Anyone who has followed "Game of Thrones" over its first two seasons knows all too well that HBO's awesome medieval epic can often resemble a human demolition derby.
This is a show, after all, that infamously beheaded beloved warrior Ned Stark and jacked up the body count to an extreme level during the bloody Battle of Blackwater Bay.
But those events apparently were just some appetizers leading up to a season that has been widely touted as the show's most brutal and vicious yet.
Season 3 covers roughly half of the third book in George R.R. Martin's fantasy series — a fan favorite that features some major shockers and stunning casualties. It's a key chunk of an ultra-complex, sprawling saga about power-hungry families vying to control the seven kingdoms of Westeros.
But don't expect your jaw to hit the floor right away. The first two episodes, of the four made available for preview, are largely spent taking stock of the post-Blackwater climate and moving the many chess pieces into place. It's not until later that some big bombshells start to come our way.
That doesn't mean the early hours are devoid of high-stakes drama. To see the ruling Lannisters turn on one another is compelling in and of itself. Sure, they may have absolute dominion over King's Landing after repelling Stannis Baratheon's forces, but they're not exactly one big, happy, trouble-free family.
No, far from it. Poor Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is nursing his war wounds and moping over being stripped of his Hand of the King title. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) are still unknown, and the devious Cersei (Lena Headey) seems to be losing her grip on her son, the bratty little King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), who has fallen under the spell of his future bride, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer).
As always, so much of "Thrones" is about power — who has it, who craves it, and who is shut out from it. That said, it's fascinating to watch Tyrion and Cersei compete, like little children, for their father's attention. Though they have the status and wealth that their family affiliation brings, they are outsiders when it comes to strategic planning only because she's a woman and he's a dwarf.
Dinklage, who so often lends a lighthearted vibe to the series with his wit and snark, is involved in a poignant scene early on that has his Tyrion practically pleading with Dad (Charles Dance) for love and respect, only to be viciously admonished. On "Thrones," some of the verbal rebukes can be just as brutal as a sword to the gut.
Of course, we're just scratching the surface of this crazy multitude of characters who have us trekking over such a vast stretch of Westeros terrain that we often find ourselves yearning for a GPS tracker. There's Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) braving the frigid environs with the Wildlings, Robb Stark (Richard Madden) ramping up his efforts to conquer the Lannisters, dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) striving to raise her own army, and on and on it goes.
The abundance of characters — and story lines — on "Thrones" can be both a blessing and a curse. All the actors, including notable Season 3 newcomers Ciaran Hinds and Diana Rigg, are marvelous. But the show can, at times, feel frustratingly overstuffed and disjointed.
Just when you find yourself becoming riveted to one plot thread, a switch is made and a connection is lost. "Thrones" is like a dozen shows in one, and it's about the farthest thing you can get from veg-out TV. You have to fully immerse yourself in the blood, the muck and the duplicity of it all.
But those who make the investment are richly rewarded. There's enough tension, betrayal, treachery, greed and sex, after all, to fill eight seasons of "Scandal." And no show on TV contains the visual majesty of this production, which is shot in five countries for a reported $50 million to $60 million.
And to top it off, the show has dragons! Really cool, fire-breathing dragons who are growing bigger and badder with each season. That can only mean they'll soon be active participants in the demolition derby that is "Thrones."
' Game of Thrones'
When: 9 p.m. Sunday