This weekend, Game of Thrones fans are poised to return to the epic, sprawling and brutal world of Westeros, the Free Cities and the dreaded land beyond The Wall as Season 4 of the engrossing fantasy series begins.
Novelist George R.R. Martin and show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have masterfully woven myriad tales of ambition, deceit, warfare, lust, heroism, vengeance, shifting allegiances and redemption into what's become a vastly entertaining, must-see series.
The fictional world is peopled with a seemingly endless cast of characters — some embroiled in multiple complex storylines, which Martin favours — but there are a few standout matches from the past three seasons that we just can't wait to get reacquainted with this weekend.
1. Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth
What happened? Putting aside his incestuous relationship with his twin sister, the compelling and charming Jaime Lannister largely spent last season on the road baiting, bickering and ultimately bonding with the Amazonian knight Brienne of Tarth.
Why do we care? Last season's powerful bath scene, in which Jaime — dubbed the Kingslayer — reveals to Brienne the horrific true story behind his nickname, was a major emotional breakthrough for this pair, and one can only anticipate how the much-changed Lannister son will behave when he returns to his ruthless family in King's Landing, the capital.
2. Sansa Stark vs. King Joffrey Baratheon
Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark and Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones (Macall B. Polay/HBO)
What happened? Among his many dastardly deeds, the sociopathic and petulant young king made his former betrothed watch as he had her father beheaded and has ruled and tormented her in King's Landing ever since. The Lannister-Baratheon family's war against her eldest brother Robb Stark eventually leads to his slaughter, along with wife Talisa and mother Catelyn, at the infamous Red Wedding.
Why do we care?We're still hoping Joffrey will get some form of comeuppance and that the lovely but so far inert Sansa has something to do with it.
3. Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane
Maisie Williams as Arya Stark and Rory McCann as Sandor (the Hound) Clegane in Game of Thrones. (YouTube)
What happened? ? The unruly Stark daughter has benefited from a string of deadly saviours over the seasons, with Sandor (the Hound) Clegane being the latest. As the deaths in her family mount, the darkness in her and yearning for vengeance grow. At the same time, the inherent honour instilled by her deceased father Eddard seems to be rubbing off on her giant warrior companion the longer they remain together.
Why do we care? Amid the many highly talented actors in the series, Maisie Williams (Arya) and Rory McCann (Sandor) are an enjoyable odd-couple pairing.
4. Jon Snow vs. Ygritte
What happened? Undercover for the Night's Watch, the illegitimate Stark son Jon Snow finds love north of the kingdom's massive protective wall with the Wilding archer Ygritte. It seemed a doomed relationship from the start and, as the Wildlings moved ever closer to attacking his order's headquarters, Snow escapes to alert his colleagues.
Why do we care? The sharp-shooting, furious and brokenhearted Ygritte pierced her traitorous lover full of arrows during his escape, but — conveniently — none appeared fatal.
5. Tyrion Lannister, Bronn and Podrick
What happened? The outcast Lannister, his sellsword right-hand man and devoted squire manage to be a good-hearted trio, as honourable as possible — and witty to boot — in the viper's nest of King's Landing.
Why do we care? It feels like the always amazing Peter Dinklage (Tyrion) and jaunty Jerome Flynn (Bronn) get the lion's share of choice dialogue and one-liners, but Game of Thrones fans should always stay wary, especially given this season's tagline: All Men Must Die.
6. Tywin Lannister vs. Olenna TyrellCharles Dance as Tywin Lannister and Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. (Macall B. Polay/HBO)
What happened? In Season 3, the ruthless and stern patriarch of the land's royal family matched wits and traded barbs with the savvy and salty matriarch of another powerful Westeros clan, most importantly matching their grandchildren to be the new king and queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
Why do we care? We just can't get enough of British thespians Charles Dance and Diana Rigg, who gloriously dominate every scene they're in.
7. Dream battle: Daenerys Targaryen vs. Melisandre of Asshai
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, left, and Carice van Houten as Melisandre in Game of Thrones. (Macall B. Polay/HBO)
What happened? Daenerys is gathering her forces in the Free Cities toward an eventual campaign to capture leadership of the Seven Kingdoms; meanwhile, Melisandre continues to serve as the prophesizing adviser to another aspiring monarch, Stannis Baratheon.
Why do we care? One is the literal mother of dragons, the other employs black magic in the name of a deity. We'd love to see these two go head to head, wouldn't you?
Season 4 of Game of Thrones premieres Sunday, April 6, at 9 p.m. ET/MT on HBO Canada.
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