Game of Thrones returns for a second season with mediaeval world war, royal schemers, dragons, magic and surprises guaranteed to keep viewers on edge and ravenous for more.
Winter is coming: Game of Thrones returns to screens
The desire for season two of Game of Thrones burns hotter than dragon's breath in our veins, and rightly so. Before the heads piled up on pike poles last season, who would have thought mediaeval swords and sorcery could make The Sopranos look like schoolyard bullies and Deadwood look like kids playing cowboys?
HBO got royally mediaeval on all of us, indeed, even the author George RR Martin - whose bestseller, A Song of Ice and Fire, inspired the TV show - says he can't wait to find out how his second novel, A Clash of Kings, is brought to life this month.
And for all the fans who jumped from their sofas and pitched a fit last season when the head of Ned Stark, Lord paramount of the North - so tenderly and charismatically portrayed by Sean Bean - was lopped off by a bratty boy-king, Martin insists he doesn't hate the luckless, battered Starks.
"I don't! I love the Starks!" he protested to Postmedia News recently. "It's not me who is cruel to them; it's the world, it's the Lannisters and the other characters - that's what I always say. I don't kill these characters; the other characters kill these characters."
Set in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, Game of Thrones chronicles the violent dynastic struggles among the kingdom's noble families for control of the Iron Throne.
In The North Remembers, the first episode of the new season, the newly proclaimed "King in the North" Robb Stark (Richard Madden), out to avenge his father's death, wages war against the affluent Lannisters and the sadistic young king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson).
But more claimants to the Iron Throne arise, including Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), who's backed by a priestess of a strange god. Expect Ned's illegitimate son Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and the Night's Watch to continue their trek beyond the Wall into a forbidden, mystical frozen wasteland.
Also expect the steely platinum-haired siren, Daenerys "Dany" Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), to take fine care of those leathery-winged fire-spitters she hatched on her husband's funeral pyre. As she vows: "When my dragons are grown, we will burn cities to the ground."
"In season two, the world just got a lot bigger," says the executive producer and the series co-creator DB Weiss. "We're already at war, so there's no more peace. Everywhere you go, this world has become a lot more dangerous. There are more characters and things just got a lot more brutal. Many of the characters who were together in season one have been dispersed to the four winds. Season two is definitely bigger in scope."
Visually, Game of Thrones takes the breath away with its mountains, glaciers, rolling hills, seaside vistas and mediaeval towns and castles; it wrings feature-film heft from its relatively modest television budget.
"The locations we were at - Malta, Croatia, Iceland - were so stunning, you know, they kind of look like CGI," says Harington. "But they're not CGI ... and that kind of makes the show what it is. Everything's done in a very real way."
"When you're in a cave in the mountains and you see your own breath - and you don't have to CGI breath - you're cold and you don't have to 'act' cold. It does a lot of the work for you," adds the breakout star from the show, Peter Dinklage, who steals every scene he's in as the cunning dwarf Tyrion Lannister, a role for which he won both an Emmy and Golden Globe this past year.
In this world, keeping it real also means the female characters don't take any guff and wield as much might as the males.
"I've heard the show referred to as feminist," says Harington. "We have characters such as Cersei the Queen, or Daenerys the exiled princess, who find their strength through being wronged. And they're possibly some of the strongest characters and the most brutal, in a lot of ways."
As Daenerys, her eyes afire with rage, tells one foolish man: "The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands."
What has truly impressed Weiss is the appeal of Game of Thrones to attract fans from all walks of life and corners of the globe, who watch it for many different reasons.
"We've been really lucky - there's been a wide base of people who've come to enjoy the show and lots of them are fans of the books and some of them have never heard of the books," he told The Los Angeles Times in early March.
"There are fantasy fans who love the books and there are car mechanics who love the show and there are politicians and mixed martial arts fighters who love the show. It's a pretty wide, random base of people. It's hard to know what any group is fixating on or not fixating on."
"Not to give too much away," adds Dinklage, "but fans who want blood and battle won't be disappointed with season two."
• Game of Thrones returns tonight and is broadcast on Mondays and Tuesdays on OSN First HD, OSN First and OSN First +2
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