‘Game’ on: Thrones returns for Season 3

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As the third season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” begins today (9 p.m.), 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 the show appeals to viewers 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 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. Others, like Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), frequently out-think and out-maneuver the men around them.


Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) may be motivated at first by traditional maternal and marital instincts, but life and loss in the Seven Kingdoms soon toughened her into a formidable adversary to any man who threatens her family or her husband’s legacy.


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” Bailish (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. Some of these men may find themselves out on very shaky limbs in the third season, but even if they seem to avoid a comeuppance for now, we suspect they are riding for a fall eventually.


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 story line 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, another reason that “Thrones” is unlike most TV series.


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 multi-sided chess match, more than a little suggestive of geopolitics in any age in human history.


At various points, Martin cleverly adapts bits from both British history and traditional mythology – the disappearance of the two young princes, for example, said to have been engineered by the future Richard III, any number of Shakespeare history plays, and the legend of Robin Hood – to advance his stories.


The series is so good, 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. There are also certain plot patterns in “Thrones.” At times, if a male and 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. And if one character seems to be getting the better of another character, you shouldn’t be surprised to see the tables turn sooner rather than later.


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 Cierán Hinds as Mance Rayder and Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna Tyrell. Her character’s introductory scene is fantastic, but a few episodes in, Rigg gets a chance to demonstrate the full range of her considerable experience and it’s magical.


You’ll also notice that some of the younger cast members are doing what younger cast members do: grow up. Maisie Williams, as Arya, is now a young woman, but Bran Stark’s (Isaac Hempstead Wright) growth is even more noticeable: His voice has changed.


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