Yes, we just endured Mad Men return mania, but we're afraid it's time to get excited about a show coming back on the air all over again. On Sunday night, HBO will premiere the second season of Game of Thrones, a knotty and richly satisfying fantasy series based on George R.R. Martin's masterful tomes. (He's published five of a planned seven, and these things are long.) Game of Thrones is the ultimate example of what premium cable can do — it's as lavish and ornate as it is brutal and shocking. Your schedule may be crowded, but this is must-see TV of the highest order.
RELATED: Next Up: HBO Renews a Show Before It Actually Premieres
First things first, if you haven't seen season one yet, go watch it immediately. (Mild season one spoilers ahead.) Over ten stuffed episodes, show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did a beautiful and respectably thorough job of establishing the world of the story — the bulk of which takes place in the kingdom of Westeros, a medieval land once ruled by magic and dragons — and cluing us in, in ways both subtle and booming, to the many characters' struggles, plans, machinations, etc. The joy, for us, and challenge, for them, of the second season is that this world is ever expanding yet never loses sight of its core, it has to feel expansive and intimate at the same time. Based on the episodes we've already seen (jealoussss?) Benioff and Weiss once again beguilingly pull it off. That fans of the books, and most importantly Martin himself, give this show such ringing endorsements should tell you something about how carefully these two have preserved the essential themes and plotlines while also streamlining them for television. It's delicate and painstaking work that rarely feels rushed or off course. So, well done, you two.
RELATED: Letting 'Game of Thrones' Be Its Own Show
The show is also near perfectly cast. The second season marks the ascendancy of Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister, the devious but lovable dwarf uncle of the new boy king. Dinklage, though a little shaky in the accent department, is mostly terrific, projecting an air of haughty Machiavellian survivalism while showing us brief glimpses of heart. It's an ideally calibrated performance, and it's frankly hard to imagine the show working with out him. That aforementioned boy king, Joffrey, is played by the youngster Jack Gleeson, who blossomed into a real actor sometime over the summer. He's perfectly petulant and cruel but never overly theatrical; this is a believable monster. There are far too many other great actors doing wonderful work in parts both big and small to name here, but know that among them are Lena Headey, finally coming into her own as Joffrey's calculating mother Cersei; the dashingly dirty Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as her twin brother/lover/baby daddy Jamie; little firecracker Maisie Williams as tomboy northern princess Arya Stark; and The Wire's Aidan Gillen as sneaky political operative Petyr Baelish.
RELATED: 'Game of Thrones': Magic Is Gathering
Season two introduces us to some new folks as well, most notably the always excellent Stephen Dillane as Stannis Baratheon, the brother of the recently deceased king and the self-proclaimed righteous heir to the throne. The jolie laide Alfie Allen gets much more screen time this season as Theon Greyjoy, an adopted son of the north who's got some big stuff coming later in the season. He proves as likable in large doses as he was in small ones last season, and he's admirably unabashed to take one for the team and disrobe for graphic sex scenes. (The first season's laughably gratuitous sex seems toned down this season, just as HBO did for season two of Rome. I guess they figure they've got the horndogs hooked by now.) The only real casting bobble, in my mind at least, is Dutch actress Carice van Houten as the mysterious priestess/witch/mistress Melisandre. In the books she is both threatening and mesmerizing, but in van Houten's performance she is just a little witchy. Perhaps she needs some time to come into her own, but so far I'm not really buying it.
RELATED: Sunday's Big Shows, On Monday
You may have noticed that I've barely mentioned any plot points, which is on purpose. It would take too long to really get into anything, yes, but also I'd be terrified to spoil. Experience this story, and explore this massive and beautifully realized world, on your own. The second season, based on what we've seen at least, will not disappoint. It's as excellent as last season, but of course with ever-mounting stakes and an ever-broadening worldview. Plus, yes, Jon Snow and Daenerys are totally hot. (Richard Madden, as Robb Stark, has been eating his Wheaties too, I should mention.) I know fantasy can be a bit off-putting, but this is more rousing human drama than it is spells and sorcerers. Mad Men is great and all, but this is the show we're going to be freaking out about for the next few months. Come join us, won't you?