You were promised sword-fights - you got sword fights. You were promised a cast of characters big enough to challenge The Wire's ensemble - you got that too. You even got a generous dose of political intrigue, bawdiness, strong language and, frequently, some hammy acting. HBO's epic fantasy Game of Thrones has been the TV hit of the year so far. With eight episodes down and two to go, the climactic events of the next couple of weeks are not to be missed.
Whether you just need to brush up on some of the finer points of the mythology, or you've missed the boat entirely and you want to catch up before it's too late, read on for a guide to all things GoT.
Be warned - the following article is heavy with spoilers.
"Winter is coming..." The favoured motto of the story's resident stoics, House Stark, couldn't be more appropriate as the first season of the show draws to a close. The central family are facing a cold winter indeed: their ally King Robert (Mark Addy) is dead, their patriarch Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean) is in prison for treason, and his offspring face the likelihood of oblivion at the hands of their scheming adversaries, the Lannisters. But a growing threat from the east suggests that the warring families in the seat of power, King's Landing, could be about to face a greater enemy than each other. All the while, there are stirrings in the north beyond The Wall unlike any that have been felt for thousands of years.
With a second season based on George RR Martin's sprawling literary series due next year, one thing is looking increasingly certain: the next two episodes are going to be required viewing. Here is a guide to the show so far.
The Iron Throne and the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros
The series quickly established the geography of Westeros with an impressive computer-animated title sequence that zooms around the vast continent from above. Also of help has been the characters' near-obsessive need to explain where they currently are and where they have come from, according to the points of compass. We now all know that the Starks' home, Winterfel, is in the north and King's Landing is somewhere in the middle, while the Lannisters' home, Casterly Rock, lies in the west. The giant Iron Throne (a birds-nest of welded-together swords) on which the king of Westeros sits, has been hotly contested for generations. So far it seems that being the rightful heir is a less certain path to power than involvement in a bloody coup or a devious plot.
The king is dead, long live the king
The series began with the weary, gluttonous (and not very kingly) King Robert asking his old friend Ned Stark to leave his wintry home and serve as the "hand of the king" (chief aide) in the positively Mediterranean King's Landing. On arrival, Stark notices that the ruler is heavily indebted to the queen's family, the wealthy Lannisters. When Robert is killed in a hunting accident his "heir", the spoilt teenager Prince Joffrey, is quickly crowned. However Stark has discovered that the boy is not the king's son. After confronting the Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) and refusing to recognise Joffrey, Stark is imprisoned for treason and his family rounded up. When word of this reaches Winterfel, Stark's oldest son Robb begins gathering an army to take on the Lannisters.
The trials of House Stark
With their scruffy fur clothing, dour demeanours and northern-English accents, the Starks' difficulties started long before the death of the king. Their suffering at the hands of the Lannisters began when seven-year-old Bran was thrown from a window, after accidentally seeing Queen Cersei in a compromising position. The departure of Ned Stark's beloved but illegitimate son Jon Snow was also a painful moment. Born of another woman, he is hated by Stark's wife and so chooses a life of servitude as part of the Night's Watch, guarding the icy Wall. Once the family decamps to King's Landing, the Starks' relations with the Lannisters become even more complicated, when Ned's 11-year-old daughter Sansa is betrothed to Joffrey.
The rise of House Lannister
The motto "a Lannister always pays his debts" suggests that the family in question are not only the richest in the Seven Kingdoms but also the most proud. The always healthy-looking Lannisters were the historic rulers of Westeros and are now more keen than ever to recapture their former glory. Queen Cersei (the duplicitous wife of King Robert) thinks this is best achieved by secretly having children with her brother Jamie. The patriarch of the family is the determined Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), while the black sheep is his son Tyrion, a debauched yet highly intelligent dwarf (Peter Dinklage).
The Dothraki and the Targaryens unite
We have learnt that Robert became king by leading a revolt against Westeros's previous rulers the Targaryens. After being exiled from the land, the Targaryen "heir" to the throne Viserys crossed the Narrow Sea and arranged a marriage between his sister Daenerys and the leader of the barbarian Dothraki tribe, Khal Drogo (think Klingons). Viserys's plan of forcing the Dothraki army to re-take King's Landing soon backfires, however, when Drogo kills him by tipping molten metal on his head. But even in death, Viserys may still get his wish. After the Dothraki learn of King Robert's attempt to assassinate the now-pregnant Daenerys, they plan to buy ships and cross the Narrow Sea in search of revenge.
Tyrion Lannister steals the show
Like an X-rated fairy tale character, the persuasive, sharp-tongued Tyrion gets exactly what he wants in life, despite his small stature. For this reason, he has quickly become Game of Thrones' best-loved character. Referred to mockingly as "the imp", Tyrion has spent much of the season on the road with his family's enemies the Starks after being falsely accused of attempting to kill Bran. Ken Tucker from Entertainment Weekly recently wrote "if Dinklage doesn't get an Emmy for his clever, rude Tyrion Lannister, I'll be gobsmacked".
The young ones
While Game of Thrones may not showcase the kind of acting that HBO viewers expected from The Sopranos or The Wire (in fact, it often falls well short), one pleasant surprise has been the quality of the show's largely unknown young actors. As well as Isaac Hempstead-Wright as the noble child Bran Stark, the character's sister Arya (Maisie Williams), a tomboy with an early talent for sword-fighting, is a particular joy to watch. While Jack Gleeson comes across a bit Draco Malfoy as Joffrey, he deserves recognition for successfully portraying one of the most unlikeable small-screen characters for some time. A little older, Emilia Clarke bringing both beauty and intelligence to the young bride-turned-tribal queen, Daenerys Targaryen.
Beyond the Wall
While the first season of the show has been dominated by clashes between noble families, constant references have been made to the scourge of the White Walkers, thought extinct in the lands beyond the Wall. Rumours that they are set to return abound, just as the Night's Watch, who are charged with guarding the icy barrier, are dwindling in number and consumed by infighting. In the most recent episode, Jon Snow finds himself fighting a reanimating adversary, which can only be stopped by fire - was this one of the ancient foe or just a sign of their growing power? What's more, the continued references to the dragons' eggs, lying dormant in the ownership of Daenerys Targaryen, suggests the second season of the show could take a more magical direction.
Episode 9 of Game of Thrones airs on OSN First at 9pm tomorrow