There's a scene early in the new Game of Thrones season unlike anything you've ever seen. It starts out as a casual meeting between two cronies in King's Landing, Tyrion Lannister and the eunuch Varys, the Master of Whisperers. These guys have known each other for years – nothing lovey-dovey, just political corruption and power games. But then Varys starts telling the story of how he got turned into a eunuch. There's no blood or gore – everything's done with faces and voices. But it might be the most violent Game of Thrones moment yet.
What makes it so wrenching is the pain on Peter Dinklage's face. He's got a brand-new scar of his own, a war wound he's learning to live with. So he listens with horror and respect – he doesn't yet know how much of the eunuch's tale he'll have to live out. It's a masterful moment, from what is shaping up to be a masterful season.
That sums up the greatness of Game of Thrones – how all the complexities of the story explode into emotional moments of grief and tenderness. The third season is the toughest to watch so far – not only is it bloodier than ever, but now we have a history with these people, so it's harder to see them suffer. They spend a lot of time sharing stories about the agonies they've endured. "Summer has ended – hard days lie ahead," one character warns. Wait, times weren't hard already? The first two seasons were the good old days?
The last time we visited King's Landing, it was the Battle of the Blackwater, the only battle in the history of the Seven Kingdoms named after a Doobie Brothers song. ("Hark, my lord! 'Tis the Knights of China Grove, taking it to the streets!") Tyrion had his most hardcore dramatic moments, giving his magnificent battle speech: "Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let's go kill them."
Now he fumes with resentment at the political and physical defeats he suffered for his family. His tyrant father complains, "I sent you here to advise the king. I gave you real power and authority. You chose to spend your days as you always have – bedding harlots and drinking with thieves." Tyrion defends himself: "Occasionally I drank with the harlots."
For the evil patriarch Tywin Lannister, his sons and his daughter are beyond his command. But they're also powerless without his name. No wonder they can't keep a lid on their family crises. Shakespearean drama looms all over Game of Thrones the way The Sopranos hovers over Mad Men.
As always, Thrones jumps from kingdom to kingdom, subplot to subplot, without pausing to let you catch up. There's always a breathless sense of bewilderment, especially for those of us who haven't cracked the George R.R. Martin novels. But that's part of the adventure. Thrones is like a Wu-Tang Clan record – it creates such an irresistibly mysterious atmosphere while making it impossible for you to figure out what exactly is going on. But there hasn't been a single dull episode so far.
Daenerys has some astounding moments this season. Question: Does "Holy crap, dragon chick" count as a spoiler? Because if so, sorry. But holy crap, dragon chick! This season also introduces great new characters. As Olenna Tyrell, Diana Rigg takes what you might call the Maggie Smith role – the salty noblewoman who scares everyone else off the screen. Her granddaughter Margaery (Natalie Dormer) has her eye on King Joffrey's bed, but there's something disturbing about this girl. She brings out some humanity in Joffrey – she even seems to like him. That is just evil. But when it comes to evil, Game of Thrones gives her plenty of competition.
This story is from the April 25th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.