Update, March 31: Schedules permitting, my colleague Spencer Kornhaber, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, and I will be recapping episodes of Game of Thrones as the season progresses.
King's Landing, Winterfell, the Wall, Pentos... Vaes Dothrak, the Eyrie, the Twins... Dragonstone, Pyke, Harrenhal, Qarth...
A typically ambitious television series might see fit to introduce a significant new character every few episodes. By contrast, Game of Thrones, HBO's magisterial adaptation of George R. R. Martin's fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, periodically introduces entire cities. The show's first season featured, by my count, 21 principal characters along with dozens of subsidiary ones. And while a few were subtracted by the end of Season Two (stabbed, gored, beheaded, drenched in molten gold, etc.), many more were added.
Season Three, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT, continues this relentless expansion. In the first four episodes (which are all I've seen), the mesmerizing mechanisms of the show's title sequence will wheel out the slave city of Astapor and the castle of Riverrun, and nearly a dozen new cast members will be introduced. (According to HBO, the season will feature a total of 257 named characters.) Indeed, Game of Thrones is approaching a laboratory-pure experiment in the amount of televisual information the human brain can process without sustaining permanent damage.
(This is probably the place to note that if you have not watched the first two seasons of the show, it would be unwise to leap directly into the third—akin, perhaps, to showing up for a graduate seminar in quantum physics on one's first day of college. Be sensible: Start with Season One and take pleasure in watching the epic unfold.)
When we left Westeros at the end of Season Two, the land was in upheaval. Winterfell had been burned and the Stark children (Robb, Arya, Bran, Sansa, Rickon, Jon Snow) were scattered across the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. Their enemies, the Lannisters (Tyrion, Cersei, Tywin, the murderous boy-king Joffrey) retained an uneasy hold on King's Landing after rebuffing an attack by Stannis Baratheon, but the Northern rebellion led by Robb remained a looming threat. Farther north still, the White Walkers and their wights were shambling ominously en masse. To the East, Daenerys and her dragons had escaped Qarth intact. And who knows what became of Theon Greyjoy, the Stark betrayer torn between nature and nurture?
That last question will be answered, if somewhat elliptically, early in Season Three, with the belated appearance of a dastardly bastard (bastardly dastard?) who will be all too familiar to readers of the books. Also introduced will be king of the wildlings Mance Rayder (played by the great Ciaran Hinds) and his right hand, Tormund; Catelyn Stark's ineffectual brother and commanding uncle; a pair of new travelling companions for Bran; a handful of noble brigands; and the elder lady of the House Tyrell, played by Dame Diana Rigg, who proves she hasn't lost a step since The Avengers (not that one, this one) and her turn as Greatest Bond Girl of All Time. Did I leave anyone out? Doubtless so, but they'll arrive nonetheless.