Surely you have at least one friend who is, let's say, a fan of HBO's sprawling fantasy series Game of Thrones. Maybe they read the books, maybe they just watch the show, but either way they are a bit, ahem, evangelical about the program. I'm sure many of you have thus dismissed the show, justifiably annoyed by your friends' loud insistence that you watch. But some of you might have been worn down enough to finally relent and say "OK, OK, I'll watch it." Which is exciting. But the third season premiere is this Sunday, meaning you only have a little time to prepare. To aid you in your epic journey, we've put together a little primer to help you understand what you're watching in the first two seasons without having to read the damn books.
For the most part, we're in a place called Westeros, a medieval-esque, European-type land with a central king ruling the Seven Kingdoms. There is an immense wall in the north of Westeros that separates the "civilized" Seven Kingdoms from the wilds of Beyond the Wall, a wintry realm full of marauding wildlings and, some suspect, menacing, icy magicks. (More on that later.) The seat of power for the Seven Kingdoms is in the Mediterranean-esque capital city of King's Landing (the show shoots some of those scenes in coastal Croatia, for an aesthetic picture), but there are powerful Houses scattered throughout. Of chief importance to our story is House Stark in the north, home to some of our main heroes. They're a rugged bunch, living in the north as they do, but much respected throughout the Seven Kingdoms.
Across the Narrow Sea, to the east of Westeros, we have a Eurasian-esque continent called Essos, which has decidedly non-Western (in our terms or theirs) customs and practices. There are merchant cities, slaver cities, once-glorious fallen kingdoms, and nomadic, horse-riding war tribes known as Dothraki. The geography of this place expands greatly in the books and in the series, but don't worry, only a few select places really matter so far. They are the port city of Pentos, the grassy Dothraki Sea, a hot desert called the Red Waste, and the mysterious city of Qarth, where we spend a decent portion of the second season.
Oh and it is of crucial importance to note that seasons in this world don't last a uniform or even dependable amount of time. Winter can last a year or twenty, summer can drag on for a decade. There is really no way of predicting how long any one season will last. But the Starks, being pragmatic northerners, have a simple family saying: "Winter is coming." So, take that as a hint, perhaps.
As mentioned, the Stark family is our main set of protagonists. They are led by Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean on the show), the lord of Winterfell (the castle where he and his people live) and Warden of the North. Meaning, he's the big guy up there. He and his dutiful but strong-willed wife Catelyn have five children. Robb is the eldest and is thus the heir. Sansa is an early teen who likes dresses and other princessy things. Arya is an impetuous tomboy who wants to learn things that her brothers learn, especially sword fighting. Bran is an adventurer who wants to be strong and brave like his father. He's named after Brandon Stark, Ned's older brother who was Catelyn's original betrothed but was killed in a war a decade and a half before the start of the story. (We'll get to that.) And Rickon is the baby. So far, Rickon has not done much of anything.
Also at Winterfell is Jon Snow, a bastard son that Ned supposedly fathered while away at war. Jon is about Robb's age and the two are pals and he is beloved by his other siblings, but Catelyn has never taken to him for obvious reasons. There is one pervading theory on the Internet about who Jon's mother is that you are free to find and read if you like. (It gives away a lot though, if you're spoiler phobic.) And then there is Theon Greyjoy, who is what the series refers to as a ward. His father, ruler of the remote and warlike Iron Islands (they are technically part of the Seven Kingdoms, but fiercely value their independence, conquered as they were — think Ireland, with vikings and a war god), led a rebellion against the Iron Throne (the euphemism for Seven Kingdoms' seat of power) that was violently quelled. As punishment, and protection against further attack, the Starks took Theon as something of a gentle captive. They would teach him and raise him to be a proper lord, but he is also an insurance plan. Theon is buddies with Jon and Robb, but has not forgotten why he's there.
Sitting on that Iron Throne is Ned's friend and war buddy Robert Baratheon. Together they led a victorious rebellion against the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, who killed Ned's brother and father, Robert becoming the new king in the process. Robert was betrothed to Ned's sister Lyanna, but she died under mysterious circumstances during the conflict. (Supposedly after being kidnapped by one of Aerys's sons, Rheagar.) Season one of the show starts about sixteen or seventeen years after all that, with Robert married to Cersei, a daughter of House Lannister, an extremely wealthy and powerful family run by Tywin Lannister. Cersei's dashing, cocky twin brother Jaime is always by her side. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.) While her brother Tyrion is a "half man," a dwarf tolerated only because of his high birth. The sharpest intellect in the game, Tyrion is a majorly important character throughout.
Robert and Cersei have two sons, the petulant teen Joffery and young, harmless Tommen. King Robert also has two brothers. There's young upstart Renly, who is arrogant and pushy. (And has a seemingly very close friendship with a young knight named Loras Tyrell, from the mighty House Tyrell, a family that will come to matter particularly this season.) And there's Stannis Baratheon, the stern and serious middle brother who does not show up until the second season. You'll find out why when you watch the first.
OK, so remember the Targaryen king, the one Robert and Ned helped unseat? Well most people believe that all of his heirs — meaning all of the once mighty Targaryen dynasty, the ones who used to ride dragons — are dead. But, of course, they are wrong. Hiding out across the Narrow Sea, biding their time, are the siblings Daenerys and Viserys. Viserys wants to take the Iron Throne back no matter what it takes, even if it means selling his sister to Khal Drogo, leader of a Dothraki horde. She will become Drogo's queen (essentially) and in return (supposedly...) Drogo will help his new brother-in-law reclaim his family's kingdom. Getting a Targaryen back to Westeros is one of the big arcs of the series, one that takes us through a lot of the land across the Narrow Sea. The important thing to remember is that it is ultimately (at least in theory) pointed back toward Westeros and that spiky, sword-y throne.
And of course there are myriad lesser characters, many of whom nonetheless play important roles on occasion. Catelynn has a kinda crazy sister named Lysa whose husband's death essentially starts the action of the series. In King's Landing there are many movers and shakers in the court, sneaky and shadowy viziers like the gossipy eunuch Varys and the scheming Littlefinger, who knew Catelyn growing up and has a thing for her. There are also people who guard that big Wall, all men who have "taken the black," meaning monastically and militarily devoted their lives to defending Westeros from what lies in the north. Which brings us to...
In George R.R. Martin's books, the history and culture of these places is rich and extensive and fascinating, but there are only a few fundamentals you need to know in order to enjoy the television series.
Magic: There once was magic in the world, but it's long been dormant. So much so that most people thing it's all merely legend and fairy tale. People know that there were in fact dragons once, but no one has seen one in many years. There are supposed mystics in the east, ones that Daenerys and company will encounter, but as far as most Westerosi are concerned, magic is dead. Of course, they're mistaken. Magic indeed begins to creep back into the world as the story gets going, the first truly significant moment occurring in the first season finale. Particular people to keep an eye on for this kind of stuff: Bran, Arya, Jon, and Daenerys.
Religion: There are several competing religions in Game of Thrones, all of which have their narrative significance throughout the story. The Starks and many in the north believe in the Old Gods, the ones native to Westeros who exist in nature, in trees in particular. Neither benevolent nor malevolent, they are simply the elemental spirits of the world. The Seven is the more newfangled faith predominant throughout the rest of Westeros. (The Baratheons and the Lannisters and the Tyrells all practice, e.g.) This is a single god broken up into seven parts — The Father, the Mother, the Crone, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Smith, the Stranger. The religion has churches and cathedrals, called septs (run by septons), and is basically a mix of Christianity and ancient Roman beliefs. On the Iron Islands they believe only in the Drowned God, a fearsome ocean deity who demands sacrifice. And then there is R'hllor, Lord of Light, a largely foreign god new to Westeros whose acolytes begin to play an increasingly important role in season two. All light and fire, R'hllor is essentially the polar opposite of whatever powers dwell Beyond the Wall.
Beyond the Wall: Old legends have it that terrible things live in the way, way north — giant snow spiders and other nasty creatures, plus the White Walkers, fearsome... somethings, mysterious as they are deadly. So the people of old built the towering, expansive Wall to protect themselves. But in the many years of relative peace since, belief in the magic Beyond the Wall has seriously waned. The tradition of taking the black and defending the Wall continues, though it too is waning. Most people in Westeros don't much care about what happens all the way up there, so the guards, called the Night's Watch, are left underfunded and staffed with the dregs, mostly criminals given a choice between the Wall or death. Most of their skirmishes are with the tribes of free people who live Beyond the Wall, standoffish folk who the Westerosi call wildlings. Other more sinister activity Beyond the Wall begins to occur pretty much immediately at the start of the story, though we still don't know exactly what is happening, or why it is. The whole book series is called A Song of Ice and Fire, so it's a good guess that whatever is happening up there is of chief, chief importance.
Science: There is slightly less religious academic pursuit in Westeros, the monkish men devoted to learning called maesters. When they've finished their studies, they are largely sent to advise lords and tutor the privileged young. The three important maesters you will see on the show are: Maester Pycelle, who is on the King's Council; Maester Aemon, a wizened member of the Night's Watch; and Maester Luwin, tutor to Bran and the rest of the Stark kids.
Now that you know the bare bones of the world, here is what you need to know about season one. Or specifically what to really pay attention to. Ned becomes the Hand of the King, meaning second in command, after Cateyln's brother-in-law, John Arryn, dies suddenly. (And mysteriously, of course.) Though he doesn't really want the job, Ned goes. He brings his two daughters, Sansa and Arya, with him to King's Landing, so they can learn to be proper ladies. Sansa, in fact, is quickly betrothed to Joffrey, the someday king. Ned becomes involved in a web of palace intrigue related to John's death that will have dire consequences for his family and the kingdom at large. Meanwhile, Jon, the shunned bastard, takes the black and watches firsthand from the Wall as wintry magic seeps back into Westeros. At Winterfell, Bran begins to have strange dreams...
Across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys must marry Khal Drogo, at first resisting but eventuall, with the comfort of her husband and the aid of Jorah, an exiled Westerosi knight, she grows accustomed to her new role. All while her brother unravels, consumed with vengeance. Early on in the season, Daenerys is given an all-important gift that will have huge ramifications by season's end, and throughout the series.
Essential Episodes: "Winter Is Coming" (Ep. 1), "A Golden Crown" (Ep. 6), "You Win or You Die" (Ep. 7), "Baelor" (Ep. 9), "Fire and Blood" (Ep. 10)
With the scene at King's Landing a chaotic mess, the Starks are scattered to the four winds and war rages throughout Westeros. The Night's Watch ventures out Beyond the Wall to learn what they can of the ominous signs that something wicked is returning with winter. Across the Sea, a newly empowered Daenerys travels deeper into strange lands in search of the tools to bring her victoriously back to Westeros. We get our first glimpse of the Iron Islands in season two, as a conflict rumbles in the north. Meanwhile, Stannis and R'hllor make themselves known on Westeros's east coast, setting the stage for a massive showdown.
Essential Episodes: "The Night Lands" (Ep. 2), "Garden of Bones" (Ep. 4), "Old Gods and the New" (Ep. 6), "Blackwater" (Ep. 9), "Valar Morghulis" (Ep. 10)