When Game of Thrones debuted on HBO in 2011, it was strictly understood to be an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, a suburban sprawl of a fantasy series by a permanently deadline-haunted writer named George R. R. Martin who looked vaguely like the sea captain on a cereal box and whose previous ventures into television included the 80s Twilight Zone revival and star-crossed, sewer-world romance Beauty and the Beast.
Now, in 2016, he is the last surviving George Martin of note and an unlikely bulwark against prestige television's usurpation of the novel as our culture's dominant storytelling form. That's because, as the show grew increasingly distinct from its source material, Game of Thrones begat a Quadrophenia-like rivalry between those content to consume the saga at a rate of ten episodes a year and devout book-readers, who had some thousands of pages of spoilers to parcel out to the show's 18.6 million fans while kvetching about seemingly every composite character, casting choice, and departure from the text.
Even during its controversial fifth season, during which showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss became particularly cavalier about killing off characters thought to be under the protection of Martin's written record and speeding up some subplots and character arcs while writing out others, the series was, at least nominally, still based on the books.
But that's all over now. When the sixth season of GoT premieres this Sunday, April 24, it will be as its own creature, one that has finally outpaced the material covered in the five-book-so-far cycle and, in a Borgesian twist, wrested the most profitable and politically astute epic of our time from the grasp of its author. What happens next is anyone's guess, as the fate of the seven kingdoms is no longer the provenance of any but the old gods and the new. Still, some review of the recent history of the great houses may be in order, both because it may contain some clues as to who will walk away from Game of Thrones with control of the board, and because those who do not learn from the past are, if past seasons are any indication, doomed to pay the iron price for their ignorance.
Needless to say: Unless you're caught up through Season 5, many, many spoilers are ahead. There's also a healthy amount of speculation about Season 6.
Much of the drama of GoT comes from the upending of audience expectations regarding its presumed heroes, the Starks, the only family to practice old-fashioned notions of chivalry in the face of the worldly realpolitik, which has consistently made the North a backwoods and the Starks a liability. Expect the tempest-tossed survivors to be scuffed of any notion of fair play if they are to pose a coherent threat to the treacherous Boltons and advancing White Walkers, let alone become credible heirs to the Iron Throne.
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Rickon Stark
The Dead: Lyanna Stark, Brandon Stark, Ned Stark, Benjen Stark (MIA), Robb Stark, Talisa Stark, Catelyn Stark, Jon Snow (but not really, see The Night's Watch)
Season 5: Youngest sons Bran and Rickon spent last season offscreen as Arya flunked murderbot training school at the House of Black and White in Braavos by carrying out a bloody personal vendetta on pederast Ser Meryn Trant. Meanwhile, Sansa (oldest surviving Stark) returned to her native Winterfell, where she was forced to marry Malcolm McDowell-impersonator/young Hitler Ramsay Bolton. After a wedding night that gave the series its most controversial sequence, a season of physical and psychological tortures, and two botched escape attempts, she leapt from the parapets with the emasculated Theon Greyjoy/Reek and is now at large somewhere behind enemy lines.
What to Expect: Bran will return from his Jedi training with the Three-Eyed Raven; Rickon seems a likely hostage and potential casualty to the Stark/Bolton battle for the North, and a now-sightless Arya will go deep cover with an actor's troupe in order to get right with the Many-Faced God, live up to her assassin aspirations, and assume her ultimate destiny as a plot device. But Sansa is the Starkling of the hour. In a series full of strong female characters, Sansa's power comes from her nuanced understanding of herself as valuable property in the eyes of the patriarchy, a conception she could be in a good position to exploit as she completes her transformation into a queen who has been the object of enough cruelty and power games to have taken copious notes on how to divide political foes and capitalize on a valuable bloodline.
Season 6 will also give us flashbacks—reportedly in the form of visions from Bran—to the salad days of Lyanna and Ned during Robert's Rebellion, meaning that the Stark's signature man-bun will back in all its manly bunliness. Of course, the big return will be that of Ned Stark's bastard, Jon Snow, the boy who died so that the man—Jon Stark—may live…
If the early seasons were about the dissemination of Starks, the last two have been about the decline of Westeros's wealthy patrician house. Long the motivating power behind the realm's dynastic rulers, House Lannister is looking at a costly rupture after Cersei's mismanagement, with her brother/lover Jaime likely to be caught in the middle. A Lannister always pays his debts, and this season nearly every other house will be calling to collect, not to mention the spurned Tyrion Lannister masterminding an invasion from across the Narrow Sea.
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Cersei Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, Kevan Lannister, Lancel Lannister, King Tommen Baratheon (illegitimate)
The Dead: Tywin Lannister, Joanna Lannister, Martyn Lannister, Willem Lannister, Joffrey Baratheon (illegitimate), Myrcella Baratheon (illegitimate)
Season 5: After dispatching patriarch Tywin, Tyrion fled the continent, outfoxed a cabal of penis-thieves, and landed an interview with Daenerys Targaryen, the Diana-like people's princess, though his true foe remained a crippling case of dipsomania. Jaime was dispatched to Dorne to save Myrcella, the daughter of his incestuous relationship with Cersei, from a superfluous Scooby-Doo plot and failed. Unwilling to compete with Margaery Tyrell for control of sweet-tempered Tommen, queen mother Cersei embarked on a foolhardy gambit to use the fundamentalist Faith Militant to enforce her will and wound up naked and ashamed and in the arms of a reanimated 400-pound monsterman with his own brand of bottled water.
What to Expect: The swift and terrible revenge of Cersei spells maximum pwnage for old-guard establishment figure Kevan and born-again evangelical Lancel, totally plausible as early casualties in Mountain-stein's tenure as Facecrusher General. Returning home with their slain daughter, Jaime will be charged with rounding up the remaining Stark-Tully rabble in the Riverlands (where one hopes he'll be reunited with the side-questing Brienne of Tarth, as the unsexualized, mutual respect between the Kingslayer and "I'm no Lady" Brienne is unheard-of in most gendered television pairings). Tyrion will take over for the missing Daenerys in Meereen, which means a lot of talking, usually Peter Dinklage's strong suit. King "Butters" Tommen has proven incapable of acting outside the authority of his mother or child-husband booty call Margaery and will live or die depending on their machinations and whether it's convenient to have a vacant seat of power at this stage of the story, before there's any obvious candidate on hand to seize it.
Outside of aged monk Aemon, this has only meant Daenerys since the first season, but the princess's rise to power and eventual return to Westeros has been the saga's premier subplot from the beginning. So far, she's marshaled a barbarian horse-lord, a merchant prince, a ruggedly handsome noble-in-exile, an army of eunuchs, and three dragons to her banner, so who are we to protest?
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Daenerys "Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea" Targaryen
The Dead: Aerys II "The Mad King," Rhaella Targaryen, Rhaegar Targaryen, Elia Martell, Viserys Targaryen, Khal Drogo, Rhaego Stillborn, Maester Aemon Targaryen
Season 5: This one was a total heartbreaker. Revanchist, KKK-analogue Sons of the Harpy claimed the life of Targaryen loyalist Barristan Selmy, the dishonored (and perpetually friend-zoned) Jorah Mormont became a "Stone Man" leper while trying to prove his devotion to his Khaleesi, and trophy husband Hizdahr zo Loraq got stabbed to death—all so that Daenerys could say, "Haters gonna hate," and fly away on her dragon and wind up the captive of Dothraki tribal warriors. Again.
What to Expect: A do-over of the first season as farce. I realize the idea here is a "back-to-the-basics" plot, where we see whether Daenerys can win over a kingdom on pure messianic charisma, but her lessons in statecraft were finally beginning to become interesting: In contrast to the scheming for power that typified every other storyline, the Meereen scenes showed us how actual day-to-day governance wore on somebody who already had it. Now we're back in familiarly Orientalist territory, the rescue of a white woman from the feral indigenous. At least Jorah Mormont and Birkenstock-brand heartthrob Daario Naharis will give us all the buddy comedy missing from The Searchers.
The Baratheons have been the ruling family of Westeros from Episode 1 to the present, which is a funny thing because there aren't any left, unless you count illegitimate Tommen and Gendry the blacksmith—a composite of the books' ponderous litany of Baratheon bastards—last seen rowing away from Dragonstone in Season 3 and unlikely to return any time soon.
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Dead, all dead.
The Dead: Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon (illegitimate), Myrcella Baratheon (illegitimate), Renly Baratheon, Shireen Baratheon, Selyse Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon
Season 5: The obscene charade of Jon Snow's "death" in the finale did a lot to overshadow the Lear-ian undoing of Stannis, last legit claimant to the throne, which registered precisely because there were no dramatic reversals or last-minute enchantments to save the Mannis from himself. Rather, he ignored his best advisor, fed his family to the Lord of Light, and indulged in some magical thinking in the lead-up to the doomed siege of the Bolton-held Winterfell, a defeat that was surprisingly poignant for being completely logical. Stannis's time at Castle Black allowed him to seemingly recognize an equal in Jon Snow—which will be relevant since Jon Snow is looking to inherit Stannis's surviving retainers Melisandre and Davos Seaworth, as well as the destiny Stannis pursued so blindly.
What to Expect: Nothing, we are fresh out of heroes.
In a show that likes to pretend to the moral ambiguity of its characters, I'm pretty sure the bad guys are the dudes who skin their victims alive, come from a place called the Dreadfort, fly a banner featuring a flayed man, and still hold the record for most Starks killed in a single setting. Ramsay may be a cackling, big-eyed, cartoon villain played by history's Welshest person, but his father Roose feels like the character with the best handle on the virtues GoT tends to reward: pitiless, mercenary, mistrustful, and unfettered by the slightest moral intrusion.
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Roose Bolton, Walda Frey, Ramsay Bolton
The Dead: None, full deck.
Season 5: The Boltons had a great season, which sucked for everyone else. Roose accepted Littlefinger's gift of Sansa only to call him on his two-timing bullshit; Ramsay had a ball toying with poor Sansa and Reek; Walda announced her pregnancy; and the Boltons had some quality father and son time prior to decimating Stannis on the battlefield.
What to Expect: Watching the Boltons get fucked up is going to be one of the main pleasures of Season 6, as the loss of Sansa and the threat of a Bolton born in wedlock (and therefore ahead in the line of succession) could send Ramsay over the edge and put Roose and Walda on the chopping blo—er, inverted cross. House Bolton won't be able to hold Winterfell against threats internal and external and gracious diplomacy is not Ramsay's strong suit, so expect the showdown between him and his fellow bastard Jon Snow to be the season's most cathartic set piece.
The Dickensian House Frey haven't had any screentime since carrying out the Red Wedding and there's no reason for them to return except to die at the hands of an ascendant Tully-Stark alliance, presumably in the absurdly graphic manner that characterizes the show's most deserved deaths.
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Walder Frey, Walda Frey, and about a million half-wit progeny.
The Dead: Walder's eighth wife (Catelyn's consolation kill after watching Robb and Talisa get slaughtered before her eyes).
Season 5: We haven't been to the Twins since Season 3, though the (actually quite genial-seeming) Walda Frey's presence in Winterfell served to remind us that should the Boltons lose their custodianship of the North, the otherwise friendless Freys will be vulnerable.
What to Expect: Hard as it is to care about people we haven't seen in two seasons, the return of the Tullys—Edmure and the Blackfish—means this house could get its overdue comeuppance.
Another bunch of fetid cranks we haven't seen lately, the Iron Islands look to be Season 6's Dorne—that is, a location we've seldom visited, filled with characters we've never met, rife with plots we're suddenly asked to care about. The Greyjoys at least have the advantage of having previously established figures like Theon and Yara and, you know, being fucking pirates.
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Balon Greyjoy, Theon Greyjoy/Reek, Yara Greyjoy, Euron Greyjoy
The Dead: Rodrik Greyjoy, Maron Greyjoy
Season 5: The usual response to Theon is contempt, pity, or a mixture of both, but the showrunners seem to have recognized in the once-and-future hostage a poignantly tragic figure who mistakes his own nature and winds up hated by everybody he ever sought to impress. True, last season mostly saw him sniveling in a kennel, but his single act of heroism in rescuing Sansa goes a long way toward reconstructing our faith in the living disappointment that is Theon. At this point, a redemptive death would be too clean and trite, but he won't be welcomed by either his adoptive Stark family nor his kin at Pyke, making his arc the potentially fascinating journey of someone who has burnt every bridge that might have received him and finds himself with nowhere to run.
What to Expect: If there's anything you've been meaning to say to crusty old Balon Greyjoy, now's the time: His death was prophesied back in Season 3 and his survival seems an oversight that new character Euron seems to have been cast to correct, as well as stencil the long-dormant Ironborn back onto the plot.
The mercantile purse of the Seven Kingdoms, the opportunistic and matriarchal flower-people of House Tyrell have always been a great adversary for the Lannisters and the fact that last season ended with Margaery and Loras in chains, Lady Olenna royally pissed, and Mace freestyling at the Iron Bank means the rivalry between Westeros' two most bourgeois houses is about to go from a loaded drawing-room comedy to a balls-out War of the Roses.
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Olenna "Queen of Thorns" Tyrell, Queen Margaery Tyrell, Loras "Knight of the Flowers" Tyrell
The Dead: None.
Season 5: The looks the Queen of Thorns gave Cersei after the latter's transparent attempts at skullduggery made the season, as did Mace's cheerful obliviousness to the fact that everyone else considers him a complete tool. Loras, the Knight of the Flowers, was arrested by the Faith Militant on, like, sodomy charges and Margaery went from boning down with the adolescent king to telling Cersei to "Get out, you hateful bitch!" after being imprisoned beneath the Sept of Baelor.
What to Expect: A reversal of fortune. Fetching woodland creature Margaery will charm the High Sparrow just as she has every other citizen of King's Landing, even if it means (I fear) throwing Loras under the bus. The Tyrells will have some choice words for Cersei, but she won't be listening, and we'll meet Tyrell loyalists the Tarlys (Sam's folks), who would lead the charge in the event of an insurgency against the crown. We're sure to get more from Diana Rigg's Olenna, as hers is one of the choicest performances on the show and has a lot of audience goodwill built up from being the architect of Joffrey's demise. It's really hard to imagine anything bad happening to Margaery after being wed three times to three kings, but plebes said the same about Anne Boleyn.
After the debacle of last season's Dorne tangent, the Martells are not exactly fan favorites. That's too bad, because the prior seasons did so much to build up Dorne as the land of tits and wine, equal parts Jacobean stock-exotica and NorCal bohemia. The much-missed Oberyn Martell brought desperately needed wit and swagger to the show, so we had every reason to expect the same of his countrymen. What we got instead was puerile, awkward, and unnecessary.
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Doran Martell, Trystane Martell, Ellaria Sand, Obara Sand, Nymeria Sand, Tyene Sand
The Dead: Oberyn Martell, Elia Martell
Season 5: Nothing about the Dornish plot even made the most basic empirical sense. Why does Ellaria hold the Lannisters responsible for her lover Oberyn's death on his own terms during a trial by combat he volunteered for? Why did the Sand Snakes try to abduct/kill Myrcella in the castle garden, in full view of Princess Doran and Trystane, in broad daylight? Why did the treasonous schemes of House Martell culminate in an awkward family dinner (and that's leaving out Myrcella and Jaime talking about her incestuous origin in offensively reductionist "you love who you love" cant)?
What to Expect: Well, now that they're here, they're here, I guess; might as well make the most of that castle in Seville they've booked. Trystane was promised a seat on the small council, but that was before Myrcella succumbed to Ellaria's poison lipstick. Now he could be a hostage, a corpse, or a foothold for the Dornishmen in the event of full-on war with the crown. Whatever comes to pass, the Martells' existing role in the story will likely be as occasional diplomatic allies to whoever seems likely to prevail over the hamstrung Lannisters.
The Night's Watch
After the act of sedition that culminated in the murder of Jon Snow as a "traitor," it's a case of the pot calling the Castle Black for the once reassuringly martial bureaucracy known as the Night's Watch. With ice zombies in one corner, wildlings in the other, and a reborn Jon Snow bound to be peeved at having been left to bleed out, their watch could be ended as early as this season or, hell, the first episode.
Favorite Sons and Daughters: Alliser Thorne, Eddison Tollett, Olly, Samwell Tarly
The Dead: Will, Gared, Waymar Royce, Yoren, Qhorin Halfhand, Jeor Mormont, Janos Slynt, Locke, Pyp, Grenn, Karl, Rast, Maester Aemon Targaryen, Benjen Stark (MIA), Jon Snow (resurrection pending)
Season 5: Jon Snow's two-state solution made him an unpopular Lord Commander (though it gave us the miniature-painting wargamer's wet dream that was Hardhome). After a season of little Olly's resting bitch face, the Crows pulled a Caesar on the bastard of Winterfell. Not that he would have had much to do sticking around the Wall: Maester Aemon died of natural causes (!) and Samwell left for grad school at the Citadel with Gilly and her baby in tow.
What to Expect: I hated watching Alliser Thorne's characterization go from R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket to a prolonged sneer, and his death will be a waste for the complexity we only got to glimpse in previous seasons. Samwell's trip to Oldtown could either be the solo spinoff adventure that finally takes him out from under Jon's shadow or be this season's Dorne. The producers' bizarre and transparent attempts to deny Jon Snow's resurrection means that yes, of course, Snow will rise again and by hook or crook we'll finally learn what we have always known ( possible spoiler!): Jon is the son of Lyanna Stark and Daenerys's slain brother Rhaegar, and anyone who doubts it should save the rest of us the trouble and jump out the moon door right this minute.
Petyr Baelish and Varys
They may have begun with no house of their own, but it's worth remembering that Littlefinger and the Spider are the axles on which the action turns, directly or indirectly responsible for everything from the death of Jon Arryn to the rise of Daenerys. They are also the viewer's stand-ins, fulfilling the fantasy of a life of passive control over a vast switchboard of political consequences, and the two-headed dragon of the fan base. Baelish wants to endlessly complicate the story and draw it out unreasonably with alliances that make no sense; Varys, on the other hand, wants order and resolution, justice for the innocent, a vile end for the guilty This matches the twin desires of anyone who's been tuning in: On one hand there's the desire for twists and shocking moments of death and/or nudity, and on the other there's a yearning for a show that stays faithful to the books, weaves a plot that's narratively and philosophically coherent, and comes to a timely end.
In the end, though, we all want the same thing: to extend our consumer experience of Game of Thrones, whether through book, TV show, or internet newsgroup, and find in its world all the operatic resonance and cause-and-effect intelligibility missing from ours. GoT is our designated contemporary myth of the ancient present and for us, winter cannot come soon enough.
J. W. McCormack is a writer whose work has appeared in Bookforum, the Brooklyn Rail,Tin House, the New Inquiry, n+1, Publisher's Weekly, and Conjunctions.
All photos courtesy of HBO
Game of Thrones premieres on April 24 on HBO.