Game of Thrones Recap: What to Know Before Watching Season 8

Game of Thrones starts its final season Sunday (April 14), so unless you've recently binged the entire series or have an encyclopedic memory, this guide will serve as a refresher of the major plot points and characters before you start GoT Season 8, while omitting plot lines and characters that aren't central to the story. (I'm looking at you, Dorne.)

Wondering how you can tune in for Game of Thrones even if you let your HBO subscription lapse since the last episode aired back in 2017? Check out our guide on how to watch Game of Thrones Seasons 8.

Warning: If you haven't yet watched the series, this guide contains significant GoT spoilers.

What Game of Thrones is all about

The series revolves around the families and clans competing for power and dominion over the continent of Westeros. There's lots of backstabbing and intrigue as everyone tries to claim the Iron Throne. All the while, an army of "White Walkers" in the far north of the island is slowly making its way south and wants to turn everyone into frozen zombies. Think of it as The Sopranos meets The Walking Dead, but with dragons and even more sex and violence.

Major Characters (Alive)

Jon Snow (Kit Harrington)

The adopted son of Ned Stark, Jon has been the dour voice in the wilderness throughout, warning everyone about the White Walkers. Unknown to all but a couple of characters, including himself, he's also the true heir to the Iron Throne, as he's the son of Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys' older brother) and Lyanna Stark, Ned Stark’s sister. He's been exiled, killed, resurrected and unknowingly had sex with his aunt, Daenerys Targaryen. Well, he knew he had sex — he just didn't know it was his aunt.

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clark)

Mother of dragons, breaker of chains, yadda yadda...Initially regarded as a bargaining chip so that her brother could command the wild Dothraki tribesmen (think Klingons, but with horses), she decisively assumed control of the tribes, conquered the lands of Essos (the eastern continent), took command of the Unsullied (an army of slave eunuchs), and then took all her forces over to Westeros to conquer that continent, which is where she met her rival, lover (and secret nephew) Jon. Oh, and she has three — well, two now — very large fire-breathing dragons, the equivalent of nuclear weapons in Game of Thrones’ medieval society.

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Cersei Lannister (Lena Heady)

The current occupant of the Iron Throne, widow of one king and mother of two more, Cersei gives as good as she gets. The most Machiavellian of all the characters on the show, she defeated many of her enemies by guile and deception, and when that didn't work, she blew all of them up en masse by planting a bomb underneath the show's equivalent of the Vatican. Too bad her machinations indirectly led to the deaths of all three of her children — so far. She's pregnant, but it's not clear who the father is.

Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)

Cersei's twin brother. Has an incestuous relationship with sis, which produced three (!) kids: Joffrey, Tommen and Myrcella, all of whom are now dead. Killed the "Mad King" (Daenerys’ dad) while ostensibly serving as his guard, and had his right hand chopped off during Season 3. He's a bit more ambivalent about his sister's ambitions, though.

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)

A dwarf whose mother died giving birth to him, Tyrion has always been an outcast among his family. Framed for the murder of his nephew Joffrey, Tyrion made his escape, and for good measure, shot his cruel, domineering father while the elder Lannister was sitting on the throne (the non-royal kind). In between goblets of wine, he now serves as the chief adviser to Daenerys.

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams)

The younger Stark daughter, Arya enjoys swordfighting more than the pleasantries of court. After watching her father get beheaded, she starts on a series-long revenge plot, becoming a skilled, shape-shifting assassin. Reunited with her siblings Sansa and Bran at the end of Season 7, Arya shows off her talents by performing the best throat-slitting since that of Gus Fring on Breaking Bad.

Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner)

The elder Stark daughter, the beautiful, aristocratic Sansa is abused by two psychopaths (Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton) one after the other. She's also lusted after throughout by the glorified pimp Littlefinger, who previously carried a torch for her mother. Sansa finally does unto others what they have done unto her, feeding Ramsay to his own ravenous dogs as she becomes the head of the Stark castle Winterfell.

Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright)

The middle Stark son. Pushed out a window by Jamie Lannister in the first episode, the now-paralyzed Bran gains supernatural powers and becomes the "Three-Eyed Raven," with the ability to see into the past and future and into animals' heads. He becomes insufferable as a result, losing any kind of human empathy. He also may be the key to defeating the Night King.

Major Characters (Dead)

Ned Stark (Sean Bean)

The head of the House of Stark, Ned has five legitimate children (Bran, Rickon, Arya, Sansa, Robb) and one presumably illegitimate child (Jon Snow). Ned lost his head at the end of the first season, because he couldn't play the game. This was the first major death in the show, and it signified that no character on the series was safe.

Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)

Ned's wife, mother of all the Stark siblings but Jon. Betrayed and killed by her hosts and allies during the Red Wedding back in Season 3.

Robb Stark (Richard Madden)

Ned and Catelyn's eldest son, and independent King of the North during the War of the Five Kings that dominated Seasons 2 and 3. Betrayed and killed during the Red Wedding while watching his pregnant bride and his mother also being killed.

Rickon Stark (Art Parkinson)

The youngest Stark son. Disappears for most of the series, only to reappear in Season 6, where he was used as bait to lure his brother Jon Snow into battle before being shot with an arrow.

Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen)

He thought he was so cool, but Baelish was too clever for his own good. Directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of Ned Stark and others, his scheming put the plot of the entire series into motion and eventually got him a lordship of one of the Seven Kingdoms. But it also got his throat slit by Arya Stark as Sansa and Jon Snow watched.

Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson)

Cersei and Jamie's eldest love child, Joffrey was Game of Thrones' equivalent of Draco Malfoy, but more stabby. This child king was as petulant as he was cruel, and few viewers — or characters — were sad to see him poisoned at his own wedding.

The Hound (Rory McCann)

An imposing and brutally scarred swordsman, Sandor Clegane starts out as a Lannister hatchetman but later protects Sansa and Arya from brutal attackers. Foul-mouthed, bitter and fatalistic, he hates his brother, the Mountain, so expect a Clegane-vs.-Clegane showdown in Season 8.

Major Characters (Undead)

The Night King

The big baddie, the Night King was a real man thousands of years ago, before being turned into his frozen incarnation by the elfin Children of the Forest. Now, he commands the White Walkers, an army of undead humans that, until the very end of Season 7, was held back by the Wall — a 700-foot-tall wall of ice that separates the far north of Westeros.

The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson)

Ser Gregor Clegane, Cersei's unstoppable, skull-crushing personal bodyguard, was reanimated after being poisoned during a duel. He no longer speaks and is now covered head-to-toe in armor. As fearsome as ever, he's the strong, silent type.

Viserion (CGI)

Daenerys took two dragons north of the Wall to rescue Jon Snow's raiding party in Season 7, but only one came back. The Night King took down the other dragon, Viserion, with an ice-spear, brought it back to life as a blue-fire-breathing zombie, and then flew it to the Wall to melt the ice. You can count on a dragon-on-dragon aerial dogfight in Season 8.

Season 1 Recap

The current king of Westeros, Robert Baratheon (who's married to Cersei Lannister), persuades his buddy Ned to be his chief counselor, known as the Hand, in the capital of King’s Landing. The previous Hand had dropped dead, presumably poisoned by the Lannisters. (It was actually Littlefinger.) Bran sees Jamie and Cersei in a very compromising non-missionary position, and gets shoved out a window and paralyzed for his trouble.

Robert gets gored by a boar after drinking too much during a hunting trip and eventually dies. Ned finds out that Robert's son Joffrey is actually Jaime's son, and plans to install Robert's brother Stannis as king instead. However, Ned makes the mistake of telling this to Cersei and of trusting Littlefinger. Sansa is captured, Arya escapes, Robb Stark goes to war and Ned, despite having been promised his life if he swears Joffrey is the true king, loses his head.

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Meanwhile, the Night's Watch — a sort of monastic order with swords whose duty is to guard the Wall against everything north of it — runs into the first White Walker anyone has seen in generations. Jon Snow goes up to investigate, and having no better place to go, decides to stay.

Over in Essos, Daenerys is wed to Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who dies after being cursed by a witch, who also makes sure Daenerys' child is stillborn. Daenerys throws the dead baby and the live witch onto her husband's funeral pyre and then walks into the flames with three dragon eggs. The next morning, she comes out nude but unscathed and with three adorable (for the moment) baby dragons.

Season 2 Recap

The Starks are at war with the Lannisters; Robb captures Jamie, but Catelyn sets him free in hopes of getting her daughters Sansa and Arya back. It doesn't work. Joffrey is now the king; Tyrion is his Hand, but he isn't doing a great job at reining his nephew in.

The Starks are betrayed (again) by the Greyjoys, who capture Winterfell; Bran and Rickon escape. Stannis Baratheon finds himself fighting his younger brother Renly, who thinks he deserves the throne because he's prettier. So Stannis' sometime lover, Melisandre the Red Witch, gives birth to a demon-shadow that sneaks into Renly's tent and kills him.

His brother out of the way, Stannis tries to capture King's Landing by sea, but is defeated when Tyrion wildfire, the napalm of Westeros, to burn his fleet.

Season 3 Recap

Robb Stark meets a pretty nurse and breaks off his engagement to Walder Frey's daughter. Subsequently, the Starks are betrayed (again) by Frey, who lets the Lannisters kill Robb, Catelyn, and many others at the Red Wedding. North of the wall, Jon Snow takes in with the wildings and falls in love with Ygritte, (who eventually becomes Kit Harington's wife in real life).

The Greyjoys are betrayed by the Boltons, who take over Winterfell. Theon Greyjoy is then subjected to several seasons of torture by Ramsay Bolton.

Jamie gets his hand cut off, Tyrion is demoted from his position, and drinks some more, and Daenerys takes control of the Unsullied, an army of eunuchs, after her dragon fricassees their commanders.

Season 4 Recap

Word to the wise: Avoid weddings in Westeros. Joffrey is poisoned following his nuptials to Margaery Tyrell. Tyrion gets blamed, but guess who's behind it? Margaery's grandmother, who has some of the best lines of this series.

Tyrion kills his dad with a crossbow and is smuggled out of Westeros, and Littlefinger, who has the hots for Sansa now that her mother is dead, smuggles her out of King's Landing and up to the Vale, where her aunt Lysa lives. He marries the unstable Lysa, then pushes her out a hole — also known as a moon door — to fall to her death.

Jon returns to the wall, and helps the Night's Watch fend off a wildling attack. He's saved by the timely appearance of Stannis Baratheon's army. Bran goes north to meet the Three Eyed Raven and develop his powers, Luke-on-Dagobah style. Meanwhile, Arya arrives at Bravos to start her own training as a deadly assassin in a Kill Bill-meets-Face/Off kind of way.

Season 5 Recap

Margaery marries young Tommen, who's as weak-minded as his brother Joffrey was evil.

Employing a strategy that always works, Cersei uses religious zealots called the Sparrows to undermine Margaery, but they then turn against her, too. Turns out, incest is frowned upon. Shame!

Littlefinger betrays Sansa and marries her off to Ramsay Bolton, who’s frankly become a one-note character by this point. Stannis is convinced by Melisandre — who has done some other freaky things — that burning his own child at the stake is the only way he's going to become king.

Guess what? It doesn't work, and Stannis dies and his army is defeated when he tries to retake Winterfell from the Boltons. However, this provides the opportunity for Sansa and Theon to escape.

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At the Wall, Jon is named commander, and one of his first acts is to invite the wildlings — who have been fighting the Night's Watch for generations — down south to flee the White Walkers. Guess what? It doesn't go well, and Jon is stabbed to death by his own troops.

Daenerys is having leadership issues herself after conquering a slave city and freeing its chained inhabitants. She meets up with the newly arrived Tyrion, who helps teach her Governing 101.

Season 6 Recap

Turns out that Jon was only mostly dead. In what was a really obvious plot point in retrospect, Melisandre brings Jon back to life, and Jon then takes back Winterfell with the timely arrival of Littlefinger’s cavalry. Ramsay Bolton is turned into Alpo, and Theon returns to his home in the Iron Islands, but he is usurped by his swaggering uncle Euron.

Cersei, her hair shorn and made to walk through the streets naked, decides she has had enough of the Sparrows. She lures them, as well as many of the city's elites, into the High Sept (a sort of cathedral), before blowing up the whole thing with wildfire. However, as she's sipping wine and enjoying the whole scene, her son Tommen is a bit more distraught and jumps out a window to his death.

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Arya leaves her assassin training to start her revenge spree. First stop: Walder Frey, who gets the Scott Tenorman/Titus Andronicus treatment before getting his throat slashed.

Season 7 Recap

Daenerys arrives in Westeros with the Dothraki and the Unsullied and prepares to march on Cersei. However, she first meets with Jon, who tells her about the White Walkers, and convinces her that they need Cersei's help too.

Like a classic action movie, Jon assembles a team of tough guys to go and capture a White Walker to prove to the rest of Westeros the threat is real. They succeed, but they have to get rescued by Daenerys, who loses one of her dragons in the process.

Jon, Sansa, Arya and Bran all reunite at Winterfell; Bran uses his powers to uncover Littlefinger's treachery. Bran also uses his powers to uncover Jon's true lineage, which is ickily revealed as Jon is consciously coupling with Daenerys.

The Night King has Daenerys' dead dragon dragged out of the water (where'd they get those chains?) and turns it into an undead flying monster. The undead dragon then knocks down the wall, allowing the White Walkers to march south.

Credit: HBO