If you thought the world of "Game of Thrones" was incredibly vast and complex and festooned with a crazy multitude of characters, brace yourself for Season 2 of HBO's awesome fantasy epic.
Following the road map forged by mastermind (mad king?) George R.R. Martin, the series now takes on even more layers and more treachery, and follows so many diverse personalities over so much rugged Westeros terrain that you might find yourself wishing that HBO had provided fans with a GPS tracking device.
Of course, some characters always stand out amid the landscape, and in the four new episodes we've seen, our hands-down favorite is snark-spewing dwarf Tyrion Lannister, played by the marvelous Peter Dinklage. Tyrion, whoskewers his rivals with a superior intellect and wit, always gets off the snappiest lines and brings a lighthearted touch to a series that tends to be oh so dark. Dinklage is proving that his Emmy award in Season 1 was richly deserved.
Then again, it's probably not a good idea to get too attached to anyone on this blasted show. Not after what happened last year to beloved warrior Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark (Sean Bean), who was beheaded by newly crowned teen King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson).
The gruesome death of what seemed to be the saga's main character blindsided many viewers and defied TV convention. But it also honored Martin's no-one-is-safe credo. This is an author, after all, who does brutal things to his characters.
And expect more brutality in Season 2 as war breaks out all over Westeros with various factions driven by their own bloody agendas. Among them are rival brothers of the late King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) -- Renly (Gethin Anthony) and Stannis (Stephen Dillane), who both stake a claim to Joffrey's Iron Throne. Though Renly is backed by the larger army, Stannis has the support of a mysterious "red priestess" named Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who apparently has some magical mojo working in her favor.
Also vying for power: noble Robb Stark (Richard Madden), who is out to avenge his father's death; Baylon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide), ruthless ruler of the Iron Islands; and young Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who has three newborn dragons in her arsenal.
To get what they want, they'll have to unseat Joffrey, who is such an arrogant and terrifyingly demented little brat that we have to refrain from throwing things at the TV whenever he's on screen. We can hardly wait to see the look on his smug mug whenever he learns that he's the incestuous offspring of a conniving mother, Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), and her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
If that's not enough to keep track of, we're also following Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), Eddard's "bastard" son, as he slogs across the frozen northern wilderness as a steward of the Night's Watch, and his half-sister, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), who is hiding from Joffrey's goons while traveling incognito as a boy.
What's truly encouraging about Season 2 is that executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have managed to add the new plots and personalities without sapping the narrative tension that helped make "Thrones" last year's best drama. They continue to weave an intricate tapestry of betrayal, tension, vengeance, greed, Machiavellian intrigue, sex and enough violence to make "The Hunger Games" look like a powder puff contest (prepare yourself for at least one more head on a pike).
In some ways, what they and Martin have given us is a medieval version of "Survivor," only with swords and much better costumes. It's fascinating to watch the shifting alliances working to outwit, outlast and outplay each other while trying to not get stabbed in the back ... or throat, or gut.
That "Thrones" remains so utterly unpredictable makes it even more mesmerizing. Just when you think you know where this lavish story and these people are going, it totally surprises you. And, as we've learned from poor Ned's demise, there is absolutely no room for honor in this game.
'game of Thrones
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When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Not familiar with "Game of Thrones" and all its devious shenanigans? Here's a brief primer to help you get up to speed:
Source material: George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy book series, "A Song of Fire and Ice."
Setting: The mythical continent of Westeros, largely consisting of seven separate kingdoms.
The evil boy king: Joffrey Baratheon sparked a war by beheading Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark, whose wife, Catelyn, and family seek revenge. Making things awkward is the fact that Ned's eldest daughter, Sansa, is betrothed to Joffrey. Here's the kicker: Joffrey is the product of an incestuous relationship, meaning he technically has no right to the Iron Throne.
The rebel: Robb Stark, one of Ned's sons, is leading a rebellion against King Joffrey. He holds a bargaining chip, having captured Joffrey's uncle Jaime Lannister (actually his father) as a prisoner of war.
Rival brothers: Renly and Stannis Baratheon are brothers of the late King Robert Baratheon. They both claim to be rightful heirs to the crown and are lining up troops to fight one another.
Dragon queen: Daenerys Targaryen is the only surviving child of a former king, who was ousted by Robert during a rebellion. She now wants to make a move on the throne and possesses three newborn dragons that potentially could be valuable weapons.