It’s Deadwood meets Lord of the Rings! It’s a fantasy TV show that you might be able to admit to watching! In public! You’ve almost certainly come across the publicity blitz for HBO’s new must-see TV show, A Game Of Thrones, which debuts tonight. But what’s it all about, when you get right down to it? Is it going to be another Xena? Or The Wire with broadswords? Here’s a quick guide to who’s who and what’s what, since you should on no account expect this series to hold you by the hand and lay it all out for you. Well, the basics, at any rate: to call this plot "labyrinthine" would be an understatement.
Westeros is the place, and it’s a fairly typical fantasy environment in that it’s roughly analogous to the Middle Ages in terms of technology, but not based on any recognisable Earth geography. Here, summers can last years – but so can winters and, as we will often hear in this show, “Winter is coming”. Most of the story takes place in the Seven Kingdoms, a vaguely medieval European parallel that is, despite the name, one state rather than several. Well, we say one state: there are clear tensions between the North and the South (where the capital, King’s Landing, is), and uneasily conquered parts around the edges following a civil war some 16 years before. Oh, and across the northern end of the continent is a gigantic ice wall, blocking something beyond. Only a handful of men are left to guard it – which might turn out to be a bad idea if whatever’s on the other side starts acting up.
Across the Narrow Sea lies Essos, another continent wherein lie the nine Free Cities and the vast plains controlled by the Dothraki horse lords, a semi-barbaric tribe that are a bit like Genghis Khan’s Mongols. It’s a fair guess that these different cultures are going to clash at some point – but then, in George RR Martin’s world, everyone clashes sooner or later. Speaking of which, let’s move on to the major Houses (aka clans, families, whatever) of Westeros…
*House sigil: A direwolf, which is basically a very large, very fierce wolf.
**House motto*: Winter is coming
If you were dividing the cast of this show into good guys and bad guys (which would be unwise, as time and a few seasons will show), the Starks would be in the former camp. As you'd expect, being Northerners, they're gruff, plain spoken and awfully, awfully honourable. In the twisty, tricksy world of Seven Kingdoms politics, these are not necessarily useful virtues...
Lord Eddard Stark
Played by: Sean Bean
Honourable to a fault and a formidable soldier, “Ned” Stark retired home to Winterfell in apparent relief after fighting alongside (now) King Robert Baratheon, his close friend, during the War of the Usurper. Married to Catelyn Tully, he has had five legitimate children and an acknowledged bastard in Jon Snow.
Lady Catelyn Stark
Played by: Michelle Fairley
A Southern woman born but a Northerner by marriage, Catelyn is at least as strong-minded as her husband but perhaps a bit more impetuous (well, she’s a redhead and we all know the stereotypes there). A fiercely protective mother, she is what Sarah Palin would call a “Mama Grizzly” – but don’t worry: she’d call Sarah Palin something unprintable.
Played by: Richard Madden
The eldest son of the Stark family and heir to the House seat. Robb’s only 15 at the beginning of the books (he appears a little older onscreen) but he’s already a fairly level-headed guy and a dab hand with a sword. Could come in handy, that. Often accompanied by his direwolf, Grey Wind.
Played by: Sophie Turner
The oldest daughter of the Stark family, Sansa’s very pretty and romantically inclined to a degree that might be termed psychosis. The family honour and loyalty runs, perhaps, a little thinner in her character than in her siblings, but by the standards of the Seven Kingdoms that still makes her a paragon of virtue. She too has a direwolf, who’s called Lady.
Played by: Maisie Williams
Arya’s a tomboy in the same way that the Royal Wedding is quite popular with fans of the monarchy; she’s determined to be taken seriously as something other than a dynastic pawn. Outspoken, feisty and a crack shot with a boy and arrow, Arya’s one of the most likeable characters on the show. Her direwolf is called Nymeria.
Played by: Isaac Hempstead-Wright
Brandon Stark, always called Bran, is something of a loner but more of an adventurer: he’s fond of climbing all over the roofs of Winterfell and appears to have no fear whatsoever. As the second son in the Stark family, we see him just beginning to be trained as a warrior and leader as the series begins. His direwolf is called Summer.
Played by: Art Parkinson
The baby of the Stark family, Rickon’s barely to be glimpsed in the first few episodes of the series. Still, he’s there somewhere, probably playing with his direwolf Shaggy Dog and pestering his siblings.
Played by: Kit Harington
Acknowledge by Eddard Stark as his son, Jon Snow is illegitimate and as such is extraordinarily unpopular with Catelyn Stark. Anxious to make his own way in the world and to avoid causing further familial strife, Snow is considering joining the Night Watch, which mans The Wall that cuts off the far north.
Played by: Joseph Mawle
Eddard’s brother pledged himself to the Night’s Watch years ago, whereof he is now First Ranger (essentially, Top Fighter). The Night’s Watch, in addition to spending all their time in the freezing north, take vows of celibacy, so they’re a pretty fun bunch. Additionally, the Rangers of the Watch patrol north of the Wall, which ranks somewhere between bear boxing and tiger taunting on most scales of safe, fun ways to pass your time.
*House sigil: A stag
**House motto*: Ours is the fury
If you’re looking for an archetypal medieval King, look no further than the head of House Baratheon, a usurper of the Iron Throne who’s taken to the whole carousing / hunting / bossing people about side of the monarchy like a duck to water (he’s not so keen on the bureaucracy side). The rest of his family, however, are harder to place…
Played by: Mark Addy
Once a huge and fearsome warrior, now a fat man, Robert Baratheon is something of a Porthos. You know, lust for life and for every woman he meets – that sort of thing. But having won the War of the Usurper (aka Robert’s Rebellion), he’s now also stuck with being King, and with a wife he doesn’t trust, and with the demands of politics. Like, bummer.
Played by: Jack Gleeson
The eldest son of King Robert and heir to the throne, at 12 Joffrey’s an obnoxious little twerp that only a mother could love. Of course, the fact that his mother spoils him is part of the problem but, whatever the reason, this little psychopath is rotten to the core.
Played by: Aimee Richardson
Doted upon by her mother, Myrcella is only 8 at the beginning of the books (again, she appears a little older onscreen) and is largely quiet, obedient and dull.
Played by: Callum Wharry
The younger prince is a far more likeable character than his elder brother. Unfortunately he also has the backbone and willpower of a cabbage. Still, in this family even that – combined with a lack of obvious psychosis – probably counts as an achievement.
Played by: Gethin Anthony
The King’s younger brother, Renly’s a member of his Small Council (think Privy Council) but is generally regarded as frivolous and a little flighty despite his intelligence and position.
Played by: Nobody yet
Stannis won’t appear onscreen in the TV show for a little bit, but it’s worth mentioning that King Robert has another brother, older than Renly but younger than Robert, who might play a role later. Colder, less charismatic and less impulsive than his siblings, Stannis is someone to keep in mind.
*House sigil: A lion
**House motto*: Hear me roar (official); A Lannister always pays his debts (popular)
Lannisters always stick together – sometimes to an uncomfortable degree – which is why Queen Cersei, despite having married a Baratheon, appears here. Probably the most powerful family in the kingdom despite the fact that they don’t technically hold the throne, the Lannisters are equally capable of stabbing you in the back or in the front. It’s a gift.
Played by: Charles Dance
The richest man around, arguably the most ruthless and possibly the deadliest, Tywin Lannister is a major power behind the throne – partly due to the importance of his daughter, the Queen, and son, the Kingslayer, but largely, one suspects, because the entire world is scared to cross him. Do. Not. Mess.
Played by: Lena Headey
Why is Cersei listed with her family rather than her husband? Well, because she might have married Robert but – unlike Catelyn Stark, say – she never adopted his family as her own and has remained very much a Lannister at heart. Bright, ruthless in promoting her own family’s interests and clearly deeply damaged somewhere along the way, Cersei’s a formidable enemy and a near-total bitch.
Played by: Nicolaj Coster-Waldau
Imagine a paragon of knightly virtue – all strength and shining armour and dashing good looks and honour and nobility. Now take away the honour and nobility, and you’ve got the Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister. Looks good, handy with a lance and broadsword, but trust us when we say that this guy has some odd emotional hang-ups.
Played by: Peter Dinklage
A disappointment to his father merely by virtue of being born, Tyrion Lannister makes up for what he lacks in height by being really, really clever and arguably the most insightful person amid all these schemers. This dwarf is no saint, certainly, but he’s also no one to trifle with – something that other characters forget to their cost.
Played by: Eugene Simon
A cousin to the main branch of the family, Lancel acts as squire to the King. He’s a bit wet, really. You probably won't notice him much, but we mention him here because you might wonder who the drippy dude with the hair beside the King is.
*House sigil: A three-headed dragon
**House motto*: Fire and blood
The War of the Usurper a couple of decades before the events of A Game Of Thrones was kicked off by the actions of King Aerys II, affectionately known as “The Mad” and his equally ne’er-do-well eldest son Rhaegar. Both were slain in the War – but two Targaryens remain…
Played by: Harry Lloyd
The race for Most Instantly Hateable Character in the series award is a close one, but for our money it comes down to a photo-finish between Joffrey Baratheon and Viserys Targaryen. The deposed heir to the Iron Throne is a preening, arrogant, bossy little git who is determined to win his throne back at any cost (other than cost to himself) and who treats everyone around him with barely disguised contempt. If Charm were a person, Viserys would be its sworn enemy.
Played by: Emilia Clarke
Initially Daenerys is terrified of life and very much in her brother’s shadow (the two are probably connected). Prince that he is, he’s arranged a marriage for her to some barbarian bloke she’s never met, so that Viserys can get an army to take back his throne. Still, it could be worse: were her brother still on the throne, she’d be expected to marry him herself. Ewwww.
So the TV channel is HBO, purveyor of such essential TV as The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos and, er, Sex and the City (aside from boobies, this shares no creative DNA with the latter).
The whole thing is based on author George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series, of which A Game Of Thrones is Book One. So far, four books have been published: A Game Of Throne, A Clash Of Kings, A Storm Of Swords and A Feast For Crows. The fifth book (technically the second half of the fourth) is A Dance of Dragons, and is due to be published this summer. Hopefully. And there are more to come.
The showrunners are D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. Weiss is best known for his work on films that haven’t been made yet: the big-screen adaptation of Halo, for example, or the long-in-development Ender’s Game, or the I Am Legend prequel. Benioff worked on Troy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Brothers and The Kite Runner, as well as adapting his own novel, 25th Hour, for the screen. And he still found time to get married to Amanda Peet, the chronic overachieving bastard.
A Game Of Thrones has largely been shot in Northern Ireland and Eire, with some additional shooting in Malta. Yes, we also suspect that actors stampeded for the characters who see most of their stories unfold in Malta.
Actors we haven’t even mentioned in the character guides above include Aidan Gillen (Peter “Littlefinger” Baelish), Iain Glen (Ser Jorah Mormont), Julian Glover (Grand Maester Pyrcelle), Jason Momoa (Khal Drogo) and Rory McCann (Sandor “The Hound” Clegan). But seriously, we’d be here all day trying to explain how everyone knows each other.