‘Game of Thrones’: Everything You Need to Know to Catch Up
Spoilers ahead for every season of Game of Thrones!
Of all the shows on television, there are few that generate as much buzz as Game of Thrones. It hits on all the major points for audiences: Political intrigue, dragons, sword fights, epic-scale battles, dragons, redemption, and oh did we mention, mother freaking dragons. You’d be hard-pressed to find another series that covers as much ground as this one, featuring a complex web of intrigue that spans dozens of characters. All that being so, Game of Thrones is nothing if not overwhelming at times.
It can get exhausting keeping track of who wants to kill whose family for whatever reason, and for people who haven’t read the books, there’s very little in terms of background or context. The fictional land of Westeros has a history that dates back thousands of years, and show-watchers have found themselves forced to put together the pieces while simultaneously trying to wade through what amounts to some incredibly dense story structure. And that’s where we come in. Here you’ll find a guide to every season, replete with all the major deaths, events, and what made each important to both the Game of Thrones universe and the rest of television.
Season 1: The First and Last Time the Starks are OK
Major Deaths: Ned Stark (beheaded), Robert Baratheon (skewered by a boar), Viserys Targaryen (molten gold poured over his head), Khal Drogo (infected wound and also a weird witch curse?)
Every TV series needs a character (or a group of characters) that act as a moral center of the show. For Game of Thrones, that’s the Stark family. They’re the first people we really get to know, led by A-lister Sean Bean. Keeping in mind that this was a time before we really knew what this show was about, largely the expectation was that the series was essentially the story of the Starks. All that was pretty much erased though, thanks to a series of horrible events that forever spread the family to the four corners of Westeros. So where’d they all end up at the conclusion of Season 1?
Ned Stark: Beheaded while his two daughters looked on.
Catelyn Stark: On the warpath with her son Robb following Ned’s death at Kings Landing.
Robb Stark: On the aforementioned warpath looking to avenge his father’s death. He finishes the season with an army of Northerners behind him ready to fight.
Sansa Stark: Engaged to the sociopathic nutjob king, Joffrey Baratheon, spending much of her time getting physically and emotionally beaten down.
Arya Stark: Orphaned and on the run, on her way to Wall to find her bastard brother.
Jon Snow: Hanging out at the Wall, having sworn his life to the Night’s Watch.
Bran Stark: Paralyzed from the waist down after being pushed out of a tower by Jaime Lannister.
Rickon Stark: With Bran? Rickon generally keeps to the background and is largely the forgotten Stark as the youngest in the family.
Most of the major events of Season 1 center around the scattering of the Starks, although things wrap up with Daenerys Targaryen putting herself on a funeral pyre with three unhatched eggs, only to survive with three baby dragons crawling around her naked body. Other major events included the death of King Robert Baratheon, the crowning of the boy we grew to passionately hate Joffrey Baratheon as his successor, and Ned Stark’s discovery that all three of Robert’s children were in fact born of incest between Jaime and Cersei Lannister.
Season 2: The One Where We Get to Know the Lannisters
Major Deaths: Renley Baratheon (stabbed by an evil smoke monster), Rodrik Cassel (beheaded by Theon Greyjoy), Qhorin Halfhand (killed in combat with Jon Snow)
With the Starks now scattered, Season 2 is where we really get to understand the dynamic of the other families of Westeros. We get to understand the harshness of the Greyjoys, when Robb sends Theon to the Iron Islands to try and strike an alliance. We meet Stannis Baratheon, as he battles with his brother Renley for the right to the Iron Throne. Most significantly though, we dig into the story of the Lannisters, a family driven by honor and reputation.
In many ways, the Lannisters of Casterly Rock are the Yankees of Westeros: Rich, always in power, and possessing an endless stream of resources and influence. But as Season 2 tells us, they’re far more complex than your run-of-the-mill cartoonish villains. In many ways, it’s the Season of the Lannisters, where we step away from the Starks and really understand Westeros most powerful family.
Tywin Lannister: The patriarch, Tywin is a harsh man whose only goal is maintaining the legacy of his house. He cares little for those who get in his way, whether it be his enemies (Robb Stark and his army of Northerners) or even his own family. While he takes to the battlefield to take on the North though, his absence in King’s Landing is felt. Both his daughter and youngest son do their fair share of scheming in his absence, until he returns in the penultimate episode to save Kings Landing from Stannis’s army.
Cersei Lannister: In many ways, Cersei is driven by her own marginalization as a women in a male-dominant world. This has twisted her in a way that’s made her selfish and paranoid, two qualities that serve her well in Kings Landing. In the end, she’ll do anything for her children, whether it’s supporting her patently evil son King Joffrey, or her more innocent daughter and son. When things got most desperate and it seemed as though Stannis would take the Red Keep, Cersei was ready to choke down poison (after administering it to her son Tommen) rather than have her and her children be subjected to the invaders.
Tyrion Lannister: Tyrion is easily most fans’ favorite character, thanks to his sharp tongue and logical mind. Of all the characters in all the noble families of Westeros, Tyrion is the kindest, cleverest, and most pragmatic. His diminutive stature forced him to focus on honing his mind rather than his sword, keeping him one step ahead of his sister all season.
Acting as Hand of the King in place of his father Tywin, he maneuvered Kings Landing in just about every way possible: He rooted out a spy within the small council, sent his niece Myrcella to Dorne to be wed to one of the Martells, and almost single-handedly won the Battle of Blackwater when he set the bay on fire, destroying a large portion of Stannis’s ships. He suffered a near fatal injury though, that put him out of commission long enough for Tywin to wash away all the control Tyrion previously had possessed.
Jaime Lannister: Jaime’s character arc is easily the most fascinating. We start out hating him in Season 1 after he pushes Bran Stark out of a window. But slowly, we start to really learn who he is. He starts Season 2 captured by the Starks, spending much of his time a prisoner of Robb. In being knocked off of his golden pedestal, he’s humanized, setting us up for his Season 3 redemption (more on that later).
Other major events in Season 2 include Daenerys leaving Qarth in flames as she continues her conquest of the East, Theon taking and then quickly losing Winterfell, and the first appearance of the White Walkers en masse as they attack the Night’s Watch north of the Wall.
Season 3: Where Everything Hits the Fan and Everyone You Love Dies
Major Deaths: Robb Stark (stabbed by Roose Bolton at Edmure Tully’s wedding), Talisa Stark (stabbed by the Freys), Jeor Mormont (stabbed and betrayed by his own men), Catelyn Stark (throat slit by the Freys)
This season hit everyone hard. Robb Stark’s situation begins to get dire, as he begins to lose allies in the wake of his mother releasing Jaime Lannister. This culminates in the infamous Red Wedding, where everything is terrible and everyone you were rooting for ends up dead. Meanwhile, Theon finds himself brutally tortured into insanity at the hands of Ramsay Snow, Roose Bolton’s bastard son.
Understanding the Red Wedding: The Red Wedding is a huge turning point in the series. Up until then, the field had been fairly balanced. On one side, we had the ruling party in the Lannisters, tenuously holding on to Kings Landing. On the other, Robb Stark and the Northerners, preparing to march south to avenge the death of Ned Stark. All that came crashing down though following a series of missteps.
- Robb Stark reneges on his promise to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters, instead following his heart and wedding Talisa Maeger.
- Catelyn Stark released Jaime Lannister, despite Jaime having murdered one of the Karstark’s sons in cold blood. The Karstarks were previously one of the Stark family’s biggest and most loyal allies.
- When the Karstarks threaten to march home in protest, Robb beheads their leader, Rickard.
- Without the support of the Karstarks, Robb needs the Freys (who he spurned earlier). He agrees to marry his cousin Edmure to one of Walder Frey’s daughters in exchange for military support.
- Roose Bolton, seeing that Robb no longer has control of the North and wanting more power himself, strikes a deal with Tywin Lannister to assist the still-spurned Walder Frey in executing the Starks at Edmure’s reception. This leads to the infamous Red Wedding.
And so fell the Stark family. Ramsay Snow had previously left Winterfell in flames after defeating the Greyjoys. Arya got stuck wandering the countryside with Sandor Clegane. Sansa Stark was left in Kings Landing, still engaged to Joffrey. In all, it wasn’t a great season to be a Northerner unless you were Roose Bolton. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys bought herself an army of Unsullied, castrated slaves trained from childhood to be warriors.
While the Starks were getting beaten down into submission though, Jaime Lannister found himself in a similar boat. Captured by the Boltons (the unequivocal winners of Season 3) following his escape with Brienne of Tarth, he sat helpless as his sword hand was lopped off, leaving him both crippled and humbled. It was final step toward humanizing a character who had before seemed to be cartoonishly villainous, putting him right on par with the Starks we use to know and love pre-Red Wedding.
Season 4: Where Justice Reigns Supreme and the Body Count Builds
Major Deaths: Tywin Lannister (crossbowed to the chest by Tyrion), Joffrey (poisoned at his wedding), Shae (strangled to death, also by Tyrion), Jojen Reed (stabbed by an ice zombie), Ygritte (arrow to the chest from Olly), Oberyn Martell (eyes gouged out and face caved in by The Mountain), The Hound (presumably dead, from wounds suffered in fight with Brienne of Tarth), Lysa Arryn (shoved out the Moon Door by Petyr Baelish)
In terms of sheer numbers, this season featured the most deaths of major characters, with many bearing the theme of justice for the already-dead. Each death represented a character either having finished fulfilling their role, or meeting their deserved fates in an all-too poetic way. Things came to a head though, when Tyrion was forced to go to trial for the murder of Joffrey, a crime he didn’t commit.
Joffrey Baratheon: This one was a no-brainer. Almost four seasons in, Joffrey had become the most hated character in television, spending most of his time sneering, yelling at people, and abusing Sansa for the better part of three seasons. There was a certain justice in seeing him poisoned on his wedding day, especially after a sequence that saw him humiliating Tyrion out of spite in front of half the kingdom.
Tywin Lannister: Tywin carried with him a laundry list of sins, most prominent of which was his role in the Red Wedding. To see him die on the toilet, cross-bowed by none other than his least favorite son Tyrion brought his story to a satisfying end, forever crippling the Lannister family while repaying them for their myriad sins.
Oberyn Martell: It didn’t take long for Oberyn to endear himself to audiences. His hatred for all things Lannister was well-documented, and him stepping in to fight for Tyrion in his trial by combat against the Mountain was heroic to say the least. But his agenda was vengeance for his own family, and in the end he was felled by his own quest for blood. He had brought the Mountain to the ground, and all it would have taken was a well-placed spear to the face. But instead, he wanted his enemy to admit his role in murdering his sister, giving the Mountain enough time to turn the tables and cave Oberyn’s face in. Not quite justice, but a good example of how anyone on the road to revenge had better dig two graves.
Shae: Formerly Tyrion’s lover, she turned on him when he attempted to get her out of Kings Landing for her own safety, and in doing so, she testified against Tyrion at his trial. During Tyrion’s escape (and directly preceding his murder of his father), he found Shae in his father’s bed. The two tussled, ending with Tyrion strangling her to death while tears streamed down his face. It was a horribly touching moment, marking the tragic end of a spurned romance.
Ygritte: Over at the Wall, Jon Snow’s former lover joined a force of Wildlings to break through and head south. In yet another tragic death, she takes an arrow from the youngest ward of the Night’s Watch, Olly, while Jon Snow looks on. All this happens following a climactic battle at the Wall that spanned the entire penultimate episode. The justice here is twisted, in that Jon and Ygritte could never truly be together, and that their relationship would always end with one of their deaths.
Tons went down in Season 4 concerning the idea of just desserts, but plenty else took place as well. Stannis’s army swooped in and saved the Night’s Watch from the Wildling army following a climactic battle, Bran’s storyline finally came to a head after escaping a horde of ice zombies, and Westeros gets a new king in Joffrey’s little brother Tommen.
Season 5: When Jon Snow Died and Everything Was Horrible For Everyone
Major Deaths: Freaking everyone. Sansa Stark and Theon Greyjoy (jumped off the tallest wall in Winterfell in a suicide pact), Stannis Baratheon (killed by Brienne of Tarth after losing in battle to the Boltons), Shireen Baratheon (burned at the stake by Stannis), Selyse Baratheon (hanged herself after watching her daughter burned alive), Meryn Trant (throat-slit by Arya Stark in Braavos), Mance Rayder (burned at the stake by Stannis, then arrowed to the chest by Jon Snow), Ser Barristan Selmy (killed by the Sons of the Harpy in Mereen), Janos Slynt (beheaded by Jon Snow), Maester Aemon (old age), Myrcella Baratheon (poisoned by Ellaria Sand),
For four seasons, Game of Thrones was an Internet darling. It’s widely regarded as a crossover masterpiece, and is the single most-pirated show on television right now. But a series of events has taken place in this season still in session that’s alienated many. For the first time ever, there have been huge diversions away from the books, while characters we love continue to either drop like flies or find themselves in constant peril.
Things start out pretty bad: This culminated in a wildly uncomfortable rape scene between Ramsay Snow and his new wife, Sansa Stark, immediately following the world’s saddest wedding. For a show that’s spent the better part of its run torturing the eldest Stark daughter, it seemed like an unnecessary plot twist that only served to further marginalize the role of women in Game of Thrones.
All this comes in a season where many have complained of slow pacing and directionless plot movement. Up until that episode, very little had really happened to inspire confidence, with most episodes taking place as a series of intense one-on-one conversations. Between Sansa’s rape and little else happening of note, for the first time ever, a show that had previously been an Internet darling saw its primary supporters decrying it as a series finally past its peak. Combine this with Stannis Baratheon mercilessly burning his own young daughter alive at the stake and this season has had moments that have been eminently unwatchable.
And then Winter finally came. For almost five seasons, we’ve heard three words come from numerous characters: Winter is coming. Until the eighth episode of Season 5 though, we never truly saw the evidence. A season that had before seemed generally directionless sharpened the hell up, with the final 15 minutes of episode 8 devoted entirely to Jon Snow and the Wildlings battling with an army of zombies and White Walkers. We officially are treading in non-book territory now, leaving both readers and non-readers alike wondering where the series will go next.
And then things somehow got even worse: All the while, Cersei is forced to walk through the streets of Kings Landing naked in atonement for her sin of “fornication.” Across the Narrow Sea, Tyrion and Daenerys finally meet, making for some of the best dialogue the series has featured to date. It’s an odd match, but one that could become the most powerful alliance in the entire series in terms of charisma and plot movement.
The season closed out with quite possibly the most miserable hour of TV we’ve ever seen, killing off upward of seven major characters inside of an hour. The carnage closed out with Jon Snow getting stabbed repeatedly by a group of mutineers within the Night’s Watch, making everyone wonder what reason they have to continue watching. The entirety of the show’s forward momentum was built around Jon Snow staying alive, making it a curious choice to have him bite the dust.
Season 6: Fan Service Reigns Supreme and We Finally Get Everything We Ever Wanted
Major Deaths: Oh boy. Doran Martell (stabbed in the heart by Ellaria Sand), Roose Bolton (stabbed in the gut by his son Ramsay), Balon Greyjoy (thrown off of a bridge by his brother Euron), Hodor (torn apart by wights), The Blackfish (killed off-screen by Lannister men), Walder Frey (throat-slit by Arya after being fed his sons in a meat pie), Alliser Thorne and the Night’s Watch Mutineers (hanged by Jon), A wildfire explosion orchestrated by Cersei killed Mace, Loras, and Margaery Tyrell, Kevan and Lancel Lannister, and the High Sparrow/Faith Militant, King Tommen (jumped out of a window), Grand Maester Pycelle (stabbed by orphans), Rickon Stark (shot through chest by an arrow from Ramsay), The Waif (killed by Arya, and had her face skinned off after), Osha (throat-slit by Ramsay), Ramsay Bolton (face eaten off by his own hounds)
Season 6 was momentous for a handful of reasons. For the first time ever, Game of Thrones had outstripped George R.R. Martin’s source novels, venturing into previously unexplored territory. Both readers and non-readers alike were left in the dark, while the showrunners were afforded an unprecedented level of creative freedom. The result was a season’s worth of fan service that gave us everything we’ve been waiting on for years now. That list includes:
Surprise! Jon Snow is alive: Fans were understandably angry when Season 5 ended with Jon’s death, especially after an entire run of episodes had established him as a key player in the Game of Thrones endgame. Two episodes into Season 6, he was resurrected by Melisandre, leaving him free to leave the mutinous Night’s Watch to assume his true role as the heir to the Stark’s ancestral home.
Ramsay Bolton gets his stupid face eaten off by hungry dogs: Game of Thrones went far out of its way in the last two seasons to establish Ramsay as the de facto villain of the show. His sins have been extensive, ranging from “skinning innocent old women alive” to “indiscriminate rape and torture,” turning him into the most hated character this side of Joffrey Baratheon. He finally got his just desserts in the end though, with Sansa siccing his own hounds on him for a deservedly gruesome death.
The best episode in Game of Thrones history: The penultimate episode of every season has traditionally been the one with the most going on, and Season 6 was far from an exception to this. In fact, “Battle of the Bastards” quickly became the greatest single hour the show has ever featured, marked by a climactic and beautifully shot battle, and some much-needed redemption for Jon and Sansa. It also wasn’t hurt by killing off of the aforementioned Ramsay Bolton in the final minutes.
Arya avenges the Red Wedding in the most metal way possible: The Red Wedding broke our god damn hearts when it took place seasons ago. It saw the death of a large swathe of the Stark family, and effectively ended any designs of avenging Ned Stark’s beheading. Now three years later, Arya finally served the Freys their just desserts (literally). It wasn’t enough just to kill Walder Frey. No, she freaking fed him his sons in a meat pie a la Sweeney Todd, slitting his throat and leaving him to bleed out and die.
Jon Snow is revealed as a secret Targaryen: Bran Stark’s role in Season 6 revolved largely around a series of flashback visions, with the most important being the Tower of Joy. The short version is that Ned’s sister, Lyanna, eloped with Rhaegar Targaryen, and died giving birth to their child, Jon. Ned then hid Jon from Robert Baratheon as his bastard son, making Jon the true heir to the Iron Throne. Hell. Yes.
Tyrion gets his due: It’s been a long, tough road for Tyrion Lannister. He’s spent the better part of his life hated by own family, and underestimated due to his stature. Now though, he’s risen as a the Hand of the Queen to Daenerys Targaryen, a position that could soon put him a stone’s throw away from ruling Westeros entirely. It was a cathartic season for a fan favorite to say the very least.
At long last, Daenerys ships out to Westeros: We’ve been waiting for Daenerys Targaryen to conquer Westeros for six years. Each time she’s come close, her plans have been delayed, whether by a rebellion in Meereen, or other lofty ambitions in Essos. Season 6 closed out with her on a ship home, backed by an armada, a massive army, and her three fully-grown dragons. From here, it won’t be long until she sits on the Iron Throne, ready to take on the impending White Walker invasion for her first act as queen.
That should about cover us for all six seasons of Game of Thrones! Stay tuned for more as it comes in, and keep checking back in for the most up-to-date information.
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