This image released by HBO shows Charles Dance in a scene from "Game of Thrones." The fourth season premieres Sunday at 9p.m. EST on HBO.
This image released by HBO shows Charles Dance in a scene from "Game of Thrones." The fourth season premieres Sunday at 9p.m. EST on HBO. (AP Photo/HBO, Helen Sloan)

First of all, this review will try not to reveal any spoilers for the fourth season of “Game of Thrones.”

However, many, like me, have read the books. So last season's infamous Red Wedding was not a surprise. The way it was, um, executed, however, was indeed surprising.

The ability for the HBO series to interpret the story its own way is what has made it even more compelling than the George R.R. Martin novels called “Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire” that it is based on.

Season four of the show is essentially the latter half of Martin's third novel, “A Storm of Swords.” That title alone should give you a clue to this year's tone.

 

The first episode, airing Sunday, helps refamiliarize audiences with the nearly 30 principal characters while setting up the mayhem that is sure to ensue. Rest assured that by the end of the episode there will be a reminder of just how bloody good the series can be.

If the old stage axiom is that you hang the guns on the wall in the first act so they will used in the third act, then “Thrones” is putting up an arsenal.

For those who haven't jumped on the “Thrones” bandwagon yet, explaining its myriad plotlines set in the seven kingdoms of Westeros and beyond would be nearly impossible. The highly rated series averaged 14.3 million viewers last year, but is in fact a worldwide phenomenon. HBO is in 40 million households in the U.S. and some 140 million worldwide. Throw in later viewings and DVD sales, and you begin to get an idea of how big “Thrones” is.

 

This year's episodes reportedly were budgeted at $6 million, and they look it. Part spectacle, the series also has great storytelling, with plenty of political machination and emotional drama with unexpected though very dark comic elements, making its breadth unique for television. No matter what your taste, it's easy to get caught up in its sweep and scope.

Though Martin's complex tale can be cumbersome at times, the series has deftly juggled the stories; it pushes the action and rarely lags.

The executive producers and author Martin, who is also a producer, don't seem adverse to change when it comes to the show.

 

The “Storm of Swords novel was so compelling and large, it needed to be broken up into two seasons. While there will be no attempt to dissect the first episode, we can bring you up to date a bit and remind you death awaits. Season four, aptly enough, is called “All Men Must Die.” “Thrones” has never had any problem killing off main characters, both likable and unlikable.

As season four opens, both Stark daughters — now orphans after the slayings of their parents (in different seasons) — are in peril. The youngest, Arya (Maisie Williams), is being kidnapped by the giant mercenary called the Hound (Rory McCann). Her survival instincts and thirst for revenge, however, make her dangerous in her own way.

 

Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) has been married off against her will to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who — while sympathetic toward her — understands her life isn't worth much in the current political landscape.

King's Landing is ruled by teenage King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), a bit of a sadist who is guided by his plotting grandfather (Charles Dance).

The city awaits the wedding of the monarch and Lady Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). Meanwhile, Cersei (Lena Headey) is giving the cold shoulder to her maimed brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) with whom she had an incestuous relationship. To add spice to the situation, newcomer Prince Oberyn Martell ( Chilean actor Pedro Pascal ) has arrived for the festivities, seemingly intent on satisfying an old grudge.

 

In the far north, barbarians are over the wall and threatening to overrun the Night's Watch fortress at Castle Black. One of the Watch's members, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), prepares for the attack, knowing his ex-lover, Ygritte (Rose Leslie), is among the outliers and feeling betrayed.

Across the sea, Queen Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) has gathered a formidable army, mostly of loyal former slaves, with the intent on taking back the seven kingdoms of Westeros. On the way, she and her now large dragons are laying waste to everything in their path.

 

Obviously, “Thrones” isn't everyone's cup of tea. Martin's fantasy world — partially inspired by England's fratricidal War of the Roses — is filled with brutal moments, sex, nudity, unquenchable thirsts for power and simple nastiness. Gods are worshipped but they don't seem to be merciful.

Even if it is occasionally overstuffed and the violence and sex gratuitous, I much prefer ‘Thrones” to most of the comic-book nonsense aimed at adolescents that predominates the big screen. A little bit of magic and dragons are fine — but enough with aliens and superheroes.



GAME OF THRONES

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Where: HBO



Follow Rob Lowman on Twitter: @roblowman1