Game of Thrones (2011-) is back, and with it comes millions of people challenged to remember all the faces and names that comprise its massive ensemble cast. With so many locations, houses, groups, armies, allegiances and rivalries flowing through the veins of Westeros and its citizens, it's hard to remember just where everyone fits. Fortunately for you, we've done our best to create a little guide of all the major players, reminding you who they are, where they fit, and why they matter. Since nobody has time to read up on absolutely everyone in the immense Thrones world, we highlighted the characters that are still alive and capable of making an appearance on the series or who were big enough players to still receive mention or have lasting effect on those surviving.
Needless to say, this article contains spoilers about the characters listed. If you aren't caught up on the series, look no further.
The Men of the Night's Watch and the Wildlings
"Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come." - The vows of the Night's Watch
Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West)
Sam is the disinherited son of House Tarly, sent to The Wall by his father as punishment for being fat and a poor fighter. House Tarly is a noble house in The Reach, sworn to House Tyrell. By rights, Sam would have grown to be a top ranking lord of the Seven Kingdoms. Instead, his military-leader father disowned him and sent him to The Wall, offering death as his alternative option. Sam is Jon Snow's (Kit Harington) best friend and an insightful, intelligent scholar-type who is initially beat up by his watch brothers until Jon stands up for him. Sam is the first of the Night's Watch to kill a White Walker, and is in a relationship with Gilly, a victim of the incestuous Craster, from whom Sam rescued her. Gilly has a son which Sam helps raise. He has ambitions of becoming a maester to replace Aemon, who had been the Night's Watch maester for many years until his death from old age. In Season Six, he travels home to the family that abandoned him, only to find their sentiments unchanged. He then moves on to the Maester school to begin his studies.
Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale)
The Master-At-Arms at Castle Black, he brings new recruits to the Night's Watch, a position he hates. He fought on the side of the Targaryens during Robert's Rebellion and was sent to the Night's Watch after losing. For several seasons, he is said to be traveling to King's Landing to warn King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) of the impending White Walker threat. Upon his return, he is declared the Acting Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and tasked with judging Jon Snow's actions during his infiltration of the wildling army. Wounded during the Battle of Castle Black, he eventually recovers and loses the election to become Lord Commander to Jon Snow (by a single vote placed by Maester Aemon), and Snow names Thorne First Ranger upon victory. After the battle at Hardhome, Thorne arranges the mutinous murder of Jon Snow, administering the first of many stabbings that leave Snow dead. Unfortunately for Thorne, following Snow's resurrection, he is put to death by hanging.
Maester Aemon (Peter Vaughan)
The Maester of Castle Black and long-time blind man, Aemon serves as adviser to the Night's Watch. He was born Aemon Targaryen, making him great uncle to Daenerys Targaryen, who, like most people, is unaware of his existence or affiliation with the Targaryen name he abandoned ages ago. Having an older brother, he was not set to inherit anything as a Targaryen and instead joined the order of maesters. When his older brother died, he was offered the throne and declined, passing it to his yonger brother Aegon and joining the Night's Watch. Aemon supports the actions of Castle Black and forms a bond with Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly, appreciating their kind spirits and good intentions. He dies of old age during season five, living to be one of the oldest people in Westeros.
Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo)
Lord Commander of the Night's Watch during the first few seasons, he was the former head of House Mormont until he abdicated his seat for his son, Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen). Jorah went on to become a slave trader and sullied the Mormont name. Another leader who appreciates Jon Snow's character and to some degree sees him as a surrogate son, he presents Snow with a Valyrian sword, Longclaw, an heirloom of House Mormont and a sword he had formerly presented to Jorah. During a stop at Craster's Keep, a relay point the Night's Watch utilized when traversing the woods, he is stabbed to death by Rast (Luke Barnes), one of his own men. Craster had been feeding the men nothing but bread with sawdust and had stores of food hidden. Attempting to avoid conflict, Mormont held Rast back from attacking Craster -- a move Rast interpreted as siding with the enemy.
Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds)
Once a noted ranger of the Night's Watch, he fled his post to join the wildlings, eventually rising to their leader with the title King-Beyond-The-Wall. When Jon Snow infiltrates the wildlings, he earns Mance's respect, albeit through deception. Jon Snow claims to be a deserter of the Night's Watch and spends time in Mance and the wildlings' company. After the Battle of Castle Black, Mance learns Jon's true alliance was with the Night's Watch, but commends him for his bravery in combat and sense of reason. Soon thereafter, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) marches into Mance's territory with his army and captures the wildling leader. Mance is eventually burned at the stake by Stannis in response to Mance not recognizing Stannis' claim to the throne, and Jon shoots him through the heart during the burning to end his suffering.
Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju)
The fiery red-bearded second-in-command to Mance Rayder, Tormund is aware of Jon Snow and Ygritte's relationship while Jon is in the company of the wildlings. He is captured by the Night's Watch during the Battle of Castle Black after receiving a crossbow bolt fired by Jon Snow, but not before seriously wounding Alliser Thorne in single combat. After Mance's death, Jon Snow releases him and calls for his assistance in winning the allegiance of the wildlings in a fight against the White Walkers. The two lead the charge at Hardhome and survive. Tormund then follows Jon Snow into battle agaist Ramsay Bolton to reclaim Winterfell, and again emerges victorious.
Ygritte (Rose Leslie)
Ygritte is a wildling woman with whom Jon Snow falls in love and breaks his vow of chastity imposed by the Night's Watch. She, like many wildlings, believed her people and the "civilized" people both descend from the First Men, and there is no need for them to be fighting as the White Walkers are the real threat. She spends considerable time in the company of Jon Snow during his tenure with the wildlings, but eventually realizes his alliance remains with the Night's Watch. She shoots him three times with arrows but intentionally leaves him alive, acknowledging her love for him, and the two don't see each other again until the Battle of Castle Black. During the battle, fighting on the side of Mance Rayder's army, she was shot with an arrow by Olly (Brenock O'Connor), a young farm boy living at Castle Black as a member of the Night's Watch, and dies. Jon takes her body to the forest to burn, on the suggestion of Tormund. Ygritte is responsible for repeating the famous line "You know nothing, Jon Snow."
Gilly (Hannah Murray)
One of Craster's daughters and wives, she is pregnant when discovered by Jon and Sam. They rescue her from Craster's keep and take her back to Castle Black, where she lives under Sam's protection. She is hopeful and optimistic despite her reasonably terrible life, and her lack of intelligence is made up for with compassion. Her character works to give even more depth to Sam's.
Craster (Robert Pugh)
A wildling man north of the wall, he is an unsavory ally of the Night's Watch, despised for his tendency to marry his daughters and use them to create more daughters. He lives in a fortified homestead with numerous daughter/wives, and has over 100 children in total.
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