1. Winter is coming.
On the continent of Westeros, where most of Game of Thrones is set, seasons last, like, forever. When our story begins, it’s been summer for nine years; but as the dearly departed Ned Stark liked to constantly remind us, winter is coming—and it’s gonna be a rough one.
2. Feudalism: Hot right now.
Westeros—which is about 3,000 miles long—is divided into Seven Kingdoms, each overseen by a regional lord. These guys are in turn beholden to the king, who sits on the Iron Throne—a very uncomfortable chair made from the melted-together swords of vanquished enemies. A family called the Targaryens held the royal seat in King’s Landing for almost 300 years, until . . .
3. Rebellion: Even hotter.
A big burly guy called Robert Baratheon, from the house that ruled the Stormlands, led a coup against the king (an unhinged mofo named Aerys) that ended with him on the Iron Throne and the Targaryens all either killed or in exile. This all went down about 20 years before the series began.
The Iron Throne: Coveted
4. Everyone wants that throne.
There’s a reason this show is called Game of Thrones: Everyone is crazy ambitious and wants to rule the world. Season two and three were mostly about a huge civil war in which, following Robert’s death, five different people declared themselves king. (Four of them are dead now. The fifth, Robert’s brother Stannis, is hiding out and licking his wounds.)
Jon Snow: Oppressed, but his hair flows freely
5. The Starks are noble and doomed.
Hailing from the North, this is the first family we get to know. They’re heroic and honorable, which in George R.R. Martin’s world, means they die a lot. Patriarch Ned was beheaded at the end of season one, and his wife, his eldest son and his pregnant daughter-in-law were murdered at a little affair you may have heard of called the Red Wedding.
Who’s left: Two daughters, Sansa and Arya (one held captive in King’s Landing, the other wandering the countryside in disguise); two sons, Bran and Rickon (both presumed dead, but actually hiding out in the North); and Jon Snow, Ned’s illegitimate son who has all that hair everyone’s always talking about.
Identifying traits: Dark hair, terrible luck, wolves for pets, doomed
Tyrion Lannister: Awesome
6. The Lannisters are awesome jerks.
The wealthiest house in Westeros will do anything and everything to get their mitts on power and keep it. Cersei Lannister was married to Robert until he died. Their son Joffrey, who is the worst human ever, succeeded him as king; but surprise! Joff is actually the secret incest child of Cersei and her brother, Jaime, who killed Aerys back in the day. Joff was recently poisoned at his own wedding, and the fate of the throne is up in the air.
Who’s left: Tywin, the ruthless patriarch; Cersei, who’s Queen Regent; Jaime, who lost his hand; and Tyrion, who is a dwarf and also the most awesome person on the show.
Identifying traits: Blond hair, sadistic sneers, clinking gold
Daenerys Targaryen: Don’t touch her dragons
7. The Targaryens are . . . Well, there’s only one of them.
After the Rebellion, Aerys’s last two living heirs, Viserys and Daenerys, were spirited off to the neighboring continent of Essos. Viserys was the worst and died a satisfyingly horrible death in season one. Dany, on the other hand, has gone from terrified child bride of a vicious Dothraki warlord to biggest badass on the series. With a giant army behind her, the Khaleesi is currently freeing slaves in cities all over Essos as she makes her (very, very) slow way to Westeros to reclaim the throne. Oh, and did we mention she’s got three pet dragons who can kill you with fire?
Who’s left: Just Dany. Except, of course, for a century-old man named Maester Aemon who is the resident wise man of the Night’s Watch and has forfeited his title. Speaking of . . .
Identifying traits: White-blond hair, royal bearing, dragons
8. It sucks to be in the Night’s Watch.
North of the North, there’s a massive wall made of ice that was built to hold back the many mythical horrors that live on the other side of it: giants, mammoths, barbarian tribesmen called Wildings and unkillable ice monsters called White Walkers. A motley group of convicts, illegitimate sons and disgraced nobles form a force called the Night’s Watch, are sworn to guard the Wall and basically spend their whole lives being freezing cold and celibate.
Identifying traits: Black outfits, scars, miserable expressions
9. It sucks to be Jon Snow.
At the beginning of the series, Ned’s bastard son was forced to join the Night’s Watch, causing him to be cut off from everything while huge chunks of his family were slaughtered. For the past while, he’s been playing double agent, teaming up with the Wildlings against the Watch. But now he’s back in black, which complicates things with his ex-Wildling lover, Ygritte.
10. Magic is real . . . but not in that Harry Potter way.
Martin’s world is generally a brutal, all-too-real place to live, but there is some supernatural stuff going on: people who go inside the minds of animals, priests who bring people back from the dead, assassins who change their faces, ravens who deliver mail…and did we mention dragons and ice zombies?
11. Sex. So much sex.
Right from the start, Game of Thrones became infamous for what came to be known as “sexposition”—characters explaining tedious background information while a bunch of naked prostitutes did sexy stuff. Westeros and Essos are lousy with brothels, sexual violence, illegitimate children, secret incest…you name it. When the writers get stuck, you can bet that boobs will suddenly appear. Which reminds us…
12. It really sucks to be a woman.
Ladies in Westeros have about as much legitimate power as actual medieval ladies did, which is to say…none. There are a few outliers, like Dany, who seized power when no one would give it to her, and a badass female warrior named Brienne of Tarth who’s basically a knight. But for the most part, women have to quietly manipulate the men in their lives if they want to get anything done. Also, they get sold into marriage like chattel, and Westerosi rape culture is out of control.
13. A few families are 100 percent rotten.
Here are some names to avoid, if you even find yourself in the Seven Kingdoms: The Greyjoys are essentially pirates and will pillage your castle as soon as look at you. The Freys are ruled by a gross old man named Walder who has a million wives and was the host of that whole Red Wedding thing. And the Boltons…well, let’s just say that their main deal is that they flay people for fun.
14. The kingdom truly belongs to the schemers.
Perhaps the only people who know what’s actually going on in Westeros are two members of the king’s council—a eunuch named Varys who oversees a network of spies, and Littlefinger, who from his evil goatee to his vast network of whorehouses is clearly up to no good. They’re closely matched by the Tyrells, a canny political family whose scion, Margaery, has made herself the Kate Middleton of King’s Landing.
15. Valar morghulis.
It’s a phrase repeated throughout the series, and in the invented tongue of High Valyrian, it means “All men must die.” Seriously, everyone. Dozens of major characters have bitten the bullet since the show began, and there are many more to come. Don’t get too attached, because that plucky protagonist that you love? They’re probably broadsword fodder.