“Game of Thrones” is rapidly becoming one of the most intricately plotted TV shows since its HBO counterpart, “The Wire.” The backstory of the series takes up literally thousands of pages. So before we get this review going, we should get a key piece of background information out of the way: Ned Stark is dead. Our goody-two-shoes hero and famed Internet meme had his head cut off and mounted on a spike at the end of the first season. That would have been a massive spoiler, but his severed head currently decorates a mildly polarizing “Game of Thrones” promotional poster that screams “Look at us! We killed our lead in the first season, which means we’re edgy and shocking and unpredictable!”

Game of Thrones

Season 2 premiere
Sundays at 9 p.m.
HBO


The poster is a bit much, but its message holds true — in its second season premiere, the tale of political intrigue and deception that captivated audiences last year wastes no time in bringing the explicit horror of George R.R. Martin’s dark, cynical fantasy world to life. Our first minutes back in Westeros feature fights to the death staged for the amusement of Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the realm’s new king. They’re soon followed by a character that “marries” his daughters and fathers his own personal harem. Rounding everything out are several instances of infanticide, as well as typical “Game of Thrones” material: attempted poisoning, plenty of topless prostitutes and, of course, medieval torture. While these scenes lose some shock value for die-hard fans who’ve pored over the books and visualized these scenes countless times, it’s certainly flinch-worthy material.

Yet, beneath all the horror and blood and crimes against nature lie the things that make “Game of Thrones” the best drama anybody has made in a very long time. There’s the wonderfully developed ensemble, which despite — and in many cases, due specifically to — Ned Stark’s beheading, has come into its own. There’s Ned’s son Robb (Richard Madden), who returns as a seasoned battle commander, with three victories under his belt as he rebels against the crown. There’s Ned’s widow, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), looking on helplessly as her son is prematurely snatched from her by the responsibilities of adulthood. And there’s Ned’s murderer, the aforementioned boy king, whose love for opulence and taste for sadism make for the most easily hateable character in recent memory.

But it’s in the Westerosi capital of King’s Landing where the show really picks up, giving us characters at their most vulnerable and most devious. Cersei, who rose to Queen Regent at Ned’s expense, reveals just how tenuous her grip on power really is, as she reacts in constant frustration to her son’s spoiled insolence. Her mental instability is further exacerbated by the arrival of her dwarf-brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage, who won an Emmy for his performance last season), whom their father has sent to babysit. Ridiculed and underestimated due to his stature, Tyrion delights in his newly acquired power, pointing out his sister’s mistakes with glee and swiftly consolidating control. Sitting among it all is Littlefinger (the perpetually underrated Aidan Gillen), the kingdom’s self-made master of coin, who pragmatically plays all ends against the middle.

The performances themselves are leagues beyond even pay-cable, but the characters’ interactions are the show’s most fascinating element, as we track the machinations of the titular “Game.” In one particularly powerful scene, Littlefinger reminds Cersei that “knowledge is power.” Cersei responds by ordering her guards to seize him and slit his throat, changing her mind at the last second as Littlefinger squirms. “Power is power,” remarks Cersei as she orders her guards away, earning herself a moment of smug satisfaction.

She doesn’t seem to know that she’s earned herself a long winter’s worth of Littlefinger’s enmity, but as we jeer (or cheer, as the case may be), we know for a fact that we’re in for a long season’s worth of exceptional entertainment.

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