As the third season of HBO's Game of Thrones begins Sunday, we're more hard-pressed than ever to identify absolute good guys and absolute bad guys. That's just one of the reasons why the series is so great.
The new season technically picks up where Season 2 ended, but in a larger sense, the points of demarcation between seasons are somewhat artificial: Game of Thrones is an ongoing epic combination of many stories, all of which are in a constant state of evolution, as are many of the characters. That's one way of saying there will be no spoilers here, but what is it beyond the show's powerful performances, visuals, special effects, sex and blood-churning battle scenes that sets Game apart?
First and foremost, it's about character, so much so that as eye-popping as the battles, sex scenes and special effects are, they are only some of the reasons that the show appeals to adults of every age, male and female.
Power is the tipping point for many of Thrones' characters. Seemingly good characters can go bad because of power. At the same time, people who we perceive as villainous can demonstrate surprising but still credible compassion at times.
Not coincidentally, many of the female characters are as powerful as the men who would be kings. Some women, like Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and young Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), display that power in traditional male ways: Brienne can wield a sword as well as any man, while Arya impersonated a boy in order to survive after her father's execution.
At the same time, the men are often victims of their own masculine hubris. The series continues to focus on men in danger of becoming intoxicated by their own power, including Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Aidan Gillen), the arrogant boy-king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the scheming Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Stannis Baratheon (Stephan Dillane) and the "kingslayer," Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Even Robb Stark (Richard Madden) shows a moment of weakness with regard to his relationship with his mother in the new season.
Viewers unfamiliar with the books were shocked by the first-season execution of Ned Stark (Sean Bean), largely because they were given to expect that Stark was a hero in the mold of traditional film and television and, thus, his would be the central storyline as the series continued. But by the second season, the audience came to understand how much larger author George R.R. Martin's vision is.
The series focuses on the "game" of the eternal power-play among the mythical Seven Kingdoms to determine who will occupy the Iron Throne. At base, it is a multisided chess match, more than a little suggestive of geopolitics in any age in human history.
The series is so good that it isn't seriously harmed by its few minor flaws. Much of the dialogue is brilliantly written, revelatory and credible. From time to time, though, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss give in to their fanboy sides and throw in some bloviated howler of a line that feels as though it was lifted directly from a comic book.
At times, if a male and a female character start off sniping at each other like a medieval Tracy and Hepburn, you can probably count on them at least becoming friends, if not falling in love.
With seven kingdoms of action and characters to mine, HBO has a seemingly limitless opportunity to introduce new cast members. Among this season's newcomers are Ciaran Hinds as Mance Rayder and Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell.