of the city of Astapor with a little help from her three increasingly large dragons, she and her new army traveled to its sister city, Yunkai. Thanks to a stealthy assault by three of her right-hand men — loyal advisor (and former spy for King Robert) Ser Jorah Mormont, Unsullied commander Grey Worm, and cocky sellsword Daario Naharis — Yunkai’s slaves revolted and escaped the city. Now they call her “Mhysa,” or Mother, though whether she’s developing a messiah complex from it all is an open question.
Here’s the trailer for Season Four: