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Welcome to The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Everything to Know” series. Starting with Game of Thrones, THR‘s Westeros guru Josh Wigler will offer an in-depth guide about, well, everything there is to know about one particular topic within the complex universe.
It’s hard to imagine a TV viewer alive in 2017 who isn’t at least aware of Game of Thrones, HBO’s award-winning ratings-monster fantasy series. And yet, there are absolutely people who have not taken the plunge yet, for whatever reason — aversion to the fantasy genre, lack of an HBO subscription (though that hasn’t stopped everyone from finding the series), pick any other rationale you desire.
The following words are meant for those viewers, the ones who have not yet found Thrones. If you’re even considering watching the series, it’s time to break the proverbial wheel. Here are the broad strokes of everything you need to know before beginning your journey through Game of Thrones.
First, the origin story. Game of Thrones is based on a series of novels called A Song of Ice and Fire, first launched by award-winning author George R.R. Martin in 1996. The TV adaptation takes its name from the title of the first book in Martin’s series: A Game of Thrones. The books have grown since their inception, initially envisioned as a trilogy, now clocking in at five novels and counting. The most recently published installment in the series is book five, A Dance with Dragons, released in 2011. Book six, The Winds of Winter, has suffered repeated delays, with no release date in sight. Because of this, the TV series started moving past the books as of season six, with new episodes revealing key plot points that remain unanswered in the novels.
Despite the delay in the novels proper, Martin and collaborators have released several stories set within the same fictional universe, including short stories like the Dunk and Egg novellas (set roughly a century before the events of Game of Thrones) and the impressively vast The World of Ice and Fire, a massive coffee table book filled with history and lore from the Thrones universe. It’s a must-own for any and all die-hard fans of the series.
For the uninitiated, both Martin’s original novels and the HBO show on which it’s based primarily take place in the fictional world of Westeros, also known as the Seven Kingdoms. It’s a harsh land where summers and winters can last for lifetimes, with little way of knowing how long the season will last.
Indeed, if the show has a motto, it’s this: “Winter is coming.” The words are owned by the show’s de facto protagonists, House Stark, and they carry both literal and figurative meaning. But in the concrete sense, Game of Thrones takes place over a period of time in which winter slowly creeps into the land. By the end of the sixth and most recent season, the people of Westeros officially have recognized the onset of winter; executive producers and showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have cited the changing of the seasons, and the need to shoot the show in frostier conditions, as a key reason why Game of Thrones will return later than usual in 2017.
But the Stark family words aren’t just wind.They also signify the return of the White Walkers, a mythical race of deadly ice monsters with their sights set on war with mankind. Over the course of Game of Thrones, these frozen menaces become more and more known to the characters at large, steadily marching toward the mythical Wall, a massive magical structure that separates Westeros from the cold unknown of the continent’s northernmost regions. White Walkers aren’t the only ones who live here: The realm beyond the Wall also hosts thousands of human beings called Free Folk, more crudely referred to as wildlings. The people of Westeros and the wildlings do not exactly get along, but Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is working on it.
(If you don’t know what a Jon Snow is, then we really have a lot of work to do.)
In any event, the White Walkers don’t talk all that much, so their exact intentions aren’t known. Whatever they’re after, it does not seem to be good for humanity, considering that they are slowly wiping out wildlings and adding their reanimated corpses to the army of the undead. It’s the ever-looming threat on the show, slowly marching its way across the seasons: certain doom, cold and unrelenting, inching closer and closer to the human race. Only a united front can stand against it.
Of course, the men and women of the Seven Kingdoms are too busy at war with one another to worry about the White Walker threat. Ever since the show’s first episode, Game of Thrones‘ main interest has been the political infighting and sword-fighting between the great houses of Westeros, including:
• House Stark, the aforementioned heroes of the series, such as heroes exist. This proud family resides in the north of Westeros, the coldest region in the land and closest to the White Walker threat. Without spoiling anything in detail, let’s just say the Starks have been through a lot.
• House Lannister, the golden-haired elitists who are as selfish as they are wealthy. Perhaps an unfair way of describing Tyrion Lannister, the brilliant strategist and prolific boozehound played to Emmy-winning heights by Peter Dinklage. At their best, the Lannisters have a mean streak. At their worst, they are outright monsters.
• House Baratheon, the ruling family when Game of Thrones begins. Mark Addy plays King Robert, first of his name, and first of his family to sit upon the coveted Iron Throne of Westeros. He wrested that power away from the previous rulers during a massive war known as Robert’s Rebellion, which took place a decade or two before Game of Thrones begins.
• House Targaryen, the virtually extinct royal family who once ruled Westeros through fire and blood. Originally hailing from a now-ruined civilization called Valyria, the Targaryens were known for their mystical connection to dragons and magic. As the dragons died off toward the end of the Targaryen regime, so too did the Targaryens, thanks in large part to the Mad King Aerys leading his family to ruin.
The list of noble houses, small houses, and small folk goes on and on. The point is, while Game of Thrones is a massive production that features gigantic walls made out of ice, people who return from the dead, and even a dragon or three (and, yes, a healthy amount of nudity and vivid violence, so do brace yourself for that), the series much more often than not focuses on the individual lives at stake, and how their decisions impact the world around them. At the end of it all, Game of Thrones is a character-driven drama set in a heightened world that often casts the violent conflicts of our own world in a far-too-real light.
Since premiering in 2011, Game of Thrones has earned massive commercial and critical success, including 38 Emmy awards and countless other accolades, not to mention millions and millions of viewers. So there’s a reason why the word khaleesi is a household name these days, and if you don’t know the reason by now, there’s no better time to find out why. Winter is here right now, but doesn’t return to television for another few months yet; as of this writing, Game of Thrones still does not have a return date for its seventh season, but is expected to launch in the summer of 2017. That’s plenty of time to binge 60 riveting episodes of television, and once you’re caught up, there won’t be much further to go: Thrones is expected to end its run after season eight, although almost everyone agrees that some form of subsequent spinoff is inevitable. In other words, Thrones isn’t going away anytime soon, whether you watch it or not.
But seriously, watch it. It’s great.
Check in with THR.com/GameOfThrones for everything else you need to know about the show, and keep the conversation going with me on Twitter @roundhoward. We’ll return in two weeks with a closer look at another corner of the world of ice and fire.
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