Picture for a moment the following hypothetical. It’s June. The sun is finally starting to come out, you’re spending your off-time at the beach, and all of your friends won’t shut the hell up about Game of Thrones. You’ve never watched it before. But god dammit they have. By the time the season finale rolls around every year, you’re left standing on the sidelines while your friends babble on about things you neither know nor care to understand. Thankfully, we’re here to help on all fronts.
Catching up on a show six years after the fact can be a daunting task. So instead, we’re going to run you through Game of Thrones, beat-by-beat, and season-by-season. And because every good story starts from the beginning, let’s kick things off with Season 1. First…
For the inaugural Game of Thrones season, the Starks are introduced as our de facto main characters. Sean Bean, as the most recognizable actor in the whole cast, is the central focus early on, while his family slowly but surely gets scattered to the four corners of the known world. It seems only appropriate that the series sets the tone early on, driving home one indelible point: If you’re watching this show for a happy ending, you’ve come to the wrong place.
This brings us back to the Stark story. Westeros is a nation fresh off of a civil war, now ruled by King Robert Baratheon. Robert arrives at the ancestral home of the Starks with his own family in tow, visiting his old friend and war buddy Ned (Sean Bean). As it turns out, Robert has traveled all this way to ask Ned to head south to King’s Landing to be Hand of the King (basically the King’s closest advisor), following the mysterious death of Jon Arryn, the man who previously held the job. Ned says yes, and that sets off a chain of events that will spell death and misery for the Starks for seasons to come.
The short version:
Ned Stark: Gets his head chopped off after discovering Queen Cersei’s children were all products of incest with her twin brother, Jaime.
Sansa (the oldest Stark daughter): After Cersei arranges for Robert’s death, Sansa is engaged to her terrible son and now-king, Joffrey.
Arya (the youngest Stark daughter): Arya manages to escape King’s Landing, but not before she witnesses her father’s beheading from the crowd. Disguised as an orphan boy, she heads back north to seek out what remains of her family.
Robb (the oldest Stark son): Never left Winterfell, but vows revenge on the royal family for killing his father. Rallies a force of bannermen behind him who declare him the King in the North.
Bran (the middle Stark son): After he accidentally stumbles in on Jaime and Cersei mid-coitus, Jaime pushes Bran from a tower window, permanently paralyzing him from the waist down.
Rickon (the youngest Stark): Back at Winterfell? Rickon never really gets a chance to matter much to anyone.
Jon (Ned’s bastard son): Sworn his life to the Night’s Watch, an ancient order tasked with manning a 700-foot-high ice wall on the northern-most border of Westeros.
Catelyn (Ned’s wife): With Robb, setting out to avenge the death of Ned.
So yeah. That’s how Game of Thrones likes to treat its “heroes.”
While the Starks are getting beaten down over in Westeros, there’s another family having their own issues out east in Essos. Remember that civil war we were talking about? Well, the Targaryens were the ones who were overthrown, and there are just two living members of the family left alive, Viserys and Daenerys. The rest of their family was summarily murdered by Robert and his allies, so needless to say they’re a little out at sea so-to-speak. Still though, they’re not without their allies.
Viserys fancies himself the heir to the Iron Throne, and views his younger sister, Daenerys, as a tool he can utilize to accomplish this end. Unfortunately, he also inherited some of the crazy passed down from his father, who was not-so-lovingly known in Westeros as the Mad King. This makes him irritable, often irrational, and at times, unpredictable, which aren’t exactly qualities you want in a ruler.
But this story also isn’t really about Viserys. No, this is Daenerys’s tale, and as Season 1 progresses, we start to see that take shape. Viserys marries his sister off to Khal Drogo, the ruler of a roving band of warriors known as the Dothraki. What he didn’t plan on was his sister realizing her power as a Dothraki queen, after a lifetime of being cast as a timid tool for her brother’s ambitions. After eating a raw horse heart (Dothraki traditions are weird, yo), she gains the trust of her newly-minted husband, and seizes power for herself. Viserys of course isn’t all too pleased, demanding the golden crown promised to him when he married off his sister. Drogo obliges, pouring molten gold over the elder Targaryen’s head, effectively ending his bid for the Iron Throne.
Because this is Game of Thrones though, things are far from happy when this plot thread wraps up. Drogo falls ill from an infected wound, and Dany misguidedly enlists the help of a witch to save him. That witch also happened to be holding a Dothraki-centric grudge, making it so the ensuing black magic she used killed Daenerys’s unborn child, and left Drogo alive but also a motionless shell of his former self.
With three dragon eggs in hand (it was a wedding gift, don’t question it), Dany jumps on her husband’s funeral pyre in the closing moments of the season. She somehow emerges unscathed, holding three adorable newborn dragons (aka the entire Game of Thrones special effects budget for Season 1).
Tyrion Lannister (the one you’re actually rooting for every step of the way)
Sure, the Starks are the central characters of Season 1’s story, but as a family, their life philosophy can be kind of a buzzkill. Tyrion Lannister, on the other hand, lives life to the fullest, and we love him for it on a regular basis. He’s the youngest son of Westeros’s richest family, loves to party, and has a million-dollar smile that can light up a room. He’s also a dwarf, which sadly isn’t looked upon favorably in the Game of Thrones universe.
In Season 1, Tyrion gets his own little side quest while the Starks and Targaryens are busy with their own stuff. His journey starts at Winterfell, before he’s taken captive by Catelyn Stark, who suspects him of trying to kill her son Bran (spoiler alert: He was framed). He’s imprisoned at the Eyrie, the home of Catelyn’s sister Lysa (and the widow of Jon Arryn). Tyrion is then put on trial for his alleged crimes, before invoking his right for a trial-by-combat. A roguish bannerman named Bronn steps in to represent him, defeating Lysa’s champion and absolving Tyrion per the laws of Westeros.
Tyrion’s self-contained adventure paints him as a fan-favorite from the get-go. As an audience, he’s a solid “in” for understanding the Game of Thrones universe and how it works, buoyed by a charismatic performance from Peter Dinklage. All in all, the youngest Lannister carries the torch as character whose survival is tied directly to our will to watch the series.
And that about wraps up the first season of Game of Thrones. Pretty great, right?
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