There are dark and dangerous days ahead for the House Lannister.
And that's about as close to a Game of Thrones spoiler as you're going to get from this column, because I'm well aware that tipping off any actual storyline details prior to Sunday's fourth-season première (HBO Canada; check listings for time) would make me about as popular as a Westeros wedding planner.
(True story: While I was previewing a few episodes of the new season on my desktop computer the other day, another Free Press staffer in a nearby cubicle built a sightline-blocking barrier out of an office chair and a garbage can in order to shield his eyes from any suspense-stealing spoilers that might show up on my screen.)
Game of Thrones fans love their gasp-inducing surprises. And if the first three instalments of the new campaign are any indication, Season 4 is going to give them all they can handle.
When the series returned last year for its third season, a fair amount of time was spent setting the stage for the carnage and bloodshed that would arrive in the second half's episodes. But when things got moving, they really got moving; without question, the now-infamous Red Wedding episode became one of the most talked-about onscreen events of the past TV year.
As the new season begins, Game of Thrones -- which, by the way, continues to have the best opening-titles sequence ever -- is fully into the aftermath of the slaughter and is beginning to consider the anything-but-small issue of consequences. The Lannisters continue to celebrate the end of war (a bit premature, perhaps?), and an uneasy sense of occasion is building as teenage King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) prepares to wed Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) in a union that has massive strategic implications.
Elsewhere, in every direction, forces are amassing and attitudes are far from joyous. If there's one grim certainty to Game of Thrones, it's that conflict and violence are coming. Soon.
The internal politics of the Lannister clan are sufficiently complex and compelling to be a TV series on their own, but this tightly woven narrative thread is just one of dozens that continue to be serviced beautifully as Game of Thrones moves into what its producers describe as the series' midpoint season (the plan, according to creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, is for a seven-season run).
As always, the action in Game of Thrones moves quickly from place to place to place as multiple storylines unfold. What's amazing, however, is that nothing feels rushed; viewers feel fully immersed in every scene, and the credit for that belongs to the fact that meticulous attention is paid to every detail on every creative level.
The sets, cinematography and digital special effects are breathtaking, so there's a feeling of immense spectacle to the story. But because the dialogue is so sharp and clever and the performances by the huge cast -- from major characters right down to the most fleetingly glimpsed background players -- are so great, there's also a great sense of intimacy and personal connection within the big-picture explorations.
One gets the sense that no parent in the Game of Thrones universe ever offered his or her child that old "sticks and stones..." bit of advice, because the way they're wielded in this series, words are often just as cutting as sword blades or axes.
If you haven't been following Game of Thrones but you're looking to join the fun now, the advice here is that binge-watching the first three seasons is pretty much an essential crash course if you're hoping to fully appreciate the intricacies of Season 4. In narrative terms, this is a very fast-moving train that carries a whole lot of passengers in cramped quarters, so jumping aboard so long after the journey has begun might prove to be a confounding disappointment.
But if once you're in, it's quite a ride. Despite everything that has happened in its immeasurably ambitious first three seasons, Game of Thrones feels very much like a drama that is only just beginning to hit its stride.
What will the series' fourth season bring? You'll get no further hints here, beyond the warning that no one is safe, as evidenced by the four-word slogan attached to all the new season's promotional material and preview episodes:
"All Men Must Die."