Let the ‘Games’ begin: ‘Game of Thrones’ is finally back

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Game of Thrones

If you’ve never seen “Game of Thrones” Sunday may not be the time to start.

Because the fantasy (based on George R. R. Martin’s best-selling books) twists and turns almost as much as “Scandal,” it’s impossible to tell who falls in what camp. Then, too, characters turn on each other at the drop of a sword. And, just because someone dies doesn’t mean he’s dead.

A winner of 38 Emmys (including two Best Drama trophies), it’s one of those sweeping series that isn’t afraid to shock no matter who’s involved. Nudity and violence are common; intrigue is essential.

When the series started in 2011, Martin said he had been tired of writing scripts that required cutting because they were too costly to produce. He turned to books where he didn’t have to worry about a budget. “I wanted to spread my wings.”

Interestingly, producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss realized Martin’s book, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” couldn’t be handled in a film. It required the sprawl of television. HBO, they said, was the perfect fit because it had done similar types of stories.

Now, “Game of Thrones” is like an HBO touchstone. It has one season after the seventh and, already, has borrowed storylines from books that Martin hasn’t even written. Its tagline – “Winter is coming” – has been updated to “Winter is here.”

Does that mean the White Walkers – a real threat to the House Stark – are coming? Or does it refer to Starks’ constant preparation for the season, when the land is hit hardest?

Because the series is shrouded in secrecy (few see it before it airs on HBO), it’s any guess what will unfold in the seventh season. HBO says an army of dead men will march on the Wall, “threatening to end the game of thrones forever.”

Jon Snow, who was killed and brought back to life, is the King in the North when the new season begins. In King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister has seized the Iron Throne by incinerating the High Sparrow, his follows and her rivals. And Daenerys Targaryen has set sail for Westeros with her armies, dragons and the new Hand of the Queen, Tyrion Lannister.

Understand any of that?

Hardcore fans would, largely because the characters register so vividly. Jon Snow’s death, for example, made headlines and forced Kit Harington, who plays him, to be mum about the story’s twist for quite some time. Tabloids reported sightings of him on the “GoT” set, even though his character was supposed to be dead.

For someone like Emila Clarke, who plays Daenerys, the series has been a springboard to film and theater. Before “GoT” she had one notable part. Now, she has several solid credits and a role in the upcoming Han Solo “Star Wars” film.

Getting on “GoT,” she said just before it aired, was a dream. “I never thought that I would actually be here so relatively inexperienced.”

Her character is a key player, helping set the course for the final handful of episodes. Clarke has been nominated for three Emmys; co-star Peter Dinklage (who plays her Hand of the Queen, Tyrion Lannister) has won two.

This year, “Game of Thrones” will be unable to compete for TV’s top prize because it didn’t have episodes released during the qualifying year. That means its throne can be taken by another drama.

Regaining its dominance, however, shouldn’t be a problem. During the last two seasons, it won 12 awards each year, helping the series beat “Frasier” as the most Emmy-winning scripted series on television.

While viewership has continued to grow each year (it’s a huge international hit), “Game of Thrones” won’t be dead when it ends after the eighth season.

Insiders say there will be a spin-off series that will take up the slack. Could it be a prequel or sequel? A side story or a combination? Like so much of the world, it’s shrouded in mystery.

Winter is here. But spring, summer and fall could be coming.

“Game of Thrones” returns at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

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