A Lord of the Rings teeming with hookers and violence, Game of Thrones has proven a deft, if intricate, political thriller about families, good, evil, and undetermined jockeying to control the Iron Throne of Westeros. Last season was filled with internecine, engrossing, and blood-soaked intrigue, but it’s hard to clearly remember all of the kinky sex and complicated power plays (and vice versa) after eleven months. So with season two of the HBO series starting this Sunday (based on George R.R. Martin’s second book, A Clash of Kings), we thought it helpful to provide a refresher course of the five major houses, one simple enough for newbies to follow and jump right into the series. Clarification is coming. (With no spoilers for those who haven’t already read the second book.)
KEY PLAYER: Ned
LAST SEASON’S BIG MOVES: Ned Stark got a promotion, becoming the right-hand man to Robert Baratheon, King of the Seven Kingdoms. Leaving his wife and three sons at home, the honorable lord relocated his two daughters to the court at King’s Landing, which ultimately proved to be a career-ending move: Ned was publicly beheaded after Robert suspiciously died and the throne was usurped by his alleged son, Joffrey Baratheon, with the help of Robert’s surviving, conniving wife, Cersei Lannister.
SAINTS OR SINNERS? Stalwart, loyal, and smart, the Starks are the types of morally unambiguous heroes who anchor fantasy lore.
WHERE THEY STAND FOR SEASON TWO: Armed and ready. Ned’s eldest son, Robb, battles the Lannisters (Cersei’s side) in the south, while half-brother (and bastard) Jon Snow is stationed at a big, mysterious fortification in the far north called the Wall. Preteen sister Arya — who witnessed her dad’s death — flees to the Wall, dressed in drag, to find Jon. This tomboy also happens to be a skilled swordswoman, unlike her passive, girly sister Sansa, who got engaged to Joffrey while dreaming princess dreams, but definitely realized her mistake right around the moment that Ned’s head hit the ground.
KEY PLAYER: Cersei
LAST SEASON’S BIG MOVES: Evil-moveroll call! Cersei and brother Jaime Lannister were secretly doing it sibling style. She ended her loveless and mutually unfaithful marriage by having her husband, King Robert, “accidentally” killed during a hunting expedition. And when Ned discovered not only this plot but also that Joffrey was actually the offspring of Cersei and Jaime so not the true heir to the throne, he was arrested trying to stop the succession and evil toad Joffrey — against Cersei’s wishes — ordered Ned killed and then took over.
SAINTS OR SINNERS? No shades of gray here: pure sinners. Just about all of the chaos in Westeros can be traced back to Cersei, her wily, ruthless brother/lover, and their vengeful, bratty son.
WHERE THEY STAND FOR SEASON TWO: At the helm. She has positioned herself as an ironhanded stage mom to the impetuous Joffrey, though after Ned’s death she wonders just how controllable the psychotic little twerp really is.
KEY PLAYER Tyrion
LAST SEASON’S BIG MOVES: Jaime Lannister’s skeletons came out of the closet hard and fast: In just the first episode, he attempted to murder Ned Stark’s young son Bran, who busted the Lannister siblings in the act. (Jaime had to settle for paralyzing Bran after he pushed the boy out a tall window.) Also, we learned that the underestimated whoremongering little-person brother Tyrion gets the show’s best lines.
SAINTS OR SINNERS? Split decision: While Cersei and Jaime are certainly sinners, brother Tyrion is less easily defined. He boasts cunning self-preservation, which results in fungible ethics. On the flipside, he’s developed a bit of a soft spot for the Stark kids.
WHERE THEY STAND FOR SEASON TWO: In uncertainty. Jamie has been taken prisoner by the vengeful Robb Stark, while Tyrion, with favorite prostitute in tow, returns back to serve as Hand of the King. It may turn out to be a precarious post, given that he once bitch-slapped King Joffrey
KEY PLAYER Daenerys
LAST SEASON’S BIG MOVES: Power-hungry exile Viserys — the last male Targaryen and son of the late mad king ousted by Baratheon and killed by Jaime Lannister — married off innocent sister Daenerys in a bid to ally their evaporating lineage with the unflinching warrior Khal Drogo and his Dothraki clan. (Ominous wedding gift: three dragon eggs.) But what he didn’t see coming was Daenerys falling for her new spouse, who wound up murdering the snotty Viserys. When her husband was himself killed by the curse of a vengeful godswife whose town was marauded by the Dothraki, the princess threw the eggs, then herself, onto his funeral pyre — and emerged from the embers with hatched baby dragons surrounding her.
SAINTS OR SINNERS? The flaxen-haired Daenerys came off as an innocent who grew admirably into her role as a tough queen. Her brother Viserys, however, was a greedy, arrogant weasel to the end.
WHERE SHE STANDS FOR SEASON TWO: A Game-changer at the ready. The Targaryens were famed for bringing dragons (considered extinct) to their homeland. Those creatures were key in battle and could end up being the dying line’s salvation.
KEY PLAYER: Lysa
LAST SEASON’S BIG MOVES: Just when we thought family bonds couldn’t get weirder, we witnessed Lysa Arryn, sister to Ned Stark’s wife Catelyn, breast-feeding her 7-year-old son — while trying an innocent Tyrion Lannister for the attempted murder of Bran Stark. Some things you just can’t un-see.
SAINTS OR SINNERS? When Catelyn asked for backup, Lysa, who went crazy after her husband’s death, declined — not wanting to get her or her son involved in Seven Kingdom politics.
WHERE SHE STANDS FOR SEASON TWO: At a prime tactical locale. The Arryn castle is an unassailable fortress that looms high and mighty in the Mountains of the Moon.