Game of Thrones begins with House Baratheon seated securely on the Iron Throne of Westeros. Robert Baratheon secured the title of King for himself by leading a successful rebellion against the ruling Targaryen family. His queen is Cersei Lannister, whose rich family serves to bankroll much of the kingdom’s formidable expenses. Robert’s two younger brothers are the severe Stannis and the young, lovable Renly.
Following Robert’s death in Season One, Joffrey Baratheon takes the throne with his mother Cersei as his adviser and regent. Unbeknownst to Robert and the vast, vast majority of the kingdom, however, Joffrey wasn’t his son, and isn’t even a Baratheon…
The Lannisters are the richest family in Westeros, making their primary home in Casterly Rock. They are led by Tywin Lannister, who was once the primary adviser to King Aerys Targaryen, and later helped conquer King’s Landing for Robert Baratheon’s rebellion. His three children are Cersei and her twin brother, Jamie, and the dwarf Tyrion, who is by far one of the richest, most interesting characters in a story chockfull of them.
As mentioned above, Cersei’s son Joffrey, as well as the other Baratheon children, weren’t actually fathered by King Robert. They are instead the product of an incestuous relationship between Cersei and her brother Jamie. While their relationship is certainly taboo and would result in the loss of the Iron Throne if it became common knowledge, incest amongst royal families has its precedent in Westeros, as it was practiced amongst the Targaryens for generations.
Unlike the other major families of Game of Thrones, the Targaryens aren’t native to Westeros, and actually came to the continent hundreds of years ago from the city of Valyria. Their sigil, a three-headed dragon, is appropriate, as their command of the flying, fire-breathing beasts was what allowed them to completely conquer and unite the continent. After almost three hundred years of rule, however, the dragons have gone extinct and the house descended into decadence and madness, which led to Robert Baratheon’s rebellion.
At the start of Game of Thrones, the only remaining members of the Targaryen family are Viserys and his sister Daenerys, as the rest of their family was put to death during the rebellion. In an attempt to marshal forces strong enough to retake his family’s throne, Viserys marries his sister to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki on the continent of Essos. Viserys’ cruelty and entitlement eventually becomes his undoing, however, as Khal Drogo puts him to death for his insolence, making Daenerys the sole remaining Targaryen.
The Dothraki are nomadic, warlike, horse-riding people, spread out across the plains of Essos with no formal governing body. Instead, each nomadic group, called a Khalasar, is led by a single warrior, with Khalasar’s growing, shrinking and disappearing based on their Khal’s strength. Daenerys’ husband Khal Drogo is one of the strongest, most powerful Khal’s of recent memory, and accordingly, has the mightiest Khalasar that anyone has ever seen. The Targaryen plan to use the Dothraki horsemen to retake Westeros is thrown into disarray when Khal Drogo dies of an infected wound.
Normally, Daenerys, as the wife of a dead Khal, would be sent to the makeshift Dothraki capital to live out her days as a widow. But after walking into Drogo’s funeral pyre and not burning, and aiding in the hatching of three dragon eggs, Daenerys proves that she has some power of her own, namely three young dragons.
At the beginning of Game of Thrones, we learn that Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon share a special bond, as they both grew up together under the protection and guidance of Jon Arryn, of the Vale. Jon made his well-protected seat in the Eyrie, high up in the mountains. Despite his advanced age, he took Lysa Tully, Catelyn Tully Stark’s sister, as his wife, making he and Eddard brothers-in-law. Early on, we learn that Jon, formerly King Robert’s chief advisor, has died – potentially of sinister causes – which is a large motivating factor for Eddard accepting the position of Hand to the King.
Surviving Jon are his wife Lysa as well and his only son, Robin (called Robert in the books). Despite the powerful seat, Robin is a weak, sickly boy, who suffers from seizures and is coddled and spoiled by his overbearing mother.
While they don’t play too large a role in the first season of Game of Thrones, one of my personal favorite houses is Greyjoy. House Greyjoy is basically a Viking analog, as it is comprised of seafaring raiders who make their home on the cold, brutal Iron Islands.
Prior to the start of Game of Thrones, the leader of the Greyjoys, Balon, rebelled against the Baratheon throne, but his revolt was put down by Eddard Stark. As a result, the Starks took Balon’s son Theon as a ward and hostage, to ensure Balon’s good behavior moving forward. Theon is a wry, cynical, amoral youth, but a staunch supporter of his foster brother Robb.
The Freys aren’t a major house of Westeros, and in fact, are bannermen to House Tully, Catelyn Stark’s maiden family, but they are nonetheless an important part of the Game of Throneslandscape. The Frey family have as their sigil a pair of towers, a reference to the Twins, a strategically located defense point for the central regions of Westeros.
Led by Walder, an old man with eight wives and countless children, the family is infamous for failing to come when the Tullys called for them during the rebellion, only arriving when the battle seemed won, as a way of hedging their bets on the victor.
While most of the major families of Westeros trace their lineage to a time when they were sovereign kings of their specific regions, the Tyrells were actually only stewards to the now defunct House Gardener, which once ruled over Highgarden. The House was promoted to major-status by the Targaryens after the Tyrells surrendered the seat during the dragon lords’ initial conquest of Westeros.
The Tyrells remained loyal to the Targaryens during Robert’s rebellion, but eventually bent the knee to the new king when he took the throne. The leader of the Tyrells is Mace, but in the first season the most notable member of the family is Ser Loras, who though he is Mace’s third son, is the most beautiful and talented warrior, referred to as the Knight of Flowers, on account of his family’s sigil. In the books, Loras and Renly Baratheon are depicted merely as extremely close, committed friends, but the HBO series went whole-hog, showing them as lovers.
Another minor house, the Cleganes are sworn to the Lannisters, and have as their sigil three dogs. Fittingly, the two members shown on Game of Thrones are loyal, brutish creatures, utterly committed to the Lannisters. The eldest brother is Gregor, who is a humongous, nigh-unstoppable, rageful, animalistic beast that nearly kills Loras Tyrell after losing a joust to him.
Fortunately, his younger brother Sandor stepped in to defuse the situation. Sandor is only marginally more pleasant than his brother, and is generally a foul, spiteful servant to Joffrey Baratheon, boasting a face scarred from an early attack by his brother, and a dog’s head helm that reminds him of his status and his opponents of his ferocity