It's been nearly a year since Game of Thrones was on our screens, and that's a long time to keep the complexities of Westerosi politics straight in your head. And there's less than two weeks left before the show returns. Don't have time to marathon the first 30 episodes before April 6? We've got a quick refresher for you.
Warning: There will be total, merciless spoilers for the first three seasons of Game of Thrones below — but no spoilers for season four or beyond. Also, we assume you know who Tyrion Lannister and Arya Stark and Daenerys Targaryen are, and that you've already been following the show somewhat. You can also read all our recaps of the first 30 episodes here.
1. Robert's Rebellion
When the show begins, we meet King Robert Baratheon, toward the end of his reign. But we hear about the previous king: Aerys II, usually referred to as the Mad King, who had a habit of burning people to death. Including Ned Stark's father. The conflict blew up when King Aerys' son Rhaegar kidnapped Ned Stark's sister Lyanna, who was engaged to marry Robert Baratheon. In the ensuing conflict, Lyanna was killed, along with Rhaegar and almost all of the Targaryens.
At the end of the war, King Aerys was holed up in King's Landing, safe behind the city walls, when Lord Tywin Lannister arrived with some soldiers, claiming to be loyal to the King. Lord Varys advised the King not to let Tywin enter, but Grand Maester Pycelle advised the King to trust Tywin. And after the King let Tywin in, Tywin betrayed him. As a last act of revenge, Aerys decided to burn the city down, killing everyone inside. But Jaime Lannister, his guard, killed the Mad King rather than let him burn everyone to death.
2. How many Targaryens are left?
The main survivors of the Targaryen line appear to have been Prince Viserys, Prince Rhaegar's brother, and his sister Daenerys. Viserys, of course, married his sister off to Khal Drogo, a ruler of the Dothraki people, and wound up goading Drogo into murdering him — before Drogo himself died.
Just when Daenerys' cause seemed hopeless, she managed to hatch the three dragon eggs that were her wedding gift, on Drogo's funeral pyre. Since then, she's amassed an army of the Unsullied, eunuch slave solders whom she freed, and she also freed the slave city of Astapor. She won over the mercenary, Daario Naharis, who betrayed his commanders and brought his company of "sellswords," the Second Sons, over to her side.
There's one other surviving Targaryen that we know of: Maester Aemon, the Maester of the Night's Watch, who gave up his family title to "Take the Black" and join the fighting force that defends the Wall protecting the North of Westeros from the frozen terrors that lay beyond. More about the Night's Watch in a moment.
3. Remember this guy?
This is Jon Arryn. We never really met him, because he was poisoned at the very start of the first episode. Jon Arryn was the Hand of the King for years, under King Robert, until he died and was replaced by Ned Stark.
When Ned Stark took over as Hand of the King, he decided to try and find out who poisoned his predecessor, and that led to Ned Stark finding out that King Robert's three children were actually the incestuous bastard offspring of Queen Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister. Jon Arryn had previously figured that out, as well.
We still don't know who murdered Jon Arryn, although he may have died because he knew too much.
We do know that Queen Cersei caused her husband King Robert's death, after Ned warned her that he knew about her children's parentage. And when Ned tried to unseat Cersei's eldest son Joffrey, he was betrayed by Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish. Cersei planned to have Ned "Take the Black" and join the Night's Watch, but instead King Joffrey had him executed.
Oh, and Jon Arryn's wife is still alive — she's Lysa Arryn, the sister of Catelyn Stark. In season one, when Catelyn captured Tyrion Lannister, she took Tyrion to Lysa's inhospitable castle, the Eyrie, where Lysa put Tyrion on trial and almost threw him out the Moon Door. Lysa is fiercely protective of her young son, Robin, whom she still breastfeeds.
4. About the Night's Watch
There's a huge massive wall along the northern frontier of Westeros, separating the realm from the lawless wilderness beyond. And the Wall is guarded by the Night's Watch, a once-great company of ascetic fighters who have given up land, titles, family ties, love and sex to defend the land.
Ned Stark's brother, Benjen Stark, was First Ranger of the Night's Watch — until he went North of the Wall on a scouting expedition and never returned.
Ned's bastard son Jon Snow also joined the Night's Watch, but his arrogance and eagerness to defend the weakling Samwell Tarly irritated his trainer, Ser Alliser Thorne. Jon Snow went North with a huge party of soldiers led by the Lord Commander, Jeor Mormont. Most of the company was slaughtered, and Jon Snow was forced to kill his superior, Qhorin Halfhand, and go undercover with the Wildlings.
The Wildlings, incidentally, live North of the Wall in a state of total lawlessness. Except that recently, they've joined into a massive army to attack the Wall, under the leadership of Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, who used to be a member of the Night's Watch until he defected. Their army includes giants and some formidable fighters, including Rattleshirt, the Lord of Bones and the gruff Tormund Giantsbane. And Styr, the Magnar of Thenn. Also, Mance's troops included Orell, a "skinchanger" who could send his mind into a bird, and Ygritte, a young woman.
Jon Snow struck up a romance with Ygritte, and got sent on a scouting mission South of the Wall with Tormund, Orell and Ygritte. When they were terrorizing some innocent townspeople who supplied the Night's Watch, Jon betrayed his comrades and killed Orell, escaping back to the Wall.
Meanwhile, the remaining survivors of the Lord Commander's party were staying with Craster, the evil Wildling who marries his daughters and sacrifices his sons to the Others, and they fought amongst themselves. Pretty much everyone was killed except for Jon's friend Samwell, who escaped with Craster's daughter Gilly and her son. When they were attacked by one of the Others, seeking Craster's son, Samwell killed the Other with a piece of Dragonglass (obsidian) that he'd found.
5. So what are the Others?
We still do not know much about the Others, also known as the White Walkers. There are lots of ancient legends about them. They seem to be ancient and intelligent, plotting a takeover of Westeros when winter descends. They can reanimate the dead and turn them into an army of "Wights". It's possible to make deals with them as Craster did, sacrificing his sons to them.
The Red Priestess Melisandre seems to believe in an ancient prophesy about Azor Ahai Reborn, the Prince Who is Promised, who will fight against the Others and save everyone. Melisandre believes that King Stannis, whom she serves, will be this savior. But more on that in a moment.
6. So is King Joffrey pretty much secure on his throne now?
After Joffrey became King, he faced a lot of challengers. Ned Stark's son Robb named himself King in the North and led a rebellion. His uncles, Stannis and Renly, both claimed the throne on the grounds that Joffrey was a bastard. Daenerys had the strongest claim to the throne of all, since she was a Targaryen.
But Robb Stark's rebellion failed, and he got killed at a wedding (more on that in a moment). Stannis killed Renly using Melisandre's sorcery. Stannis' attack on King's Landing failed because his ships were ambushed with the magical wildfire. Daenerys seems to be too busy freeing slaves in Essos.
But that doesn't mean Joffrey doesn't face stormclouds on the horizon. Mance Rayder wants to invade South, and there are also the Others. The North won't forgive him for executing Ned Stark. Daenerys might eventually come to Westeros.
7. How many religions are there in Westeros?
Religion gets talked about a lot in Game of Thrones.
In the North, they worship the Old Gods, who speak to them through weirwood trees. The Old Gods also seem to be connected to stories of the Others in some unknown way. And Bran Stark, Ned's disabled son, seems to have mystical powers that come from a connection to this old magic — he can send his mind into his pet direwolf, same as Orell, and he has prophetic dreams that often feature a three-eyed crow. Bran, along with his servant Hodor and his friends Jojen and Meera, are traveling North of the Wall to look for the three-eyed crow.
In the South, they mostly seem to worship the Seven Gods, or the new gods (not to be confused with the DC Comics characters). These are the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Smith, the Crone and the Stranger. The worship of the Seven Gods is administered by Septons and Septas, and the leader of the church is the High Septon. (Before she died, Arya and Sansa Stark were watched over by a Septa.)
But then there's also the Red God, R'hllor. Aka the Lord of Light. He's a foreign god, who comes from Essos, but his worship is spreading in Westeros. Melisandre worships him, and performs sacrifices in his name for King Stannis. Also, the Brotherhood Without Banners, a vigilante group led by Lord Beric Dondarrion, worship the Lord of Light — and their priest, Thoros of Myr, has brought Lord Beric back to life several times after he's been killed.
As we mentioned earlier, there are prophesies that a hero, Azor Ahai Reborn, will fight the icy threat coming from the North. Melisandre thinks this is Stannis.
8. What is Lord Varys' game?
Lord Varys is a eunuch from the East, who is so good at spying and finding out stuff that he's gotten onto the King's Small Council, in a position of influence. He was even able to take revenge on the sorcerer who castrated him — an event that still causes him to hate anyone who claims to wield magical powers, such as Stannis' witch Melisandre.
Varys told Ned Stark back in season one that his only loyalty is to the realm, and he also told Tyrion a riddle that basically indicates that power is illusory, only real if you believe in it.
But back in season one, Ned's daughter Arya Stark saw Lord Varys conspiring in a hidden tunnel with Illyrio Mopaitis, the merchant who arranged Daenerys' marriage to Khal Drogo. So it appears that Varys is a supporter of Daenerys.
9. What was the Red Wedding?
You probably remember the Red Wedding — it was that nasty business where Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark and Robb's wife Talisa got murdered, along with a bunch of their people. But who were the other players?
Robb had promised to marry the daughter of Lord Walder Frey, an important lord who controls the Twins, a strategically important castle. (And a guy who has a lot of daughters.) But instead, Robb married Lady Talisa, because she was hot and had medical skills. To try and make amends and get some more soldiers, Robb offered to have his uncle, Lord Edmure Tully, marry one of Lord Frey's daughters instead.
After the wedding slaughter, Edmure Tully (Catelyn's brother) is a prisoner of Walder Frey. He's the incompetent jerk who sacrificed a bunch of his men to capture a worthless mill. Catelyn's uncle, Brynden "The Blackfish" Tully, escaped from the slaughter and remains at large.
The biggest betrayal in the whole fiasco was probably Lord Roose Bolton — he was one of Robb's main supporters, even though he was constantly wanting to flay their prisoners alive and Robb wouldn't let him. (Flaying is House Bolton's thing.) When Lord Bolton saw that Robb was losing, he sent the captive Jaime Lannister back home to his family (minus a hand) and made a deal with Jaime's father Tywin to betray Robb. Roose personally killed Robb Stark.
Also, when Roose's bastard son Ramsay recaptured Winterfell and captured the traitor Theon Greyjoy, instead of handing Theon over to Robb he kept Theon as his own prisoner and did some rather unspeakable things to him.
Speaking of which...
10. Who are the Ironborn?
Theon Greyjoy is the son of Lord Balon Greyjoy, who rules over the Iron Islands from his unpleasant castle on Pyke. The Iron Islanders, also called the Ironborn, are basically glorified pirates who take what they want and disdain any kind of courtly manners or compromise. They have a lot of rituals involving ocean baptism, and phrases like "What is dead may never die."
After King Robert took the Iron Throne, Lord Balon led a revolt, which was crushed. All of Balon's sons except Theon were killed, and Theon was taken as a hostage, to be raised by Ned Stark. When Robb started his rebellion, he thought it was a good idea to send Theon home to his family to enlist their aid. It wasn't. Theon wound up on a ship with a scurvy rogue named Dagmer Cleftjaw, and to try and impress his men, he took over Winterfell and fake-killed Robb's brothers Bran and Rickon. (Actually, Bran and Rickon got away.)
Theon's sister Yara vowed to go look for him and save him, a development that doesn't quite happen that way in the books.
11. What is Littlefinger's game?
Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish seems to be one of the characters who's one step ahead of almost everybody else. Littlefinger grew up with Catelyn Stark, and was in love with her — earning himself a giant scar on his chest when he tangled with Ned Stark's late brother Brandon. Now Littlefinger is a powerful lord in King's Landing as well as the proprietor of the biggest brothels.
Littlefinger betrayed Ned Stark, sending him to his death. He also helped to broker the peace that brought the Tyrell family over to the cause of King Joffrey, after Margaery Tyrell's husband Renly was murdered. He's been rewarded with more lands and titles, and when last we saw him, Littlefinger was sailing off to the Vale of Arryn, to propose marriage to Lisa Arryn, Catelyn's sister.
Littlefinger tried to offer his protection to Sansa Stark, and even offered to take her with him to the Vale of Arryn, where her aunt lives. Sansa declined, because she had a secret plan to marry Ser Loras Tyrell, the Knight of Flowers. (Actually, it was a plan hatched by Varys and the sharp-tongued Lady Olenna Tyrell, Loras' grandmother.)
Of course, Littlefinger managed to reveal Sansa's wedding plans to Tywin Lannister, who promptly married Sansa off to his son Tyrion. So now maybe Sansa wishes she'd taken Littlefinger up on his offer to get her out of town.
12. Who are the Cleganes?
We've barely seen the two of them together, but Sandor "The Hound" Clegane and Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane are brothers. When they were kids, Gregor burned Sandor's face horribly, and now Sandor is afraid of fire. They don't really get along. We saw them tangle at the Hand of the King's tournament back in season one.
Sandor was Joffrey's bodyguard, and formed a bit of a bond with Sansa Stark, at one point rescuing her from a gang that wanted to rape her during the Flea Bottom riots. When Tyrion used wildfire to win the Battle of Blackwater, Sandor was horrified by all the flames, and decided to flee the city. He tried to convince Sansa Stark to come with him, but she wouldn't.
Later, The Hound got captured by the Brotherhood Without Banners, who also had Arya as their guest. After he survived trial by combat, the Hound stole Arya away from the Brotherhood, and tried to deliver her to her family's big wedding at Walder Frey's castle. That plan failed, since he arrived just in time for the Red Wedding.
As for Gregor, we haven't seen too much of him yet, but his brutality is legendary, including some of the terrible deeds he did during Robert's Rebellion.
13. What's all this "Valar Morghulis" stuff?
"Valar Morghulis" means "All men must die" in High Valyrian, and the customary answer is "Valar Dohaeris," or "All men must serve."
This phrase was taught to Arya Stark by Jaqen H'ghar, the assassin whom she saved when he's a prisoner of the Night's Watch. When she's stuck at Harrenhal Castle, Jaqen offered to kill three people for Arya, to repay her for saving his life and the lives of two criminals.
After Arya escaped from Harrenhal, Jaqen offered to take her to Braavos to be trained by the Faceless Men, a secret society of assassins. She declined, but he gave her a coin and told her to give it to anyone from Braavos and say "Valar Morghulis" if she changed her mind. Then Jaqen revealed that he had the power to change his face at will, and said "Jaqen is dead."
The other person we've met from Braavos was Arya's sword-fighting instructor from season one, Syrio Forel, who taught her to say "Not today" to death. There's some speculation that Jaqen is Syrio, but nobody knows for sure.
14. Some other minor characters you should remember.
Daenerys has three alpha males vying for her favor. There's Jorah Mormont, who was banished from Westeros after he sold some people as slaves, and now helps her free the slaves of Essos. There's Barristan Selmy, who was on King Robert's Kingsguard but was dismissed by Joffrey. And there's Daario Naharis, the sellsword who betrayed his comrades to join her. She also has an awesome translator, Missandei.
Stannis Baratheon's most loyal servant is a guy named Ser Davos Seaworth, who's become Stannis' Hand of the King and has been learning to read. He's friends with Stannis' daughter, and has apparently convinced Stannis to go north to the Wall, to fight the Others.
King Robert's bastard son Gendry is a blacksmith, who was with the Brotherhood Without Banners until they handed him over to Melisandre. He narrowly escaped being sacrificed, and is now fleeing back to King's Landing.
Brienne of Tarth, the woman who wears armor and fights like a man, was devoted to Renly but got blamed for his death. She swore her loyalty to Catelyn Stark and escorted Jaime Lannister back to King's Landing, after a pitstop where they were captured by Roose Bolton's men. (One of whom, a sadistic bastard named Locke, cut off Jaime's hand.)
Tyrion's squire Podrick is the guy who was such a great lover, Littlefinger's sex workers wouldn't take any money from him. He also saved Tyrion's life. And Tyrion's bodyguard, Bronn, seems to be coming up in the world since he was a hero of the Battle of the Blackwater.
We already mentioned Grand Maester Pycelle in passing — he's the advisor on the Small Council who appears to be a doddering old fool, but is actually sharper and more vigorous than anyone. Tyrion threw him in a cell, but he's gotten out since then and has a bit of a grudge. (Thanks for mentioning him, Mweyer!)
Also, when Tyrion was cleaning house, he got rid of Janos Slynt, the former head of the city's Gold Cloaks, who betrayed Ned Stark and also carried out the murder of all King Robert's bastards for Joffrey. Tyrion sent Janos Slynt north to join the Night's Watch, and we haven't seen him since then. (Thanks for the reminder, Pontifex!)
Some images and info from Game of Thrones Wiki