“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die, there is no middle ground.” If HBO’s western fantasy-cum-political drama ‘Game of Thrones’ had to be summed up in one quote, it’d probably be this one. . Based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, ‘Game of Thrones’ is a sweeping epic drama, focusing on the intense political battle of the seven royal houses of Westeros as they all fight, kill and cheat their way to the Iron Throne. Of course, this being HBO programming, there’s as much sex, violence and death as you could want, but most viewers find the complex characters and storylines to be the show’s most rewarding aspect. To even begin to sum up the gritty little minutia of ‘Game of Thones’ amazing first season would be an epic undertaking in and of itself, but to get you ready for Sunday night’s big premiere, here’s what you need to know.

Most of the action takes place in the Kingdom of Westeros, and we begin our story in Winterfell, the land in the north ruled over by the feudal overlord Eddard “Ned” Stark  where he presides with his wife Catelyn and their seven children: the heir Robb, eldest daughter Sansa, younger daughter Arya, youngest sons Bran and Rickon as well as Ned’s illegitimate son Jon Snow. Ned is an honorable man who believes in duty and doing the right thing, which generally means that the show isn’t very kind to him. “Winter is Coming” is Ned’s constant affirmation, as well as the Stark house motto.

Catelyn recieves a letter informing them of the death of the Hand of the King and Ned’s old mentor before receiving the royal court at Winterfell. They are visited by King Robert Baratheon and his wife, Queen Cersei of House Lannister, as well as their three children, including their heir Prince Joffrey, Cersei’s twin brother, Jaime Lannister, a member of the king’s guard, and their hedonistic younger brother Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf known by most as “The Imp.” During their visit, Robert names Ned the new Hand of the King, saying that he doesn’t trust anyone else around him, and there is suspicion that the former Hand was killed by the Lannisters. Robert also suggests that Sansa be betrothed to Joffrey to solidify the alliance between the Baratheons and the Starks. During the visit, Bran, who enjoys climbing the walls of the castle, climbs past the window of an abandoned tower where he stumbles upon Jaime and Cersei having sex. To keep their relationship a secret, Jaime shoves Bran out the window, intending to kill him.

Across the narrow sea, away from Westeros, exiled royal family Viserys and Danaerys Targaryen plot to overthrow the Baratheons and reclaim their father’s throne. Viserys arranges a marriage between Danaerys and the barbarian Khal Drogo (king) of the Dothraki, a nomadic horse tribe. They are joined by Ser Jorah Mormont, an exiled knight who was loyal to their father. During the wedding, Dany is given two dragon eggs as a gift. (These are pretty important by season’s end.) Viserys expects Khal Drogo to give him his army so that he may reclaim the Iron Throne, which was taken from them when his insane father was executed. Meanwhile, Danaerys, who is having trouble adjusting to the rough, nomadic lifestyle of the Dothraki, focuses on learning how to please her now husband and demands that she be treated as a wife and not a slave.

Despite his fall, Bran survives, albeit in a coma. Ned leaves for the capital with Sansa and Arya, and Jon Snow joins his uncle at the Wall, a massive barrier of ice that protects Westeros from the mysterious things that lie in the frozen north. Tyrion joins Jon, desiring to see “the edge of the world.” Catelyn is left alone, keeping vigil over Bran. She is forced to fend off an assassin sent to kill Bran for what he knows about the Lannisters. After confiding her suspicions with Robb, she goes to King’s Landing to warn Ned. Bran awakens from his coma, but is paralyzed from the waist down

At King’s Landing, Joffrey proves to be a petulant and bloodthirsty difficulty to Ned after a fight between Arya and Joffrey results in the execution of Sansa’s pet direwolf, as ordered by Cersei. The tensions between Ned and Cersei begin to rise immediately.

Across the Narrow Sea, Viserys is losing the respect of Dothraki as his sister gains more power as well as more of Khal Drogo’s affection. Danaerys becomes pregnant.

Ned meets the King’s Council, which consists of the King’s brother Lord Renly, a eunuch named Lord Varys, Grand Maester Pycelle and the Master of the Coin, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, who once dueled Ned’s brother for Catelyn’s hand in marriage and lost. Littlefinger teasingly warns Ned not to trust him. Ned warns that the Baratheons are heavily indebted to Lord Tywin Lannister, father of Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion. Catelyn arrives and warns Ned of her suspicions that the Lannisters mean to do them harm. Bran’s attempted assassination is discussed by the council, and Littlefinger reveals that the knife that Catelyn found on the assassin once belonged to him, but he lost it in a bet with Tyrion. After Catelyn leaves, Ned is forced to break up a fight between Sansa and Arya. He learns that Arya wishes to be a swordswoman, having been given a sword as a gift from Jon, and hires her a tutor to teach her the art of swordsmanship.

At the Wall, Jon and Tyrion arrive to find that the Wall is not a place of honor and glory, but rather where criminals and miscreants are exiled to serve the kingdom. Jon is initially put off, believing himself to be above any of his fellow watchers, but Tyrion, who can usually be relied on to say what everyone else is merely thinking, reminds him that he’s not better, only more fortunate, having been trained all his life, whereas everyone else is an orphan or a criminal. At the wall, rumors of “white walkers”, undead wildlings, begin to spread. Tyrion leaves the Wall after striking up a friendship with Jon. The Nightwatch recieves a nee recruit, Samwell Tarly, who is immediately bullied for his size and lack of skill. Jon comes to his defense. 

Ned begins to inquire into the death of Jon Arryn, the former Hand of the King. Using Littlefinger’s net of informers, he finds that the King has no true-born heir, and that all of Cersei’s children were fathered by Jaime. Robert has a string of bastard sons, but no claim to his throne. Tyrion stops back at Winterfell upon his return from the wall to find most of the Starks gone. Robb tells Tyrion that they suspect the Lannisters for his brother’s attempted murder. Before leaving, Tyrion speaks to Theon Greyjoy, a ward of House Stark, and mocks his family for the rebellion they attempted to wage against King Robert, calling him a “hostage” to the Starks. On his way back to King’s Landing, he is kidnapped by Catelyn, who seizes him for trial for the attempt on Bran’s life. Catelyn and her entourage go through the Vale with Tyrion as their prisoner and are attacked by barbarian tribesman. During the fight Tyrion saves Catelyn’s life but she refuses to free him. Their party arrives at Eyrie, ruled by Catelyn’s sister Lysa, Jon Arryn’s widow. Tyrion is imprisoned and waits to be sentenced for being complicit in Arryn’s murder.

Varys reveals to Ned that Arryn was slowly poisoned to death for asking too many questions. Arya catches Varys and another man plotting against the throne and tries to warn her father, but is unable to identify the plotters. The kingdom is informed of Tyrion’s arrest. The King’s Council hears news of Danaerys’ pregnancy and Robert orders that she and her unborn child be assassinated. Ned refuses to obey this, believing it to be dishonorable, and Ned resigns as Hand of the King. When he attempts to leave King’s Landing, he is ambushed by Jaime and his guards, who want answers for Tyrion’s arrest. Ned claims responsiblity and Jaime duels Ned and spears him in the leg, while all of Ned’s guards are killed.

At the Vale, Tyrion tricks Lysa into a public trial to hear his “confession”, where he confesses nothing of any value like Bran’s assassination attempt or Arryn’s murder (since he is innocent of both.) He orders a trial by combat and a mercenary named Bronn volunteers to fight on Tyrion’s behalf. Bronn defeats the other man and Tyrion is allowed to walk free.

Ned is accused by Cersei of kidnapping Tyrion and attacking Jaime but is silenced by Robert, who insists that Ned remain hand of the king to settle the tensions between the Lannisters and the Starks. He appoints Ned regent and leaves on a hunting trip. Ned tries to send Sansa and Arya back to Winterfell and finally concludes, after realizing that none of Robert’s children have black hair like his illegitimate children, that Joffrey is not heir to the Iron Throne.

 With the Dothraki, Viserys grows angry with Danaerys’ popularity with her people and demands that Khal Drogo turn his army over to him or else he will kill Danaerys and cut out her unborn child. Drogo agrees to give him the “golden crown” he desires and pours a bowl of molten gold over his head. Watching her brother’s death, Danaerys replies: “He was no dragon. Fire cannot kill a dragon.” When an assassination attempt is made on Danaerys, Drogo vows to cross the Narrow Sea to invade the Seven Kingdoms and claim the Iron Throne for his child.

Tywin Lannister chastises Jamie and Cersei for provoking the Starks and orders Jamie to attack Riverun, Catelyn’s childhood home, for kidnapping Tyrion. At the wall, Jon is named a steward, a glorified servant, much to his dismay since he believed his skills would earn him the position of ranger. He takes his vows nonetheless.

Ned finally confronts Cersei about the legitimacy of her children. Cersei defends herself, saying that she tried to love Robert and bear his children but Robert was still in love with Ned’s dead sister Lyanna. Ned tells Cersei to leave the capital with her children, thinking that he is being just and merciful, before he reveals the truth. Renly enters and tells Ned that Robert has been mortally wounded by a boar while on the hunting trip. On his deathbed, Robert dictates his will to Ned, who names Ned Protector of the Realm until Joffrey comes of age and asks Ned to make Joffrey a better man. Ned changes the will leaving the throne to Robert’s “rightful heir” as opposed to naming Joffrey specifically. Renly wants to stage a coup against the Lannisters but Ned, once again trying to chose the honorable course of action, wants to be sure that the throne passes to Stannis Baratheon, the next brother in line. He asks Littlefinger to use his men to overpower Cersei’s men-at-arms if the Lannisters attempt to seize the throne. Robert dies, Joffrey orders his coronation and Cersei refuses to follow Robert’s will. Ned’s guardsmen are salughtered and Littlefinger holds Ned at knifepoint, telling Ned that he tried to warn him not to trust him. Ned is imprisoned, Sansa is detained, and Arya escapes from the Lannister guards while her swordsmanship instructor fends them off. (Say it with me now: “What do we say to the God of Death?” “Not today.”)

Cersei tells Sansa that to spare her father’s life, she has to write to Robb, telling him he must swear loyalty to Joffrey. Tywin Lannister is named the new hand of the king. Sansa pleads publicly for Ned’s life and Joffrey agrees, but only if Ned recognizes him as the true king.

Tyrion and Bronn are attacked by a barbarian tribe and trying to avoid a painful death, Tyrion tells them that if they join his father’s fight against the Starks, they will be justly rewarded. They follow Tyrion and Bronn as insurance and Tyrion accumulates a small wild army. Lysa refuses to send troops against the Lannisters. despite Catelyn’s pleading and confrontation. In Winterfell, Robb calls his family’s bannermen to war against the Lannisters and is later joined by Catelyn. Bran and Rickon are now the only Starks who remain at Winterfell. At the wall, Jon and the others fend off men previously believed to be dead, confirming their fears of White Walkers.

Across the Narrow Sea, the Dothraki sack and pillage a town to get the funds to buy the ships needed to reach Westeros. Danaerys denies the raiders right to rape and enslave the women and claims them as her servants to protect them, and demands that the raiders marry the women instead of rape them. The leading raider challenges her decision and orders Drogo to duel. The man is killed quickly, but Drogo is wounded in the fight. One of the villagers, a healer named Mirri Maz Duur, who many claim to be a witch, treats the wound. The wound becomes infected and Ser Jorah advises Danaerys to leave before Drogo dies, because the Dothraki only respect power and will kill her and her baby while they fight over the throne. Danaerys refuses to abandon him and pleads with Mirri to save him. Mirri says that only death can pay for death and decides to cast a spell, killing Drogo’s horse. She says that none may enter his tent during the spell, but Danaerys goes into premature labor and in a moment of desperation, Ser Jorah carries her into the tent to seek Mirri’s help.

A small battle is waged between the Lannisters and the Starks, and Robb has fooled Tywin by wasting his army’s resources on only 2,000 men, while the other 18,000 sneak up on Jaime’s army. They are defeated and Jamie is captured. The army arrives at the Twins, a fortified bridge ruled over by Lord Frey, who refuses to let the army pass. When Catelyn tries to negotiate, in order to cross and get some of Frey’s troops to fight the Lannisters, she promises that Robb and Arya will marry two of Frey’s children. When Jon learns of Robb’s war, he feels he should join the fight, but is told he must chose between his duty at the wall and his family.

Varys warns Ned that if he doesn’t swear fealty to Joffrey, he will be killed and that Sansa will also be in danger. At a ceremony, where Ned will be judged in front of the gods, Ned swears loyalty to Joffrey and claims himself a traitor. Cersei asks Joffrey to spare Ned, as promised, but Joffrey orders Ned to be beheaded. Arya attempts to rescue her father but is stopped by one of Ned’s men, who knows it is too late. He shields Arya from seeing her father’s execution. In the most shocking event of the season, Ned is beheaded in front of a crowd.

All of the Starks, including Bran and Rickon back at Winterfell, are informed of Ned’s execution and Robb vows his revenge against the Lannisters. Catelyn is more focused on rescuing Sansa and Arya. At King’s Landing, Joffrey forces Sansa to look at her father’s severed head and says he intends to add her brother’s to his collection, to which Sansa defiantly replies how much she’d like to see Joffrey own head on a spike. She contemplates throwing herself and Joffrey off of a bridge but is stopped before she can. Arya is rescued by a Night’s Watch recruited and is now bound to go to the wall. Tywin tells Tyrion to take his place as the King’s Hand to keep Joffrey in line, knowing he will now be distracted by the Starks as well as the Baratheon. Jon tries to abandon the Wall to to avenge his father, but is convinced to stay by Sam and the others, to help them counter the threat of White Walkers.

And finally, across the Narrow Sea, Danaerys learns that her unborn son died, his life spent by Mirri’s spell to save her husband. However, Drogo has fallen into a catatonic state and many of his men have already abandoned him. Mirri tells her that it was an act of vengeance for her village. Danaerys puts the Khal out of his misery and smothers him. A funeral pyre is built and Danaerys places the dragon eggs on top, ordering that Mirri be bound to the pyre. She declares herself the queen of the Khal’s remaining followers before stepping onto the flaming pyre herself. By daybreak, the fire has subsided and Ser Jorah and the others are amazed to find her completely unharmed, sitting in the ashes with three live dragon hatchlings sitting on her shoulder.

As you can see, ‘Game of Thrones’ is an intense and complicated story, but if you haven’t picked it up yet, it is strongly urged. ‘Game of Thrones’ pushes the boundaries television is capable of and is complimented by lush cinematography, top-notch writing and amazing performances. The suspense is always churning, and as Arya reminds us in the previews for the upcoming season, “Anyone can die.”

You can catch the premiere of ‘Game of Thrones’ second season on HBO at 9 pm EST tonight….and that my friends is NO April Fool’s joke!