April 06, 2014 04:00 PM

It might seem to stretch credibility to say Game of Thrones is back, bigger and better than ever – as Breaking Bad taught us, even giant Ozymandias at some point peaks and shrinks down to the size of two lobby pillars – but it’s true.

The first three episodes of season 4, premiering on HBO Sunday (9 p.m. ET/PT), grab the wide-flung stories of this epic and assemble them into a crackling narrative.

And that’s new: Game has sometimes had a cobblestone bumpiness that throws this or that character into the bushes. You just had to go with the flow – why was Theon Greyjoy being so relentlessly, even enthusiastically tortured? At what point was the fascinating Melisandre, sort of a magical, female Rasputin, going to stop the show again? (I’m referring to the moment when she gave birth to a smoke creature in an island cave.)

But this season moves.

After last season‘s devastating “Red Wedding,” extra care is necessary to avoid spoilers.

So let’s just say you should be prepared for anything – red brunch, red sales conference – and that awful King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is marrying Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer).

It may be that this ceremonial event is what gives the season such a confident liftoff, the same way that marriages, births and deaths help anchor any narrative. In the case of Game of Thrones, however, marriages are dynastic, and not usually happy.

So much the better.

Compliant but crafty, Margaery knows what side her bread is buttered on – especially when the knife belongs to Joffrey, who makes me think of a teen Disney star driven mad by total power.

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Survival defined by stark contrast is Game‘s cold, central theme, and at the moment Joffrey has the clout to determine the fate of many, many vital characters.

Kill or be killed, win the throne or serve as vassal, sleep under your own roof or perish in the forest: No show has a darker heart.

The Lord of the Rings, with its empathy for decent little folk, is sentimental by comparison, a war of Satan and Elmo.

Game of Thrones is an awesome thing.

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