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Blood, sex, dragons: ‘Game of Thrones’ returns

There will be blood. And nudity. And dragons.

Millions worldwide will tune in for the fourth season of medieval fantasy drama Game of Thrones from Sunday as the hit show returns to television screens, promising to deliver its usual jaw-dropping mix of sex, violence and vengeance.

Since its debut in 2011, the HBO drama based on George R.R. Martin’s best-selling novels about a struggle for power between feuding clans in seven mythical kingdoms has won a devoted global fan base — President Barack Obama among them, reportedly — to establish itself as the star of the US cable channel’s stable.

The series has wowed critics with its densely-layered plot, lavish production values and a readiness to kill off, invariably in gruesome fashion, protagonists who had hitherto seemed integral to the show.

Four words — “No one is safe” — have become the unofficial catchphrase for devotees of the series. Guessing which character may soon meet his or her maker is all part of the fun.

As a cultural touch point, the series’ zenith might have arrived last June with the episode titled The Rains of Castamere, an instalment that saw three characters meet especially gruesome ends at the so-called Red Wedding. Moments after the episode concluded, the internet exploded with outrage — a Twitter account called @RedWeddingTears amassed more than 9,000 followers in less than 24 hours, and fans posted reaction videos on YouTube to chronicle their shock and despair over such a cruel twist in the narrative.

“I think people have kind of moved on to acceptance by now. Isn’t that the last stage of grief?” joked David Benioff, who along with D.B. Weiss created Game of Thrones and serves as an executive producer.

“I hope it doesn’t go back around to anger again,” said Weiss.

“There just seems to be a whole new army of people watching the show for the first time. The more fans you have, the more pressure you feel to keep up the quality of the product,” actor John Bradley, said in a recent interview along with other cast members. He plays Samwell Tarly, a member of the Night’s Watch, the ancient order that protects Westeros from threats in the frozen north.

All the signs are that fans of the show will not be disappointed by the 10-episode season four, which airs in the US from Sunday before being screened in different markets worldwide over the following days and weeks. It airs on Monday, April 7, in the UAE, on OSN,

“Some of the most shocking, mind-blowing scenes of the entire series come from the end of this season,” promised Benioff in an extended teaser-trailer screened on HBO ahead of Sunday’s opening episode.

“It’s been expanding for so long. [Now] we’re starting to get to the place where it will contract,” said Benioff. “Characters will get killed off, characters who have never met before start to come together, and this massive world that George Martin created in his books is now going to start to become slightly less massive.”

The new season will see the existing rivalries between the various warring factions of the continents of Westeros and Essos face a new threat in the shape of an army of undead zombie warriors from the kingdom’s frozen north.

The ominous, doom-laden warning “Winter is coming” and the plaintive “Where are my dragons?!!”, the cry of the blonde-haired dragon-wrangling warrior queen Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, have become cult phrases for the show’s legion of fans.

Secrets have always been among the most prized currency in Westeros, and the details of any of Game of Thrones’ story lines are guarded with the ferocity of an army of White Walkers. Which can make the prospect of ferreting out what lies ahead a difficult proposition.

“I think the dark places that we go to in season four are unlike any other season so far,” Clarke said in a phone interview. “It’s on so many levels. It’s not just blood, it’s bigger than that. Both the characters and hopefully the audience are so invested in the plots and the characters at this stage that the revelations you’ll see really just take it up a notch and somewhere even darker.”

‘Clamour for revenge’

For the upcoming season, the creators acknowledged fans were harbouring a “tremendous clamour for revenge,” particularly after the blood-soaked wedding depicted in the The Rains of Castamere episode, where the clean-cut hero Robb Stark and his pregnant wife are among those slaughtered.

The fourth season finds numerous major characters in King’s Landing, the capital city of Westeros, where they are gathering for the impending wedding of Joffrey, the cruel, young king who stands shoulder to shoulder with the more notable villains in television history.

The new season also promises to be dangerous for Tyrion Lannister, the wily and witty dwarf nobleman played by Peter Dinklage who is one of the show’s most popular characters.

There are new faces, too, most notably Prince Oberyn Martell, nicknamed the “Red Viper”. The prince comes to the capital to attend Joffrey’s wedding but also has ulterior motives, like so many on the show.

The character, whose swagger made him a favourite among readers, is played with steely resolve by Pedro Pascal, a Chile-born actor whose family left that country as political refugees when he was four, and who was raised in the United States.

For Pascal, his character’s accent is a callback to his parentage: The script “didn’t specify what he was supposed to sound like… I think without thinking about it too much, it came naturally for him to sound like my dad.” Pascal is one of 29 regular characters on the show, most of whom fall somewhere between good and evil on the moral spectrum.

Some, including the conflicted, incestuous knight Jaime Lannister, played by Nicolaj-Coster Waldau, have seen their morals shift over time, as his character has become one of the more sympathetic over the course of the show.

“You realise no one is good and no one is bad,” said actress Williams. “We’re starting to see the other side to these evil characters.

“And then there’s Joffrey.”

The franchise has spawned 350 kinds of merchandise available on HBO’s website, and more recently the release of a hip-hop mixtape headed by Common and other rap artists. Common notably performed his entry to the soundtrack at a sneak preview of the show’s first episode in Brooklyn, New York on March 20.

In the space of three years, the fluctuating fortunes of the Stark, Lannister, Baratheon and Targaryen clans have built a loyal following.

Around 5.4 million watched the final episode of season three on June 9, 2013, although with repeat showings through the following week, the audience was closer to 14 million, a record for HBO.

Just under three million had watched the first season in 2011. According to the website TorrentFreak, Game of Thrones is also the most pirated show on the internet, with 5.9 illegal downloads of the last episode of season three.

It was a similar story in 2012, with 4.3 million downloads.

Maisie Williams, 16, who plays fan favourite Arya Stark, said she picked up more than 40,000 followers on Twitter during the off-season. She has a big fan base on other social media sites like Vine and Instagram — in part due to a goofy video she posted after the Red Wedding where she joked about the death of her “family”. “That really blew up — I went from having about 1,000 followers on Vine to having about 100,000,” she said.

Don’t miss it

Game of Thrones season four airs on OSN First on April 7 at 11pm UAE.