THE SHOW "Game of Thrones"
WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO
THE STORY SO FAR King's Landing in Westeros, under the rule of the Lannisters and their corrupt boy king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), annihilated the force sent by Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) -- who also lays claim to the Iron Throne -- at the end of last season. But the civil war continues.
AS SEASON 3 BEGINS The wildlings, with an assist from giants, have assembled a big army north of the wall that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has wandered into. Back in King's Landing, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) gets an offer from Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) that will help distance -- and protect -- her from Joffrey. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), with a disfiguring scar from the Battle of Blackwater, wants a promotion for his valor. His sister, Cersei (Lena Headey), and father, Tywin (Charles Dance), have other plans for him. Meanwhile, Tyrion's brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), has gone missing. And what about Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), en route to Westeros? Her three dragons are now strapping teens.
NEW CHARACTERS There are several, including Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds), leader of the wildlings; and Blackfish Tully (Clive Russell), uncle of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), who is still trying to avenge her husband's murder by Joffrey. The major newcomer is the Queen of Thorns, aka Lady Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg). Ageless, shrewd, a master of court intrigue, she is the Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith, "Downton Abbey") of "GoT."
SYMBOLS AND MEANINGS The real key to understanding "Game of Thrones" -- based on "A Song of Ice and Fire," the novel series by George R.R. Martin -- are symbols and they proliferate in season 3, which is based on the third novel, "A Storm of Swords." Take trees as an obvious symbol: They are analogous to humanity, with branches sprouting from branches. Or iron, which forms the weapons men use to kill one another with -- and the throne they are killing each other to attain. Also in the third season, three-eyed ravens take a starring role (they can see a future that humans cannot), but so do dragons, specifically Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion. They are quite literally the "fire" of "Ice and Fire" and symbolize rebirth -- and goodness. They are the real heroes of this story, or will be.
MY SAY So, you may have finally decided to start watching "Game of Thrones," because . . . well, why? The press has conferred "phenom" status? Friends say you should? You really like dragons? All perfectly valid reasons, but they won't be of much help Sunday when diving in for the first time will be the equivalent of a long, cold swim in Blackwater Bay.
"GoT" is hard: It's a long, complex novel consigned to the screen -- and faithfully consigned. It can be talky, labyrinthine and opaque. One scene proceeds from the next, unrelated, pushing the plot along in some unseen direction. Characters evolve. He (or she) who is evil one season, may grow a conscience the next (or vice versa). The competing interests are bewildering, even more so with the advent of the wildlings.
Also, Westeros is relentlessly Hobbesian -- it's a ferocious place where the good die young, and die often. There is no love here, only greed and desire and cruelty. Darkness spreads over every scene, even when the sun is shining. But a word of advice: Dive in anyway (and read the book). Sunday and the next three episodes are superb while the rhythms and beats of the story are very nearly hypnotic. Nothing here feels wasteful or cheap.
Nothing will or should disappoint hard-core fans either, who have eagerly sought Martin's dark vision for years in the hopes that real wisdom lies at the end of his -- and their -- journey. There are a few scenes this season where producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss even threaten to do what Peter Jackson did so often in "The Lord of the Rings": Improve on the book. Plus, what seems baffling is really very simple. "GoT" is an exploration of the human heart -- don't blame the series if what it finds there is often so ugly.
BOTTOM LINE Dragons rule. "GoT," too.