Game of Thrones for Newbies: We Put a Complicated Show in Familiar Terms

Photo: Nick briggs

(Warning for jaded fans of George R.R. Martin’s books: This post is for people coming to the show with no prior knowledge. Experts should go here for their preshow talking points.)

HBO’s new show Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s multi-volume fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice and Fire, begins this Sunday night. Fans of the books are very excited and have been squeeing about the series to anyone who will listen: It’s an epic, complex, gritty tale of politics and power, with just a dash of the mystical thrown in. It’s like Lord of the Rings for grown-ups! While all this fanboy excitement is coming from a good place, it makes the series sound overwhelming. How many pages are these books again? (Over 4,000 and counting.) And there’s no ending yet? (Well, no … ) And what’s it about? (So, about a thousand years before the first book starts, there were people living on this continent who worshipped … ) By trumpeting Game of Thrones’ uniqueness, aficionados may be doing it a bit of a marketing disservice: It seems like a lot of work to get invested. But though, yes, Game is sprawling, vast, contains hundreds of characters, and is a sort of realpolitik Lord of the Rings, it’s not that complicated. To prove it, we’ve put the plot in familiar terms (Dallas, Where the Wild Things Are, Cinderella, etc.) that should make it seem a bit more manageable.

Here is a simple synopsis of the basic premise of Game of Thrones. (Inevitably, there are some spoilers, but not many, and not big ones. We’re trying to avoid plot and just stick to setup.)

Game of Thrones mostly takes place on the continent of Westeros, which is divided into a number of sub-kingdoms. (It’s based on fifteenth-century England, but think a feudal EU that’s the size of South America.) Way up North, there is a freezing no-man’s-land (Where the Wild Things Are meets the Ice planet Hoth) populated by dangerous creatures divided from the rest of the country by a huge wall (like the proposed Mexican-American wall, if it worked and was meant to keep out monsters, not people).

While this will all get much more complicated, when the show opens, we’re dealing with three families.
•The Starks (close-knit, big, a militarized The Waltons who wear pelts).
•They are visited by King Robert Baratheon (King Ralph, but both drunker and more regal), and his wife’s family, the Lannisters (a scheming, Machiavellian gang that plots like they’re on medieval Dallas).
• Meanwhile, across the ocean, on another continent, the exiled, former royal Targaryens (nutty, delusional, could be related to the protagonist of Nabokov’s Pale Fire) are trying to raise an army to go get their throne back.

There are two Targaryens:
•The creepy Viserys (Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator).
• His younger sister Daenerys (she starts all Memoirs of a Geisha, unknowing and sexually inexperienced, but will grow into being a badass Joan of Arc. Or, like a Peggy Olsen who speaks to dragons). Viserys is marrying his sister off to Khal Drogo (ambiguously ethnic Genghis Khan) in return for an army.

There are way more Starks:
•The father, Ned Stark (Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings, confused by the fact that Sean Bean, who plays Ned, was also in Lord of the Rings).
• He’s married to Catelyn Stark (protective political wife à la Elizabeth Edwards).
•They have a mess of kids: Robb Stark (big, protective brother with political ambitions, like a teenage JFK).
• Sansa Stark (prissy, annoying Amy March from Little Women).
• Arya Stark (feisty tomboy like the His Dark Materials series’ Lyra Belacqua; maybe a dash of less-scholarly Hermione).
• Bran (if James Franco in 127 Hours were a little boy).
• Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son (male Cinderella), whom Catelyn doesn’t like that much.
All the Stark children, including Jon Snow, have pet Direwolves, a really big, almost extinct, loyal species of wolf (Jacob Black).

That leaves the Lannisters:
• There’s the manipulative queen Cersei (Lady Macbeth meets a Mama Grizzly).
• She is engaged in a relationship (Flowers in the Attic) with her brother Jamie (jerkish Prince Charming in Shrek).
• Cersei has a son, the entitled crown prince Joffrey (rich Biff from Back to the Future).
• The most charming Lannister is Cersei and Jamie’s brother, the dwarf Tyrion (a mixture of Puck, Han Solo, Dowager Countess, Roger Sterling, Seth Cohen — i.e., the smart-aleck character who has all the best lines).

So, see, that wasn’t that complicated! It’s just a show that calls to mind Dallas, Elizabeth Edwards, Nabokov, Seth Cohen, and Shakespeare! Folks familiar with the series, please, feel free to make your own associations in the comments.

Game of Thrones for Newbies: We Break it Down