HBO's fantasy-drama "Game of Thrones" returns at 9 p.m. Sunday for its third season, but at this point new viewers who try to jump in will likely be left to wonder what's going on. "GOT" producers David Benioff and D.B. (Dan) Weiss want the show to have more fans, but they have no interest in hand-holding. After all, they ditched on-screen location identifiers early in the show's first season.
"We want more people in the tent, and we and HBO are doing everything we can to invite more people in, but in terms of diving in in the middle of season two or season three, it's just not that kind of show, in the same way 'Breaking Bad' or 'The Wire' wasn't that kind of show," Mr. Weiss said in a teleconference Wednesday. "It's a story with a beginning, middle and end."
This third season is based on roughly the first half of "A Storm of Swords," the third book in author George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series, "A Song of Fire and Ice."
As the new season begins, the Lannisters maintain their hold on King's Landing after surviving an attack by the forces of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane). But the most sympathetic Lannister, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), remains a family pariah despite saving the day. His nephew, cretin King Joffrey (Jack Glesson), finds himself manipulated by the charming Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer, "The Tudors"). Viewers get to meet Margaery's grandmother, Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg), a tart-tongued, fantastic addition to the series. She's sort of the "GOT" version of a dowager countess-type character.
"Season three is probably our biggest in terms of the number of new characters and storylines. It's as big as we're going to get," Mr. Benioff said. "The universe expanded to a certain point and now it's going to begin to contract, and that's something we're going to look forward to as pieces get removed from the chess board."
North of The Wall, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) infiltrates the largest army Westeros has ever seen. Robb Stark (Richard Madden) continues to wage war while his mother, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), sends Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) to trade Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) for her captive daughter, Sansa (Sophie Turner), a road trip that grows more harrowing by the day.
Producers said the logistics of this season -- shooting in five countries with two and sometimes three main units filming simultaneously -- posed the biggest challenge for the show to date. And then there was the scene that involved filming with a bear named Bart.
"It was different from our usual shoots because with Bart every time he had a good take, we had to give him positive reinforcement so everyone on the crew had to clap and say, 'Good job,' " Mr. Benioff said. "And for the entire scene we were blasting country music from the back of a pickup truck because that keeps Bart calm and happy. We're used to everything being quiet and making sure cell phones are off so that was quite a different experience."
Because the show has such a large cast, not every character is glimpsed in Sunday's season premiere. Producers said they intended for Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) to show up in a scene in the season premiere, but when they watched early cuts of the episode, they decided there were just too many plotlines, and hers would be better served if that first scene moved into episode two to pair with another Arya scene.
"It's a giant jigsaw puzzle," Mr. Benioff said, "and we try to solve most of it in the writing stage, but oftentimes we realize it could be better once we have a chance to see things on screen."
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), whose dragons are growing larger, visits Slaver's Bay in her ongoing effort to raise an army to retake the Iron Throne in King's Landing. "GOT" builds to a most-likely-to-make-you-cheer-out-loud moment in the fourth episode with a scene involving Daenerys. The build isn't necessarily by design, but it is of necessity.
"David was mentioning Bart the bear and how he needed an Oreo cookie every five seconds to keep focus and we give our audience more credit than Bart the bear," Mr. Weiss said. "We don't need to be chucking Oreos into their mouths right from the outset. They know we're building something complex and there is a setup phase and a payoff phase and we think the payoff is well worth it."
Of course, what fans most worry about is that the TV show will catch up to the book series, and then what happens? Producers have attempted to slow their march by breaking the third book into two seasons, but Mr. Martin has written only through book five of an expected seven-book series. (The first book was published in 1996; book five came out in 2011.)
"My guess is we spend more time worrying about that than the fans since it directly affects our careers," Mr. Benioff said. "It's been an issue since we started."
The producers said they spent a week with Mr. Martin in February talking about where the saga is going.
"We knew major events, but this was more intense, sitting for hours on end in a hotel conference room scribbling down notes, pumping him for as much information as we could," Mr. Benioff said, noting that it's helpful for producers to know where the story is going so they can plan ahead. "It will be better for all concerned if the books come out before the seasons do so we can adapt them, but with that said, we won't take a hiatus. The little kids are growing older and the show has momentum now. We're just hopeful it will all time out."
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.