"Death is so boring," Tyrion Lannister says with a sigh early on in the new season of Game of Thrones. But that just means he sees too much of it. Indeed, you barely get a minute in before a knight is facedown in a puddle of blood, and it doesn't take long before the dead guy has plenty of other mutilated corpses to keep him company. But none of it ever gets boring.
Game of Thrones picks up right where it left off, in a brilliant rush of betrayal, deception, incest, intrigue, dire wolves and dragon blood, where honest men get cut down faster than everyone else. With Ned Stark gone, there's no question who dominates Thrones: This is Tyrion's house now. Peter Dinklage's devious Hand of the King, the dwarf feared throughout the fantasy realm of Westeros as "the Imp," struts around like he owns the place, because after that bang-up first season, he knows he does. "You love your children," he tells his sister, Queen Regent Cersei. "It's your one redeeming feature. That and your cheekbones."
Dinklage has built up even more swagger between seasons, the same way Al Pacino did between the first two Godfather movies. Tyrion is the story's most fascinating anti-hero, all rudely stamped menace and wit. He quips like a mix of Richard III and Morrissey, while lurking around King's Landing with all his impin'-ain't-easy gangsta lean. "I'm not questioning your honor," he coolly informs one of his enemies. "I'm denying its existence."
The new season is based on George R.R. Martin's A Clash of Kings, the second book in the long-running franchise that will no doubt keep HBO knee-deep in gore for the next decade. Thrones could have been mere Ren Faire fluff, but there's nothing twee about it, because this is as bleak as The Sopranos or The Wire, the obvious inspirations for the TV adaptation. There's nobody to cheer for – the only truly noble guy in the story, Ned Stark, ended up on the chopping block. And nobody in Westeros seems to feel sorry for him, because everybody knows that honor is a luxury that even noblemen can't afford. As the late, great King Robert warned last season, "Do you think honor keeps them in line? Do you think it's honor that's keeping the peace? It's fear! Fear and blood!" And Thrones doesn't skimp on either.
Ned Stark's execution was the shocking climax of the first season of Thrones. Even in the final seconds before the ax came down, it seemed impossible the story would kill off the closest thing it had to a hero. But that sums up the chilly winter-is-coming vision.
Martin's epic has more convoluted plot twists than anyone can keep up with, including the characters themselves. A running gag this season is that Westeros has "a king in every corner," to the point where not even the queen regent can keep count. Yet that's part of what keeps the story unpredictable. One of the many startling things about the first season was that Thrones kept killing off its most enjoyably bad-boy kings. (Miss you much, Robert! Miss you even more, Viserys!) That might have been true to the books, but it makes for gripping and rule-breaking television. And it seems that every time a king goes down, a new crop of pretenders rise up to plot for his place.
Joffrey, the current boy-king blond cream puff on the Iron Throne, is the weak link in the Lannister dynasty, not because he's not evil enough, but just because he's a giggly little brat who doesn't seem to have any heft to his evil. We don't fear Joffrey, really, not as much as we fear the adults who stand behind him and occasionally slap him or get slapped by him. (Personally, I could watch Tyrion slap Joffrey every episode.)
If anyone encapsulates the Han-shoots-first moral and political code of Game of Thrones, it's Bronn, Tyrion's mercenary sidekick. In the first season, at the accusation "You don't fight with honor," Bronn gestures at the corpse he's just dispatched and shrugs: "No. He did." And in the aftermath of Ned Stark's death, honor is deader than ever. Which can only mean Westeros is becoming a more corrupt, more fascinating and even more unpredictable place.
This story is from the April 12th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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