'Game' on: HBO's multipart epic returns

Emilia Clarke stars in HBO's "Game of Thrones." (Keith Bernstein / HBO)

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” will return for its third season Sunday at 9 p.m.

  • Author and co-executive producer George R.R. Martin has two books to go in the seven-volume series on which the show is based.
  • The third season will bring 18 new actors including Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell and Ciaran Hinds as Mance Rayder.

* GAME OF THRONES. 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO.

"The night is dark and full of terrors."

- From a prayer to R'hllor, Lord of Light, in "Game of Thrones"

 I'VE NO IDEA what terrors, if any, keep "Game of Thrones" executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss up nights.

The care and feeding of CGI dragons?

Overseeing actors and crews in Northern Ireland, Iceland, Morocco and Croatia?

Knowing that author (and co-executive producer) George R.R. Martin has two books to go in the seven-volume series on which their HBO series is based, and that the most recent installment took more than five years?

Few can afford to sleep peacefully in Martin's fantasy kingdom of Westeros, where there's no such thing as too big to fail (or to be beheaded), and where, when one character tells another, "We have to warn them or, before winter's done, everyone you've ever known will be dead," you're inclined to take him at his word. (Although in fairness, winters in Westeros can last even longer than this one has.)

But as "Game of Thrones" returns for its third spring on Sunday, fans, at least, have little to fear: Benioff and Weiss appear to have things under control.

Yes, even those pesky dragons (like some of the Stark children, Daenerys Targaryen's trio of fire-breathers may have had a growth spurt between seasons).

Watchers on the books' infamous Wall couldn't be any stauncher defenders of Martin's characters, or of the books' larger themes, than the audacious pair who brought it to television, but that doesn't mean that they've been slaves to the source material.

Thank goodness.

I, for one, will always be grateful for the deviation that spared the nose of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). Staying true to the text would have reduced it to a "hideous scab" after most of it was supposedly cut off in last season's Battle of Blackwater.

The scar on the cheek is plenty. Really.

For purists, the writers have added a line in which Tyrion's not-so-loving sister Cersei (Lena Headey) tells him, "They said you lost your nose, but it's not as gruesome as all that."

But if you're a Martin fan who's still making lists of the ways the TV show departs from the books, it's time to stop. They exist as separate achievements.

Those who've chosen not to read ahead shouldn't feel shortchanged: This is extraordinarily ambitious and entertaining television, wherever its pedigree.

Benioff and Weiss may have bought themselves time by breaking the series' third book, the nearly 1,000-page "A Storm of Swords," into two seasons, but they've still had to find their way through a story whose main characters are widely scattered and in some cases unaware of one another's continued existence.

That's been true from the beginning - I won't at this point even attempt a "previously on 'Game of Thrones' " summary - but the complications (and the casualties) can be expected only to increase in these next two seasons, when even more characters will be introduced to a cast that starts this one with 27 returning regulars.

Among the 18 newbies: Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell, grandmother to the delightfully ambitious Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer, "The Tudors"), whose role producers had already expanded in interesting ways; and Ciaran Hinds ("Rome"), who's playing Mance Rayder, the fabled "king beyond the Wall."

(Like musical chairs, "Game of Thrones" always seems to have more kings than it has seats for them.)

Time doesn't stand still in Westeros, but, by choosing their spots, the writers are allowing time for viewers to get to know, or in some cases to be reintroduced to, the characters.

Spending time with the captive Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his determined traveling companion, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), takes nothing away from Jon Snow (Kit Harington), fighting for his life beyond the Wall, or from any of a dozen other characters.

Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is still beautiful and in danger, and young King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is still an evil coward, while Joffrey's uncle, Tyrion, and Sansa's sister, Arya (Maisie Williams), remain two of the best characters on television.

And if you love Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) - I haven't always, but the mother of dragons is growing on me - you won't want to miss the April 21 episode.

There are, as usual, scenes in "Game of Thrones" whose main purpose appears to be to meet some not-so-mysterious HBO bare-boobs quota, often achieved by having more than one naked woman in a scene.

Happily, one of these interludes leads to an actual funny moment, rather than just being used to keep viewers from nodding off during a long speech.

A little humor won't spoil this "Game," and it doesn't hurt, either, that it shows some men's fantasies to be more far-fetched than any involving dragons. 

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