Jack Gleeson in "Game of Thrones" (Season 4).

Jack Gleeson in "Game of Thrones" (Season 4). Credit: HBO / Macall B. Polay

THE SERIES "Game of Thrones"

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

WHAT IT'S ABOUT With Robb Stark, his mother and their various associates (including a dire wolf) dispatched at the Red Wedding, House Lannister has full control of King's Landing, and presumably the seven kingdoms of Westeros.

The War of the Five Kings would appear to be over. The various threats from within and without (would appear) vanquished. So now, time for a "happy," or at least politically expedient, occasion: The marriage of Lord Tywin Lannister's (Charles Dance) rotten-to-the core grandson, King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), to scheming Lady Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer), which will unite two "Great Houses" of the Seven Kingdoms, House Tyrell and House Lannister.

The task of greeting wedding guests falls to Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). One of those, a Dornishman named Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), has more ominous reasons for attending than to kiss the bride's hand.

Meanwhile, far to the north, the Night's Watch debriefs Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who informs them of what he (and you) learned last season: That Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds), the King Beyond the Wall, has mustered a huge army that is about to overrun the Wall ... and Westeros. Looks like the war isn't over after all.

A quick note on other key protagonists: The dragons of Daenerys Targaryen (Emelia Clarke) have grown in the off-season, and like all teens, they are somewhat unruly. She herself has mustered a considerable force as well.

MY SAY Sunday marks the beginning of the halfway mark for "Game of Thrones" -- if we're to take showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss at their word, and no reason not to. In interviews, they've said the creator of this sprawling TV and literary kingdom, George R.R. Martin, has told them how "A Song of Ice and Fire" -- the series upon which "Game of Thrones" is based -- will wrap. By their estimation, about 80 hours -- or eight seasons -- should do his vision justice.

But if Sunday's episode, "Two Swords," is the beginning of the end, then what are we to make of "Game's" eventual endgame?

Pretty much the same as what came before, only worse. This remains a world built on the best-laid plans of mice and men who haven't got the slightest idea of what lies just beyond the horizon -- or over the Wall. Winter is coming, and with it not merely the ice -- that would be tolerable -- but a sentient, apparently indestructible force of "white walkers" and "wights" (essentially zombies, only more dexterous and better smelling).

Who will ultimately prevail? Anyone? And to secure something as frivolous as a mere "kingdom"? What's the point of that?

Martin clearly has big ideas at play in a yarn that's so richly populated with people along with the venal, stupid, duplicitous things they do that it's easy to lose sight of those.

But step back, take a deep breath and pay close attention: The end of his gloriously realized world is immanent in every scene, every word. The foreshadowing is ominous. The quaint idea that evil will be vanquished feels foolish, increasingly so -- or to quote that Oscar Wilde character, "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what 'Fiction' means."

Meanwhile, keep an eye -- a close one -- on priestess Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who holds another would-be king, Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane), in her thrall, along with his shrewd young daughter, Shireen (Kerry Ingram). Melisandre sees something in those flames she worships.

"There is only one hell," she explains. "The one we live in now."

BOTTOM LINE Still TV's best -- dive in while the water's warm. Winter is coming, after all.


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