Sean Bean portraying Eddard Stark in a scene from "Game...

Sean Bean portraying Eddard Stark in a scene from "Game of Thrones." Credit: HBO

SEASON PREMIERE "Game of Thrones"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO

CATCHING UP The cartoonishly cruel sociopath boy king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) has taken the Iron Throne after murdering Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), which gives him effective -- if not actual -- control over the seven kingdoms of Westeros.

Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) -- among many vying for the throne -- smothered her beloved Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa). She places Drogo on a funeral pyre, along with her precious eggs, enters the roaring fire, and emerges with three new pets -- her baby dragons. Finally this: Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Stark's illegitimate son, has headed out with the "Night's Watch" north of the "Wall" -- that towering edifice that keeps the ghostly "Others" out of Westeros. Who knows what they will find?

WHAT SUNDAY'S ABOUT A great comet with a tail the color of blood stretches a quarter of the way across the sky of Westeros. An omen . . . but of what? Winter is finally coming, too, and winters -- like the summer just ending -- last years. On the eve of this monumental natural cycle, civil war is tearing Westeros apart, with no fewer than three would-be kings vying for the Iron Throne, including Joffrey's uncles -- who are not really his uncles -- Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and Renly (Gethin Anthony). Joffrey's uncle Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) arrives at the seat of the kingdom, King's Landing, where he finds (what else?) trouble and court intrigue.

His evil sister, Cersei (Lena Headey), is trying to keep her idiot son Joffrey in check, but also wants to find her twin brother (and lover) Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) now in the hands of Robb Stark (Richard Madden), who wants to use him as bait to get his beloved sisters back.

One is with the evil Joffrey. The other, Arya (Maisie Williams) has gone missing. But where? This season is based on "A Clash of Kings," the second volume of George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy novel series, "A Song of Fire and Ice."

MY SAY Even for those who have read the books -- and "Fire/Ice" fans are many -- here's a sage word of counsel. Go back and watch the last two episodes of the first season. You'll be glad you did. "Thrones" may be a faithful adaptation of the Martin series, but it's foremost a self-contained television series bound by its own logic, plot and cast of characters.

Sunday's second-season premiere sounds dense and impenetrable, but (trust me) it's not -- if you come prepared. "Game of Thrones" is worth the effort because this is the best show on television.

"Thrones" is the rarest of the rare -- a TV show with lofty intellectual ambitions that manages to be entertaining and even strangely relevant at the same time. How so? Think of "Game of Thrones" as a long meditation on opposites -- light and darkness, north and south, night and day, fire and ice, realism and magic, true gods (and kings) and false idols, country and city, good and evil -- and how these rule human affairs, notably the quest for power. That's your connective thread, or (better yet) your flashlight, as you pick your way through the dark mysterious byways of this thrilling series.

BOTTOM LINE TV's best (but do your homework before diving in).


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