James Hibberd
March 15, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Jaime Lannister can’t take much more of this.

Shackled and parched, the once arrogant king slayer is tricked into drinking horse urine and vomits. He’s then knocked facedown into the soupy mud by a gang of tormentors and kicked in the gut, over and over. Half starved, half dead, Jaime is a broken man. And the actor playing him is nearing his limits too. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is typically cheerful while working under grueling set conditions and had earlier performed for hours in the freezing rain. ”It makes the work easier,” he insists. ”You just react to the elements and they help you.” But after getting beaten in the mud repeatedly, he’s accidentally kicked for real. He asks the director: How many more times?

Welcome to the third season of Game of Thrones. You may think you know how brutal HBO’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy can get. This is the show that infamously beheaded its noble lead (Sean Bean) in front of his horrified daughters only nine episodes into its run. But to paraphrase Wildling temptress Ygritte: ”You know nothing about season 3.” Last year’s climactic Battle of the Blackwater may have driven invaders out of King’s Landing, but that only means the ruling classes of Westeros can now turn on one another. And it’s going to get vicious.

”Just because they’re not fighting with maces and swords doesn’t mean a state of war is not ongoing,” says Dan Weiss, who serves as Thrones‘ showrunner alongside David Benioff. ”People are jockeying for position every bit as much as if they were on a battlefield. It’s just war by other means.”

Those ”other means” will leave viewers stunned. The new season, which gets under way March 31 at 9 p.m., is based on roughly the first half of the third novel in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the fan favorite A Storm of Swords. It continues the ultracomplex story of rival families vying for power in a fantasy kingdom where winter and summer last for years, and includes some of the most rousing jump-off-the-couch moments of triumph in the saga’s five-books-and-counting history — as well as its bloodiest casualties. In geek terms: It’s the Empire Strikes Back of the Thrones-verse. ”Emotionally this season really goes for the jugular,” says Thrones executive story editor Bryan Cogman. ”In some cases, quite literally.”

The ramp-up couldn’t happen at a better time. Game of Thrones is bigger than ever, and about to get bigger still. Ratings were solid when HBO first gambled on the grown-up fantasy series two years ago. After viewership climbed in 2012, it emerged as the network’s third-most-popular show of all time, averaging 11.6 million weekly across all the company’s platforms. (The show also charts, more dubiously, as TV’s most illegally downloaded series.) With season 2’s DVD release breaking the network’s sales records last month, it’s a safe bet that Thrones‘ ratings will soon catapult to even greater heights.

Yet the most epic aspect of Thrones may be the production of season 3: It was shot by a trio of units across five countries (Northern Ireland, Morocco, Croatia, Iceland, and the United States). There are 27 regular cast members and more than 160,000 square feet of sets, numbers that have grown with each season. Creating Thrones, akin to organizing multiple armies on a precision timetable, is an undertaking far more ambitious than anything else being mounted for TV. And last year the show’s whole tightly choreographed schedule was thrown into disarray — because an actor lost his keys.

Last July, as Thrones was resuming production, star Kit Harington came home from a night of partying and discovered he was locked out of his London flat. No problem, he’d just climb through his first-floor window. Then he fell, and shattered his ankle. ”Everyone always says, ‘You must have done it on set, horse riding or running across glaciers or something cool,”’ Harington sighs. ”But I was an idiot — ‘the invincibility of youth’ and all that.”

The impact was daunting. When we last saw Harington’s bastard-born outcast Jon Snow, the steward of the Night’s Watch had infiltrated a Wildling army amassing in the icy North. This season Harington’s scripts contained plenty of walking, fighting, and climbing, plus a steamy love scene in a hot tub (that last bit wasn’t affected by his injury, but we thought you’d want to know about it).

Still, Thrones‘ producers stage massive battles and create flying dragons out of thin air — surely they could handle one hobbled actor, right? The team rearranged the production schedule to give Harington more time to recover before filming his more physically demanding scenes, and also slightly pushed back the production’s winter shoot in Iceland. For some scenes, a double was used, such as when Jon Snow is walking in the distance (the producers joked that the wildly coiffed Harington’s ”distinctive hair” helped with the illusion). ”I bought the line producer a nice bottle of whiskey because I felt so guilty,” Harington admits. ”But I’ve seen a lot of the footage, and it looks great.”

While embedded with the Wildlings this season, Snow will meet their legendary leader Mance Rayder (Rome‘s Ciarán Hinds). Some fans questioned Hinds’ casting, since the stately 60-year-old doesn’t quite match up with the wily, rugged character from the novels, but Weiss is confident: ”Ciarán has an inherently regal presence. [The role takes] a certain gravitas and charisma, and he brings it.” And yes, we’ll be seeing more of Snow’s captive-turned-captor, Ygritte (Rose Leslie). ”In season 3 we see just how brutal she can be, not only in her interaction with Jon Snow but also physically — [with] a bow and arrow,” Leslie says.

Exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), meanwhile, has a crucial story line in her own corner of the Thrones world this season. After recovering her trio of stolen dragons last year, Dany is trying to buy thousands of deadly eunuch soldiers to aid her quest for the Iron Throne, but the army’s cost may be more than she can bear. Clarke shot her scenes in Morocco, where the Thrones crew at one point wrangled an unprecedented 1,000 cast and crew members and extras on the set. ”She hits the ground running: Dany has to prove to herself and others that she knows what she’s doing,” says Clarke, who had to learn her second fantasy language for the series (she can now shout orders in Dothraki and High Valyrian at parties). As for her dragons, in season 3 they’re the size of spiky winged hounds — and rather deadly. ”They’re not cute anymore,” Benioff says. ”These things are monsters.”

With characters like Dany gaining screen time, others will unavoidably see theirs scaled back. Peter Dinklage, who plays the wittily cunning Tyrion Lannister, was last season’s focal point as he fended off an invasion of his scheming family’s stronghold at King’s Landing. In season 3, though, the Emmy winner’s role is slightly less prominent. ”I don’t mind,” Dinklage says, then adds as a dry Tyrion-like aside, ”My character probably minds.” Don’t expect a major physical transformation for Tyrion, either: During the Blackwater battle, the Imp’s face was slashed, and in the novel he lost his nose. For the TV version, producers instead opted for a scar that takes about 20 minutes to apply. Lest fans get their doublets in a bunch, Dinklage points out, ”They’d have to [CGI] over my face in every frame, and that’s costly and time-consuming. I think a scar solves everything.”

Now that Tyrion and his neurotically devious Queen Regent sister, Cersei (Lena Headey), have been reunited with their stern father, Tywin (Charles Dance), there will be plenty of scenes exploring the Lannisters’ homicidally dysfunctional relationship. ”There’s an interesting teenage behavior between [Tyrion and Cersei],” Headey says. ”There’s competition between them for their father’s trust, and they’re both f—ing terrified of him.” Almost as much as Cersei is scared of her own son — the psychotic teenager King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), who will finally get to use his crossbow as he tries to impress his comely bride-to-be, Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer). ”There are some disaster dates. I think he’s a bit unlucky in love,” quips Gleeson. At least with Margaery distracting Joffrey, the cruel king has less time to torment his royal hostage Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), who gets married this season — though not to the person you might think. ”Sansa has some big events that are unexpected,” teases Turner, who notes that her character’s array of formal dresses make it tough not to ”move like a statue” on the show. ”She’s lost her innocence, but for the better.” The lonely Stark daughter will gain a potential ally when Margaery’s sharp-tongued grandmother Lady Olenna (Diana Rigg of TV’s The Avengers) takes an interest in her safety. Weiss says the British actress watched the show’s previous seasons, and then during her first meeting with producers gave them a charming smile and said, ”There’s an awful lot of bonking, isn’t there?”

Yes, and an awful lot of suffering. Feisty young Arya (Maisie Williams) and crippled Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) are still each out roaming the Westeros countryside, struggling to find their family; worried Stark matriarch Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and her army-leading son Robb (Richard Madden) are fighting the Lannister forces on the battlefield; and wannabe knight Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) is escorting her prisoner Jaime back to King’s Landing, with the pair finally crossing swords on a bridge to see who’s the better warrior. There are so many major story lines (we’re actually leaving some out) that viewers won’t even see all the major returning characters until midway through the second episode. ”We could easily write a show just about, say, Bronn,” says Benioff of Tyrion’s cocky bodyguard. But that’s the other thing about season 3: The cast of characters is big…but along the way, it will get smaller.

It’s perhaps fitting that the primary studio for a show as uniquely sprawling as Thrones is in the shipyard where the Titanic was built a century ago. While on set inside the hangar, you quickly realize that the actors who despise each other the most on screen have some of the strongest offscreen bonds. Headey and Dinklage are as close as real-life siblings. (He jokingly serves her coffee in her trailer during an interview.) Gleeson is often cracking Turner up. (”He was rapping about Winnie the Pooh,” Turner explains after having to suppress giggles at the start of a scene. ”His rap was called ‘Got Monies and Honies.”’) And Coster-Waldau and Christie mercilessly tease each other with impunity. (”We were having our hair done and he says, ‘You look like one of the dogs from Beverly Hills Chihuahua,”’ says Christie, whose character faces off against an angry bear this season.)

One thing the actors share is a concern about revealing spoilers. Millions may have read Martin’s novels, but producers are intent on preserving surprises for viewers who haven’t. This season has one event so notorious that it has a name. Since the name gives away what happens, some fans use the initials. But to dissuade anybody from Googling the initials, the producers won’t even utter those two letters. ”I’ve never seen the crew so emotional,” Benioff says of shooting what he calls the ”Scene Which Shall Not Be Named,” in which at least one main character meets his or her demise. ”I’ve never been in an atmosphere like that on set,” says Benioff. ”And if the scene has that effect on the people making it, who know what’s coming, if they’re that overpowered, I think it’s going to have an overwhelming effect on people watching it.”

Yet asked if this is Thrones‘ best season, the showrunners hesitate. Fan expectations are always so high that producers are reluctant to raise them any higher. ”Like the book, it builds,” Benioff says. ”Once the season kicks into gear we’ve already seen stuff that makes me think it will be the best one yet. And it ought to be.” While season 2 poured a disproportionate amount of resources into the final couple of hours, this round has major moments throughout — a ”hammering propulsion,” as Weiss puts it, particularly in the last six episodes.

That forward momentum may eventually cause Thrones to hit a creative iceberg, however, and it’s one that fans have been bringing up since the show’s pilot was greenlit. ”I finally understand fans’ fear, which I didn’t a couple years ago: What if the storytelling catches up to the books?” says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo. ”Let’s all hope and pray that’s not going to be a problem.” It might take an act of God to avoid it. Sure, Martin is currently writing the sixth of seven novels he plans for the saga, and as he points out, ”I still have a lead of several gigantic books” versus the show. But book 5 was released in 2011, and it took six years to write. It’s possible the producers, who know the broad strokes of Martin’s ending for the story, might conclude the show before the last book is released. Not that anyone involved wants that to happen. ”Ideally, the books come out first,” Benioff says. ”We don’t want to become a show that outstays its welcome and tries to turn each book into three seasons. Part of what we love about these books, and the show, is this sense of momentum and building toward something. If we tried to turn this into a 10-season show we’d strangle the golden goose. There is a ticking clock here.”

Winter, in other words, really is coming, whether Thrones is ready for it or not. One potential way to financially manage Martin’s sure-to-be-epic climax — and to give the author some additional time to write — would be to eventually segue the franchise into feature films. It’s an idea favored by some members of the Thrones team, but not one the network is currently considering. ”We’re always open to a conversation,” Lombardo says. ”It would have to make sense for everybody — for HBO, for the fans, and for the show. At this point, there’s no plan to do that.”

And really, why should there be? It’s still summer for Thrones, and its most anticipated season yet is about to begin. If anything, the fact that the producers and HBO are thinking so long-term about the franchise is reassuring to fans. So let’s go back to the Thrones set one last time to find some good cheer.

Let’s go to a wedding.

We’re inside a massive cathedral of marble, candles, and stained glass. All of King’s Landing’s royalty are present. They watch the lovely bride walk down the aisle toward the groom. Sansa looks…well, she looks a bit terrified. But such wedding-ceremony jitters are to be expected, right? And oh, look — there’s Lady Margaery standing beside Cersei. You can overhear her happily whispering to the Queen Regent: ”We’re going to be sisters soon, we should be friends!”

Cersei takes the lovely young woman’s hand and gives her a tight smile. She says, ”You ever call me sister again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep.”

They’ve Got Game
With 27 series regulars, how’s a fan to keep track of who threatened/seduced/betrayed whom? Here are the ones to watch this season.

Robb Stark
Richard Madden
Last seen: For the self-proclaimed King of the North, winning battles is easy; it’s winning a war that’s been a problem. In Stark’s efforts to conquer the Lannisters’ forces and avenge his father’s death, he and his trusty direwolf are undefeated. But his camp life is a mess, particularly after he was forced to imprison his own mother (Michelle Fairley) for openly defying his orders.
What’s next: ”He’s running on empty,” Madden says. ”He’s constantly chasing the Lannisters, and they’re constantly running from him. So they’re exhausted, they’re starving, and he’s at the end of his tether.” This season Robb grows closer to his new medic wife (Oona Chaplin) and finally has some onscreen fighting. ”He gets a sword in his hands,” Madden teases, ”but the thing with Robb is he never wants to kill.”

Jon Snow
Kit Harrington
Last seen: The hunky bastard-born Night’s Watch virgin infiltrated the Wildling army that’s threatening to invade Westeros.
What’s next: Snow meets charismatic Wildling leader Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds) and starts to question his own loyalty toward his brothers in black. ”He’s in a lot of turmoil,” Harington says. ”It’s a very tempting way of life.” Among those temptations: feisty, fire-kissed warrior Ygritte (Rose Leslie)

Daenerys Targaryen
Emilia Clarke
Last seen: The exiled last-standing Targaryen roared, ”Where are my dragons!?”…and then eventually found them.
What’s next: Dany wants to buy 8,000 expertly trained eunuch soldiers and invade Westeros to reclaim the Iron Throne that was seized from her father, the Mad King. But she’s short on cash. ”She starts the season with nothing — just the dragons — and it’s a huge test to get the army,” Clarke says. Also expect Dany to have a ”light smattering of romance” with a merciless scoundrel.

Tyrion Lannister
Peter Dinklage
Last seen: The most likable Lannister survived a face-slashing assassination attempt while defending King’s Landing from an invading army, only to be stripped of his Hand of the King title. (Hey, life in Westeros isn’t fair.)
What’s next: Tyrion clashes with devious big sis Cersei (Lena Headey) as they compete for Dad’s (Charles Dance) approval. ”The three of us spar a lot this season,” Dinklage says. ”[But] Tyrion’s a survivor. He’ll always make the best out of every situation no matter what position he’s put in.”

Jaime Lannister
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Last seen: The swaggering king slayer was being smuggled to King’s Landing in chains by the noble Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), who hoped to exchange him for Sansa (Sophie Turner).
What’s next: ”Change” is the cryptic word emphasized by Coster-Waldau. ”He succeeds in driving Brienne crazy to the point where he actually gets a shot at freedom. Then everything takes a turn.”

Arya Stark
Maisie Williams
Last seen: The fan-favorite Stark daughter escaped the hellish Lannister camp with the help of a face-changing assassin, Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha).
What’s next: Arya’s plan to reunite with her family is sidelined when she meets an outlaw (Richard Dormer) who might be impossible to kill. ”She’s starting to stand up for herself and take control of her life,” Williams says. ”She thought she knew magic when she met Jaqen, but now she doesn’t even know what’s hit her.”

Wildling Love

When Rose Leslie learned she’d gotten the role of Wildling scout Ygritte, her reaction wasn’t subtle. ”I was jumping up and down like a maniac and I didn’t care that I was screaming in the middle of a crowded square,” recalls the 26-year-old actress, who’s best known for playing housemaid Gwen on Downton Abbey. Leslie’s take on Ygritte, who last season mocked and booty-grinded the reluctant Jon Snow, has fans on the street begging her to say the character’s signature line (”You know nothing, Jon Snow”), a request she indulges. ”[It’s] not too often that it’s gotten irritating,” she says. This season Ygritte is drawn closer to Snow, but runs the risk of her tribe discovering she’s romancing a traitor. And on a show where deadly threats are everywhere, love may be the riskiest game of all.

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