'LOS ANGELES -- Instead of considering the much-anticipated next 10 episodes of "Game of Thrones" as a new season, viewers would do better to collect their weapons, gird their loins and approach it as a triumphant gamer does, as a new and exalted level.
Winter is coming and with it more kings than kingdoms.
With its ever-increasing cast of characters, each richly arrayed in native landscape, ritual, back story and entourage, HBO's glorious adaptation of George R. R. Martin's still unfolding sword 'n' sorcery epic makes Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" look like child's play. Those who wandered into the disparate and desperate lands of Westeros last year in search of an R-rated fantasy diversion -- bloody sword fights, half-naked slave girls, a touch of the supernatural -- were soon set straight.
"Game of Thrones" has all of those, but also a wise and ruthless heart, beating out the eternal cadence of human survival. Life against death, love against hate, integrity against corruption, loyalty against dishonor. Here there be monsters and murders and schemes against the crown, but also little girls who long for freedom and crippled boys who dream of flight.
Loosely united under King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros roiled with dissatisfaction while across the Narrow Sea the son of the deposed Targaryen ruler gathered an army and plotted revenge.
Drawn reluctantly from his beloved Winterfell to serve as Hand of the King, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), discovered Westeros' fatal secret -- Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) was not King Robert's son but the product of Queen Cersei's (Lena Headey) incestuous relationship with her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). After Robert was killed toward the end of last season, Ned was executed, and all hell broke loose.
Which is essentially where Season 2 begins, with all alliances shattered and any man with a keep amassing forces and imagining himself king.
From the moment the new opening credit sequence rolls -- and do not use this time for chores or snacks because not only is it totally cool to watch, it offers what little there will be in terms of narrative primer -- this season proves, once and for all, that there is nothing remotely slackerish about fantasy culture. To be a fantasy geek requires the obsessive focus of a miniaturist and the artistic intellect of a medieval scholar.
In other words, pay attention. While it is quite easy to lose one's self in the many cinematic wonders of this show -- the gorgeous and grim locales, the heart-thumping battle scenes, the riveting moments of romance and malice -- do not let even a chance remark go flying. Like the White Raven, it undoubtedly bears a message worth remembering.
With the obvious exception of Ned (Sean Bean! Why must you always die too soon?), all the beloved characters of Season 1 are with us once again, though parted from each other. At King's Landing, Joffrey has become such an instant tyrant even his mother is dismayed; only the wily Tyrion (Emmy Award-winning Peter Dinklage), recently returned from the wars, seems capable of managing him.
Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) remains Joffrey's betrothed, but where once she was willing, now she is hostage; her sister Arya (Maisie Williams) escaped after her father's murder and is now traveling, as a boy, north toward Winterfell where young Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is now lord. Ned's oldest son Robb (Richard Madden) has Jaime prisoner and is at war with the Lannisters, while Ned's illegitimate son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), searches for his uncle in the frozen wilds beyond the northern wall.
Meanwhile, across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) wanders the Red Waste, searching for a place to nurture her three baby dragons and what remains of the Dothraki hordes before she launches her campaign to reclaim the kingdom. She's got a lot of competition.
Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), master of Dragonstone (see opening credits), considers himself the legitimate heir to his brother Robert's throne, but so does his younger sibling Renly (Gethin Anthony) and each has an army and a female champion to make their argument; Stannis' "Red Woman" (Carice van Houten) brings a chilling mix of murderous sorcery and monotheism into the tale.
And then there's Balon Greyjoy (Patrick Malahide) of Pyke who sees in all this conflict a chance to reclaim the allegiance of his son Theon (Alfie Allen), a ward of the Starks, and expand his own empire -- hitherto confined to the Iron Islands.
As with the novels, this "Game of Thrones" is breathtakingly ambitious, an ever-unfurling tapestry that threatens, at times, to overwhelm its frame. That it does not is a testament to the power of piecework -- art is not defined by the space it occupies but by its details, the truth it captures.
Many heads bend over this adaptation, each belonging to a master of his or her craft, and what emerges is a truly new, and miraculously accurate, definition of epic television.