Think it couldn't get any bloodier than the Red Wedding? You're dead wrong. In the battle between good and evil, we regret to inform you that evil just might win this round as HBO's ''Game of Thrones'' enters its darkest timeline yet.

By James Hibberd
March 21, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • TV Show

Recovered Yet? Has your anxiety faded? Can you go to a wedding without checking the band for crossbows and nervously eyeing the door? After last season’s stabby-stabby Worst Reception Ever, it’s hard to believe anybody on HBO’s Game of Thrones would go near an altar again. As sharp-tongued Lady Olenna says at the start of season 4: “Killing a man at a wedding. Horrid. What sort of monster would do such a thing? As if men need more reasons to fear marriage.”

Yet here we are, gathered to celebrate the union of King Joffrey and Lady Margaery Tyrell in an idyllic tree-lined Croatian grove overlooking the high-def-ready Adriatic Sea. Since this is a group of killers, schemers, and sycophants, the crowd is probably safe — on Thrones, it’s always the softhearted heroes who have to worry.

Let’s meet the guests of honor: There’s a bored Tyrion Lannister reading his iPad. His captive wife, Sansa Stark, dancing happily in her chair. His cunning father, Lord Tywin, having a smoke. His newly amputated brother, Jaime, practicing left-handed swordplay. Since this is downtime between filming, none of the actors are actually in character. But when you’re surrounded by rows of tables crowded with piles of exotic delicacies, 200 meticulously costumed extras, red-and-gold-sigil-adorned banners, and a 20-foot lion’s-head statue (with a functioning jaw that serves a purpose we cannot disclose), the set is so immersive that it’s hard not to feel like a King’s Landing wedding crasher.

Joffrey, naturally, will use this occasion to treat everybody horribly (though he’s positively Emily Post compared with Walder Frey, the host of last season’s Red Wedding). As played by 21-year-old Jack Gleeson, the young king is like the sadistic bully from your high school nightmares, except crowned with unlimited power. “Normal brides and grooms take control and go a bit crazy at their weddings,” says Gleeson, whose performance was inspired by Joaquin Phoenix’s emperor villain in Gladiator. “Joffrey is already controlling and crazy, so this is just fanning the flames of his petulance.”

Watching the ultra-polite Gleeson rehearse is like viewing schizophrenia. As Joffrey he kicks a cup, then as Gleeson he quickly apologizes to costar Lena Headey when it hits her foot. He berates musicians played by Icelandic indie band Sigur Rós, but then a band member notes that after each take, “he’s always giving us this ‘really sorry’ face.” And while Joffrey terrorizes his uncle Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) on screen, off camera their roles are jokingly reversed, as when Gleeson spills a couple drops of wine on that iPad. “Sorry! It’s just a little dribble.” Dinklage erupts: “What did you call me? God, you’re such an a–hole!”

For the wedding’s climactic moment, a four-foot-wide fabricated pie with a pastry top resembling Joffrey’s crown is rolled out for the king to chop open with a priceless Valyrian sword. The confection is filled with real birds and rigged to burst open, releasing them. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, who fought to include the complicated pie gag as an example of Joffrey’s bridezilla pomposity, watch Gleeson from the sidelines.

The actor swaggers up to the pie like a mighty warrior approaching his defeated foe. He readies his sword…

“Live birds, what could go wrong?” deadpans Weiss, who wears a “Don’t Hassle The Joff” T-shirt.

“They could fly back to Bosnia,” Benioff replies.

“They could attack Jack and peck his face off,” Weiss says.

Gleeson swings. The pie bursts. A flock of white birds shoot out. Gleeson looks startled. No matter how many times you’re told birds will explode from a giant pie, you’re never really ready for it.

Behind Gleeson at a banquet table, his character’s extended family dutifully applauds. The scene looks like a Last Supper portrait, and it truly is. This is the first time since the Thrones pilot that so many major characters have been together, and it’s quite likely the final one, too. Season 4 has an unprecedented number of major-character deaths (including one that earns the realism-obsessed production team’s first-ever slow-motion shot). Says Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime: “The whole family blows up this season.”

And that’s true not only for his Lannister kin but for the series itself. Unlike past years, season 4, which launches on April 6 at 9 p.m., does not start with a few leisurely paced episodes. There is more action than ever throughout the season, with combat scenes not found in George R.R. Martin’s novels. That’s unusual, since Thrones writers typically add character-driven talky moments while struggling to pull off Martin’s grandiose battles. Still, some of Martin’s ideas proved impossible. “To preempt objections, it is not feasible, on a production level, to have a person riding a pig,” notes Weiss, referring to one of the wilder moments of Martin’s third novel in his saga, A Storm of Swords. “We were told it is not fair to the pig.” But otherwise, the producers describe the season as “a giant leap forward in ambition and scope,” and successfully lobbied for a budget increase from HBO this year. The show is now estimated to cost more than $6 million an episode, while delivering outsize revenue from international sales, DVD, and merchandising. (HBO, like EW, is a division of Time Warner.) Says Benioff: “It’s just more intense than it has ever been.”

What makes season 4 so intense — aside from oversize avian-stuffed pastries? Most spectacularly, the war that’s been building between the Night’s Watch and Mance Rayder and his wildlings (both of which would make rather awesome band names) will erupt this season. Its scope should surpass season 2’s climactic Battle of the Blackwater in sword-clanging carnage. The ninth episode, which like “Blackwater” was directed by Neil Marshall, required building an all-new version of the Wall, which was then set against the largest greenscreen in Europe so the cast could enact major action sequences on the structure. “It has to be the biggest piece of Styrofoam in existence,” Weiss quips. For inspiration, Marshall watched classic war films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory to pull off the climax of a season-long story line that’s crucial for Kit Harington’s character Jon Snow.

Expect the strong, silent Snow to come to the foreground this year as he struggles to prepare Castle Black for a wildling attack. And the leadership role will bring out a new side of his personality. Put another way: Jon Snow actually talks. Makes whole speeches even! “He’s always been talked to, and he absorbs things, and I liked that about him,” Harington says. “Now he starts talking more.” Except he doesn’t have much of a chance to be chatty with his wildling ex-love, Ygritte (Rose Leslie), who after being betrayed and dumped by the bushy-haired heartthrob last season coldly terrorizes innocent villagers. “She’s on a mission to make sure Jon Snow feels as much pain as she feels,” Leslie says. “Particularly this season, and absolutely with Ygritte, there are so many characters out for blood.”

Such themes of vengeance and transformation are echoed by other cast members, along with one word in particular. “It gets dark,” says Maisie Williams, who plays the tragically orphaned Arya Stark. “It’s so much darker,” echoes Emilia Clarke, Thrones‘ steely dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen. “They have a very dark encounter,” warns Coster-Waldau about Jaime and his sister, Cersei (Headey).

Got that? Season 4 = dark. And that darkness isn’t inspired by some sensationalistic urge to stuff more mayhem and tragedy into the show, but represents the corruptive influence of the mayhem and tragedy we’ve already witnessed. Thrones has such a sprawling cast (29 series regulars, the largest on TV) that it’s easy to think the story doesn’t have a specific focus. Yet ever since heroic patriarch Ned Stark was executed in season 1, Thrones has been the story of a rising generation of young leaders and their impact on an expansive, violent world. Some, such as murdered Robb Stark and the captive Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), failed in their ambitions. So what life lessons should survivors like Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), Arya, Jon, and Daenerys learn from the past three seasons of brutal twists? Bitter, soul-hardening ones. The commoners may worship seven gods, but none of them seem to be paying much attention. “Evil beings do evil things and get away with it,” Benioff notes. “In George’s world, there is no justice, or when there is, it’s man-made.”

So this season it’s the choices made by the “nice” characters that surprise — starting with a vengeful killing in the season opener and progressing through a final trio of episodes that deliver one major set piece after another. “The last couple episodes were, even by our standards, pretty hardcore,” says Weiss, which is saying quite a bit for a show that demonstrated what a motivated rat will do to a man’s stomach.

Take Daenerys, whose army will lay siege to the slave city of Meereen. She will struggle with the sorts of morally difficult leadership challenges faced by the Lannisters, and her choices are not always kind, or even correct. “This is what I mean by it being a darker season as a whole — for the first time, she’s making mistakes,” says Clarke. “She’s being placed in difficult situations and coming up against something she can’t breathe fire her way out of.” Speaking of, her trio of dragons now have 28-foot wingspans and have entered their rebellious years, which complicates her conquest plans. Sighs Clarke, “I have three teenagers on my hands and they’re into rock music.”

Or how about Arya, who, after losing her mother and brother to the Red Wedding, sets off to find her aunt with murderous ex-knight Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann)? “She’s learning a lot from the Hound and being heavily influenced by that; she’s learning his brutal ways,” Williams says. Predicts Weiss: “If there’s going to be any breakout center of interest that’s going to blow people’s minds from a direction they never saw coming, it will be Arya and the Hound. She’s got a great mentor in revenge and heartlessness. It’s like a twisted road movie.”

And then there’s Tyrion, whose scenes are figuratively and literally dark, as the king’s oft-abused uncle spends most of the season in a dungeon. Dinklage’s jail scenes will account for roughly an hour of screen time, and producers say it’s the Emmy winner’s best year yet. “They’re some of our favorite scenes, just two people talking in a little dark room,” Benioff says. Tyrion’s imprisonment means last year’s shackled character Theon Greyjoy gets released, sort of. The weenie-less Stark traitor remains a captive of the sadistic Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), a cheerful psychopath who makes the bloodthirsty Lannisters seem like reasonable elder statesmen. But Theon’s will has been so crushed that chains are no longer required to keep him in line. “It’s more of a mental torture than physical this time,” says Allen, whose fans tell him last year’s scenes of torment were “hard to watch” (which he takes as a compliment). So we’re guessing Theon’s story this season is…?

“It gets dark,” Allen says.

The genre-busting Thrones is as much of a saga of good versus evil as the traditional heroic tales it aims to subvert. But season 4 makes it clearer than ever that this fight is internalized within its most popular characters instead of externalized with obvious heroes and villains. Is being selfish, dishonest, and savage required to survive? And are honesty, altruism, and empathy foolish virtues? The answer to both questions seems to be yes, as evidenced by the coldly calculating victories of Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), who opens the season by melting down Ned Stark’s sword, symbolically finalizing his defeat of the Stark family rebellion across three seasons. But perhaps we shouldn’t lose all hope for humanity in Westeros (and by unspoken extension our own world) just yet. There’s still season 4 and beyond — assuming Martin finishes his novels in time for Thrones to adapt them.

The current season will largely mine content from the latter half of Martin’s third A Song of Ice and Fire novel, A Storm of Swords. There are two more published books (A Feast for Crows, A Dance With Dragons), but they could constitute less than two seasons since they chronologically overlap and contain tangential material that is unlikely to make it into the series. All of which cues up our annual update on the “TV show catching up to the books” issue, a standoff that’s been brewing longer than any Westerosi battle and has epic pop culture stakes for our world. The hopes of millions of fans, the careers of hundreds of men and women working on Thrones, and the fate of a network’s biggest hit (averaging 14.3 million viewers last season across HBO’s platforms) all depend on how fast one 65-year-old man in New Mexico can finish writing his ultra-complicated 4,000-page-and-counting story. Sources say it’s likely that Martin’s next novel in the series, The Winds of Winter, will be published before a presumed season 6 airs in 2016. The tough-call crux is likely to come when approaching the show’s seventh season, which by producers’ calculations should be the show’s dragon song. “Seven gods, seven kingdoms, seven seasons — it feels right to us,” Benioff says.

So let’s ask a different question: Since Benioff and Weiss know Martin’s top secret ending to his opus…does this tale pay off? Is the climax exciting and creatively satisfying? It’s a question fans have fretted about for decades. The producers are always hesitant to say anything that raises expectations; asked if they’re confident season 4 is the best so far, Weiss responds, “I wouldn’t say we’re too confident. I would say we’re terrified that it won’t be.” Yet to the question about Martin’s ending, they reply with encouraging optimism. “Absolutely yes,” Benioff says. “100 percent,” Weiss adds.

Until the day Thrones sheathes its story, there remains a long and, er, less-than-bright road ahead. More characters will pass, and some of the names Martin will remove from the game board are ones that fans will never expect. “There are several characters whose loss would [hurt the show],” Weiss says. “But that doesn’t mean they won’t die.”

But to fret over Thrones‘ rising body count could be to miss the point. Instead of wondering if such beloved characters as Arya, Jon, Tyrion, and Daenerys can survive Martin’s merciless, unsettlingly familiar world, a greater concern may be whether we will still recognize any of those who do.

North, South, East, Westeros
We track down where all the key players are as season 4 kicks off

1. King’s Landing
Known For: Capital of the Seven Kingdoms, treachery, brothels
Who’s There: So many! The reunited Lannister family (Tywin, Cersei, Jaime, Tyrion), King Joffrey Baratheon, his betrothed Margaery Tyrell, captive Sansa Stark, warrior Brienne of Tarth, newcomer Prince Oberyn Martell.
What’s Next: Oberyn seeks vengeance; Cersei spurns Jaime’s one-handed affections; Joffrey and Margaery get ready for their wedding. (It’s gotta go better than the last one, right?)

2. Meereen
Known For: Slaves, formidable walls, an 800-foot pyramid
Who’s There: Dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen and her adviser Jorah Mormont.
What’s Next: Dany attempts to conquer the city and free its slaves — because that’s what she does! — while her dragons get feisty and underlings (particularly the handsome Daario Naharis) jockey for her attention.

3. Castle Black
Known For: The Wall, the Night’s Watch, a neat elevator
Who’s There: Stark bastard Jon Snow and friend Samwell Tarly. Some miles away is Snow’s heartbroken ex-lover, Ygritte, and her wildling advance party.
What’s Next: Jon warns of an impending wildling attack, but first must answer for breaking pretty much all of his vows last season.

4. Riverlands
Known For: Forests, taverns, wary travelers
Who’s There: Orphan Arya Stark and disgraced knight Sandor “The Hound” Clegane.
What’s Next: Okay, new plan: Return Arya to her aunt at the Vale of Arryn.

5. The Dreadfort
Known For: House Bolton, a torture chamber, flaying
Who’s There: Traitor Theon Greyjoy and captor Ramsay Snow.
What’s Next: Roose Bolton returns home, is annoyed to learn his sadistic bastard son Ramsay has pruned Theon (now called “Reek”), and gives him a mission to prove his worth.

6. Dragonstone
Known For: Ocean views, religious persecution, pirates
Who’s There: Scheming Stannis Baratheon, mistress Melisandre, and adviser Davos.
What’s Next: Stannis stews over his Blackwater defeat (that happened in season 2, get over it!), while his witchy lover burns dissenters. But Davos has a plan.

7. North of the Wall
Known For: White Walkers, wildlings, frostbite
Who’s There: Paralyzed Bran, helper Hodor, and companions. Separately: wildling leader Mance Rayder.
What’s Next: Bran seeks the three-eyed raven of his dreams to help him fulfill his mysterious destiny; Rayder has united the diverse wildling tribes and plots a “giant” invasion.

Tyrion Gets Tied Up
Tyrion Lannister is going back to jail, which is where he’ll spend a good deal of season 4. Emmy winner Peter Dinklage took a break from the cuffs (and fisticuffs) to let us in on what’s ahead for the fan favorite.

EW What can you tell us about Tyrion this season?

Dinklage Reversals of fortune really send him down the rabbit hole. He deals with it accordingly. What’s interesting about this character is how much he changes. I think funny and drunk lasts only so long. He sobers up in many ways. And love is in his life [with Shae] and that causes a tremendous amount of damage, because he’s vulnerable and he doesn’t like to be vulnerable.

EW We know you’re locked up for most of the season.

Dinklage I’m very well acquainted with the prop guys who have to handcuff me every 10 minutes. On the road in the first season, I was dirty and tied up a lot. I’ve been too clean for two seasons. I gotta get back out in the dirt.

EW Tyrion’s brother, Jaime, is back. What’s that like?

Dinklage I hadn’t seen Nikolaj in years. I mean, I’d seen him at events but I hadn’t worked with him. It’s great. I love working with all my Lannister siblings and parents. If you’re raised together, you have an unspoken dialogue many times and it’s easy, especially between Jaime and Tyrion; they have a real friendship. We have quite a few scenes together this year, so it’s been nice.

EW Will a nude scene ever be in Tyrion’s future?

Dinklage I haven’t read a script yet where it is one. But if it’s appropriate for the material, I will definitely go to the gym.

Episode Recaps

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series 'A Song of Ice and Fire.'
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  • 73
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  • 04/17/11-05/19/19
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