WARNING: Spoilers from previous seasons included in this review of season four.
After last season's disastrous "Red Wedding," HBO's "Game of Thrones" does not rest on its laurels. By the end of episode two in the show's fourth season, "GOT" (9 p.m. Sunday) hosts another familial gathering that ends in mayhem. Fans wouldn't want it any other way.
At this point, "GOT" executive producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are the most ruthless showrunners in TV and determined to follow the blueprint of author George R.R. Martin's book series and kill off characters with wild abandon, audience favorites be damned. Season four promises more of the same while expanding on stories in the books and in some cases improving on what could be long literary slogs.
Potential new viewers are advised to go back and start at the beginning; there's little effort made at catch-up, which is understandable considering how many character stories get juggled on "GOT." (HBO2 will air a marathon of the previous three seasons -- 10 episodes each -- beginning at 9 a.m. Friday.)
The new season opens with evil Lannister patriarch Tywin (Charles Dance) forging a new sword from a former Stark blade. Cruel King Joffrey (Jack Gleason) prepares to marry Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer, "Elementary"), which brings visitors to Kings Landing, including bisexual Prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), who says, "When it comes to love, I don't choose sides." He's also seeking vengeance for the death of his sister, niece and nephew.
Up in the North near The Wall at Castle Black, new, unsavory characters show up: bald cannibals, just another threat for Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and his fellow Nights Watch protectors to contend with.
Traitor Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) is a completely broken man who is now dubbed "Reek" by his captor, Ramsay (Iwan Rheon).
Across the sea in Meereen, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) finds her three dragons are growing into uncontrollable teenagers.
"They're dragons, Khaleesi, they can never be trained," warns her adviser, Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen). "Not even by their mother."
Her follower, Daario (now played by "Nashville" recurring star Michiel Huisman taking over the role from Ed Skrein), seems more smitten with Daenerys than ever.
As in past seasons, "GOT" mixes dramatic fights, character building and dark humor to create a fantastic fantasy mix.
Diana Rigg, who plays seen-it-all Tyrell matriarch Olenna, once again steals the show with her witticisms. Her about-to-marry-a-petulant-tyrant granddaughter, Margaery, seems to have gotten some of Olenna's sense of humor. When forced to pick a necklace for her wedding gown, Margaery says of her sociopathic husband-to-be, "Perhaps I should just let Joffrey choose it for me, end up with a string of dead sparrow heads around my neck."
Don't even joke, Margaery: the bold writers of "GOT" might just go that route if given the chance.